The woman doing burlesque on a stage in Wilton Manors sheds her one-piece schoolgirl getup within seconds of the music starting. She's wearing knee-high stockings, Mary Janes, boy shorts, and sparkly apple pasties. She's a slim brunet with grapefruit breasts, black glasses, and Bettie Page bangs; she sways her hips to some old song about being a teacher's pet. Tonight's theme is back to school.
Toward the far end of the room at the Manor entertainment complex late on this Thursday night, at least two lesbian couples neck on plush white divans. Androgynous women mill about as they wait for a turn to get an exaggerated lap dance onstage.
There's a scruffy young guy walking around in a geometric A-line dress and a brown bowl-cut wig. His plaid boxers stick out beneath the hem of his dress. A dead ringer for Ashton Kutcher, he's carrying a tray of Jell-O shots contained in plastic toy syringes.
If you look hard enough, you'll regularly find a similar scene playing out in some South Florida nightclub. According to the results of the inaugural New Times reader sex survey, nights like this are apparently playing out in the collective imagination of many residents of Broward and Palm Beach counties every day.
The survey is clear about one thing: People around here like sex. They like a lot of it, and they like it with numerous partners. A healthy chunk of them are into kink — not just whips and chains. Responses to an open-ended question about fetishes included spanking, watersports (Google it, if you dare), and everything in between.
Of the 479 people who took the unscientific online survey, more than a third said they have slept with more than 30 people. A quarter of all the females surveyed fell into that group, along with 80 percent of the men.
Compared to nationwide surveys, our readers are randy. A Kinsey Institute survey found that just 3 percent of women and 17 percent of men had 21 or more lifetime partners. That means we have ten times the national average of people who have had multiple partners.
Our high results could be because experts say groups who take sex surveys are often more open about it. Then again, sex seems to be in the air around these parts, says Jakob Pastoetter, clinical associate professor at the Orlando-based American Academy of Clinical Sexologists. He says it might be all the sunshine. "It makes you feel good. It makes you feel relaxed," Pastoetter said. "You trust people more in sunshine than in the fog." It also doesn't hurt, he says, that we tend to wear a lot less clothes down here.
Some South Floridians see a more permissive attitude toward sex and relationships as one of the perks of living here. It's not hard to find a case in point. Go to any ladies' night and you'll see sex practically spilling out the front door, especially when women drink for free.
On a recent Wednesday night, Mary Beth Ciofu, 50 years old and long divorced, sipped a gratis drink by herself at YOLO, an upscale bar in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The recent transplant from Michigan is petite, with cropped hair and smoky eye makeup, and quick to smile. She people-watches: the older men, looking as wealthy as they can, preying on whatever women half their age they can find without wedding rings; the aggressive bigger blond with her bowling-ball breasts half-exposed; younger guys sporadically maneuvering into an open spot next to Ciofu at the bar.
She said she thinks that the influence of so many cultures in South Florida seems to make for a more open sexual atmosphere and that casual sex is pretty accessible in places like this. "I've met a few guys here," she said. "Had fun."
Sex may be largely about fun to many South Floridians, but what's fun to one may be totally pedestrian to another.
Our survey doesn't just show that the number of people someone has slept with really isn't a big thing. It shows that freakiness isn't a big deal either.
An overwhelming 77 percent majority has said yes to sex in public. More than half said they've had sex with more than one person at the same time.
About 11 percent of readers are swingers, and more than a third have a fetish, though their idea of what a fetish is varies greatly. Some respondents listed things like accents, punks, and redheads. Others got into specifics when describing what makes them lose their minds in the bedroom (or dungeon), including paddles, male chastity, stockings, and doctors and latex. Feet got a lot of mention, as did dominance and submission. More-obscure activities named were bukkake and something called ball stretching. Seven people mentioned watersports.
In South Florida, fetishes have grown big enough to spawn several subcultures. Some consider fetish a lifestyle and have an entire social circle built around it. A woman who identifies herself publicly as Dominant Amanda told New Times that almost every type of fetish has its own subgroup here. They get along, she said, but certain fetish communities, like spanking, for example, don't typically associate with everyone else. She said swingers don't come around too often either.
"And then you have the leather side of things, which stems from the leather community after World War II," she said. "That's a little bit more protocol-oriented, for lack of a better term."
Members of the fetish community typically want anonymity, she said. If they get found out, "people's jobs are at risk, people's families are at risk, people's histories are at risk."
Easier to find are the somewhat more public fetish parties that happen a few times a month throughout South Florida. Josepher Ringleader said all kinds of people show up to the parties that his production company, Electrolust, puts on every month. "There's going to be teachers, lawyers," he said.
He says the parties are all about the senses. The visuals are outlandish, as are the sounds, the fabrics (vinyl, feathers, latex), and the devices (such as the drilldo). There's also a performance-art element to it, he said, though no live sex actually takes place onstage.
Pastoetter said interest in fetishes has grown in part because of pop culture. "It's difficult these days to open a Cosmopolitan without looking at a whip, high heels, or soft bondage," he said.
Barbara Winter, a Boca Raton-based psychotherapist specializing in sexuality, sees everybody from prostitutes to sex addicts. Once in a while, someone with a fetish will make an appointment with her and never show up, she says, adding that this might be due to growing acceptance of it. "They probably don't want to give it up," she says. "It's probably working for them." The fact that there's a whole community out there that's in the same boat can't hurt.
Winter says she sees a healthy number of people from another group heavily represented in our survey: cheaters. About 65 percent of respondents said they've cheated — 28 percent of those were females.
A big reason so many people cheat is that fewer people view relationships as a means of financial stability, Winter said. "In the man-on-top day — before Madonna and all that — it was around, but it wasn't predominant," she said. Now, it's not only more predominant but it's much more visible. "Too many people say, 'I can just step outside — leave for the day, leave for the month.' "
A few fans of monogamy took the survey. In response to an open-ended question, one straight female wrote, "I've had a lot of partners, but nothing beats being in love with this one." A straight male wrote, "Being with someone who fulfills you in every way makes sex better."
These give a little balance to a list of very anti-monogamy responses that includes "HELP" and "I want to cheat so bad" — both from straight males.
While monogamy might not be dead among those who took the survey, about 56 percent said they fantasize about others during sex — a friend, a hottie from the gym, a coworker. Of them, 73 percent were men.
Pastoetter says this is because sex has traditionally played a different role for men than it has for women. "Women have sex to get into relationships; men have relationships to get sex."
Sex might generally mean different things for people of varying genders and orientations, but our survey results show that sex is something that doesn't really belong to one demographic or another.
Sex is something that belongs to all of us, something we can define and personalize for ourselves.
It goes back to the Thursday-night Burlesque, where all of those seemingly incongruous details come together to create one bizarre and unequivocally sexy scene.
It's a scene that means something different to everyone there.
To a straight man or gay or bi woman transfixed on those dancers, a fantasy plays out that's different from the real lives of these women. One of these dancers, the taut brunet who kicked off the show, is divorced and says she's going through a dry spell. The troupe's founder, a soft, petite blond, is in a committed same-sex relationship.
To those watching, the facts don't matter. What they see is sex — sex the way they want to see it.