There were a lot of wedding bands on a lot of left hands at Las Vegas’s Tropicana Hotel. Thousands of married couples from dozens of states were strolling in and out of the hotel’s casino and convention center. They were saying hello to people they hadn’t seen since last year’s convention, comparing tans, and gathering in even-numbered clumps to gossip and catch up. Most of the couples in the hotel were holding hands or engaged in some form of PDA. Wandering through the casino they’d suddenly stop and kiss–and, really, why shouldn’t they? This weekend was a long-planned, much-anticipated romantic getaway, a time when the normal pressures of daily life were supposed to fall away. Over the next three days, the conventioneers were going to dress up, drink, gamble, and dance.

Oh, and commit adultery. For while the couples at the Lifestyles 2001 convention were most decidedly married, none were off-limits. Married heterosexual swingers, aka “playcouples,” had taken over the hotel.

Lust was in the air.

I was researching a book on the seven deadly sins, and to explore the dynamics of lust I decided to hang out with adulterers. Selecting adultery, of course, had one big perk: I would have to commit adultery myself, and my boyfriend couldn’t really complain, since it was, you know, my job.

“We’re not technically married,” my boyfriend pointed out when I explained to him that the terms of my book contract obligated me to cheat on him. “Can unmarried couples even commit adultery?”

Faced with a relationship crisis grounded in a theological debate, I decided to call on a member of the clergy to settle this dispute. We’re not regular churchgoers and we don’t know any priests or ministers, so I called a prayer line I saw advertised on a Christian cable network. A Baptist minister working from his home in North Dakota explained to me that it was impossible for me or any gay man to commit the sin of adultery.

“You aren’t married and you never will be married and that means you can’t come together in a holy sexual union that pleases God,” he said. “Only man and wife can do that. What you do is fornicate, and fornication is a sin. God hates all fornication, and all fornicators are sinners. Fornicating with another homosexual does not make you an adulterer. It only makes you a fornicator.”

Which I already am?

“Which you already are.”

I asked him if God would prefer that I be monogamous even if I was being faithful to a man.

“I’m trying to be clear here. On Judgment Day, God isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, I see here that you fornicated with only one man.’ God doesn’t care if it was one man or one thousand men. All fornicators go to hell.”

And a little extra fornicating isn’t going to make the lake of fire any hotter?

“Fire is fire,” my prayer partner warned me.

Adultery was a sin I could only observe, not indulge in. Crap.

Wife swapping was first mentioned in the media in the mid-1950s after military officers in southern California gave birth to the modern swinging movement. Legend has it that a tight group of cold-war-era military men shared their wives to cement their bond. (Organized wife swapping among military officers in the 1950s and ’60s, particularly in the air force, is well documented and routinely denied.) Nonmilitary swing clubs started popping up in the early 1960s, first in archconservative Orange County, then in San Francisco, Hollywood, and Los Angeles. Clubs started out as gatherings in members’ homes, then certain bars began catering to swingers. In 1971, social scientist Gilbert Bartell claimed in Group Sex: A Scientist’s Eyewitness Report on the American Way of Swinging that one million people–half a million couples–were involved in organized swinging.

The Lifestyles Organization, host of the Lifestyles 2001 convention, grew out of a California swingers club called WideWorld, founded by Robert and Geri McGinley in 1969. Their club, according to LSO’s Web site, was started “to provide recreational opportunities to couples who yearned to lead lives free from archaic religious and political restrictions.” The group held its first convention in 1973, attended by 125 couples. The convention I attended in 2001 attracted more than 3,000 couples–6,000 men and women wearing color-coded plastic wristbands that identified them as swingers.

LSO cofounder Robert McGinley is widely regarded as the father of the modern swinging movement. In his brief history of swinging he cites an unnamed report by “two well-known sociologists” that predicts 15 to 25 percent of all American married couples–some 22 million people–will become swingers at some point in their marriage, a statistic that should be taken with about a hundred thousand grains of salt. But it’s impossible to dispute McGinley’s claim that organized swinging is going on all over the United States. A quick Internet search turns up swingers clubs in every corner of the country–including clubs in “red” states like North Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, and Utah.

LSO is the granddaddy of swingers groups and remains the largest in the country, with 12 full-time employees, an in-house travel agency (Lifestyles Tours & Travel), and a clubhouse in California. A large chunk of LSO’s Web site is dedicated to demystifying the lifestyle, a term the group embraces as passionately as they reject the term wife swapping. According to the site, LSO speaks out “in public and private forums” to advance the playcouple philosophy: “Sex between consenting couples is natural, wholesome behavior and to pretend it is not is to encourage physical and mental disorder.” Q & A-style fact sheets seek to reassure couples who might be curious about attending a swing club or a Lifestyles convention:

“But we’ve never been to anything like this before.” “You won’t be alone….What you’ll find are a lot of people–everyday people just like you–who are only interested in an open and friendly atmosphere where people are not afraid to talk about fantasies….No one gets attacked. No one is pressured to do anything they don’t want to. There’s no rituals, no initiations. There are, however, a lot of people having fun.”

“For me the question was, could I be a good Jew and a swinger?” David paused, looked across the table, and opened his hands, palms up, as if he had nothing to hide.

“There are a lot of ‘shall nots’ in the Torah,” he said. “But it seemed to us that if we were honest with each other, then we weren’t committing adultery.”

“If you’re lying to your partner, that’s adultery,” said Bridget, David’s wife, nodding. (I’ve changed their names.)

We were eating hot, salty pretzels with yellow mustard in the Tropicana’s coffee shop, a dingy hole-in-the-wall that wouldn’t be out of place in a Trailways bus depot. David was wearing a tank top and a pair of running shorts. Bridget had on blue-jean overalls and a small Star of David on a chain around her neck.

They were in their early 40s but neither looked a day over 35. They’d been married for ten years and “in the lifestyle,” as they call it, for four. They live in a suburb of Chicago and have three children under the age of ten. They keep kosher, attend services at least once a week, and were giddy with anticipation about their boys’ future bar mitzvahs. Before meeting me in the Tropicana’s lobby, they’d spent an hour in their hotel room reading the Torah.

“The Torah talks about deception being part of the offense when someone commits adultery,” said David when I asked how they reconcile their conservative religious beliefs and their liberal attitudes toward sex. “So is adultery having sex with someone who isn’t your spouse? Or is it hiding that sex from your spouse?”

“We realize we’re doing something that would be frowned upon in our moral community,” said Bridget. “And that it may be a contradiction. But people are complex.” Bridget feels the Torah is on their side. “This is something we feel helps our bond as husband and wife. Torah says a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife,” and David and Bridget feel that swinging has brought them closer together.

God forbids adultery in the Sixth Commandment. In the Jewish tradition, sin requires an action. “Judaism doesn’t legislate thought,” says Bridget. “Even coveting requires an act in furtherance of the desire.” In the Christian tradition, however, adultery isn’t just a sin in deed but also in thought. Wanting to commit adultery, according to the Christian god, is every bit as bad as actually committing adultery. It may seem harsh that God would condemn millions of straight American men to eternal torment for, say, wanting to fuck Jennifer Aniston, who happens to be married to Brad Pitt, but hey, who are we to question God? (As God points out to Job, we weren’t around when he was hanging the stars, so who the fuck are we and what do we know about anything?)

