It sits nestled among office and warehouse buildings somewhere in the city of Orange: 8,000 square feet of party and bedroom space for 100 couples sipping on drinks, dancing topless and potentially having sex with one another's spouses.

Nothing gives it away for what it is. Orange County's biggest swing club, like its thousands of members, is hidden in plain sight.

Club members—teachers, pilots, attorneys, police officers, celebrities, city officials—drift through their public lives in much the same way, quietly going about their business before secretly indulging in a sexual pastime that, despite its growing popularity, hasn't quite gained mainstream acceptance.

Denise and Gary, a.k.a. Mr. and Mrs. Club Amnesty, "playing" in the Purple Room
Jennie Warren
Denise and Gary, a.k.a. Mr. and Mrs. Club Amnesty, "playing" in the Purple Room

It's Sheer Night at Club Amnesty, a recent addition to a modern swing phenomenon with a long history in Orange County.

I could wear anything I want, as long as my partner was dressed "like a gentleman," I was told on the phone. The image of pot-bellied OC cops and real-estate developers cruising for MILFs in bad lingerie lodges itself deep in my mind. I settled on a non-sheer, long-sleeved black dress.

We pull off the freeway through thick sheets of rain, make a few turns down several empty streets and slow down when we reach the desolate office park area. We lower the volume on the radio, expecting to hear voices, a bass beat, something.

There's no bright "Club Amnesty" sign to look for, just the address given to couples who pay the $25 yearly membership fee and the $90-per-party cover charge. We creep along in silence. The hushed streets make our destination feel all the more covert; the famous furtive quality of swinging fuels the mystique in our reflexively monogamous culture about the very idea of people congregating to have sex with one another's partners.

The anticipation recedes for a minute as we search. Maybe none of it is real. No orgies, no regulars, no amateur live pornography. I feel a slight twitch of relief at the thought.

Then we see the cars. Rows of Beemers, 4Runners, Chrysler 300s—and a single, lonely Winnebago.

Pink and white Christmas lights on a potted tree glimmer in a far-off window, with the club's address just above it.

*    *    *

The first thing you have to understand, say Gary and Denise, the married, middle-aged couple who run Club Amnesty, is that you have to be in a good relationship if you're going to consider "the lifestyle," the term used by those in the know. Swingers are called "lifestylers" or "play couples." This isn't for couples on the rocks looking to re-ignite their sex lives, they tell me. Those are the worst candidates.

Denise's eyes dash from one side of the hall to the next. We're standing in a passageway inside the club that's just bright enough to see the faces (and a little more) of everyone who slides by. Along the hall are the doors to the club's various fantasy rooms: the Red Room (two king-sized beds, soft red lighting, crushed-red-velvet curtains between beds), the Purple Room (a naked-only orgy haven with a multilevel loft built by Gary), the Black Room (three big beds, sheer curtains and a red pleather "viewing" couch), the Gothic Room (a giant X to tie someone to) and the Pink Room (two beds and gynecological stirrups). Two couples in towels squeeze by us. From door No. 2, we hear the first long, elated moans of the night.

One of the security guys upfront says something into Denise's headset. "Okay, I'll be right up there," she says. She frowns at Gary. It's 11 p.m., the cutoff time for entry, and guests who didn't preregister or who say they forgot their IDs are trying to get into the club. Denise moves through the crowd with ease, waving off the hands that paw at her considerable breasts through her sheer tank, smiling at club regulars. She disappears.

"She's the brains behind this," says Gary, who converts the large office-like space into a "club" every Friday and Saturday night. The club was a retirement dream for the couple, who went from being regular swingers well-known for their great parties to hatching the idea for a club in 2004. Gary, who owns a plumbing business, would be good at building and designing the club, they figured. Denise, with her big eyes and comforting smile, could use her grocery-store-management expertise to run it.

The goal, Gary says, was to create something safe, fun and reliable. But it took the couple several years to get there. They had to apply for a sexually oriented business permit in Orange (the standard license issued by counties and cities throughout the country), submit fingerprints for a Department of Justice background check, and then look for a building that complied with the city's zoning laws. They spent a year driving down every street in Orange before securing their discreet locale.

