Pick Me Up

Scott and Kaylee, owners of Club Radiance, appeal to younger patrons through their Web site and hip-hop DJ.
Daniel Kramer

It started with her legs. "I'm not going to lie," Tucker says. They were the kind of legs that pull you way up on a smooth trip that ends, through no fault of their own, too soon. Tucker, 25, knew what that was like. He had been flying high as an airline pilotfor Continental, but lost his job after 9/11. He needed a pick-me-up.

Payton was walking away from her old life too, away from a child custody battle with her deadbeat ex-husband and into a nightclub. Tucker was the bouncer. He bounced lines off her all night. The last one was "Do you want to watch a movie at my place?" It was a place without a VCR, he confessed in the living room. In the end, you could say, they made a movie of their own.

But for Tucker, their young relationship was about more than just Payton's svelte legs, blond hair and humongous 36DD chest. It jumped him, emotionally. "What I noticed was, even after a couple of weeks, all of my decision-making was no longer 'How does this affect me?' " says the combat-hardened former marine. "I was thinking, 'Would she like this? How would this affect us?' I didn't mean for it to happen; it started doing that, you know?"

And so Tucker learned to love. "She made me want to be better," he says. And Payton learned from Tucker how to be naughty. The small-town Catholic had never used a vibrator. That was remedied. She had never confessed her fantasies. Tucker teased them out. And he found that the 22-year-old mom was…not a perv exactly. But she wanted to sleep with him and another couple all together, if, you know, that was cool and everything.

A year into their relationship, Tucker and Payton, whose names have been changed along with others in this story, found a couples bar called Wish's. They paid a steep cover and agreed to a mandatory ten-drink minimum. They were led through a crowd of retirees and seated next to a shriveled man and woman who were married -- just not to each other -- and who covertly met in Houston twice a year "for business." Ten drinks down, the couple began ordering everyone round after round of shots. They left without picking up the $400 tab. Wish's made Tucker pay it. "Fuck this shit," he remembers thinking about swinging. "It's stupid. We're not doing this."

Two weeks later, Tucker and Payton discovered Radiance, a very different, brand-new couples club close to the airport and their home. They decided to give Payton's fantasy one last shot. They parked in a strip mall near a dollar store and walked in a metal door, past walls tacked with panties. They were nervous. The strobe-lit dance floor jiggled with bare breasts. Payton swilled chilled red wine. But the people who sat down with them were young and attractive, and they just wanted to talk and crack jokes. It was like Cheers, yet taut with sexual possibility.

The next week Tucker and Payton went back, found a couple and were driven to their house. They parked in the garage and just talked. "What is okay?" the couple asked. "What is not okay?" In the bedroom, Payton caressed and kissed the woman. Tucker and the husband watched, then joined in. Far from being disgusted in the morning by what they had done, Tucker and Payton wanted more. They went to Radiance almost every weekend. Payton competed in a beauty pageant there and won a free trip to Jamaica. The prudish girl from the Bible Belt suddenly found herself in a weeklong competition with the sultriest divas from swing clubs around the nation.

The victor -- young, freewheeling and beautiful -- would be called Miss Hedonism.

Until recently, most people saw swingers as the kind of players that nobody besides other swingers would want to have sex with. They lived in tract homes beneath giant televisions. They worked in plastics, ate bloody steaks and fruitlessly Jazzercised. Maybe they'd mow the lawn; maybe they'd fuck the neighbors. They might have been your parents.

Graying suburbia still rules "the lifestyle," as swingers call it. But as the ranks of swingers have grown -- from a few thousand in the 1950s to more than three million, by some estimates -- the old folks are being joined by people who don't look like them at all. A new crowd of sexual adventurers is emerging that is increasingly youthful, urban and even fashionable.

"It's not your father's swinging! Or even his and your mom's new friends'!" wrote Esquire magazine sex columnist Stacey Grenrock Woods in April. "Erotic clubs for the young and hip are popping and spurting up all over the place."  

Houston is no exception. Near the airport, geriatric Club Connections and Rumors passed away and Radiance opened in 2004, packing in twenty- and thirtysomethings with hip-hop and a flashy Web site. Rick's International built Encounters near the Richmond Strip, a swing club that caters to much of the same crowd that might otherwise dance at Joia and M Bar and other redoubts of yuppie scenesters. Encounters created more floor space this year and began hosting Desirous Party, a periodic theme fete organized by and for the young and beautiful. "The majority of our crowd…they take care of their body," says David, 35, the burly, bronzed, spiky-haired organizer, "and if you do that, you want to show, I guess…what your mama gave you."