Early Christians believed that the act of lusting after someone was not only a sin on the part of the luster but also potentially the lustee. “Someone who consciously seeks to induce lustful thoughts (or actions) in another is guilty of sinning,” according to Miceal Vaughan, a professor of English at the University of Washington and an expert on the liturgy of the Catholic church. “Sin in Catholic tradition is only the result of one’s personal thoughts, actions, and consent to them, so a person who is the object of lust is not thereby guilty of sin. It’s on other grounds entirely that the object of lust becomes guilty of sin,” such as behaving or dressing in ways that they know make others lust after them. Which means, of course, that Brad Pitt, Heath Ledger, and Tom Cruise have sinned grievously–all three appeared shirtless on the cover of Vanity Fair–as their actions inspired lust in my heart and the hearts of millions of other straight women and gay men. When someone’s dress (or lack thereof), actions, or words tempt others to sinful thoughts or deeds (or both), that’s “what is called making oneself an ‘occasion of sin,’ and there is potentially some guilt incurred by that,” says Vaughan.

Since Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt make themselves the “occasion of sin” about as often as I make myself toast, Jennifer can expect to roast in hell for prancing around on Friends in her underwear, and Brad will burn right beside her for splashing his abs all over the cover of Vanity Fair.

And here’s some more bad news: Man and wife, according to early church fathers, were to love each other like brother and sister. Lust even within marriage was considered a form of adultery, believe it or not, which means it’s not OK for Brad and Jennifer to lust after each other. The remedy for lust, marital or casual, was chastity–with some kinds of chastity considered better than others. Virginity was the best kind of chastity, according to church fathers, which led some early Christians to castrate themselves. If you couldn’t be a virgin, the second-best chastity was widowhood. If you weren’t disciplined enough to be chaste or lucky enough to be widowed and too horny to go without sex, “it’s better to marry than to burn,” Saint Paul said. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the institution of marriage.

But despite all the compliments the “ancient” and “sacred” institution of marriage gets from American clerics and candidates (who ignore the many ways in which the “unchanging institution of marriage” has evolved and changed over the centuries), early Christians regarded marriage as vastly inferior to celibacy. Which is still the Catholic church’s position. Unlike the Jews–an embattled tribe trying to make as many babies as possible–early Christians believed the world was coming to an end. Jesus said as much: “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1). With the world coming to an end, the early church discouraged its members from bringing more children into the world.

With the Kingdom of God at hand, Jesus H. Christ, who had time to arrange for child care? Judaism isn’t so insanely antisex, according to David and Bridget.

“In the Jewish tradition, sin is ‘missing the mark,'” Bridget explained to me. “Being damned isn’t a Jewish concept. King David was very promiscuous, but he is still seen as the greatest king and a Jewish hero, so maybe missing the mark sexually isn’t so serious a sin.”

David and Bridget got into swinging the same way most swinging couples get into the lifestyle: David asked his wife if she’d like to attend a party. He had gone to a few before with a long-term girlfriend, he’d enjoyed them, and he thought Bridget would like them just as much as he did. Bridget was afraid the parties would be sleazy.

“I told her we could leave at any point,” said David. “And that we didn’t have to do anything. She would be in charge. I told her that going to a club is like going to the most fun bar you’ve ever been to.” It only took one visit to convince Bridget that David was right.

“People let loose and were really free,” said Bridget. “And unlike most bars, it’s completely safe for women. Nothing is going to happen that you don’t want to have happen. None of the men are obnoxious or drunk, since they know they’ll be asked to leave if they make any of the women feel uncomfortable.”

Women can do just about anything they like at a swingers dance or in a swingers club–they can be aggressive, demanding, passive, and casually bisexual. The same isn’t true for men. Men who touch women without permission are shown the door, as are drunk or obnoxious men, and there’s a taboo against casual same-sex play among men. “I doubt that all the men in this hotel or at parties are straight,” said David, tearing apart another pretzel. “That just doesn’t seem likely–not with so many of the women being bisexual. Male bisexuality is seen as a threat by a lot of straight men, and male bisexuality is seen as a threat to women, since bisexual husbands are likelier to have HIV than husbands who only want to watch their wives and other men’s wives.”

The swinging movement would collapse if women felt unsafe or threatened, David explained, so clubs have to create an environment where women feel safe and free to lose themselves in the moment. “Men, on the other hand, can’t cut loose,” said David. “We have to be on our best behavior at all times.” Single men are not allowed at swing clubs, and clubs refuse admittance to men suspected of hiring prostitutes to accompany them to parties. “We’re constantly monitoring how our actions are being perceived by the women, to make sure we’re not doing anything that might make any woman uncomfortable.”

In his book The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, investigative journalist Terry Gould describes the swinging scene as a matriarchy. David agreed with that description. “Women have all the power. If a woman says, ‘He touched me when I asked him not to,’ then you’re warned. Do it again, and you’re out. So you’re careful and respectful because you don’t want to be asked to leave. It’s too much fun in there; it’s a man’s fantasy come true. All the women, all that sexual energy, all that fun and possibility–and I get to share all of it with the woman I love. It’s paradise, and any sane man would do whatever he had to in order to stay in paradise. It’s wonderful.”

It’s also illegal.

Illinois is one of the 27 states that still have adultery laws on the books. While no one has been prosecuted by the state of Illinois for “open and notorious” adultery in the last 40 years, adultery laws in other states are still enforced–and more recently than you might think. In October 2001, Jerry Ward of Taylersville, North Carolina, was found guilty of having sex with his live-in girlfriend, who was estranged from her husband. (Ward was fined $90 plus court costs.) In New York State, there were 25 arrests and convictions for adultery in the ten years before Bill Clinton moved there. Ironically, the U.S. military, where modern swinging got its start, is the most aggressive prosecutor of known adulterers. In 1997, the year the air force famously charged Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, the first female B-52 bomber pilot, with adultery, 60 men and seven other women were also prosecuted by military courts for adultery. One of the women, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Dwyer Tew (also of the air force) committed suicide five days after she was convicted.

“In extramarital affairs, there are victims,” William Bennett writes in The Death of Outrage, the book in which he scolded the American public for not falling in line behind Republican efforts to hound Bill Clinton from office over a few lousy blow jobs. “Adultery is a betrayal of a very high order, the betrayal of a person one has promised to honor,” according to Bennett. “It violates a solemn vow. When it is discovered, acute emotional damage almost always follows, often including the damage of divorce.” Not to mention the occasional suicide or impeachment.

There didn’t appear to be any victims at the Tropicana Hotel, though, just a lot of married men and women having a good time. Over the course of the weekend, swingers from all over the world attended the fellatio workshop, the pool parties, the Sexy Safari Jungle Party, and the Sexy Sci-fi Party.