The sex rooms are to be entered, enjoyed and exited by couples only. "People are always trying to sneak in," Gary says. "We see all sorts of stuff."

The club is now 5,000 members strong, they say, catering to an underground lifestyle that most of the club's members want to keep that way—not because they're embarrassed, but because the culture around them still is. Denise and Gary use aliases because their kids don't know they are mild celebrities in the contemporary swing world.

Their brand of swing club offers everything from "hardcore" (outright partner-swapping sex) to "soft-swing," a mild, social-sexual recreational type of swinging that may involve merely hanging out at the club and making out with your own date, without offering so much as a smooch to someone else's mate.

"Soft swinging" was jump-started by longtime Orange County resident and Long Beach native Robert McGinley, arguably the godfather of the national swing scene, who also claims to have coined the phrase "the lifestyle" back in the 1970s.

Investigative journalist Terry Gould spent 10 years researching his book The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. The national and international swing "movement," he wrote, "has a California-based overseeing body, called the Lifestyles Organization, or LSO, that certifies clubs as ethical, nondiscriminatory and law-abiding." Of the period in 1993 when Gould was doing his research, he says, "Lifestylers in California were now declaring themselves a political force, and LSO formed campaign central. It was headed by a goateed, former aerospace engineer, Dr. Robert McGinley, a 60-year-old counseling psychologist who was at the time almost universally described in the media as a reckless libertarian and shrewd businessman."

*    *    *

You would think the godfather of a modern sexual movement would have something big and hyper-erotic on his office walls: a painting of giant labia, maybe, or orgiastic men and women piled high on top of one another. Even a Georgia O'Keefe. But one of the more memorable images on Robert McGinley's Anaheim office wall is also one of his very favorites: a painting of two cats, done in pointillist blues and pinks, staring up at a night sky full of fireworks.

"I love cats," says McGinley, gazing merrily at his painting. As he laughs, his whole body shakes.

At 74, McGinley is smaller, rounder and more sweetly grandfatherly than he may have been back in his swinging heyday. But his grasp on all things swing-related is firm and ever-evolving. Most recently, he chartered the way for swing-oriented resort vacations through his Lifestyles Organization. This is the most recent addition to a decades-long history in the expansion of a realm first known—and perhaps practiced—as "wife-swapping" in the 1950s.

McGinley's foray began in the early 1970s. "In those days, the swing clubs were what you called hardcore . . . which meant basically that if you're not prepared to drop your pants or your panties at the front door, then forget about it, don't even bother coming."

For the recently divorced McGinley and his girlfriend at the time, Geri, who was also divorced, it all started with dialogue. They had other divorced friends who were interested in talking about relationships. So they started getting together, talking and inviting guests to speak. "In my home, we started what came to be known as the Wednesday Night Group Discussions. That's how I met Larry Flynt," McGinley says of the memorable lecture. The discussions went on for 11 or 12 years, he says, but somewhere along the line, they became more than that.

"It's kind of hard to say how it happened, but we were all interested in sex, so we started having parties," he says. "And then swing parties. Then it became a club. It became a commercial enterprise."

McGinley and Geri—who had by then married—opened their club, Wide World, in Orange County in 1971, when the 19 swing clubs in Southern California were, for the most part, hardcore, McGinley recalls.

"We felt differently. We felt that swinging was a social experience, and we created a term called 'soft swinging,'" he says. "You could come to the club and have sex with everyone, or you could sit by the fire and talk all night, as long as you weren't offended by what others might do."

Around that time, the use of the word "lifestyle" as a stand-in for the taboo "swinging" emerged. "We used to advertise swing parties for couples in The Orange County Register," McGinley says. "The guy who ran that section decided he didn't like the word 'swing.' I pointed out to him the Polaroid Swing Camera, the Swinger Car . . . He didn't like the word 'couples'—he came up with 21 words that he didn't want us to use. But we were trying to say something so that people reading the ads would know what we were talking about," he says, laughing.

