Swingers Redux

Fed up with fear of infection and bored with the Internet, a new generation of swingers reinvents South Florida's sexual underworld

For Levenson the new Plato's can never be more than a dim afterimage of the way things were. But on the last night of Memorial Day weekend the parking lot, ringed with barbed wire against the surrounding quasi-ghetto, is stuffed with the more exotic subspecies of the automotive animal kingdom: Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars, Lexuses. The foyer is periodically packed with men and women handing cash through a slot in three-inch-thick bulletproof glass. Plato's is not cheap -- $95 for a three-month membership, then a cover charge that ranges from $35 to $69 per couple depending on the night of the week.

Inside, Pernice is busy browbeating busboys and poking the pasta at the buffet table. It falls to Katie, the halter-topped hostess, to welcome the throng and instruct the rank beginners.

Here, Katie notes, are framed photos of visiting aristocrats -- porn stars Shane Tyler, Randy West, Marilyn Chambers, and local bad-girl Kathy Willets. There, across the front bar, is the boutique, owned and operated by the female publisher of Florida Playtime, a swingers' magazine that recently celebrated its first anniversary. "Cozy!" says Katie, pointing out the gas fireplace that livens the center of a mammoth brick chimney.

Until a few days ago, club members played poker and blackjack for prizes at a felt-covered table. Then the cops showed up and reminded Pernice that even possession of gambling paraphernalia violates the law. So now there are tarot readings. "A man with brown hair and brown eyes will bring you money," a woman at the card table learns.

Katie describes herself as a voyeur. Before she started working as a hostess, she came to the club as a member. But she didn't have sex here, she explains. And now she can't. Fraternizing with the members is a no-no.

Besides voyeurs, there are hard-core swingers. And pure exhibitionists. To wit: Under the disco lights, two women have just stripped each other down to their bikini bottoms. One is sucking on the other's nipples. Two other women are dancing on the back bar, one of them just in blue jeans. A man stops to watch, standing in a bath towel. He's on his way to the Jacuzzi, which is half-full of naked men and women.

Of course, Katie explains, neither the Jacuzzi nor the disco contains the heart of the matter. By midnight, a noticeable thinning of the ranks occurs therein. Where is everyone?

"Most people, when they first start, they go for the private rooms," explains a large, naked man, referring to four closets with large cushions strewn on the floor and doors that close and lock. "Then they come here."

'Here' is the back room of Plato's, known as the mat room. It's about three times the size of a two-car garage. Tonight it contains 23 couples who lie scattered on large, floral-print cushions. As club rules require, they have left their clothes with Tiger Bob, a locker-room attendant who claims to have given up sex years ago, preferring now to attend gun shows.

"You cannot imagine the action you see in here," says the large, naked man. He is one of a dozen people who are waiting to take their places on the mats. "It is prolific. Everything you see in a porn movie, you're gonna see here, except it's real."

In the center of the mat room, a tall, sandy-haired man is standing, legs akimbo, while a kneeling woman gives him oral sex. He looks strangely bored. Another woman travels on all fours toward where the first woman kneels, and begins to kiss the back of her neck. Meanwhile, in one corner of the padded room, a foursome are entangling themselves in a complicated chain of cunnilingus, missionary positions, and fellatio. Elsewhere women are languorously riding atop men, pausing from time to time to flick their hair out of their faces. Some couples are taking a break, watching the room around them. One thing to watch is the massage table, where two men are making love to the same woman.

One of the curious things about Sunday night inside Plato's mat room is the quietude. No moaning and groaning. No ecstatic yelps designed to call down Dionysus or Astarte. The sound, when there's any, calls to mind the rustle of insect wings or the shuffle of a bone-tired infantry platoon.

What you will not see -- at least in the course of this hour, on this particular Sunday night -- is a condom.

THE LAW & THE FEAR
"People now have almost outgrown the fear of AIDS," says Pernice, who agrees there's a swinger resurgence afoot and believes he knows the reason why. "They think they've got as much chance of getting AIDS through heterosexual contact as they have of getting hit by lightning. That's how they feel."

Pernice figures he's done his due diligence. Every night he scatters bowls of condoms around Plato's Repeat. Beyond that, it's up to club members to use them.

Another long-time observer of what swingers call "The Lifestyle" -- and unlike Pernice, a direct participant in it -- puts a finer point on the same observation. "People are getting fed up with the bullshit they've been handed with the AIDS thing," says he. "I can remember back in the mid '80s people saying that in ten years half the people were going to be gone. Now people have started saying, 'Someone's bullshitting us.' Over the years I read things, I spoke to people, and I went to seminars. And you know what? The plague never got into the heterosexual scene. It remained restricted to the gay community and IV drug users. The whole thing -- the dire predictions, the scare tactics -- it was all a lie."

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