Christian activists are famous for crashing gay events and videotaping gay men being overtly sexual. Copies of these tapes are sent to elected officials in an effort to convince them that gay men are a threat to the American family. Walking through the Erotic Arts Exhibition at the Lifestyles 2001 convention, an art show that featured dozens of images of bondage and bestiality, I wondered where the Christian activists were. Surely an art show by and for heterosexuals that promoted bondage and bestiality–sometimes both at once–had to be a bigger threat to American families than whatever gay men do when there aren’t any straight people around.

The Lifestyles Organization forbids “public play,” that is, sex at the workshops, pool parties, and dances. There is, however, a lot of flirting, groping, and dirty dancing. When couples decide it’s time to get beyond the flirting and groping, they take it up to their rooms and suites, away from the eyes of nonswinging couples who happen to be at the hotel, hotel employees, and scribblers with notebooks. While there’s no public sex at the Lifestyles convention, there is plenty of skin on display, most of it belonging to women. The men dressed in conservative sportswear–chinos, polos, bolos. The only event that showed a lot of male skin was the Best Buns contest, the male beauty pageant that complements the Ms. Lifestyles contest. At both events the announcers told the crowd where each contestant was from, and most seemed to be from places like Arkansas, South Carolina, and Georgia, all conservative states that George Bush carried in 2000. A big cheer went up for Texas.

“There are lots of Texans here tonight!” the announcer shouted, and the whooping continued.

Three thousand couples attended Lifestyles 2001, and if each of those couples managed to find one other couple to play with, 12,000 separate acts of adultery were committed in one hotel on the Las Vegas strip in one weekend. That has to be some sort of record–even for Las Vegas.

In The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, Bill Bennett identifies numerous threats to the ever imperiled American family, which he describes as being “under siege.” He frets about the rise in illegitimate births (which dropped in 1999 to 1990 levels), divorce rates (also falling), cohabitation, and single parenthood (which has leveled off). There are just six chapters in what is, for Bennett, a relatively slim book (189 pages). By far the longest chapter is devoted to the grave threat gay marriage poses to the American family. And why would homosexual marriages present such a threat to heterosexual ones? Bennett’s chief argument against gay marriage is the fact that so few gay men are or want to be monogamous: “Advocates would have us believe that homosexuals do not want any change in the obligations that marriage entails, namely, fidelity and monogamy….[But] some who claim to be more ‘traditional’ in their views find the strictures of family life to be too much. Andrew Sullivan, in a candid admission at the end of his book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, writes that homosexual marriage contracts will have to entail a greater understanding of the need for ‘extramarital outlets.'”

Marriage, Bennett argues, is not and cannot be an “open” contract. “Its essential idea is fidelity. Obviously that essential idea is not always honored in practice. But it is that to which we commit ourselves.” Bennett believes the existence of nonmonogamous, legally married gay couples would undermine heterosexual marriages. (Or that’s what he would like us to believe he believes.) And how would gay marriages undermine straight marriages? Married gay male couples–with our trendy haircuts, Philippe Starck sofas, and extramarital outlets–would present an irresistible example to impressionable straight couples. Married straight couples might find out that their married gay neighbors weren’t monogamous and conclude that they could be legally married and nonmonogamous, too, just like the gays. And while Bennett concedes that lesbian couples are likelier to be monogamous than either gay or straight couples, despite the good example they’d set for everyone else, he doesn’t support marriage rights for lesbians.

Now, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time arguing that most or even many gay male couples are monogamous. The notion that gay couples are likelier to come to an understanding about extramarital outlets is not a right-wing plot or an antigay stereotype. It’s a fact. Researchers who’ve studied male couples found that the vast majority did make allowances for some outside sexual contact. But even if every gay couple on earth were strictly monogamous–if gay men were as faithful as lesbians–Bennett overstates the impact gay marriage would have on impressionable straights. While some heterosexuals may turn to homosexuals for fashion tips and sex advice–more should, God knows–very few straight couples take gay couples as their role models.

And it’s not as if America’s married heterosexuals are hanging back waiting for gay marriage to be legalized before they cheat. To take one famous example, gay marriage was illegal in the United States when Bill Clinton ejaculated on Monica Lewinsky. Gay marriage is illegal in the United States thanks to Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Clinton isn’t the only married man in America who has ejaculated on someone to whom he isn’t married. Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth, estimates that 60 percent of married men and 40 percent of married women will have an extramarital affair at some point. Since these people are not always married to each other, Vaughan believes that 80 percent of heterosexual marriages are “touched” by adultery.

If Bennett is truly worried about the bad example of nonmonogamous married couples–if that’s not just his excuse for denying gay couples the right to wed–one would expect him to be more concerned about gatherings like Lifestyles 2001 than the “outlets” gay men in couples permit each other.

Let’s crunch some numbers: There are 60.7 million American men between the ages of 18 and 50. The best estimate of the percentage of American men who identify as gay is 3.7 percent, which means there are only 2.2 million gay men between the ages of 18 and 50, the years men are likeliest to marry or remarry. If gay marriage were legalized, the maximum number of gay married couples in the United States would be 1.1 million–provided, of course, that every one of those 2.2 million American gay men could find a husband. (And even if gay marriage were legalized there would still be gay men who didn’t want to marry, gay men no other gay men would want to marry, and gay men who didn’t want to leave the priesthood in order to marry.) So keep in mind that the 1.1-million-gay-marriages figure is probably high.

Now consider that there are currently 1.1 million straight couples involved in the swinging movement, according to researcher Richard Jenks, a professor of sociology at Indiana University Southeast who researches alternative sexualities. These aren’t potential nonmonogamous married couples Jenks is talking about, but actual nonmonogamous heterosexual married couples who are, if we agree with Bennett, setting a very bad example for other heterosexual couples. That 1.1 million figure represents 2 percent of the 54.4 million married couples in the United States, which means the number of swinger couples here has doubled since the 1970s. There are currently as many actively swinging, nonmonogamous straight couples as there are potential gay married couples.

The average heterosexual couple is likelier to socialize with other heterosexual couples, to look to other heterosexual couples as role models and for advice, and to look to other heterosexual marriages for an idea of what’s possible. It seems clear that if anyone is setting a bad example for monogamous heterosexual couples, it’s the growing number of married, nonmonogamous heterosexual playcouples.

What’s more, unlike homosexuality, swinging is a learned behavior.

Homosexuality is not a choice–I don’t care how many “ex-gays” Christian conservatives trot out for the cameras. My proof that homosexuality is not a choice? A question for my straight male readers: Is there anything I could do or say or write that would convince you to willingly, happily, eagerly, anxiously, deliriously, lustfully put my dick in your mouth and leave it there until I had an orgasm? I rest my case.

