Swap meat

We're told to get married, have children and deny ourselves nothing in terms of sex -- and the conservative suburbanites of "The Lifestyle" have always played by the rules.

Published April 21, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

"We're having a barbecue, bring your own meat."

Jim and Sheryl, Littleton, Colo.

A genuine Reagan-country cowboy, "Wild Bill" Goodwin lives in Costa Mesa, Calif. -- just down the freeway from the John Wayne Airport, the Nixon Memorial Library and that happiest place in Anaheim: Disneyland. The conservative, congenial, prejudiced and extremely horny septuagenarian, who enjoys hanging weights from his penis in his spare time, resides alone amid blinking garlands of heart-shaped lights and inert clusters of ceramic panthers in a house he calls a "real swinger's haven."

The kind of guy who describes his hobby as "sport-fucking" and says things like "gangbanging was given a bad name by those black bastards up in L.A." is probably not the kind of guy you normally empathize with. Which is why when he says that Dottie, his wife of 20 years, "went through heck" before dying of cancer in his arms five years ago (under the rotating disco ball in their front room), the euphemism unexpectedly breaks your heart. Goodwin and Dottie lived "the lifestyle"
together. Now that his soul mate is gone, "Wild Bill" is lonely -- and no amount of group sex can change that.

Welcome to the bizarre world of David Schisgall's "The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs," a new documentary that explores the huge, secret, all-American world of suburban swingers and finds that it does not resemble a '70s porn movie in the least.

The film, which debuted in March in New York and Los Angeles and will open in 15 other cities later this month, elicits as mixed a bag of emotions as you are ever likely to experience at once -- from the shock of witnessing uninhibited group sex among the elderly (not good), to the amazement of witnessing uninhibited group sex among the elderly (good), to the novelty of putting "born again" and "butt plug" in the same thought, and a lot of other funny feelings in between.

Schisgall and producer Dan Cogan spent three years traveling across the country in search of groups of retirees who have decided to ease ass-first into their autumnal years as if into their scalding home spas. What they found was a world in which married, homeowning, boat-buying, barbecuing couples (former schoolteachers, sales directors, Marines and ministers) get together, eat lots of shrimp and bonk each other's spouses in the family room.

"With the possible exception of their participation in the lifestyle," says one of the film's characters as he prepares to take his boat out of dock, "swingers are about as Middle America as you can get." Then correcting himself, "successful Middle America."

Schisgall says he wanted to show what was going on in the suburbs and in "our picture of the people we think of as sort of rock-ribbed Republicans of Orange County or Simi Valley," and maintains that "they are in their own way radicals who have a very positive image of what their freedoms allow them."

The lifestyle exists far underground; its members never discuss or acknowledge it in the presence of others. That Schisgall and Cogan were able to convince couples to open up in front of a camera, let alone allow a camera into a party, is remarkable -- and partly due to the filmmakers' willingness to shoot in the nude (while graciously but firmly declining, on the grounds of journalistic integrity, to "party" with the swingers).

Schisgall's affection toward his
subjects is apparent both in the film and in conversation. Their trust in him is also evident on-screen. But when he panegyrizes, as he does at length, about the social and political significance of swinging, it's easy to get the impression that (ideologically at least) Schisgall has gone native.

"My patriotic impulses towards a better union, towards more liberty and freedom and better forms of political and social organization are aroused when I'm at a swing party," he says. His playful word choice is duly noted. But whether Schisgall (a self-described "card-carrying Democrat" whose idea of a perfect sexual experience is "a Sunday afternoon with the woman I love") truly sees his subjects as "frontiersmen, rebels and revolutionaries carrying out their revolution along conservative principles," the film doesn't exactly come across as an endorsement.

"Those conservative principles can take you to things that are very radical and avant-garde," he says. But of course, "One can make a revolution that ends in banality."

And it's precisely the banality of the American way of life -- and not the sexual seditiousness of individual characters -- that "The Lifestyle" most effectively criticizes. Though we are treated to fleeting visions of what at first appear to be tableaux vivants by Heironymus Bosch with casting by Botero and sound effects by the Spice Channel ("I didn't want to make a film that turned people on," says Schisgall, and he has splendidly succeeded), the film consists mostly of warm, friendly interviews, scenes of domestic catatonia and trite suburban landscapes (glinting car dealerships, rippling flags, planned communities on planned hills) of an almost ethereal, vaporous emptiness.