Sometimes the younger crowd bypasses couples clubs altogether. Every night in Houston offers at least one "meet and greet" at a seemingly nondescript watering hole. Swingers meet on Tuesdays at Martinis 'N More in The Woodlands, on Wednesdays at Clayton's Restaurant near the airport (where the tattoo-plastered Debbie puts on a lingerie show and convincingly covers Aerosmith) and on Thursdays at the Ritz Too, where the bi-wives dig the strippers. "We surround ourselves with folks in the scene," says 27-year-old Sandra, who with her husband sets up lifestyle parties online at traditional clubs under the pseudonym Funfukkers. She recently invaded South Beach, the Montrose gay club, with 58 couples. The young people loved it; the older ones in the scene stayed home. "Just found out my 19 yr. old will be there," a woman named Barbi44 wrote online. "…[S]orry, I have a problem partying with children."

So does Tucker's father. He's a swinger too, though he and his son don't talk about it. Tucker's old man wouldn't be caught dead in a gay club, he says, while Tucker, though straight, used to dress in tight clothes and hit the scene looking for free drinks. Swinging is less of a taboo for Tucker and just another option. "I've seen all walks of life," he says, "and I've partied with all walks of life."

Loath to party with their parents, however, younger swingers have flocked to their own corner of cyberspace. The Web site flickered to life in 2001 as the homepage for Encounters and gradually evolved into a message board. It separated from the club a year later and morphed into a community of more than 10,000 people who use the site to chat, swap photos and join subgroups such as Wild Girls Lunch Bunch, World of Swingcraft and Art of Squirting. The site has expanded beyond Houston into North Texas and Louisiana. It's so popular in Houston that couples on the street often probe other suspected swingers with the line "Do I know you from CT?"

Sandra, or "Ms. FunFukker," described Houston's swinger generation gap while instant-messaging from work: "[T]he older crowd (in my opinion) is either A) tired of fucking one another OR B) got married out of convenience and the younger one gets to fuck on the side to keep them happy." Then she wrote "LOL" -- an online giggle.

"They feel left out," she added. "…[T]hey're used to going out and getting laid right off the bat…the younger scene isn't like that."

Peter and Cherie aren't even sure they want to get laid at all. At least not by other people. The 31- and 29-year-old couple recently downed giant margaritas at El Palenque on Westheimer and discussed their potential lives as swingers.

They agreed from the start that the idea of swinging is hot. Peter, who was wearing hollow aluminum ear studs, thought seeing his girlfriend go at it with another man would be like watching a tight porno. Cherie thought having a one-night stand and making out with a girl would be smoking. Besides, she's been a little miffed that Peter came to the relationship with more sexual experience. She calls him a man-whore.

Still, the couple fears a repeat of the past, which was sexually and romantically brutal. Seven years ago, Peter's wife cheated on him behind his back with his best friend. A few years later, Cherie's husband convinced her to do a ménage à trois with another woman, who she later found was dating him on the side. The two scalded divorcés met in 2003 at Empire Cafe for what turned into a six-hour date. As they crossed the street to a bar, she grabbed his hand. They saw each other every day after that and shacked up two weeks later. "We just didn't want to be apart," Cherie said.

The same fear of separation shaped their ideas about swinging. Peter wondered if he'd ever be able to interest her sexually after she'd been in an orgy. "Ten men vs. me?" he said. "Hello!" Cherie worried that Peter would get emotionally involved with someone else. So if they swing, maybe she'd prefer anonymous sex, she confessed.  

"Really?" Peter asked.

"Yeah! I don't need to know who you are or what you do!" she blurted, sloshed from the margarita.

"I kind of do," he said.

"Oh, you're such a girl!"

No decisions were made at El Palenque, but Peter and Cherie were stoked. Practically ripping each other's clothes off out the door, they went home and had wild sex. Peter enthusiastically recounted the romp in an e-mail the next morning, adding: "Don't know if it's because we're warming up to the idea of swinging…"

At Radiance, the time for warm-ups has passed. The dancers have stretched and mostly stripped. A man tucks a fake dollar into a bare-chested woman's jeans as she rubs her lips on his face. Payton takes the stage nearby wearing a cowboy hat, a thong and hefty Lucite platform heels. She grabs the pole and spins into the air. A shoe flies off her foot. It smacks into an ogler's head and nearly downs him. Friday isn't called Amateur Stripper Night for nothing.