Monogamous straight couples, however, can be talked into swinging. The Tropicana was crawling with formerly monogamous married straight couples who either read about the lifestyle on the Web or met someone involved in the lifestyle and decided to check it out for themselves. Swingers define fidelity differently, they pursue “extramarital outlets,” they call it a lifestyle–and they recruit. A straight couple I know were invited to dinner by their new next-door neighbors, who wined them, dined them, and hit on them. Their new neighbors were swingers, they announced, and they invited my friends to join them at the next party they attended. My friends went, and now they’re swingers. A lawyer I know was approached by a senior partner in his law firm about attending a swingers party at the senior partner’s home. The offer put my friend in an awkward spot: could he refuse the invitation without jeopardizing his position with the firm? (He declined the invitation, and the feared retaliation never materialized.) Swingers organizations advertise themselves and their conventions, and individual couples have home pages and take out personal ads–all in an effort to attract new, previously monogamous couples into the lifestyle. Every evil action that conservatives accuse gays of–recruiting, cheating, living a “lifestyle”–these married heterosexual couples are actually guilty of.

Bennett should be appalled. He should be frightened. Make no mistake, Mr. Bennett, these radical swingers are on the march. Terry Gould writes, “Swinging has grown substantially. The annual Lifestyles convention is a megaevent. Miniconventions are taking place every Saturday night in the smallest towns, and new clubs are opening all the time….We are entering an era in which the playcouple lifestyle is going to take a big jump in popularity.” Swingers clubs, like the ones David and Bridget attend, send out newsletters and maintain Web sites. “It is inevitable that more and more straight people will run across these ads,” Gould writes. “Thousands will certainly find their way to clubs no one suspected of being up and running within a 15-minute drive from home.”

For someone who regards fidelity as “essential” to marriage, Bennett seems strangely incurious about organized, nonmonogamous heterosexual couples committing adultery en masse. Modern swingers conventions, playcouple parties, and contact magazines and Web sites are nowhere to be found in his book. Gays come up 71 times in The Broken Hearth’s index, but there’s just one mention–one!–of heterosexual swinging. It’s on page 22, and it’s in the past tense. Bennett ridicules a book on “open marriages” published in 1972, and then blandly states that “wife-swapping and ‘open marriage’ did not become the rage in American life.”

Surely Bennett is aware that swinging wasn’t canceled in 1974 along with Love, American Style. Roger Stone, an adviser to Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, was forced to resign after reporters discovered that he and his wife were regulars at swingers clubs and conventions. Mr. and Mrs. Stone also advertised for younger men, preferably military types, to have sex with Mrs. Stone while Mr. Stone watched. Bennett was an adviser to the Dole campaign, so he must have known Roger Stone–Stone was active in Republican politics for years–and Bennett had to have been aware of the scandal. But he would have us believe swinging is just something a few loopy straight people experimented with in the early 70s–did Bennett’s research assistant rent The Ice Storm and call it a day?–and Stone doesn’t rate a single mention in a book about the “moral collapse” of the American family.

Lifestyles conventions aren’t held in secret–they’re heavily advertised on the Web, hotels and resorts compete to host them, and with each passing year they earn increasingly favorable coverage in local and national media. If Bennett doesn’t believe that heterosexual couples are passionate about nonmonogamy–some are eager to proselytize about it–I’ll buy him a ticket to the next Lifestyles convention and introduce him to thousands and thousands of straight couples for whom wife swapping and open marriage are indeed the rage.

But Bennett doesn’t have to travel to find married, nonmonogamous heterosexuals committing adultery. He lives with his wife in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Two miles up the road in Silver Spring, the Hartford County Swing Club hosts regular events for heterosexual couples. According to their Web site, “HCSC is a group of couples…who come together to have fun and make new friends.” Hosted by Cookie and Ron, the Hartford County Swing Club sponsors gatherings year-round, including winter holiday parties with “gift exchange supervised by ‘The Nekkid Elf.'”

The Hartford County Swing Club has been helping Bill Bennett’s married, heterosexual neighbors commit adultery since 1999. But while Bennett’s married, heterosexual neighbors seek extramarital outlets right under his nose, Bennett is more concerned with how gay men might behave if we could get married. (If he’s interested in meeting some of his swinging neighbors, he can E-mail the Hartford County Swing Club at for directions to its next party. But you’ll have to bring the wife, Bill, as single men are not allowed.)

Cultural conservatives like Bennett are always complaining about people who profit from violent movies and music, accusing this music label or that movie studio of making money by promoting immoral behavior. At the Lifestyles convention I picked up brochures for more than a dozen resorts that cater to playcouples or described themselves as “lifestyle friendly,” places with names like Blue Bay Resorts, Hedonism, Caribbean Reef Club, Solare Resorts, and Plato’s Repeat. They’re all making money off organized mass adultery, yet Bennett has no comment. Swinging is even making inroads into popular culture. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas–one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen–the adult Whos down in Whoville are shown at a drunken party tossing keys into a bowl by a window, echoing the infamous “key party” scene in The Ice Storm. Director Ron Howard portrayed the Whos in Whoville as swingers–and this is a movie marketed to our children!

Excuse me, but where the fuck is Bill Bennett’s outrage? Why hasn’t Bennett called for Opie’s head?

The suburb where David and Bridget live isn’t anyone’s idea of Gomorrah (or Whoville, for that matter). The place is, as the saying goes, a fine place to raise a family; there are good schools, quiet neighborhoods, and few gangs. Young children get a good education, and teenagers just want to get the hell out.

David and Bridget invited me to drop by for dinner whenever I was in the neighborhood. Their house is the kind that drives urbanists nuts–the driveway and the garage dominate the front of the house, there’s no porch, no front stoop, and the front door faces the driveway, not the street.

Bridget met me at the door, took my coat, and asked me if I’d like a glass of wine, as the couple’s three boys came running up the steps from the basement.

David was putting the finishing touches on dinner, so Bridget asked the boys–ages nine, seven, and four–to entertain me. They led me down a flight of carpeted stairs into a huge basement rec room. An enormous television sat at one end of the room with three couches arranged around it; a cocktail bar built by the home’s previous owners was at the other end. The half acre of beige carpeting that stretched between the couches and the bar was covered with toys.

The oldest boy plopped down on one of the couches by the television set and played with his GameBoy. The two younger ones showed off their collection of Rescue Heroes, a popular line of action figures. My son is obsessed with Rescue Heroes, too, so I’m familiar with most of the plastic cops, firemen, and paramedics they held out for me to inspect. Rescue Heroes have ridiculously broad shoulders, huge lats, enormous pecs, Popeye forearms, and massive thighs. Most have mustaches, and they all have enormous feet. They look like porn-star action figures.

Dinner was salmon steaks for the grown-ups and cheese pizza for the kids, and the conversation was all Judaism, all the time. Because it was the Friday night Shabbat dinner, there were candles on the table and prayers said in Hebrew before we ate. There was also a song, a blessing for the children, a poem, and finally a prayer for peace. I felt like I was at an open-mike performance at a coffee shop for hyperobservant Jews. Like most Americans, I got something of a crash course on Judaism during the 2000 presidential campaign, thanks to Joe Lieberman, whose Orthodox Jewish faith prevented him from driving on Fridays. But I must have missed the Nightline that covered Shabbat, so I asked David to explain the importance of the meal to me.

