One way to deal with premature ejaculation is to think of something un-arousing during sex -- say, your grandma or dead puppies. But Daniel Stern decided to take a different, less conventional approach. He jumped headfirst into the world of swinging -- also known as "the lifestyle," in which couples hook up with singles and other couples -- and tirelessly put his sexual performance to the test. The result? He conquered his sexual insecurities and wrote a book all about it, “Swingland: Between the Sheets of the Secretive, Sometimes Messy, but Always Adventurous Swinging Lifestyle.”
At moments, it reads like a self-discovery memoir à la "Eat, Pray, Love," only with super-graphic group-sex scenes. For the most part, though, it is an insider's exposé of a mysterious sexual subculture, and a guidebook for wannabe swingers. You'll find gonzo descriptions of a suburban orgy right alongside carefully considered tips on pubic grooming protocol.
Readers who are interested in entering the lifestyle will be endlessly intrigued and titillated by "Swingland." But those interested in a journalistic account will be disappointed to find the book dominated by tales of Stern's own exploits. To his credit, Stern is candid about his inglorious moments -- the time he hit his head on a ceiling fan in the middle of a gang bang, for example. But for every embarrassingly bloody encounter, there is a scene like the one in which he thinks he's killed an elderly woman at an orgy after giving her an orgasm that causes her to collapse on top of him.
The most satisfying bits of "Swingland" are also the most fleeting: Stern's description of an elderly orgy-goer who boasts of a new hip replacement and osteoporosis medication; the Russian husband who leaves a Sylvester Stallone movie playing on TV throughout Stern's carnal encounter with his wife; the anxious home improvement chatter that inevitably happens between men before everyone's taken their clothes off; and the deaf swinger who responds to a woman's loud moans with, "Even I could hear that!" Behind the absurdity and occasional braggadocio, there is a sweetness hidden at the center of the book, encapsulated in Stern's revelation toward the end: "I'd escaped that tonnage of performance-hindering anxiety and understood sex for what it was: fun."
I spoke to Stern by phone about how swinging isn't just about sex, the importance of wooing husbands and why Steve Carrell could get more play in the lifestyle than Brad Pitt.
You turned to the lifestyle in large part as a kind of “batting practice,” as you call it, a way to improve your sexual skill. Is that a route you recommend?
I’m definitely not advocating the lifestyle to anyone. What I am doing is sharing my experience and if that does help somebody, then great. I just tend to find that I’m a stubborn person and a hard case and a slow learner with life stuff, so it worked for me very well. It was just repeat over and over and over again, so that I could break through that stubbornness.
Why do you think this helped you so much in terms of improving your sexual skill and confidence as opposed to casual dating?
Casually dating, it’s sort of the reverse of what I did. Most times when somebody’s casually dating you’re getting to know the person and after some time you’ll have sex, and even during that sex it’s still a feeling-out period. Whereas with what I did, everybody is vetting each other in the lifestyle to have sex. Sex is the stated endgame upfront. So since my goal was to improve my physical ability, that worked for me. I didn’t want to spend 80 percent of the time cajoling and doing the whole social dance in order to maybe get to a point where sex is not just sex, sex is more than sex. I just wanted the physical activity because I wanted to have the ability to control myself better.
You write about being cross-examined by husbands or boyfriends before playing with their wives or girlfriends. How do those conversations typically go?
In the opening, there’s one scenario where I didn’t know the couple prior to the party, so I was face to face right off the bat. That was a typical conversation, where the questions asked are very personal but the tone is very impersonal. It’s just like you’re having a job interview. Online you’ve got a lot more pitfalls that can come your way. A lot of times when you’re emailing, you don’t know if you’re emailing the wife or the husband. So you have to play it safe because you don’t want to be disrespectful to the husband or boyfriend and at the same time you don’t want to be so blasé about stuff that you’re not telling the wife or girlfriend that you’re interested in her. I’ve talked to couples where they say, "This guy was great and we thought he would be a great time, but then he started talking directly to the wife and completely alienating the husband," and that puts the kibosh on the whole situation.
What kind of people did you meet in the lifestyle? What are they like in their everyday lives? What cross-section of America are we talking about?
They really run the gamut, everything from people in the police force to teachers to administrative assistants to people you would recognize from being on television. Age-wise, everyone from early 20s to octogenarians. The vast majority of swingers that I’ve met are middle-aged. My theory to explain that is they live long enough to have enough normal experiences when it comes to sex that they seek out something that is different. They’ve been in a marriage or relationship long enough that they want to get a bit of spice.
You refer in the book to people who get into the lifestyle for the “right reasons.” What are the right reasons?
It’s easier to say what the wrong reasons are. The lifestyle is not something that will save you, that will salvage a troubled relationship. Also, it’s not just sex. Yes, it is about sex, but it’s not all about sex. Sex comes about after a lot of other aspects meet up and match. It’s mostly about the relationships, as odd as that sounds. It’s about a personal relationship that is very much out in the open within the lifestyle. When you’re meeting somebody, you’re going for sex, you're going to have playtime, so that allows you to talk about a lot of things that on a casual date you can’t talk about because it will turn somebody off or be seen as crude or too forward.
