Swingers Redux

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

Ironically it was a study of Minnesota swingers that helped sweep heterosexuals into the AIDS panic. In November 1986 the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published an article that suggested, among other things, that the incidence of IV needle use and male bisexuality among swingers -- and the resulting HIV infection rate -- was much greater than swing club leaders wanted to admit. The result, according to the study's author, Dr. Keith Henry, was "a media circus" in which his results were broadly misinterpreted and buffed to an apocalyptic dazzle. A month after the CDC paper came out, Time magazine reported that 100 million people would be struck with the virus by 1990.

In March 1988, at the height of the AIDS scare, the esteemed sexologists Masters and Johnson released Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS. The book, published without any scientific review and based on shaky research, was criticized by government and academic scientists as irresponsible. But it led to a firestorm of publicity, including a Newsweek cover story, which some gay observers dubbed "breeder hysteria." The book's erroneous message: AIDS was "running rampant in the heterosexual community."

To insist, as some swingers do, that HIV transmission can't occur through vaginal intercourse borders on the fanatic. But it's also true that the relative risk for many heterosexuals is comparatively lower; AIDS simply never has spread at the anticipated rate among non-IV-drug-using straights.

That's no reason to feel safe, says Dr. James Cresanta, an epidemiologist with the Broward County Health Department. Cresanta points out that HIV transmission in many Central African countries occurs mainly by heterosexual contact, and the same is becoming more true in the United States. Locally, heterosexual women are the fastest-growing group of infectees. "These people are playing Russian roulette, and so far they happen to have hit the empty chambers," Cresanta says. Or maybe not. "A good portion of people who are HIV infected don't know it yet. It can be asymptomatic for years. Within a relatively short time, the entire group could be infected."

"Jack," a regular at Broward's newest sexual speakeasy, Trapeze II, says swingers do frequently use condoms. Or if they don't, it's for reasons other than a penchant for life-endangering risk-taking. The scene is different in other ways from when he first encountered it in 1976. "Back then it was much more free love," he says. "People would screw anything. I think what you're seeing now is a new caution, a result of the AIDS scare. If you're seeing people having unprotected sex, I suspect it's because they're long-time partners or know who they're dealing with very well."

Besides looking fatally risky on first glance, it's hard to escape the visceral sense that what goes on inside Broward's four swingers' clubs must be illegal, but so far it hasn't been judged so.

In 1993 county commissioners passed a 50-page ordinance that regulates adult entertainment businesses in unincorporated Broward. After five years of courtroom challenges to its constitutionality, the law stands. Last summer sheriff's deputies began enforcing it. The result: more than 100 arrests of patrons and employees at adult bookstores, nude-dancing bars, and massage parlors.

A close reading of the law suggests that swingers' clubs fall outside the official definition of what an adult entertainment establishment is. Why? Because the clubs are private; because patrons bring their own liquor, thereby absolving owners of the need for a liquor license; and because the orgies that go on every night of the week somewhere in Broward involve club members, not paid employees.

"They're not open to the public, and that pretty much puts a stop to it right there," says Fort Lauderdale vice detective Barry Margolis, whose jurisdiction includes Plato's. "They don't have liquor licenses. In essence they regulate themselves when it comes to that."

The laws governing adult businesses, whether in Fort Lauderdale or unincorporated Broward, boil down to "an effort to maintain decorum and make sure patrons aren't hassled," Margolis says. Nor does he think state obscenity statutes apply to local swingers' clubs. "In order for something to be lewd, somebody has to be offended, and who can justify getting offended when what's happening is happening in a private club? There's a difference between getting offended in public and getting offended in private."

That hasn't stopped police action elsewhere, however. In Central Florida at least four swingers' clubs and retreats have been closed in the past two years after raids by law enforcement authorities. The closures were predicated on everything from code violations to charges of "renting space for lewdness," and invariably occurred in the midst of public outcry about the clubs' very existence in rural areas or small towns. A bit further afield, in Montreal, the outcry went the other way. Following a raid last month on a swingers' club called L'Orage, public opinion condemned the cops for wasting manpower.

Attorney Norman Kent, who represents two Broward swingers' clubs, says he hopes authorities in South Florida learn from the Canadian experience. "Every time you see one of these absurd raids, you think about your relatives who got robbed at gunpoint," Kent says. "The one saving grace is that half the people that might oppose them don't know they're there. If they do, they don't know what they are."

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