"Over a period of time, people began to associate that word ['lifestyle'] with swinging. And today, most people will say 'the' lifestyle. They'll say, 'Are you in the the lifestyle?' They'll mean, 'Are you a swinger?'"

The moniker was fitting, especially for McGinley, whose interest in human sexuality went far beyond swinging. Although he was trained as an engineer and worked in aerospace for years, the discussion groups and his forays into the swing world nibbled at McGinley's academic appetite.

He decided to get a Ph.D. in psychology with an emphasis in human sexuality. While the club was going, he and his wife published a magazine, Emerge, which only lasted a few issues, McGinley says, but which speaks to the couple's interest in all that a sexually non-monogamous lifestyle could mean, in a sort of academic way. A table of contents from a faded 1976 issue includes articles titled "Core Marriage Part I: A New Kind of Relationship" and "The Traditional Family and Emerging Alternatives." The bulk of the little magazine consists of pages considering the implications—good, bad and just plain fun—of such an alternative lifestyle choice.

The articles in the magazine eventually multiplied and became the various panels at the Lifestyles Annual Convention, now in its 35th year—a quasi-academic, hedonistic affair that lures thousands of swingers, or those just curious, to Las Vegas or other big hotel towns for a weekend in which you are free to do what you want to do, but also to think through what it is you're doing and why.

This is a "recreational sexual activity," not unlike bowling or going dancing, McGinley says. He's also explicit about one of swinging's core values: Swinging is not for falling in love or for romance; it's for fun. It's recreation. It's play.

*    *    *

"Man, who'da ever thought, looking at you, I'd be seeing you getting your cock sucked," says a man with a thick Boston accent from the Black Room. "Life is good. Life is grand." It's around midnight at Club Amnesty, and a steady stream of clubgoers are dropping their clothes in the club's lockers, throwing on towels and making their way to the back-hall rooms. We've glimpsed testes hanging high in the air and impossible, slow-motion orgy gymnastics atop the loft built by Gary in the Purple Room. We've heard rapturous orgasmic crescendos and watched a sweet slow-dance between a half-undressed couple on the dance floor.

The club's main room is still relatively tame, sprinkled here and there with a mostly older crowd in a mix of lingerie and jeans. A few rows of bottles with neat name tags sit behind the bar. It's BYOB at the club. Midori sours and vodka Red Bulls are doled out, but the bartender only spritzes in the mixers.

The slightly kitschy club (neon palm trees, neon lighting, Christmas lights, mirrored dance floors) has a homemade feel to it, but that's probably because Gary and Denise aren't slick industry club owners.

There's a buffet, with breadsticks, marinara and ravioli. An older couple in the corner wearing only towels pile Wheat Thins and cheese on their plates; another woman parades back and forth between the mirrored dance floor and the bar in a white lacy nightie, heels and no underwear. No one reacts much to the nudity. The mood is tamer and much more sober than at other clubs.

One of the reasons for that, says Gary, is that "you can't really get it up and have sex if you're drunk."

A couple in towels stumble out of the Black Room, giggling in their obvious postcoital euphoria. They spot us. "You guys are freaking out, aren't you? This is your first night, right?" Jerry (not his real name) says, smiling at us as he pushes his glasses up. "Nobody knows that we're here. My wife is a designer, and I'm an aerospace engineer. We just get away from everything and come over here, then we go back to our professional lives."

"The day after is the best day," his wife, Corina (also not her real name), says, adjusting her towel while clasping a water bottle. Her skin is soft. She's glowing. "We just enjoy the environment, the sounds. We see people."

For Corina and Jerry, sex, intimacy and candor are all heightened after a night spent at the club. They have come as a couple and are going back home to their kids, a mortgage and their real lives.

"It's just strengthened our relationship," Jerry says. They've been married 15 years. "At the beginning, I had a tough time," he admits. "You've got to be secure with each other." They offer their phone numbers in case we have any questions. It's okay, they say. They were scared, too.

I tell them why I'm there, but their offer still stands.

"You would not believe how many people are into this in the LA area," Jerry says. "We don't care; nobody cares. You're just naked, and so what?"

