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South Florida sex clubs revealed

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A massage room and "group playrooms" have industrial carpeting, more vinyl-covered tables and cushions, and sex toys. Walls painted back, white, and purple add a Gothic feel to some of the rooms. A "fantasy suite" includes six queen-sized mattresses. These rooms are where the orgies take place.

Unlike the other clubs in South Florida, which require guests to remove their clothing before going into "play areas," at Hedonism, you can undress — or not — whenever or wherever you like. Early in the night, the back area is quiet and empty. But by midnight, people have limbered up, and the hallways echo with a cacophony of guttural moans.

Monte opened Club Hedonism in 1974, but he tells people that partner-swapping dates back to the days of Julius Caesar. "Everything began with Romans," he says, "the public orgies."

The first accounts of swinging in America came from military couples near the end of World War II. By the '50s, the phenomenon had spread to the suburbs. But the modern, mass-market form of swinging didn't come about until the early '70s, on the heels of the sexual revolution. That's when Plato's Retreat, America's first on-premises swingers' club, opened in New York, in the cavernous basement of Ansonia Hotel, in a defunct gay bathhouse where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow performed early in their careers.

Almost immediately, similar clubs began appearing in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Deenie's Hideaway opened in Coconut Creek in 1973, and a handful of other South Florida clubs followed suit.

Monte has watched the evolution firsthand. "In the '70s, swinging became a big trend," he says. More private, so-called "bi-wives clubs" popped up in neighborhoods across the country. By the end of the '80s, a new fear of sexually transmitted diseases — most notably HIV/AIDS — gave America pause. "That scared a lot of people away," he says. Many of the biggest clubs, including Plato's in New York, closed. In the '90s, a series of raids on South Florida sex clubs scared even more people away, even though the criminal charges were dismissed.

So for years, Monte says he kept his club out of any kind of spotlight. He had the small sign that stands out front, but he put it up only on weekend nights. His business subsisted on word-of-mouth advertising. "One couple would come here and have a good time, then tell a few of their friends. Then they'd tell a few of their friends."

The majority of people in this subculture are middle-class couples who live conservatively in other aspects of their lives. In researching his book The Lifestyle, published in 1999, journalist Terry Gould found that a third of the group-sex participants he spoke to had postgraduate degrees, almost a third voted Republican, and 40 percent considered themselves practicing Protestants, Catholics, or Jews.

Says Monte, as he prepares for a busy weekend night that will include dozens of couples: "This is as liberal and open as it's ever been."

Mark and Karen, a couple in their 50s, have been coming here for more than ten years. His slicked-back dark hair matches his closely cropped beard, and his white, buttoned-down shirt is undone to his sternum, revealing a large dragon medallion. Karen, a short, shapely blond, has on a sheer, white Guinevere-style dress with a slit up the side and carries a silver lighter with the word slave engraved across it.

"The way I look at it, monogamy is a carryover from the feudal system," Mark says. "Men went away to war and didn't want to have to come back and raise some other guy's kid. But we live in a time of birth control." Jealousy, he says, is just thinly veiled insecurity. As he speaks, he caresses Karen's leg. "We don't need to try to control each other."

Susan is on her third drink, and she's still flirting with the young blond. She explains that she came of age in the '70s and always had a bit of a wild streak. She got into "the lifestyle" — the most common term used to describe swinger culture — six years ago with her husband. They began "soft-swapping" — whereby the women engage each other but there is no inter-partner intercourse.

In the beginning, they would swing with only single women. After a few years, though, there were a guy or two she "felt like going all the way with," and they began "full-swapping." Although she was afraid she would get jealous, she said that when they finally crossed that line, "I just didn't feel territorial... It was titillating to watch."

Because of her work as a teacher, she was always terrified that someone might see her. But that was also part of the thrill.

Susan steps outside for a moment to smoke a joint with her friends, then returns, still reminiscing about her husband. "An incredible man," she says. This used to be their favorite club. But one night three months ago, he suddenly died. They'd gone to the club that night. When they got home, they finished off a passionate evening in the bedroom.

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Michael J. Mooney