Tanja Brown thinks the term “swingers” is outdated. The word conjures up images of adventurous suburban couples in the seventies flirting with their neighbors in wood-paneled basements: flashes of footsie on a shag carpet; a French-tipped fingernail trailing seductively from a man’s lush sideburn down to the broad collar of his paisley shirt; fondue, maybe. Instead, Brown refers to swinging as “the lifestyle,” a more modern, expansive term that encompasses, in her words, “all alternative things.” More specifically, it applies to couples who want to expand their erotic horizons together—explorers charting paths across open, amorous seas.
Gone are the days of the furtive basement meetups; now Texas couples choose from a variety of lifestyle clubs across the state. Brown owns and operates the Night Game, a “private member lifestyle club” in Houston, with her family. Her husband, Gordon Brown, is the general manager, her daughter, Tiffani Suson, is the floor manager, and her son-in-law, Rick Suson, is the head of security. “Some people think it’s the neatest thing ever, my whole family working here, and some people are kind of taken aback,” Tanja told me over the phone in mid-February. There have been a few awkward moments, such as the time a man propositioned Tanja and Tiffani for a threesome. A true gentleman, he was suitably mortified by his accidental offer of incest, and apologized profusely when they explained they were related. “I think he wanted to go ahead and dig a hole and just die right there on the spot,” Tanja said.
The Browns opened the Night Game in 2019. Like many lifestyle clubs, it’s members-only, though one-night memberships are available for libidinous travelers passing through town, or for those who want to dip a toe into the lifestyle pool—maybe it’s more of a crowded hot tub—before fully submerging themselves. The club had a rough go of it at first. Almost as soon as it opened its doors, it had to shut them again to install a new sprinkler system. Then came COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdowns. But Tanja, like other lifestyle club owners I spoke with, said that after the shutdowns of the early pandemic, business bounced back to pre-COVID levels—and then some. The Night Game used to average 160 guests per weekend night, Tanja said, but for the past six months the club has typically welcomed 200. And in the past three months alone, the Night Game has hosted four events with nearly 400 guests each. The club’s TikTok page, which Tiffani set up in May 2020, already has over 57,000 followers.
David and Gay Miller, the owners of OTR4U, a clothing-optional, lifestyle-friendly facility in Wills Point, an hour east of Dallas, said they also saw an increase in visitors during the pandemic. Gay said that couples who would typically travel to lifestyle clubs in Mexico or the Caribbean didn’t want to deal with pandemic travel hassles (or test positive for the virus and find themselves in the uniquely lonely position of quarantining by themselves at an international swingers club) so they opted instead to explore lifestyle resorts closer to home.
The Players Club, a lifestyle club in San Antonio that has been open for over twenty years, enjoyed a sixty percent yearly increase in sales in 2021. Granted, that was after a drop in sales the year before due to pandemic shutdowns, but the club’s owner, Tom (who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used), said he’s been shocked by the high attendance at the club recently. The club’s 2022 New Year’s party had three times as many guests as in past years. “People were just tired of staying home and wanted to get out and have fun,” he said.
A lifestyle layperson myself, I had approached club owners with my own thesis as to why attendance at their clubs might be surging following the pandemic: perhaps, after a year of chaos, uncertainty, and confinement, frustrated couples were eager to flirt and connect with someone, anyone, who wasn’t the partner with whom they’d been cooped up.
My theory was roundly dismissed. Not only had club owners not heard that from any of their members, but everyone I spoke with emphasized that the lifestyle only works for couples who have a solid foundation of trust and communication, and that the clubs are not the place for those trying to salvage crumbling partnerships. If your relationship is already troubled, Tanja warned, then flirting with strangers in front of your partner “is the bomb that is gonna blow it up.”
Club owners suggested instead that the boom may be due to broader societal acceptance of sexual exploration. Still, lifestyle clubs might seem like an odd choice for a pandemic activity. Much of their success relies on visitors getting extremely close to each other, and possibly exchanging a variety of bodily fluids. But many lifestyle clubs are licensed as private social clubs—“like a VFW,” Tom offered helpfully, if discordantly—and are BYOB. That means they don’t need liquor licenses: during the pandemic, they were able to reopen before other bars and nightclubs. Tom said that in the sliver of time before other venues in San Antonio reopened, the Players Club saw a surge of “vanilla,” or non-lifestyle, visitors. “We were the only place you could go and bring your own alcohol and dance to a DJ and whatnot.”
Clubs did take precautions, of course, though given the nature of the venues, there was only so much club owners could do. Jerry (he also spoke on the condition that his last name not be used), who now works at the Players Club after first visiting with his wife in 2020, said he was surprised when one visitor asked him about the club’s COVID-19 protocols. “I’m like, ‘What?’ This isn’t a school district.”
Largely, clubs have relied on their members to stay healthy and exercise caution. A sense of conscientiousness and personal responsibility is second nature to many in the lifestyle, I’m told. “Most lifestyle people get tested for, obviously, STDs and things of that nature, but also COVID tests,” said Tanja. “People really take their health seriously, because they don’t want to be the one that infects anyone.” Who wants to be remembered as the person who got everyone at the orgy sick?
Speaking of orgies: the lifestyle is not all about orgies! I’m told this again and again, in an emphatic, all-caps tone. When you walk through the front doors of a club, you’re not greeted by a writhing mass of limbs and mouths. Most lifestyle clubs look like regular clubs, with a bar, a DJ booth, tables, and chairs arranged around a fluorescent dance floor. Guests mill about, nursing their drinks. More intimate pursuits, should you choose to participate in them or simply observe, are politely tucked away. Generally, clubs offer private rooms into which couples—old and new—can abscond, and large “group rooms” are separate. (The fabrics aren’t shag and corduroy anymore, but synthetic leathers that can easily be wiped down, or crisp cotton that can be quickly removed and laundered.)
The lifestyle, many practitioners say, is more about friendship and being in a community with like-minded people. Tom said his lifestyle friends have been at his children’s weddings, and he’s met their parents. “Once you start meeting people in the lifestyle, you don’t really want to be around other people,” he explained. He recalled with horror, for example, a non-lifestyle former friend of his who would regularly talk about cheating on his wife. “I’ve never considered cheating on my wife!” Tom said, appalled. He explained that while he might sleep with a friend when his wife goes out of town, for instance, “she has the final call.”
He described the lifestyle as “like your family.”
I understood the craving for community among new practitioners of the lifestyle. I recognized the same impulse that had sent me to an Austin hiking meetup one cold, winter morning, and led me to Google “intramural sports leagues” even though the thought of diving for a volleyball in front of a group of strangers makes me want to chew glass. After two years of lockdown and quasi-lockdown, any activity that offers the possibility of friendship and connection sounds appealing.
And if, at some point during that activity, you get to make out with someone on a synthetic-leather ottoman, all the better.