Swingers Redux

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

At age 67, Frank Pernice looks and sounds like Hollywood's vision of an aging mobster -- gold medallion, big indoor-outdoor prescription sunglasses, an accent one generation out of Sicily. Three years ago he opened Plato's Repeat, a swingers' club on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The name is a reference to Plato's Retreat, the internationally famous sex club in New York where mass-market swinging was invented.

When he met his former business partner, Larry Levenson, in the early '70s, Pernice ran a Brooklyn catering company. As a sideline, Pernice put together some of the most notorious bachelor parties in New York City.

Across town, Levenson was living on $95-a-week welfare checks and spending his days organizing ad hoc swingers' clubs. That is, he would rent a basement room or a walkup studio, charge admission, and preside at orgies of eight or ten couples. The neighbors would catch on after a few weekends, and the party would dissolve until Levenson found a new space and spread the word.

"Frank came down with his girlfriend to one place I had," Levenson recalls. "He says, 'My God, you got a great idea here!' He says, 'Right now you got a grocery store, wouldn't you like to open up a supermarket?'"

Plato's Retreat, America's first serious swingers' club, was born at that moment, though it took a few months to assume its physical form in the cavernous basement of the Ansonia Hotel, in a defunct gay bathhouse where singers Bette Midler and Barry Manilow performed early in their careers.

By the dawn of the '80s there were a dozen Plato's imitators in New York, but no serious competition. As many as 600 couples per night paid the $30 cover charge, plus a $5 private-membership fee, and entered what some saw as the sanctum sanctorum of the Sexual Revolution. Amenities included a swimming pool, a disco, several bars, and a universe of rumpus rooms, couches, and Jacuzzis through which patrons wandered in their birthday suits, swapping mates, gawking, engaging in group sex, indulging their most baroque fantasies in semipublic.

"Before, there were bars where you would go and dance a little and at the end of the night you would all go to someone's house," Levenson notes. "Mine was the first on-premises swing club in history."

Just when Plato's owners were starting to get rich, the trouble began. The end of the Sexual Revolution was near: In July 1981 The New York Times ran a brief item under the headline "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." Meanwhile, federal prosecutors indicted Levenson, Pernice, and a third partner in Plato's for tax evasion.

Levenson went to Allenwood Prison in Pennsylvania; Pernice went to sunny Florida to play tennis and teach culinary arts at the federal lockup at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola and later the Federal Correctional Institute south of Miami. In their absence Plato's limped along on a diet of S-M nights, strip shows, and mud wrestling. The disease that was first publicly noted in the Times in the summer of 1981 took on a now-familiar name.

For one dizzy evening in May 1985, it appeared that things would get back to "normal." Levenson, fresh from 40 months' incarceration, emerged from a limo wearing a fake leopard-skin cape and crown. Some 500 loyal patrons turned out for the homecoming bash. But seven months later, on November 22, 1985, the New York City health department, citing prostitution and occupancy permit problems, padlocked Plato's Retreat for good.

Frank Pernice, also recently released from mandatory retirement, decided to stay in South Florida.

It seemed like the end of the story.
Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine and a former candidate for sheriff of Broward County, was the guest of honor at Levenson's homecoming bash at Plato's thirteen years ago. Goldstein's memory of the night is a bit foggy, but his opinion of swing clubs is clear.

"Those places were always about structured infidelity," Goldstein says. "They're for guys who don't have the balls to cheat on their wives. I'd just as soon go home and watch the History Channel."

BARRACUDA NIGHTS
Pernice and Levenson always did squabble, but now they have something new to squabble about. Against the odds, a quarter-century after their invention on West 74th Street, swing clubs are back.

"Frank ran around Brooklyn telling all his friends he owned Plato's," Levenson says over the phone from New York, where he drives a taxi now. "He's a big blowhard. I created the logo. I created the club. Don't belittle what we had. Plato's Repeat? Gimme a break! When he started the place in Florida, I called him and said, 'What is this crap?'"

Levenson is talking about Plato's Repeat, a refurbished ersatz Swiss chalet on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale that is one of four on-premises swingers' clubs in South Florida, all of them located within a few miles of one another in Broward County. When Pernice opened the new Plato's in 1995, he installed a glass display case near the front door to show off memorabilia from the original New York club.