Of course, the film also depicts "oral sex, reggelar sex, all kinds of sex," as Wild Bill enthuses, but the camera lingers longer, more immodestly, on homescapes featuring couples hanging drugstore-bought decorations in their suburban manses, placing padding under the sheets to "sop anything up," debating the merits of gas vs. charcoal grills, firing up hot tubs and delivering orgiastic paeans to finger food. ("We're having pizza rolls, taquitos, just a wide variety of different foods. People always like hot appetizers and different things at parties.")

In fact, the swingers' Wal-Mart-swathed corpulence suggests that, for the most part, they indulge all appetites with equal abandon. ("The most important lessons we learned on the road," says Cogan, "No. 1, it's impossible to get a meal outside the major cities without a lot of cheese on it; No. 2, bring your own salad dressing; No. 3, when at all possible, buy your own salad.")

Schisgall's research revealed that every state but North Dakota has a group sex club. Robert McGinley, president of the Lifestyles organization and one of the film's subjects, estimates that North America has at least 3 million swingers: "So it's enough," he says in the film, speaking from his office in Anaheim, "that if they all thought alike and all voted together, hey, we would elect a president."

Considering how many of them live in Orange County, they already have. Though they also may have helped to keep a Democrat in office. As Schisgall later tells me, "I showed the film to Pat Cadell [former Carter pollster and advisor, and a backer of the short-lived Warren Beatty presidential bandwagon] and afterward he said to me, 'This explains why Bill Clinton didn't get impeached.'"

Schisgall first became aware of the lifestyle while researching topics for an application to be an intern at Harper's magazine. He came across a swingers magazine in a porn shop in Boston, and was deeply impressed by it. The magazine -- pictures from which are included in the film -- showed suburban couples with their eyes blacked out standing proudly in front of their colonial-style houses with nothing on between them but one necktie.

"I grew up in the suburbs, so the idea that there were people who were like my parents who were doing this really struck a chord with me. I always felt, growing up, that there were the normative suburbs, the 'should' suburbs, and then there were the suburbs that I knew -- in which there were all kinds of weird and wonderful, crazy things going on."

Convincing the swingers to talk about their lifestyle on camera was a hurdle Schisgall surmounted by telling them that his would be "a warts and all portrait, but they would be portrayed in their own words and their own actions," without voice-overs, experts or network newsmagazine-style "balance." Many of those who agreed to be interviewed objected, however, to the film's inclusion of "Wild Bill" Goodwin.

"People were like, 'Why are you talking to him?' because Bill is a working-class guy. Their feeling was, 'We don't want to be associated with the working-class swingers.'" Adds Cogan, "They thought he would give swinging a bad name because he's white trash."

Schisgall says he and Cogan were at first constantly looking for the dark side of swinging. "We kept saying, when are we going to see the psychological torture, the coercion, the sex with children, the STDs, the violence, the drugs? When we didn't find it, we accused ourselves of not looking hard enough."

After about two years of spending enormous amounts of time with swingers in their homes and clubs and with their families, Schisgall says he came to realize that looking for the lifestyle's dark side "was a form of prejudice, and that my intense desire to believe that this practice would always lead to the destruction of the individual was prejudiced."

"Where I felt it was appropriate to criticize them, I did," he explains. "There's racism in the lifestyle. The lifestyle is banal. But from the swingers' perspective, they had always been vilified as child-molesters and deviants and drug addicts and carriers of disease."

Perhaps the most shocking thing about "The Lifestyle" is that it accomplishes Schisgall's stated goal of making a film that had "a very new, radical depiction of sex between humans" by displaying images of uninhibited sex between people who may be overweight, middle-aged and otherwise "deviant" in terms of what the entertainment industry considers sexy.

"Because swingers are attracted to you no matter what you look like," Cogan says.