“Well, it’s the day that’s important, not just the meal,” David said. “The meal is intended to celebrate the day, which is kept holy according to the Fourth Commandment. Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday.”

I interrupted. The most important Jewish holiday comes once a week?

“Well, Yom Kippur is the most important holiday, but it is called the Shabbat of Shabbats. But, yes, the most important Jewish holiday does come once a week.

“Think of food, water, and air,” David continued. The boys squirmed–they’d heard this one before. “We have plenty of all three, as God created enough air, food, and water for the whole world, provided we use it properly. You can live for weeks without food, and days without water. But you can’t live for more than a few minutes without air. So which is the most important of those three things?” David asked me.


“That’s right, air is the most important. It’s also the most abundant. It surrounds us, it’s everywhere, all over the earth, and a mile up into the sky. And we take it for granted until we don’t have it. It’s the same with Shabbat. It’s the most important holiday and the most abundant. Once a week we pause as a family and come together and remember what family is. It surrounds us, it gives us life, and we remind ourselves not to take family for granted. Family is the air we breathe.

“God breathed life into Adam,” he went on. “He didn’t give him a glass of water or hand him a sandwich.”

One thing runs through my mind while David talks: Bill Bennett would eat this shit up. David and Bridget are devoted to each other, committed to their children, religious, and observant in an open, moving, thoroughly genuine way. What’s for a conservative not to like about these two?

The swinging, of course. The parties, the conventions, the extramarital outlets. To Bennett and other one-size-fits-all moral scolds, David and Bridget’s faith, their well-behaved boys, the hours they spend volunteering at their synagogue, and their loving, egalitarian relationship won’t get them out of the “moral collapse” column on Bill Bennett’s good family/bad family ledger.

After dinner ended and the boys went back to the basement, I asked David and Bridget if we could talk about swinging. Bridget got up from the table and bent to look down the stairs that led to the basement. She called down to the boys, telling them they could put a tape in the VCR, and a small cheer went up; television is strictly rationed in this ranch house. Once she was satisfied that they couldn’t hear us, Bridget returned to the table and nodded.

Somehow I already knew the answer to my first question: Do they know?

David and Bridget had decided not to tell their kids about their sex lives for the time being–now it was their “sex lives,” not their “lifestyle.” They certainly weren’t going to tell them now, while they were so young. They probably would never tell them.

“It’s not that we don’t talk to our kids about sex,” Bridget said. “We want them to grow up to have healthy attitudes about sex, and we want them to have all the information they need. I’ve talked to my older son about masturbation. But I don’t think we would tell them about this.”

“I look at it this way,” David said. “I wouldn’t want to know all the details of my parents’ sex life. I mean, if your parents had been swingers, would you want them to tell you about it?”

That’s a big fat no.

“Right,” said David. “So why tell our boys something they would rather not know? We can’t really see how it would ever even come up.”

But what if one of the boys heard something about swinging on TV or read something about the lifestyle–his parents’ lifestyle–on the Internet and asked them about it?

David and Bridget looked at each other, then back at me.

“We would lie,” Bridget whispered. Actually, all three of us were whispering. “People say very disparaging things about swingers. It’s so countercultural that people have a hard time understanding it. We wouldn’t want to tell the boys for some of the same reasons we couldn’t tell the neighbors or our rabbi. Swingers are discriminated against, and the way the media portrays swingers is hateful. The public image is that all swingers are sex-crazed lunatics whose lives revolve around sex.”

“People say such hateful things about swingers,” David said. “We spread diseases, we have no self-control. But we’re very safe, and a swinging environment is controlled and respectful. But you would only know that if you went to one with an open mind, and you saw that people were using condoms, very cautiously, and that everyone was friendly and respectful of each other.”

Bridget especially hates the idea that wives are forced into swinging by controlling husbands. “The truth is, most women go to their first party because their husbands want to go,” said Bridget. “And most couples don’t do anything at their first party. But it’s also true that it’s the wives who insist on going to more and more parties. Here’s this place where you can be totally sexually free and open in public and completely safe at the same time. How many women get to experience that in their lives? And to share that experience with my husband is a joy.”

David and Bridget are quick to admit that they’re part of the problem. The myths about their lifestyle will be dispelled only when swingers who don’t fit the stereotype come out. Just as potheads with dreads are likelier to be open about smoking marijuana, it’s the sex-crazed lunatics whose lives revolve around sex who are likelier to be open about swinging. If couples like David and Bridget never come out, then their rabbis, priests, friends, family, and neighbors will never reexamine their preconceptions about swingers. It’s a catch-22: until the Davids and Bridgets come out, it won’t be safe for the Davids and Bridgets to come out.

The nightmare scenario in this catch-22, of course, is that their own children may grow up to believe all the hateful things that are said about swingers–they’re sex-crazed lunatics, wives are forced into swinging by controlling husbands, they spread diseases–and then find out their own parents are swingers. All it would take is a club newsletter, a piece of E-mail, an explicit phone message…

And it’s not just their kids David and Bridget worry about. They were on the dance floor at a swingers club near their home once when someone tapped Bridget on the shoulder.

“I turned around and there was this cousin of mine,” said Bridget. “It was a distant cousin, not someone I knew that well, but I was flipped out. He told David his date thought he was cute, like the four of us should go off somewhere together. That was way too incestuous for me.” They’ve never returned to that club.

The club they usually attend is in another suburb, in a private home. It’s an elaborate setup, with a dance floor, a bar, half a dozen bedrooms, an orgy room, and a room for light–very light–bondage and S and M. It sounds like a straight version of a gay bathhouse, but while there are only three gay bathhouses in the Chicago area, there are at least ten straight swingers clubs.

David went up to his office and brought back the newsletter for the club they frequent. There was a party the next night, and David and Bridget would be attending. According to the newsletter, I’d missed a talent contest held at the last one. (“You can sing karaoke, do a dance or strip, or tell jokes–whatever you’d like!”) The newsletter included a list of upcoming theme parties (Back to School, Talent Contest II, Sci-fi Night, Oktoberfest Party), a list of birthdays of club members, some bad clip art, and a funny story someone found on-line about Saint Peter trying to explain the “suburban tribe” to a perplexed God. I assumed the story was about the tribe of suburban swingers but it turned out to be about suburbanites and their lawns. On the back of the newsletter were the names and addresses of nine other swingers clubs in the Chicago area, clubs with nudge-nudge names like Private Affairs, Couples Hideaway, Club Adventure.

David and Bridget usually attend two parties a month. David’s mother, who lives nearby, baby-sits on those Saturday nights.

“It’s her time with the boys, and it’s our date night,” said Bridget. “She thinks we’re going to dinner and a movie. She’s asleep in the guest room when we get home. We don’t bring people home, and no one is the wiser.”

“We are always having to pretend we’ve seen all these movies we haven’t seen,” laughed David. “Mom thinks we see two movies a month, so we’re always up on movies, you know? She calls us from video stores. ‘You saw Bicentennial Man, didn’t you? Was it good or bad? Should I rent it?’ And I have to say, ‘What was that, mom? Bicentennial Man? Uh, two thumbs up, mom.'”