Pernice: "If Larry wants to pull an ego trip, fine. But the truth is, everything he did was what I told him to do. Larry didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of when I met him. Larry's a character. That's why he made a great frontman. But I'm the one who originated Plato's. I did the whole concept. I took him from being nobody to being somebody."

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."

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."

He also suggests there might be a causal link between recent law enforcement efforts vis-a-vis the mainstream sex industry in Broward and the robust health of the swinging sexual underground. "As the county tries to crack down on more sex businesses, people are going to develop the idea that social clubs where alcohol is not sold is the way to go," Kent posits.

THE NEW KING OF SWING
Exactly who burned down Trapeze, a swing club on Powerline Road that existed until the night of August 5 last year, is a subject of much rich gossip on The Lifestyle circuit. "There are three theories," explains one 48-year-old gent who works in Broward's marine industry and tonight is visiting the new Trapeze for the fifth or sixth time. While he talks he's watching a young woman on the dance floor who is wearing a red dress as sheer as the shroud of Turin. "The first theory is they did it themselves, but that doesn't hold up because it turned out they didn't have any fire insurance. Theory number two is the Plato's people did it. Theory number three is their neighbors in the shopping mall." The man doesn't particularly believe any of the theories. ("Good," says a Broward police detective. "Because the correct answer is theory number four, and I'm not gonna tell you what that is.")

All Alan Mostow knows for sure is that this time around he has plenty of fire insurance. Mostow, Broward's up-and-coming King of Swing, reopened Trapeze three months ago. He has a different idea about why The Lifestyle is back. "The Internet," he says. "Period."

On the Internet "you can talk to someone about your wildest fantasy or fetish, and do it anonymously," Mostow notes. Swingers communicate directly with one another in various chatrooms, and scan swing club Websites -- every club in Broward has one.

But what Mostow also knows is that after a while all that anonymity gets kind of stale. And so he has sunk somewhere in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars into a forlorn strip mall in western Broward, knowing that in the end a few hundred of those Internet communicants will wander out Commercial Boulevard until they arrive at Trapeze II, South Florida's newest and ritziest swing club.

Like all the other clubs, Trapeze II verges on invisibility from the outside. And like most club owners, Mostow wears a diamond-studded pinkie ring. The ring, though, is a form of sophisticated self-parody. Mostow and his partner, Dennis Freeland are different.

On the one hand, they pay homage to Larry Levenson -- or at least to Levenson's notion that Kings of Swing ought to be swingers themselves. "We've spent years, firsthand, participating in The Lifestyle," says Freeland, a general contractor who helped design Broward's smallest sex nest, Hedonism Le Club. On the other hand, Freeland and Mostow have created the next generation of swing aesthetic by carefully packaging sin for middle class consumption in a way that would make any business consultant proud.

"South Beach," Mostow says, showing off the Art Deco decor. Discussing the price structure, which makes Trapeze II significantly cheaper per visit than any other club, he says: "Volume."

Enormous on the inside (three Jacuzzis, a series of rumpus rooms with jumbo beds on actual box springs, muted lighting, a vast L-shaped mahogany bar), and packed on a recent weekend night with the young and well-dressed (for the moment), Trapeze is still "only 60 percent done," Mostow says. Meanwhile, he and Freeland also operate Club Chic, also known as Club Kink, an off-premises swing club in Pompano Beach. There swingers meet socially and perhaps retire to someone's house after leaving the club.

One hour hence a population shift will begin toward the back rooms and Jacuzzis, but for now the dance floor remains crowded. The man watching the woman in the red shroud waxes eloquent on the virtues of swing.

"Some people come here to have sex, obviously. But some people come here to meet people that they have a common interest with. To get to know. Not just 'Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.'

"The flavor changes later in the evening. People move to the back bar, to the rooms. You have people who want to be seen. You have girls who want to hook up with several guys."

Says another club member: "The idea of swinging is that you have one primary relationship. That is the most important thing in the swing concept. He or she is the most important person; anyone else is secondary.

"Some couples like to swing with another couple and never see them again. Some like to split up and not see each other, and then leave together at the end of the night. Look, 90 percent of men cheat on their wives, and 50 percent of their wives cheat on them. We're not a monogamous people. Swingers feel like, 'I love my husband, I want to spend my life with him and have children, but once in a while I want something different.' But in The Lifestyle there's no sneaking around, no writing down telephone numbers on matchbooks.

