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Ben and Jennifer are a happily-married couple in their early 30’s.
They own a condo in Yaletown.
They pay a mortgage.
They have two dogs.
On Sunday, they have brunch with the family.
And, every other weekend, they travel to a secret location in the suburbs to engage in a mutually-enjoyed pastime: having sex with other couples.
They are part of a growing number of Vancouverites – teachers, doctors, lawyers, and others – who have discovered the hidden, and often misunderstood world of the Lower Mainland’s Lifestyle community. “I don’t want to just come out and say that there’s a trend toward this kind of thing, but it’s supported by the numbers,” says Eve, co-founder of Club Eden, a Lower Mainland Lifestyle club. What started in North America in the 1940s as “Key Clubs,” and would later became known as “swinging” or “wife-swapping,” “Lifestyle” is the blanket term for a number of different ideas and behaviours, from traditional full-swap “swinging” to voyeurism and exhibitionism, to threesomes and bisexual exploration.
“Currently, Eden has close to 10,000 registered members, and I’d estimate that, in the four years we’ve been open, more than 12,000 people have come through our doors,” Eve explains. “With Eden, I’d like to think that we’ve taken the whole ‘swinger club’ concept, and turned it completely inside-out. We like to think of it more as a place to realize your fantasies. If you’re a swinger couple, then it’s a swinger club. If you’re a voyeur, it’s a voyeur club. If you like dancing in lingerie, it’s a lingerie party. Of the couples that come to Eden, I’d say about 40% of them full-swap. The rest are into other things.”
A private-members’ club with tasteful decor and high ceilings, Eden hosts two adult parties per month. Prospective member couples must submit a photograph, pay a membership fee, and sign an exhaustive contract before being granted entry. Downstairs is a bar, dance-floor and DJ, a place for couples to meet, flirt, and enjoy a few drinks in one another’s company. Upstairs are several curtained areas for single or multipartner interactions, a voyeur room with a small pane of glass embedded beside the door, an orgy area replete with cushions, and even a sex-swing on one edge of the expansive balcony.
But, as Ben, Jennifer, and Eve all maintain, despite the popular conception, sexual encounters within the Lifestyle Community are far from a free-for-all. “People still have this conception that it’s this place where you walk in, there are mattresses on the floor, you throw your keys in a bowl, and go upstairs with somebody, whether you want to or not,” Eve notes. “But the truth is, it’s nothing like that.” In fact, during sexual encounters (known within the community as “play”), couples operate within strict rules of etiquette, with each set of rules differing slightly from couple to couple. “When you go to a club scene, there are couples at all different levels of play,” explains Chris Winchester, who, together with his wife Christina, has been involved in the Lifestyle for more than five years. “And there’s all this lingo that goes with that. Some say: ‘oh, we’re soft swap,’ ‘we’re full-swap,’ or, ‘we’re girl/girl,’ ‘boy/boy.’ There are so many different possibilities.”
On their first night, new members are discouraged from playing with others. Club ambassadors, known somewhat cheekily as Friends With Benefits, are available to answer any questions or address concerns. Because, as experienced couples will attest, for newcomers, figuring out their own set of rules is not always an easy process. “Jealousy is the biggest thing,” says Ben, “but really, it doesn’t exist. And it’s only in the first few seconds of your first experience that you realize that. Jealousy is all tied into the idea of someone else winning over you, or beating you. But if you’re in a situation where they don’t have the ability to beat you, then there’s no sense in being jealous.” Jennifer agrees: “The number-one way of avoiding jealousy is just simply checking in with the other person. And, not checking in for the sake of checking in, but actually wanting to. It’s up to everybody to be mindful. You’re not so lost in the situation that you become unaware of everything around you. You’re still in a relationship. You’re going into this with your life-partner.”
For Ben and Jennifer, the journey to becoming a Lifestyle Couple was not necessarily a simple one. Nor did it happen overnight. “We started our relationship being very: ‘oh, let’s not talk about our exes; let’s not talk about other experiences,’” says Jennifer. “It was very much up on a pedestal, and it spiralled into a very fast moving-in-together, and a very fast marriage, and an equally fast breakup. From meeting, to marriage, to breakup, it all happened in the space of about four years.”
After spending more than a year apart, they reunited, reassessed their priorities, decided that their relationship was worth fighting for, and, after much deliberation, decided to give Eden a try. “That first night, nothing happened,” Ben admits, “Jennifer had very much been the driving force behind going in the first place, but when we got to the club, I was like, ‘hey, this is all right,’ and she was suddenly very panicked about the reality of the situation. It had seemed okay as a fantasy, but all of a sudden, the fact that it might actually happen was really shocking to her, and she ended up in the kitchen crying, because everything had suddenly just become so real.” Jennifer laughs, and says, “well, yeah. You show up and there are 35 couples there. That’s 70-odd people, and most of them are experienced Lifestyle couples…we just sat back and thought: ‘what are we doing here?’”
“When we left the club that night, it was a pretty quiet drive home,” Ben remembers. “We kind of said, ‘well, that was interesting,’ and then we made sure everything was cool, and then went, ‘it’s not for us right now.’ And it was almost a year before we went back.” But, after a year’s hiatus, Ben and Jennifer returned to Eden, and, after participating in an evening of Couples Speed-Dating, engaged in a soft-swap with another couple that same night. Since then, they have attended roughly two parties per month, as well as hosting their own. If it seems unusual that Jennifer was the driving force behind her and her husband’s entry into the Lifestyle, there is considerable evidence that shows this to be less than unusual. As the website for the North American Swing Club Association attests, “sexual and social assertiveness on the part of women at swing parties and other swing activities is not only acceptable, it has come to be expected.” In other words, the community is essentially driven by women. “Back in the 60s,” Ben notes, “it used to be called wife-swapping, but, these days, it’s more like husband-swapping.”