Payton hobbles off the stage and sits down next to Tucker, who's trying to put two new guests at ease. "It's gonna sound sort of deep," Tucker says, "but I think our society has put so much of a taboo on sexuality that people are afraid to share in their fantasies."

That's definitely not the case at Radiance. A topless woman in her thirties is hoisted onto the bar. Scott, the club owner, enlists the help of a bartender. They place a lime wedge in her mouth, suck her nipples erect, sprinkle them with salt and suck them again. She rubs her hand down her belly toward her crotch. Somewhere along the way, they all take a shot of liquor. Then Scott kisses her and she embraces him.

"That's a drink I started when I first started the club," Scott says, "to try to break people in."

At the corner of the bar, women are comparing their breasts. A girl who has just purchased Janet Jackson-style nipple ornaments from the adjoining erotic shop wonders if Payton's implants are painful. Another woman sneers: "You had a breast implant!" Oddly enough, Payton's own mammary preference is leaning toward the natural tonight. She bends over toward a waitress in an unlaced brassiere -- a friend of hers -- and licks her nipple.

Tucker finds such friendships less threatening than those that might develop at regular clubs. "No matter how good a friend we are with other couples," he says, "at the end of the day, they are basically a prop for our fantasies."

Of course, not all fantasies can be fulfilled at Radiance. Although the club is racier than traditional swinger bars such as Wish's, sex is banned, and full nudity -- especially of males -- is discouraged. But the rules at many clubs are increasingly permissive. In line with a national trend, several in Houston now allow outright shagging (see "Swing Time").

Even so, younger Houstonian swingers often avoid them. Payton and Tucker, who have slept with only five couples in the past two years, opt for tamer fare. They prefer Radiance because flirting, going topless and smooching -- "soft swinging," as the culture calls it -- come with no expectations.

Many visitors to swing events such as the periodic Desirous Party at Encounters don't consider themselves swingers at all. On a Saturday night, a tanned chick's pert butt is hanging out of her shorts. She wears knee boots and a white wide-mesh top over a skimpy bra. "We don't swap at all," she says, bouncing to Dee-Lite next to her husband, "but we party."

"I think our generation is so open-door," she says, as a girl bends around to kiss her on the lips, "because you can say what you want and if someone comes up and they offend you…" A young man reaches around and kisses her and she loses her train of thought.

For all of the professed open-mindedness and disdain for labels, the chaos of even the tamer swing parties can take a toll. Toward the end of the night, a buxom redhead standing at the bar with her husband kisses my female companion. The woman literally drags her toward the dance floor. I tug her back -- only because we have to hit another club before it closes. My friend gently explains why dancing is out. "I think you're beautiful," she adds. But the woman flees. As we walk out of the club into the rain, she's standing outside, smoking a cigarette and crying.  

That kind of drama is exactly what Peter and Cherie want to avoid. Even so, their post-margarita romp -- reprised the next morning and that afternoon at a gas station -- has inspired them to take a cautious plunge into the world of swingers.

They show up on Friday at the Old Heidelberg, a German bar on Fountainview that's packed with the fans of a swinging German lounge singer in a sequined miniskirt. Peter walks in wearing twisted plastic goth earrings and a Mohawk. He sits with Cherie at a small table, surrounded by frat boys, WWII vets and hip-hoppers in J. Lo glasses. Nobody pays the couple heed, except a boisterous, swinger-friendly single guy.

"Yes, I'd like to meet somebody," the 30-year-old says casually. "Would I like to do it forever? No. But at the moment, yes. I'm pretty sure that maybe five years from now I'll change my mind and I'll hate everybody here."

Single guy recently broke up with his girlfriend of two years. She told him that she didn't like the idea of his sleeping around. Perhaps aware that he's not the best cultural ambassador, he introduces Peter and Cherie to a middle-aged couple who have been dating since January and swinging since June. Barry, who sounds and looks like Barry White, asks why they're interested in the lifestyle.

"We want to do something different," Peter says. "The excitement. We're both very sexual beings. Part of that is being able to talk to each other and say, 'Hey, there's something I want to try.' "

Barry thinks extreme openness allows swingers to grow closer to each other. "Intimacy literally means Into me, you see, right? So if we're intimate with each other, we look inside each other," he theorizes as his girlfriend nods. "So this lifestyle keeps reaffirming that we're committed."