They’ve worked out a system to silently communicate with each other at a club, whether they’re on the dance floor or in an orgy room. They make eye contact with each other constantly (“nonverbal checking in”), and if they wind up on opposite sides of the room a tug on the ear means “come back and be with me.” In an orgy room or during a group grope on the dance floor, three taps on the shoulder or thigh means “I’m uncomfortable, let’s take a break.”

But it’s been a long time since they’ve had to use the signal. “We almost never feel uncomfortable,” said Bridget.

“The last time she had to tap me three times was when we ran into her cousin,” said David. “Those three taps just about dislocated my shoulder.” David and Bridget laughed. We’d moved into the living room, onto the couch, and Bridget was sitting next to David, leaning into him.

“When we’re at a party,” David continued, “we’ll sometimes look at each other and say, ‘Who has more fun than we do?’ Because no one does.” David looked at Bridget. “We’ve been married ten years, and no couple has more fun than we do.”

“There are times when I’m walking up the block waving to people and I think, ‘Oh, if the neighbors only knew!'” Bridget said. “People would be shocked.”

But isn’t it possible that some of your neighbors are swingers? Couldn’t they be sitting in their living rooms saying the exact same thing?

“That’s possible, that’s possible,” David said, his eyes twinkling. “I guess it just goes to show that you can’t take people at face value.”

“All people have secrets,” Bridget added. “But some people’s secrets are more fun.”

The thrill of keeping a secret may be the ultimate reason David and Bridget don’t plan on coming out, running a very close second to the disapproval of their friends and family. Like a businessman who gets a secret charge out of wearing panties under his power suit, David and Bridget get a little if-they-only-knew charge when they wave to neighbors. They’re a married couple in their 40s with one mortgage, two cars, and three kids; they’re adults with responsibilities and big-time jobs–and they lie to David’s mother about where they’ve been like a couple of horny teenagers.

“Having a secret is fun. But the important thing is we feel closer as a couple thanks to the parties,” said Bridget. “It puts some extra zest into our sex life, the sex life we share with each other.” David and Bridget emphasized that they do have a sex life outside of the parties.

“We make love just about every day,” Bridget said, “whether we go to a club or not.”

“There are times when I can’t believe how lucky we are,” David said. “She’ll be on her knees, kissing another woman, while I’m fucking her from behind–”

David stopped when he saw the startled look on my face. For all the talk about sex, this was the first even remotely graphic thing either of them had said, and I was taken aback. Watching them go through all the parenting motions that evening–feeding their kids, correcting their kids, running herd on their kids–I had come to see them through the lens that strips parents of all sexual energy and agency. Despite all the talk about sex and secrets and parties, David and Bridget were a mom and a dad in my mind’s eye, not sexual adventurers, and to have David suddenly create a mental image that was so specific and overtly sexual–well, I giggled a little nervously and instinctively looked around for the boys. Our voices had been getting louder and louder after we’d moved to the couch.

Bridget followed my eyes and then got up and walked over to the top of the stairs, just to make sure the boys were still anesthetized in front of the TV.

“Where I was going was–” David whispered.

“Try not to shock the sex-advice columnist, honey.”

“–in a normal marriage, if you’re attracted to someone else, you can’t mention it to your partner. But because we can be honest with each other, we can really share our fantasies and desires, and that brings us closer together. All of my fantasies involve my wife–how many married men can say that?”

I asked them the obvious question, the one that’s inevitably put to swingers: Don’t they get jealous watching each other mess around with other people?

“Married people who aren’t in the lifestyle sometimes get jealous,” Bridget said. “You can’t avoid feeling jealous from time to time. All married people are attracted to people they’re not married to. It happens to all couples. But we can talk about it. Our feelings of jealousy, they arise because we can be honest with each other about sex in ways that nonswinging couples can’t. Being in this environment makes you communicate more, and more honestly, than most couples. We don’t have to lie and pretend that we don’t find other people attractive.”

Swinging is not for everyone, as all swingers are quick to emphasize. By contrast, if you listen to Bennett, Robert Bork, Pat Buchanan, Dr. Laura, Alan Keyes, et al, monogamy is for everyone–whether we like it or not. Swinging has allowed David and Bridget to incorporate normal, healthy lust into their marriage. Rather than letting their attraction to other people pull them away from each other, David and Bridget have made lust something they do together and share and, most important, control and police.

“I don’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong,” said David. “The Torah says a man should leave his parents and cling to his wife. Well, we’ve been together for ten years and in the lifestyle for four years, and we’re still clinging to each other.”

“This may sound crazy, but what we’re doing feels to us like the most natural thing in the world,” said Bridget.

And so it is.

This may come as shock to some–David’s mother, my mother, the pope in Rome–but humans didn’t evolve two-to-a-bungalow. We evolved in sprawling, multigenerational tribes, like apes or hippies, our sex lives messy and communal, with little privacy and no rules. Early humans made it up as they went, since God didn’t see fit to deliver the commandments for the first 37,000 years our species existed. (And it was another 1,200 years before he sent his son down for a lynching, Roman-style.) Without commandments or virtuecrats to tell us what to do–or who to do it to or how often to do it to them–early humans pretty much did whatever they liked. In evolutionary terms, monogamous coupling is a recent development, one that’s virtually unheard of in the animal kingdom. The supposed monogamous behavior of certain animals–one kind of primate, a couple of species of birds–turned out, upon closer examination, to be so much wishful thinking on our part.

To his credit, Bennett admits monogamy is unnatural. As with global warming, the scientific evidence against monogamy being “natural” is so vast that only the most dishonest of conservative pundits pretend otherwise. In The Broken Hearth Bennett admits to something many conservative critics wouldn’t admit under torture: “Evolutionary biologists tell us that both women and men, but especially men, are naturally promiscuous,” Bennett writes. “They also assure us that a sexually exclusive, lifelong commitment is unnatural.”

Maybe he’s trying to be chivalrous, but Bennett doesn’t tell the whole truth. Contemporary research into human sexuality is showing that women aren’t any less “naturally promiscuous” than men. Indeed, women may be more naturally promiscuous.

In The Lifestyle, Terry Gould cites the work of groundbreaking sex researcher Mary Jane Sherfey. In the 1960s Sherfey discovered that “the female’s clitoris was an internal system as large and as refined as a male’s penis.” Orgasms derived from clitoral stimulation alone had long been dismissed as “immature,” and women who thought twice about their clitorises were labeled nymphomaniacs. The vaginal orgasm was considered appropriate, desirable, and “mature”; the clitoral orgasm–indeed the clitoris itself–was dismissed as lesser, base, and “vestigial.” But Sherfey discovered that there was no such thing as a vaginal orgasm. Some women could climax from vaginal intercourse alone because their internal clitoral tissue–the majority of their clitoral tissue–was being stimulated. But most women needed stimulation of the head of the clitoris, the exposed part, in order to climax–just as most men need stimulation of the head of their penises to climax.