There's something to this underworld that is less radical and more American than I would have expected. People are friendly, lively. They're middle America: slightly homophobic (female bisexuality is highly encouraged, while male bisexuality is accepted but not openly endorsed), professional, tend to be in their late 30s to mid-40s, family people. McGinley estimates there are 2 million to 4 million "lifestylers" in the U.S. They've managed to gleefully cross over into a terrain that makes sex and nudity and sharing as frolicky and recreational as summer camp, without somehow compromising their relationships.

"It's that simple," Gould wrote in The Lifestyle."And it's that complicated."

Really, if it wasn't for the cacophony of orgasms or the parade of naked people rambling throughout the club, we could have been bowling.

A few days after our visit to Club Amnesty, I'm visiting with Denise in the snug kitchen of the home she shares with Gary. It doesn't seem to matter much that I've seen her nearly naked and spent an evening listening to and seeing a lot of the members of their club having sex. If anything, I feel comfortable around them, like I've known them longer than I really have.

"It's just a sensual environment," Denise says, looking anything but kinky in a soft, oversized sweatshirt. "It just makes you feel sensual."

This was true. There was no need to glance sheepishly at one another when the howls of sex came tumbling down the hall from behind a bed curtain. It hardly made us want to join in, but the pleasant charge of the social-sexual environment McGinley talked about didn't seem so mysterious, or wrong, anymore.

*   *   *

"What does monogamy mean? Ever looked it up?" McGinley asks, glancing at one of the several dictionaries in his office. "A lot of people think it means you have sex with only one person. Well, that's not what it means at all. It means you have one mate. 'Mono,' meaning one, means one marriage. It's got nothing to do with sex whatsoever."

He's excited. This is his favorite among the many subjects he has explored with tenacity. The shelves in McGinley's museum-quality office aren't loaded with porn. They're brimming with books—about Egypt, Japan, aerospace design, golf and, yes, human sexuality. In both of his offices (the museum-quality one for thinking and a computer-desk one for working), there are dictionaries, thesauruses, grammar books, all in some state of mid-use.

"I'm really kind of an egghead," he says, gazing at his collections.

McGinley's interest in human sexuality is vast, but not perverted. A swing party in Orange County is different from a swing vacation in Cozumel, but freedom of expression is at the core of both experiences, McGinley believes.

"When I was working on my doctorate, I did a search for classes on marriage and love in all the programs. There were lots on marriage and family, but none on marriage and love—do you see the bias?" he exclaims. "We don't teach anywhere about how the two people can really get along as a new entity. . . . We do teach how to be a mother, how to be a father, how to raise children, but we don't teach about these two people, how to maintain this love and this feeling for one another forever."

He raised his five kids from a previous marriage with Geri (the two are now divorced, but she is vice president of the Lifestyles Organization, and they remain "best friends," he says) and never hid his business from his kids. Today, none of them swing, he says.

For McGinley, the path to good relationships isn't necessarily swinging itself, but the possibility to explore the option, or its various sexual tangents, in an open, nonjudgmental culture.

"Swinging has become far more social and less sexual," he says. "It's sexual in the sense that it's a sexual atmosphere, but the environment is far more social." But that environment hasn't reached this point without its battles.

He hands me a copy of a story from a 1996 Penthouse that tells the tale of the now-famous sensual and erotic art exhibits that are a fixture at the yearly Lifestyles conventions. He runs to his shelves to grab a copy of Gould's The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, in which his battle with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, discussed in the Penthouse article, is told in detail. The board sought to censor the erotic art show back in 1996, despite the fact that McGinley has never held an alcohol license. The battle found its way to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the ABC was found to have violated the state constitution. "It cost us three-quarters of a million dollars to fight it," he says.

Does he think it was worth the cost? Absolutely.

"Our world is changing, and from the standpoint of culture, it's changing rapidly. It's not rapid enough for any one generation . . . but it's changing, and I think this is positive," he says. He looks at the piles of Lifestyles Tours and Travels brochures, old magazines and clippings in his office. "And I hope I've contributed to it."


daltan@ocweekly.com

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