STANDING ROUGHLY SIX FEET TALL, with a ruffled mass of white hair and a businessman's allegiance to the bottom line, Club Sesso owner Paul Smith informs me of his motto: "I get paid, not laid."
Smith is something of a hero to the hundreds of local couples eagerly awaiting the grand opening of his new swingers club. A former co-owner of the eastside swingers club Ace of Hearts, I first meet Smith on a rainy afternoon in May, more than a month before Club Sesso is set to open in the former location of restaurant Fernando's Hideaway on SW 1st Avenue.
For a man about to open one of the biggest and—thanks to a personal endorsement from his friend Ron Jeremy—arguably the most high-profile swingers clubs in the Pacific Northwest, Smith is remarkably calm. Amid the pounding of carpenter's hammers and drills, he speaks candidly about the numerous misconceptions surrounding the swinging community.
"I'll tell you the same thing I tell everyone," he says. "Go and stand in Fred Meyer for 10 minutes. The people you see there are a perfect example of the demographic we get at this club. It's a mix of everyone. If you come here thinking it's an easy way to get laid, you're mistaken. If you can't find a date outside of the club, you're certainly not going to find one in here."
Smith estimates there are anywhere from 30,000 to 35,000 couples in Multnomah County who consider themselves open to the swinger lifestyle. For them, and for a great deal of single men and women, a place like Club Sesso is invaluable.
After giving me a tour of the place, which includes a dance floor, bar, and 11 private rooms upstairs, Smith makes an admission.
"I went through a divorce a few years back, and it taught me a lot about myself," he says candidly. "My wife and I are still good friends, thank God, but I look back at that time in my life now and think: I ruined something really great because I was an asshole. I want this club to be about positive sexual relationships. The people that come here are being honest with each other, and I want to promote that."
In addition to various club-sponsored fundraisers, including one for Breast Cancer Awareness in July, Smith tells me his main concern is privacy. "It's imperative that everyone who comes here, no matter who they are or what they do, has fun and feels safe. Ultimately, that's what's important to me. What consenting adults do while they're here is between them."
MY VERY FIRST SWINGER PARTY
A few weeks after talking to Smith I find myself at the front door of a modest-sized home on a unseasonably warm night in late May, notebook in hand, ready to attend my first swinger party. In order to get a firsthand peek at the swinger lifestyle, I've been invited here on the condition I won't take pictures or use anyone's real names in my final article.
After a knock, Selma and John, a cordial middle-aged couple who host about one party a month at their Southeast Portland home, open the front door and greet me. She is wearing a green visor with the phrase "Penis-Centric" written across the brim.
"It's an icebreaker," she says, winking.
Inside the living room are six couples, all of whom introduce themselves using their real names, then their fake names, which proves a bit complicated, as some people have chosen the same fake names, and now must decide—based on a coin toss—who gets to be called what in the final article. Once the smoke clears however, one thing is made abundantly obvious: Next to recovering alcoholics, swingers are probably the most talkative people on earth.
"I had my first orgy at Burning Man," says Janice, a woman in her late 20s who wears a loose sundress and various tribal-looking jewelry and insists I read her quotes back to her while she closes her eyes to listen. "It was a transformative experience. Me and my husband Charles found a tent where everyone was just making love, and we ended up staying there for almost an entire day."
Her husband Charles, an inexplicably tan gentleman in denim trousers and a shirt that simply says PORN, adds: "Society at large tends to be a bit puritanical. Even people who consider themselves liberal raise their eyebrows when it comes to swingers. It's still really kind of a taboo."
Next I speak to Selma's husband John, a 52-year-old man with graying hair and the laidback demeanor you'd expect from someone who's spent the better part of a decade having sex with other men's wives. He doesn't seem in a rush to do anything, even allowing the Eagles CD on the stereo to skip several times before taking it out and replacing it with an album by the Rolling Stones. ("Swingers don't do iPods," he tells me.) Ten minutes into our conversation John has twice referred to his penis as "the brains of the whole operation" and readily admits that, if it weren't for the lifestyle, he and his wife would not still be together.
"Before we opened up our marriage I was very unfaithful," he admits, his voice growing more distant with the recollection. "Selma wasn't happy and I was drinking a lot and we came very close to divorcing. Then one day she told me she'd been sleeping with a friend of ours. But instead of getting upset—and I still don't know what possessed me not to get upset—I told her I'd be open to a threesome, and things just gradually progressed from there."
After John finishes talking with me, Selma brings me upstairs to view the orgy room—a 200-square-foot bedroom she and John have transformed into a space reserved for "gangbang nights" and group play.
The best way to describe the orgy room is to say it just kind of looks like an orgasm, if that makes sense. The walls are painted a dark turquoise and there are little neon green stickers in the shape of stars stuck all over the ceiling. It reminds me of a college dorm room decorated by that kid you meet freshman year who sold lots of Ecstasy until about late October, when the police knocked on his door and no one ever saw him again. There are three mirrors, one of which has been bolted to the ceiling above the king-sized bed at an odd, diagonal angle, giving the whole room a kind of expedited feel, as if whomever tacked that mirror to the ceiling was in such a rush to watch themselves screwing beneath it, all concern for proper symmetry was abandoned.
