Sexes: Is There Life in a Swingers' Club?

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There's nothingplatonic about Plato's Retreat

As TIME'S Behavior writer, John Leo diligently strives to keep up with fast-changing U.S. sexual mores. In this pursuit, Leo and a companion visited Plato's Retreat, a swingers' club in the basement of Manhattan's Ansonia Hotel. His report:

An orange plastic ball zips through the air, occasionally caroming off an onlooker or one of the swimmers. Two giggling women start to push a third into the water, then pull her back just in time. It is normal poolside fun, except that everyone is naked and three couples are copulating in the water.

"When you write about this," says Larry Levenson, 41, the amiable co-owner of Plato's, "don't leave out all the material that could make this place look upstanding." Levenson is harassed and sweating profusely. He has 200 couples on hand, a waiting line for lockers, and some prospective orgiasts are edgy because the bar is closed—the result of a court injunction by the state liquor authority. Without booze, he says, "it just takes everyone an hour longer to get all their clothes off."

Swinger clubs have operated furtively for years in most major cities and many small towns. Now they are going public. At least half a dozen operate openly in Manhattan. Though their legality is uncertain, revenues are high enough to justify the risk of prosecution. Open five nights a week, Plato's attracts some 6,500 fun seekers—and grosses $90,000—a month. Six-week memberships cost $5 per couple. For the $25 admission price ($10 for single women, no unattached males allowed), couples can use the disco, pool, steambath and pool table. Next to the disco is the "mat room" for orgies, and down the hall are 20 "mini-swing" rooms for one to three couples.

Levenson walks through the locker room. "This is the only place people are modest," he says. "They want to undress alone." One of the mini-swing rooms, he notes, is reserved for Plato's staff. Unlocking the door to the staff room, he finds a man and a woman inside, both naked. "Hey, that's my lady," says Levenson. "She lives with me. How are you, Mary?" Mary, a divorced mother of three, chuckles and tries to cover up until the door is re-locked. "Whatever gives her pleasure gives me pleasure," Levenson says, talking loudly over the moans coming from the cubicles. "People separate when they're finished here and no phone numbers are exchanged." Exchanging phone numbers is the cardinal sin of swinging, because it can lead to emotional attachments.

A tough-looking woman stands at the liquorless bar, wearing only a flowered blouse and high heels. A bartender whispers to her. "Tell him to ask me himself," she snaps. "I don't deal through intermediaries." She has been married for 15 years and swinging for 13. Now she is jaded. She will only settle for "a man with hunger in his eyes," and no hungry-eyed man has happened by for three nights. So she strolls off to proposition a woman.

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