It was Sherfey’s research, published in 1966, that first demonstrated that the clitoris was as central to a woman’s experience of sexual pleasure–and to her ability to orgasm–as a man’s penis was to his.

What does this have to do with swinging? Well, in studying female and male sexual response cycles, Sherfey documented a shocking difference: “Whereas in males the engorged blood drains back from [the penis],” writes Gould, “resulting in a comparatively long recovery time, in a woman each orgasm is followed by an almost immediate refilling of the erectile chambers. This subsequent engorgement is in no way diminished from the first and produces even more arousal in the tissues. Consequently, the more orgasms a woman has, Sherfey wrote, ‘the stronger they become; the more orgasms she has, the more she can have. To all intents and purposes, the human female is sexually insatiable.'” (The emphasis is Sherfey’s.)

It’s a staggering thought: No woman can ever–ever–be truly satisfied by just one man–if by “satisfied” we mean “finished.” Ever, ever, ever. That may be overstating it a little. One man could conceivably satisfy one woman–provided he’s willing to bring her a dozen or more orgasms before he enjoys his one comparatively pathetic and brief little orgasm. Or, if he comes too soon, he may be able to satisfy her if he’s willing to continue stimulating her with his tongue and fingers–or her vibrator–until he’s ready to go again. And again and again and again. (Straight guys can say what they like about male homosexuality but hey, at least I can roll over and go to sleep with a clear conscience after my partner has an orgasm.)

While most women are, as Sherfey wrote, “unaware of the extent of [their] orgasmic capacity,” the same can’t be said of women in the lifestyle. Like Bridget, most women attend their first swing events at the request of their husbands. And many of these women soon discover that it’s female sexuality, not male sexuality, that finds its ultimate expression at swing clubs. Which may explain why, as Gould points out (and Bridget concurred), husbands may bring wives to their first party but it’s wives who drag husbands back again and again.

So what’s in it for the husbands? The wives in swinging couples get multiple partners and an evening of orgasms too numerous to count. Beyond the obvious (and not insignificant) perks of variety and novelty, why would a man want to watch other men bring his wife to orgasm after orgasm? Especially when he can have only one himself?

Sperm competition.

Back to Gould and the science of swinging: Males of a primate species have larger testicles if other males are competing for the same females.

Gorillas, to take one example, live in cohesive groups comprising one adult male, two to three adult females, and their offspring. When a gorilla female is ready to mate, normally only one adult male is there as a partner. Since one alpha male monopolizes all the females, the 400-pound male gorilla has relatively tiny testes (relative to his body size), because his sperm doesn’t have to compete with the sperm of other males.

Compared to gorillas, chimps live in more loosely structured social groups with a lot of males and females, and when a female chimp is in heat, she typically mates with every male in her group–and some sneak off at night to mate with males in other groups. And she does all this mating in a 24-hour period. So there’s an awful lot of sperm sloshing around inside her the next day, all of it racing to get to her one egg. The male with the biggest testicles produces the most sperm, making his sperm the likeliest to win the competition, fertilize the egg, and pass his genes–including the one for big balls–on to the next generation of chimps.

So how do the testicles of Homo sapiens measure up? Gould says the balls of the human male are larger compared to our body size than they would be if we had evolved with some expectation of female faithfulness. The size of our balls tells us that human sperm, unlike gorilla sperm, evolved to compete with the sperm of other males, presumably in the vaginal canal. The balls of human males aren’t as big as the balls of male chimps–relative to our respective sizes–maybe because female humans don’t fuck around as much as female chimps. But human females were still designed for fucking around.

But what’s in swinging for men? Researchers have discovered that human males ejaculate more sperm when they know or suspect that their female partners have recently been with other males. To ejaculate more sperm, males have longer-lasting, more-intense orgasms. Gould calls it “sperm competition syndrome,” and in most men it’s a subconscious response to a long absence or a suspected infidelity. When a husband returns from a business trip (or the wife returns), he’s anxious to make love to his wife. Sure, absence makes the heart grow fonder. But absence also triggers a physiological response, an evolutionary stratagem, that prompts the man to have sex with “his” woman. His body assumes her body has some other male’s semen in it. He may think he wants to have sex with his wife right away because he’s happy to see her, but his body wants to have sex right away because it wants to “flood out” the semen of any other males who mated with his woman while he was away.

At a swingers party, where no one is in competition for the affections and loyalty of his spouse, the men are free to enjoy the sperm competition without the abandonment worries that usually accompany an infidelity. In other words, Gould writes, men subconsciously cultivate and savor the longer, more intense orgasms induced by the sperm-competition response. In The Lifestyle and other writings about swingers, husbands are described as literally beaming as they wait their turn to mount their wives–their naturally insatiable wives–while their wives have sex with one, two, three, or more men. Then the husbands mount their wives for one long-lasting, mind-blowing, ultra-intense orgasm. And then he goes to sleep. Or, if the husband had an orgasm with someone else’s wife, when he gets his wife home from the party or early the next morning he wakes up and has a mind-blowing sperm-competition orgasm, his body instinctively attempting to flood out the other men’s sperm. (No sperm, I should note, is actually left in his wife. Swingers are strict about sexual safety, so men wear condoms without question or complaint. Also, not every couple who attends swingers events has intercourse. Some couples come to enjoy the sexually charged environment, and some limit their sexual play with others to masturbation or oral sex, reserving intercourse for their spouses.)

So while many straight men might think swinging husbands have to be crazy to share “their” wives with other men, these husbands may actually be the sanest and most rational men around. Aware that he can never completely satisfy his wife–no man can–the swinging husband enlists the services of other men he can trust in getting the job done. It’s like a bunch of Amish guys getting together to build a barn.

While Bennett acknowledges that monogamy isn’t natural–and he deserves nothing but praise for this bit of honesty–he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: Only fools would build marriages with monogamy as their foundation (and only a foolish society would demand such behavior). Instead Bennett recommends that men and women do the unnatural thing: “If we hope to preserve the humanly ennobling qualities associated with marriage and family life–monogamy, lifetime commitment, child-centeredness–we have to be prepared to repel assaults, including those mounted under the banner of ‘nature.'” To make marriage stronger, Bennett would have married men and women engage in a lifelong battle against their own sexuality. (I expect Bennett to leap to his feet in my defense the next time someone condemns homosexuality for being “unnatural.” If unnatural is good enough for straights, then, goddammit, unnatural is good enough for me!) Lust is a powerful and, at times, irresistible force in our lives. To make the survival of a marriage hang on the ability of both husband and wife to control their natural, lustful, extramarital urges for decades seems foolish in the extreme.

Before I go any further I want to say that I’m a fan of marriage. I would like very much to get married myself, which Bennett of course would object to, but if anything I’ve written here gives Bill Bennett a nosebleed, it will probably be this: I consider myself a conservative when it comes to marriage. I agree with Bennett when he says that divorce is too easy to obtain. I agree that some couples get divorced for selfish reasons. I think couples should be encouraged to stay together for the kids. And I know from personal experience just how painful divorce is for all involved. I think marriage is so important that no one should rush into it–and so important that no one should rush out, either. I also believe that children are better off with two married parents in the house. (That’s why I would marry my son’s other father if that option were open to us.) And it’s precisely because I’m conservative on this issue that I believe we need to take a more realistic–and relaxed–attitude toward lust and adultery.