On the floor next to a table is something Selma insists is a dildo, but from my vantage point seems more like a rubber fire hydrant, just without those little caps on the side that allow it to gush water. The sight of this thing confirms in me a long held fear about prosthetic sexual devices: No matter how big the dildo in front of you might be, there's always one bigger. Equally fascinating and disturbing is the thought that somewhere, someone is really concerned about making these things as big and as realistic as possible—and that's what gets them out of bed in the morning. One of the dildos Selma shows me is roughly the size of my right arm. It has these tiny veins running up and down the shaft like a road map, and there's a second penis head in place of the scrotum, an accoutrement that gives the thing a slightly utilitarian feel, like double-sided office tape or those pens that double as flashlights.
"I've only seen that come out on maybe one or two occasions, at most," she assures me.
EVEN ORGIES HAVE RULES
Back downstairs I make my way across the kitchen to the buffet—an integral part of swinger culture. Positioned on a long table against the far wall in the kitchen and covered in an odd Christmas-themed tablecloth is a selection of various name-brand chips and dipping sauces arranged alongside a homemade pizza cut into squares. On the far end of the table, past a basket of hard rolls, is a large cold cut spread arranged on a plate like a kind of cylindrical meat vortex—with slices of ham, roast beef, and salami all folded over like tiny rugs.
Everyone here seems hungry, especially the single males, some of whom eat as if they've come specifically for the food and could care less about the sex (in between bites of pizza, a 25-year-old guy named Don assures me this is most definitely not the case). Why is the buffet so essential? Because sex, especially long periods of sex over the course of a single evening, burns calories on a grand scale. People get hungry. To have any kind of legitimate swinger function and not offer food is a major faux pas, right up there with not supplying condoms.
Out behind the house I find two single men smoking cigarettes and staring at the backyard with a certain melancholy, as if imagining it were filled with naked women (which it isn't). In the hierarchy of the swinging lifestyle, single males are somewhere near the bottom rung of the ladder. If you're a single man, it costs more to get into clubs, and at most house parties, your chance of being invited to play with couples is slim. It's an unfortunate position that many of the married couples I talked to, like Ted and Alice—who spoke to me in the kitchen of their home in Troutdale a few weeks earlier—sometimes pity.
"No one wants to be that dude walking around by himself at one of these things," Ted told me. "If you're going to come to a party as a single guy you better be one smooth talker, because no one's going to give you the time of day if you're just standing against the wall leering at all the females."
Indeed, like most subcultures, every swinging event—whether it be at a club, bar, or private party—brings with it a set of rules that govern the behavior of the participants, sort of like the Ten Commandments, only sexier. Chief among these, and probably the one rule in place at every swinger function is "no means no." Other rules vary, such as when it's acceptable for a single man to join an orgy already in progress, and directions for approaching a unicorn. A unicorn, Ted told me, is that "elusive single bi-female that every couple sort of dreams of finding, yet whose rarity begs the question of whether or not one actually exists."
And what about the morning after? Does sex between couples get better or worse after being with other people?
According to Herman and Penelope, a couple I spoke with over drinks at Laurelwood Brewery, seeing other couples together makes it easier for them to be honest with each other about what they want sexually. It also makes them better friends.
"Being in the lifestyle makes you appreciate having a steady partner," Penelope told me. "You know that no matter what happens, there's always someone to come home to. And that's comforting."
When I asked them about jealousy issues, her fiancé Herman spoke up. "I suppose I was jealous at first. But it's funny: being with other people has made us more honest with each other. Whenever we're apart, we have a call system to let the other one know we're in a situation that could lead to sex [with someone else]. If she says no, then I don't do it. I expect the same from her. I guess it comes down to trust."
It's this sense of openness and honesty that seems to inform every aspect of the swinging community. Indeed, most of the couples I spoke to said they would not play with a single male they suspect is not being honest with his wife, and vice versa.
AND TO ALL, A GOOD NIGHT
Tonight, everyone who talks to me is so refreshingly candid and trusting and friendly that when two couples disappear upstairs, their feet scampering up the staircase toward the orgy room like excited children, it's kind of shocking to realize I might be overstaying my welcome. Besides my gracious hosts, the only people left in the kitchen are two single guys, both of whom pass a bottle of liquor across the table looking depressed and lonely, like this might be the night they finally just give it all up and drive their car off a bridge.
Out of politeness, Selma continues to talk to me, while just over shoulder, her husband John flashes me a look I can only interpret as meaning one thing. I say my goodbyes and exit through the front door.
Growing up Catholic taught me the one thing worse than having sex was actually talking about sex—so by all accounts tonight's event should have been much more painful than it was. Yet with the millions of people suffering under the strain of unhappy marriages, abusive relationships, infidelity, homophobia, and good old-fashioned sexual frustration, there's something rejuvenating about a couple willing to redecorate a bedroom, fill it with sex toys, and spend entire evenings screwing in groups beneath a ceiling made to look like a galaxy of blinking stars.
I for one am happy to have met them.