Such nifty formulations don't always work on sex therapists, however. Dr. Susan D. Delaney of Plano, a member of the American Board of Sexology, says swinging is wrong any way you look at it. She likens swingers to binge drinkers who can't stop cracking open new bottles. She has counseled women who have been pressured into swinging and feel hurt and bewildered. Delaney is a stickler for monogamy. A member of a Benedictine spiritual group, she advises clients to remain faithful through sexual thought control. "If you don't ever think it," she says, "you're not going to do it."

Less prudish people, like some swingers, for example, are also against swinging -- at least when it comes to young people. Girls can't separate sex from love, says a 47-year-old swinger who goes by Candy Bear. She recently advised Brandon, a 33-year-old friend, against bringing his new girlfriend into it. "You've been dating her for a month," she scolded. "She loves you. It is going to kill her to see you fuck somebody else."

Swingers often go to great lengths to ward off potential wreckage from hookups, with varying rates of success. Many online postings ask that couples be not only disease-free but also "jealousy-free."

Still, some sex therapists consider swinging a legitimate option. Stripped of its taboos, it can be an enjoyable hobby, just like golf or bowling, says California marriage counselor Dr. Marty Klein. He says he has observed the same marital success rate among monogamous couples and swingers. When swinging causes problems, it's usually because one member of the couple has coerced the other into it. "That's not because of swinging," he says. "That's because of one person dragging somebody into something they don't want to do."

Cherie jokes that Peter has been trying to drag her to a swinger event for months. She always puts him off, saying she needs new clothes. But tonight has momentum, and the couple is swept out of the Old Heidelberg, down Fountainview and up to Encounters, which sits next to a faux antique wedding chapel. Inside, they walk past posters of naked women. They plop nervously into deep armchairs near a dance floor throbbing with lights and hip-hop and grinding hotties.

A couple of muscular regulars attired in tight club clothes introduce themselves. "Everybody is very friendly," the man tells them. "It's kind of like church."

Cherie gazes across the dim room. Crouched beneath a table, a woman is giving a blow job to a man on a bench. Against another wall, two men, one graying and one younger, are leaning back into their chairs. Two young women with their dresses pulled up are bobbing up and down on top of them. One climbs off the old man and the other goes down on him.  

"I would be lying if I didn't say I'm really uncomfortable right now," Cherie says.

"Do you want to leave?" asks Peter.

"We don't need to leave," she says, and asks what he thinks. He says it's more important what she's thinking.

"I thought I'd be safe here," she says, "and I wouldn't see it here, and it's just very uncomfortable because I've never actually seen adults have sex before. I mean, except in a movie."

The drive home is icy. Neither of them speaks. They don't have sex all weekend.

Sunday evening Peter and Cherie meet with me again at a bar. "If we're still feeling uncertain about this," he says, "then maybe it's better left as a fantasy.

"But then," he quickly adds, "in all fairness, that was our first time out. Maybe we just needed to be a little bit slower about it."

Cherie timidly smirks.

"Maybe," she says.

At Hedonism III in Montego Bay, Jamaica, positive emotion was required. There would be no frowning, yawning or pouting -- unless, of course, the pouts were sexy. The perky, tanned pageant contestants were vying for the chance to represent the nudist resort in national lifestyle promotions -- to become, in effect, the official Queen of Swing.

The homemade-bikini competition presented unique challenges. How do you tease a crowd that's already naked? It was a pressing issue, given that victory in most of the competitions would be judged by applause. Payton covered her breasts with two butterflies. She strutted across a deck, and a nipple jiggled out. Even so, the callipygian Alicia, whose private parts were plastered in colored beads, easily took the round.

Alicia's skills were prodigious. During round two, the pole-dancing competition, the middle-aged Latina from Los Angeles bent down on all fours. She clenched her butt cheeks alternately to the beat; they moved like Jell-O domes atop a subwoofer. She was equally hardworking offstage. She and her husband shagged other couples with abandon, Payton says. Every day Alicia's fan base -- and the clapping that meant victory -- grew larger and louder.

Payton was flagging. She didn't go in for orgies, didn't like making togas and wet T-shirts, and didn't enjoy waiting around for camera crews. She looked bored and glum. Meanwhile, Tucker, who had been rehired as a pilot with Continental, was chilling out on the vacation by getting drunk at nine in the morning and spending too much time in the sun. "I burned my willie," he says.