The right reason to get into the lifestyle is to accentuate the good that you already have. That good could be a personal good or it could also be from a relationship. When it’s a couple that’s involved, that gets a lot trickier, because you’re not talking about two personalities, you’re really talking about four to five personalities: looking at the situation in the wife’s point of view, the husband’s point of view, the wife’s point of view of what the husband would think, the husband’s point of view of what the wife would think and then their point of view of the relationship as an individual.
It seems that it could get incredibly complicated.
I think it does, especially with couples. From the couples I’ve spoken with, other than the bad experiences they’ve had with single males, the most common comment I’ve heard is how difficult it is to find anther couple. You’ve got exponentially more considerations.
How important is physical appearance in the lifestyle?
It differs on a personal basis. I would say that it definitely plays a significant part, especially on a first impression. We’re in the Internet age. In my experience, the vast majority of people you'll meet are going to be from the Internet. There’s so many different sites out there where you create a profile, and the first thing somebody sees is going to be your picture. If you’re looking like some hermit who’s been shut into his basement clicking on his computer for the last 20 years with barely a shower, you’re not going to attract a lot of people. That’s not saying you’re going to be completely unattractive to everybody, but you’ve really limited your possibilities. Now, I’ve also found that people that have the chiseled abs -- or for women the enhanced chest, the hourglass figure -- yeah, they play, but they don’t play as much as the regular down-to-earth-looking people. In my experience, those are the people that have the largest social circles and the most quality relationships, and it’s because they’re welcoming.
I would definitely recommend that men do some manscaping. I recommend showers for everybody. But you don’t have to seek out your local plastic surgeon and start scheduling a litany of procedures.
You say at one point in the book that you can be physically unattractive, in conventional terms, but if you’re polite and a gentleman then you’ll get further than the handsome chiseled guy who is an arrogant jerk.
You could have Brad Pitt walk into a party and if he’s the cockiest asshole he’ll probably get some play, but it’s gonna be limited. If you have Steve Carrell walk in, who's a good-looking guy but personable, he’s going to have a lot more options. People want to be treated with respect and feel welcome and appreciated.
What’s the biggest misconception about the lifestyle?
That we’re this secret society of sexual miscreants that will shtup anything. We’re a highly sexual community, there’s no question about that, but guys aren’t walking around with hard-ons looking for anybody who’s willing. There’s a vetting process. We run the gamut of regular lives. The thing a lot of people don’t know is a lot of this is going on next door to your house. It’s going on in the hotel room next to you. It is there, it’s just people don’t know which door to knock on, which is fine. We don’t want everyone to knock on the door.
What’s the biggest no-no in the lifestyle?
Lying, dishonesty. That goes for dishonesty with yourself, dishonesty with how you present yourself in pictures or with what you’re looking for, dishonesty about relationships. If you’re in a committed relationship and posing as single, you’re going to hurt your relationship if it’s found out, and you’re going to royally piss off the person you’re playing with because they don’t want drama brought into their lives. When people say to me, “I’m interested in trying this, what should I do?” The first thing I say is, “Have a heart-to-heart with yourself. What do you want? Do you want a specific experience? Do you want a relationship?” Also, you need to be honest about what you’re willing to accept with regard to the dangers. There’s safe sex versus unsafe sex, but also a lot of the world doesn’t accept this way of life and is your job going to be at risk if you’re found out? So you have to balance that risk-reward.
What’s the most important lesson that you learned from your journey into the lifestyle?
This is gonna sound really ridiculous, but that sex is fun. When I went into it, sex was this huge task that I didn’t know how to do. I had to conquer this activity. The more I did it and the more relaxed I became, the more fun it was for me.
Is swinging, or the lifestyle, a sexual orientation?
Well, define sexual orientation -- straight versus gay versus bi?
Do you think of the lifestyle as something that is essential to your erotic identity in a permanent way?
I know that without having gone through what I did I would not be ready for a relationship, because I would still be carrying all that baggage of feeling that I personally was inadequate sexually. As weird as it sounds, having gone through all of the lifestyle experiences I am now more prepared to commit to a monogamous relationship. However, it’d be nice if a monogamous relationship wanted to spice things up now and again.
Where do you currently stand with all of that? Are you in a relationship? Are you still in the lifestyle?
I’m not in a relationship. I’m open to it. I’ve never been a person that needed to have a relationship. I never sought one out. I would like to have one. I’m not racing to find one.
I’ll play occasionally but more than anything I keep in touch with a lot of couples. I heard from one couple last night that were wondering how the book was doing. And it’s those relationships that I really do care about.
You conquered these fears that you had about sex. Are there now fears to conquer about relationships?
It’s funny that you say that, because I feel like that will be another book in a few years.
Well, there you go, you already have the next book lined up.
You’ll have to write the foreword to it.