We conservatives are supposed to be the realists, right? It’s those liberals who are dreamy idealists, always trying to “improve people.” So my fundamental conservatism compels me to point out that putting monogamy first–“monogamy, lifetime commitment, child-centeredness”–undermines and destabilizes more marriages than it saves. Adultery “touches” 80 percent of all marriages; married people lust after people who aren’t their spouses because that’s how our creator made us. We’re wired to cheat, we’re tempted by thoughts of cheating when we’re awake, and we dream about cheating when we’re asleep. Hell, we think about cheating while we’re having sex with our spouses. And in the majority of marriages the husband or the wife–or both–eventually cheats. As that’s the case, telling people that monogamy comes first–making adultery the ultimate betrayal–sets millions of serviceable, salvageable marriages up for failure. Any true conservative would, I believe, prepare people for marriages as they are, not as we would like them to be, and should help people construct their relationships in such a way that they routinely survive routine adulteries. If adultery touches 80 percent of marriages, then we shouldn’t encourage people to harbor unrealistic expectations of lifelong fidelity. Nor should we encourage people to view adultery as a marriage-ending betrayal, a violation so severe that the wronged party can only regain his or her self-respect by divorcing the cheating (son of a) bitch. Instead, conservatives should encourage people to regard adultery as perhaps sad and, yes, a betrayal, but a common sort of betrayal, one that’s natural, understandable, and one that any decent relationship should be able to survive.

In his chapter on the state of marriage, Bennett identifies unrealistic expectations as one of the challenges we promarriage conservatives face: “Pastoral counselors tell me of a recurring problem they confront: extremely high, unrealistically high, expectations surrounding marriage and family life.” My point exactly–only Bennett is one of the people pumping up unrealistic expectations, promoting the idea that monogamy, something we humans aren’t very good at, is a rock on which we should build marriage and family life.

My hard-assed, realistic, soft-on-adultery position is deeply conservative because it takes people as they are (or as they evolved) and not as they ideally should be. In The Broken Hearth, Bennett thoughtlessly suggests that some marriages “ought to end in divorce,” because they’ve been “irretrievably broken, destroyed by infidelity.” But if adultery is common and divorce is undesirable, then no man who calls himself a conservative should endorse the idea that a marriage ought not survive an infidelity. The true conservative would encourage couples to regard adultery as an unfortunate event that can be endured and forgiven. Or, as David and Bridget demonstrate, celebrated.

As things stand now, we’ve made the survival of a marriage contingent upon the ability of one man and one woman to do something neither evolved to do and consequently neither is any good at–and, thanks to our ever expanding life expectancies, we ask them to keep it up for 40, 50, or 60 years! And if either slips up–just once–we tell both that the marriage is over. This is madness. It’s like telling couples they’re only obligated to stay married for as long as they can both breathe underwater. From Jenny “No woman should stay with a man who steps out on her!” Jones to William “Destroyed by infidelity!” Bennett, our culture practically orders the cheated-on spouse to call his or her lawyer. We encourage naturally nonmonogamous human beings to view divorce as the only way to salvage their dignity and self-respect if (or when) their partners cheat, and then we wonder why the divorce rate is so high.

I’m not advocating that conservatives like me run around telling people that adultery is no big deal. Adultery is a big deal, particularly when someone has promised to be faithful. (Yes, everyone who gets married promises to be faithful–they also promise to love, honor, and obey, but we don’t tell people they should call their lawyer the first time the spouse dishonors or disobeys.) So by all means let’s tell people that adultery is a big deal. But let’s add that a good solid marriage can survive an isolated adulterous incident. Better yet, let’s tell people that we expect marriages to survive an isolated adulterous incident.

I realize that even suggesting that a marriage be flexible enough to accommodate a little adultery now and then is heretical in the extreme. (I fully expect Dr. Phil to kick my ass if we ever bump into each other in an airport.) But what choice do we have? People cheat–people evolved to cheat, and people are going to go right on cheating despite Bill Bennett’s best efforts to stop us. There’s a right way to commit adultery (with your partner’s permission, in your partner’s presence), and there’s a wrong way to commit adultery (behind your partner’s back, in front of the international press). To reduce the harm of divorce, we should promote more realistic attitudes toward adultery. Otherwise we’re going to go on seeing lots of perfectly good, perfectly stable, perfectly serviceable marriages end because we’ve convinced ourselves that they must. In this case, a little heresy might save more than a few marriages.

But won’t tolerating adultery undermine marriages? After all, if we tolerate adultery, more people will commit adultery, right?

It’s the old if-you-make-getting-high-legal-everyone-will-want-to-get-high argument applied to sex. But in the same way that not everyone wants to get high, not everyone wants to cheat. And with half of men and a third of women already cheating, well, it hardly seems like our current attitude toward adultery is restraining very many people. People are already committing adultery. They’re just committing it in a culture that tells them the desire to do so means their marriages are a sham and tells their spouses that divorce is the only answer. Even in a culture that tolerated some amount of adultery, most individual couples would still regard it as a big issue and, absent an understanding, deeply problematic. But if we want to preserve marriages, we shouldn’t encourage them to regard it as automatic grounds for divorce.

Allowing for outside sex under certain circumstances is not the same thing as allowing for outside sex under any and all circumstances. Being nonmonogamous is not the same thing as being out of control. And if a couple sets strict limits governing outside sex (only on other continents, only at swing clubs, only Russell Crowe), just knowing that there are circumstances that might come together that would allow you, at some point in the future, to have sex with someone else would go a long way toward alleviating one element of lifelong monogamous commitments that is rarely discussed: despair.

I’m not advocating that all married couples become swingers. Although that seems to work for David and Bridget and other playcouples, the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. Indeed, I find the gay version of the lifestyle–gay bathhouses–revolting. Heaps of people on mattresses, whether all male or of mixed genders, just doesn’t do it for me. Group sex is a minority taste and always will be–it’s even something of a minority taste among swingers. Many couples involved in swinging prefer to make connections with one other couple and head for a private room.

But it’s time to admit the obvious: Lust can’t be contained in the box we’ve built for it. How many times are we going to watch someone come tumbling out of the box–Bill Clinton, Meg Ryan, Jesse Jackson, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde–before we stop condemning the men and women falling out of the box and reexamine the size and shape of the box itself? I’m not in favor of a world without boxes–it’s just clear that men and women need a slightly bigger box, one with a little more room to maneuver, one in which there’s more than one understanding that a loving, committed, child-centered couple can come to.

This piece is from the new book Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America, © Dan Savage, 2002. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Dan Savage will be in town for a reading Monday, October 21, at Borders Books & Music, 830 N. Michigan (312-573-0564).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Garret Gaston/photo/AP/Wide World Photos.