The final competition required the contestants to answer a question in front of a panel of judges. Alicia walked bare-breasted onto the stage wearing an S&M collar and flailing her rotund derriere with a whip. Asked what she would do if she won, she said, "If I did win, there would be an orgy in my room!"

Payton struck a different tone. She showed up fully clothed. The emcee asked her which household appliance she most closely resembles. She interpreted the question loosely. "A dildo would be good," she said, flashing a rare smile, "…my fiancé is a pilot and he's gone four days out of the week." Maybe it was an invitation, maybe it was an ode to love. Either way, the judges ate it up. They pronounced her Miss Hedonism III. She was handed a bouquet and wiped tears from her eyes.

Payton later realized that Alicia never had a chance. She was older and she had a gut and she walked like a truck. She would never work in advertising brochures.

Payton's victory catapulted her from the lifestyle into a budding profession in the porno business. The Hedonism III promoters flew her to the Adult Video Network conference. She shopped nude photos of herself to magazines. Playboy has recently expressed interest.

As the lifestyle grows, it's going commercial. And young people will be the first to be exploited or enriched, depending on how you look at it. Almost all swinger Web sites use photos of models in their twenties. Greg Humble, a film producer who visited Houston last month, says he's interested in doing a reality show with swingers, who presumably will be young. Nobody's going to watch grandparents getting it on.

Yet making sweeping commitments to the lifestyle -- commercial and otherwise -- can be tough for young people, who sometimes find that their desires are moving targets.

One night in March, an attractive young woman at Radiance rubbed and kissed Tucker. She was eager for a ménage à trois -- one of Tucker's fantasies. He brought up the idea that night with Payton, who was drunk. "I was getting the fantasy thrown in my face before I had time to deal with it," she says. Payton vented her anger to Scott's wife, Kaylee, who suggested the couple talk it through. Instead, Payton screamed, railing into Tucker for unauthorized flirting. Tucker yelled back, calling her drunk and jealous. They went home in a rage.  

Payton and Tucker resolved that week to drink less and communicate more. "The older you get, the more you learn, the more wisdom you get," Payton says. "It's the same thing in a relationship with this [lifestyle]. You have to learn what boundaries are. I know when he starts to get bothered by something; he knows when I get bothered by it. You have to learn to get through."

Their education was just beginning. Payton and Tucker agreed two months later to go home with a couple who had struck both of them as caring and sensitive. They undressed and began having sex. When the man started pounding Payton like a two-dollar hooker, she cried out. "He was just hammering," says Tucker. "And all of the emotion, all of the compassion that we thought he had was gone."

Tucker called off the sex mid-orgy and they went home.

Still, many of their best friends were people they'd met at Radiance. "If I had a problem I would go to them before I would go to family," Tucker says. "They are that important."

A few months ago, Tucker and Payton did have a problem. They were set to get married and needed affordable rings. They were browsing through bands in a Montrose boutique when the clerk said they looked familiar and asked where they hung out. Tucker said they often went to a club on 1960, adding, "You might have seen us on CT."

"That's what it is!" the clerk said. "You're Joyride222!"

He gave them the rings for half price.

Amid a surfeit of flowers and a flurry of photos this spring -- courtesy of Tucker's mom, a professional wedding planner -- Payton's white dress fluttered onto a podium beneath a Las Vegas archway. Tucker burst into tears. The reception was attended by family, and by friends who kept their lifestyle connections somewhat undercover. Two swingers sat right next to Payton's parents. When she looked over at them, the girl flashed her breasts. "I was like, 'Oh, fuck!' " Payton says.

Two months later, Payton was sitting in Radiance cradling a cake that she planned to light for her husband's 28th birthday. The club was empty, the music was off, and the only drinks on the table were sodas. Marriage had changed things for Tucker and Payton. The husband and wife had decided to spend more time with each other. They'd been talking a lot about their depleted emotional energy.

"We wanted to see if we could bring our relationship to another level," Tucker said.

So they resolved to stop swinging.

But not flirting, of course. Or kissing other people and sucking nipples. And the moratorium would be more of a hiatus; they'd re-evaluate in six months.

Three weeks later, Payton and Tucker went out for drinks after Hurricane Rita with three swinging couples. They missed the fun times of yore. So what's a few months, in the grand scheme of things? "We were steadfast," Tucker proudly says over the phone. "And I think we are about ready to not be, because we are both about to explode."

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