"I think it's gonna take off again. It's too much fun. There's too much truth in it."

What about jealousy, herpes, divorce, coercion of one partner by another to keep participating in The Lifestyle? What about the sheer sleaziness of such operatic promiscuity, at least as it's perceived by the broader, mainstream society? Swingers downplay all this or blithely attribute the inherent problems of their subculture to the failings of an uptight majority.

There's a slightly different truth a few miles down the road. It's an edgy, unsettling contrast to Mostow's new sex spa but one that has outlasted every other swingers' club in Florida, and most in the United States. It's a place that makes old cops, veteran bikers, and graying libertines laugh out loud at the notion that swinging is back. For here, at Deenie's Hideaway, swinging never died.

Deenie's opened in the mid '70s and has stayed open an amazing 24 hours a day for the past decade. In the beginning the two-story stucco building on Hillsboro Boulevard lay well west of Broward's population center. Now suburbia has grown up around it. But inside, an ex-member notes, nothing ever changes. Not the salacious gossip, nor the complicated cliques, nor the dozen mattresses strewn across the floor upstairs in three dimly lit rooms. Deenie's has lost some members to the newer clubs. But others have stayed, saying Deenie's represents the purest kind of swinging of all -- the least amount of putting on airs and beating around the bush. If Trapeze II is a fancy bistro, Deenie's is a steak house, or the neighborhood tavern.

On Friday night when a man named Jack and a woman named Celeste walk through the door of Deenie's, the five men sitting at the bar don't bother to disguise their leers. Friday nights are when "unescorted males" are allowed in, sometimes in droves. At the moment about thirty men and four women populate Deenie's windowless universe.

While the newcomer couple is getting a drink from the bottle of rum they've brought with them, a stocky man with a mustache crosses the room, grabs Jack's jacket, and proceeds to remove it angrily from his body. Jack looks puzzled but plays along. Perhaps it is some form of assisted striptease.

Next, the man with the mustache holds the jacket in front of him and looks at it. A thought is forming in his mind. It is not his jacket. His jacket has been behind the bar all along. The bartender is handing it to him. Jack is not a jacket thief after all, it appears.

"I feel like an asshole," the man says.
"Uh," Jack says. "Well."
Celeste looks nervous.

Jack and Celeste decide on a change of venue: the Jacuzzi. Within a few minutes, three naked men have materialized from the locker room and joined them in the roiling water. The men are not impressive conversationalists. Edging toward the Jacuzzi steps, Jack explains to one of them that he and Celeste are new to the scene and merely curious. The man grunts, staring at Celeste's breasts.

Upstairs a fat man lies on one of the dingy mattresses fondling a fat woman. The naked twosome are grinning at three men in bath towels seated on a massage table, watching them. Nearby, a porn movie is playing on a TV screen. In another room two men and a woman are getting up and leaving.

After five minutes in the upper reaches of Deenie's, Jack and Celeste decide to leave, too. Before doing so, they take a shower. A slender man steps into the shower stall with them. The man mentions that he has been inside Deenie's Hideaway for the past three days, having driven up from Miami. It's his idea of a vacation. "Can I rub your back?" the man asks. Celeste pretends not to hear him.

On another night a man and a woman hurry across the parking lot of Plato's Repeat looking like two people in flight from a burning city. They have just had their first encounter with The Lifestyle. A black Corvette pulls into the lot, cutting off their retreat.

"Anyone left inside?" asks the man at the wheel of the Corvette, pointing to the club.

"About three people," says the male escapee, fumbling for his car keys.
"You're cute," the woman in the car tells him, pupils dilated, eyes glassy.
"You guys want to come over for a drink?" says the driver. "We're off Las Olas. You know what Las Olas means?"

Las Olas means money. Big houses. Hangovers constructed on king-size beds.
"We're tired," says the man.
"We can fix you up with an eye-opener," the woman in the car promises.
"Not tonight," says the woman.

The man in the car shrugs. His companion just stares, a lupine half-smile plastered on her face. The pair in the car pulls away.

"They're lost," says the woman after a moment, still standing in the parking lot.

"You think? Maybe we should have given 'em directions."
"That's not what I meant," the woman replies.

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