According to research provided by the North American Swing Club Association, roughly 15% of couples in North America have incorporated swinging behaviour into their relationship on at least one occasion. This is in stark contrast to the mere 2% and 3% recorded back in 1975 and 1983. Part of the reason for such a drastic jump in numbers may be due to the legal status of swinger clubs in Canada. Until 2005, Lifestyle clubs like Eden were considered “common bawdy houses,” defined as “a place used or frequented for prostitution, or for the purpose of acts of indecency.” Unfortunately for Lifestyle clubs, since the 1960s, “indecency” has lacked a clear definition in the Criminal Code, and is defined simply as “a general average of community thinking and feeling” (Dominion News and Gifts vs. The Queen, 1969). However, in December of 2005, a 7-2 Supreme Court decision rewrote the definition of indecency, labelling it instead as behaviour “confronting members of the public with conduct that significantly interferes with their autonomy and liberty, predisposing others to antisocial behaviour, or physically or psychologically harming persons involved in the conduct.” As Chief Justice Beverly McLauchlin noted at the time: “harm, or significant risk of harm is easier to prove than a community standard of decency.”
The decision overturned the convictions of several Lifestyle club operators in Quebec, and left the door open for dozens more to open across the country. But, as Ben and Jennifer note, the social stigma against the Lifestyle is still very present. “Some people come to the club, and won’t use their real names,” Chris admits. “There are people that have pretty sensitive jobs, or who are part of really conservative organizations, and there’s still this mindset where it’s: ‘if anybody finds out about this, I might lose my job.’ It’s the same thing that sometimes happens in the gay community, that people have to keep this part of their life a secret, and it’s so unfortunate.”
“Part of it is religious conditioning,” he continues. “We’ve met couples at Eden that were devoutly religious. And it’s a big adjustment for them. Because, how can you keep going to church if you’re openly disregarding so much of the Bible? How can you lead your church choir on Sunday, if, the night before, you were at Eden?”
When asked whether they feel comfortable sharing details of their sex lives with family or friends, the answer for each couple is a firm “no.”
“In a lot of ways, swinging is the new gay,” Chris Winchester muses, “because when you bring it up, it’s kind of like you’re coming out of the closet to your friends. It’s the same thing that happened – and still happens to people in the gay community. People say: ‘Oh, you’re gay. Well, you must be telling me because you’re hitting on me.’ It’s the same thing with us. People will go: ‘oh, you’re hitting on us,’ and it’s like, ‘no, not necessarily.’ We’re actually pretty picky.”
Despite the potential societal backlash, both couples agree that the benefits of the Lifestyle far outweigh the drawbacks. As Ben explains it: “Once you enter the Lifestyle, it’s sort of like being single again, except that you’ve got this partner in crime. You go on the prowl together. You’ve got a wingman. In fact, you’ve got the ultimate wingman. Because of life, because of long hours, like any couple, our sex lives drop off at some point. But then, we’ll go to a club night, or go to a party, and spend our night enjoying ourselves together, or with other people, and then, for the next three weeks, we’re just fucking like rabbits. Because we’re both so turned on by one another. It’s such a great way to charge our sex lives. It’s something we’re doing for one another.”
In a 2000 study conducted by Dr. Curtis Bergstrand of Bellarmine University, 60% of couples surveyed said that swinging improved their relationship, while only 1.7% claimed that it had detracted from it in some way. In addition, Lifestyle couples rated themselves as happier, with 59% of respondents describing their lives as “Very Happy”, versus a surprising 32% in the rest of those surveyed. And, with a recent Georgia Straight sex study showing that the majority of both males and females in Vancouver are having sex four times a month or less, with 22% of females and 28% of males in Vancouver admitting to having sex outside of their relationship in the past year, Ben, Jennifer, Eve, and the Winchesters remain convinced that discussing the Lifestyle is more important than ever. “The Lifestyle is something that should absolutely come up in any relationship,” Ben maintains. “Then, whether or not you act on it is up to you. People are always fascinated by Jen and I, because we’re not this stereotypical swinger couple…We have jobs. We have friends. We have normal conversations. Sunday, we go to brunch with Grandpa. We’re normal people. We just party different.”
“People think, sometimes, that you’re just born into this, and that you pop out ready to do it, but that’s really not the case,” says Jennifer. “It’s a choice you consciously make. It’s a process. And looking back, we can say, ‘well, if we’d known this, or we’d known that, we might have had a less bumpy road,’ but sometimes there are things you don’t expect until it happens. And we’re still learning.”
“To me, ‘Lifestyle’ is just a word,” Eve adds, “the ‘Lifestyle’ part of it isn’t so much about the sex. Sometimes that’s there, and sometimes it’s not. It’s about the mindset of honesty and communication.”
When asked if there are any additional benefits, Ben and Jennifer both crack a smile.
“You ever been blown by two girls at the same time?” Ben asks. “That’s a fucking benefit.”
For further information on The Lifestyle, visit Eve’s blog at www.sugarspiceandsexadvice.com