"Say you're a woman, you're 50, you don't feel very sexy, your husband wants to have sex with other women, which makes it even worse," says Schisgall, explaining how couples get drawn into the lifestyle, and why they tend to stay. "So for whatever reason you agree to go and check it out, and suddenly you're at this party with all of these people who you recognize as your neighbors and the men are very attracted to you because you're the new girl. They're very solicitous and flirty and attracted to you in ways that you have probably not experienced since you were very young. And that, women report, is very gratifying. So the canard in the swing clubs is that the guy drags his wife in at 8 p.m. and drags her out at 8 the next morning. And I think there's some truth to that."

Schisgall and Cogan filmed extensively in Littleton, Colo., a year before the Columbine massacre ("The Lifestyle" premiered three days before the tragedy), and Schisgall claims he wasn't surprised by it. "I knew that behind the facade of this 'little town' -- the name was even perfect -- there were all kinds of things going on." Schisgall says he was attracted to Littleton because it is "the perfect suburb. It's the last place you'd expect, given the way -- the wrong way -- we think about the suburbs, to have any type of deviant behavior.

"People weren't just going to work, coming home and watching television. To me, Littleton was a hotbed of swingers. It was a place where people were doing all kinds of things sub rosa that broke the rules, and so I wasn't surprised that these kids -- these evil kids -- broke the rules. Because to me, everybody there was looking for a way to break out of the straitjacket of normality."

In Schisgall's view, one of the reasons urban liberals look down their noses at people like those in "The Lifestyle" is precisely because they refuse to conform. He believes that we set out to make a nation of rebels and are succeeding more and more. "It's just scary ... because everyone wants to think that everyone else is normal." says Schisgall. "The idea that we could do away with a normative way of living is very frightening."

Among those who seem to have been frightened by the film were North American film festival directors and independent film distributors. Schisgall says he expected to piss off the usual suspects -- but didn't expect them to include the indie film community.

At one point, Schisgall showed a rough cut to the president of one of the large independent distribution companies, who left the editing suite in a rage. "His veins were bulging, he was screaming at me, 'What's your point? What are you trying to say?' It took me about 20 minutes to convince him that he'd been provoked. People all talk about how they want to be cutting edge and radical, but nobody wanted to stand up next to me and say I agree with this guy's conclusions. It's too radical. And I'm proud of that."

The same was true of festival programmers.The film was eventually accepted at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and later at the Seattle Film Festival. Every other film festival in North America rejected it. Schisgall says that the person who runs one of the best known, most prestigious festivals in North America was convinced the film had been paid for by the Lifestyles organization and "did not want to take the film because he thought it was too positive a portrayal."

"Another well-known festival director refused to look at the final cut after having seen the rough cut -- the film had changed radically -- even though that was something he had done many times before to great success," says Schisgall. "He said, 'I don't like that film, I'm not having it in the festival.'"

The last 12 minutes or so of the film are devoted to a party. Couples arrive, eat, chat about everyday things. Most of the couples interviewed in the film are in attendance, their ease in front of the camera indicative of their familiarity and comfort with the crew. The camera captures the rhythm of the party, which like any other, heats up in waves. Of course, when this one heats up, you don't necessarily want to look.

In one hilarious, disconcerting scene, a naked sexagenarian redhead (who at one point also propositioned 31-year-old Cogan) invites a naked middle-aged man downstairs. But the man is momentarily distracted: Two feet away from him, his wife, who is suspended from the ceiling in a leather harness, is having sex with another man while the three of them carry on a casual conversation.

The redhead continues to call to the middle-aged man to come with her, but he tells her to wait, watching the action in front of him in the sort of distanced, dispassionate way one might observe the cogs and gears of a machine.

"It's now or never," calls the impatient redhead.

The man turns to her and shrugs. Then, pointing to his spouse's sex partner, says in mock alarm, "He's fucking my wife." Then he turns to the guy and says, "Give her hell, Bob."

"He's joking," Schisgall tells me when I ask what's going on. "There's a lot of joking going on. It's not this intense psychological theater. It's kind of goofy."

And incredibly goofy it is. Depraved, but goofy. It's also quintessentially American -- friendly, superficial, excessive and almost perversely devoid of perversity. It's a nightmare vision of what happens when you finally get everything you always wanted.

"Totally," says Schisgall. "That guy owns like eight Jiffy Lubes."

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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