There's an unmarked black door at the end of a Pompano Beach strip mall, next to a laundromat and a dollar store and across the street from an Episcopal church. The only hint of what happens beyond the door is a worn sign leaning against a pole near the parking lot. It reads Club Hedo.
Just after 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a young couple — a broad-shouldered man in slacks and a petite blond in her mid-20s wearing a polka-dot dress — walks through the black door and into Club Hedonism. It's their first time here, and a few people stare as they amble past the pool table, wide-eyed and a bit nervous.
The clandestine club would fit right into a pleasant snapshot from 1978. There are a disco ball, a wooden bar adorned with Christmas lights, vinyl chairs situated around a few Formica tables, and a parquet dance floor replete with a single metal pole. The young couple sits down on a leather couch. A mix of recent pop songs and older disco plays to the 20 or so people — nearly all between 40 and 60 years old — scattered about the room.
Soon enough, though, the couple is invited to join a group of regulars — two men and three women — seated at a table. Susan, a tall, 49-year-old blond in a chiffon dress, locks eyes with the young lady in polka dots, takes her gently by the forearm, and guides her to a chair next to her own.
Like most of the people contacted for this article, Susan asked that her last name not be published for fear that tales of her exploits might make it back to neighbors and co-workers. By day, she's a Broward public school teacher, but on weekends, she puts on a little extra makeup, wears a slightly shorter dress, and comes to clubs like this.
"Are you new to the lifestyle?" Susan asks the couple.
"This is our first time here," the young blond woman says. "We went to another club once, but we didn't do anything."
Susan asks if they want anything to drink. "I have every kind of liquor here," she says. "What do you want?" She fetches two rum and Cokes and a tall, strong pink drink for herself.
The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University estimates that as many as 4 million Americans participate in some form of group sex or couple swapping. With its welcoming beaches, year-round sunshine, and fine appreciation for vices, South Florida has become a mecca of swinging in this country. Couples make sexual pilgrimages here from points all over the world. At least four different swinger cruises depart from South Florida every year. While swingers anywhere can connect through websites and classified ads, South Florida has five on-premises sex clubs (four in Broward, one in Miami-Dade, none in Palm Beach) catering to a variety of different lifestyles.
The owner of Club Hedonism is a large Italian man in his 60s named Franco Monte. He can be found striding through his club with purpose, wearing black slacks, a black shirt, and a thick gold chain. His employees are diligent, because they know he's a perfectionist, and they dare not upset him. Every inch of the club must be spotless. Every employee must embody a delicate blend of attentiveness and discretion. He says he wants people to think of his place as "the swingers' club where everybody knows your name." He wants it to be like Cheers — but where the characters have sex with one another.
And yet, Monte says, "It's about much more than the sex. People can have a few drinks and dance a little bit and get to know each other." Key to the experience, Monte says, is the anticipation of having sex. "A pleasure of the mind," he calls it.
Here's how it works at Hedonism — and the concept is similar at the other clubs:
It's a private, members-only establishment, thereby not subject to public indecency laws or liquor laws. Prices range for individuals and tourists, but local couples pay $100 for a one-year membership, plus an additional fee per visit ($50 on Fridays).
The club is divided into two parts. The front room serves as a nightclub. Guests bring their own alcohol, but mixers are provided, and bartenders make the drinks. There's a small buffet (complimentary with the price of admission) and a dance floor in front of a wall of mirrors.
Then there's a back section. Once visitors get comfortable, they generally move into this area, which is partitioned off into a maze of separate lounges. The "love parlor" has turquoise walls, a red pleather couch and chair, paintings that would not look out of place at your grandmother's house, and porn broadcast on a small TV mounted on the wall.