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Feb. 21, 1999 | Sex clubs on the upswing in South Florida

Sex. It's everywhere.

Lawyers do it. Businessmen and businesswomen do it. Even cops do it.

Most people prefer their sex in the privacy of their homes. But across the United States, a small but growing minority likes to make love in public.

In South Florida, hundreds of married couples from Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, mostly in their 30s and 40s, have been flocking to private sex - or swing - clubs.

It is a turn-on, they say. It rejuvenates stale marriages. It liberates the sexually inhibited, and it helps the sexually crippled act out satisfying fantasies with consenting adults.

But in the last month, their belief that they have been acting legally has been challenged. Broward Sheriff's Office deputies raided clubs in Pompano Beach and Fort Lauderdale, arresting 55 people for alleged lewd behavior.

There is no statewide organization to provide statistical evidence, but older swingers say the growth of private clubs in the past five years has been startling.

The swing scene of the 1970s all but disappeared after herpes, and then AIDS, made promiscuous behavior potentially hazardous.

Local magazines for the sexually curious and a half-dozen Internet sites list more than 42 clubs in Florida and numerous ads for parties in hotels and private homes. So-called "on premises" clubs permit sex on-site. At "off premises" clubs, the party adjourns to a house or hotel room.

The California-based North American Swing Club Association says it has more than 300 affiliates nationwide, up from 80 two decades ago, with three million members.

In Florida, second only to California in the number of clubs, swinger establishments exist in communities as small as Lutz, Lakeland and Tequesta. One club offers sex at sea.

The crowd has changed, swingers say. Gone are the gold-chain-wearing, potbellied types. Many of today's swingers are middle-class professionals out of the body-sculpting, tanning salon crowd for whom the Victoria's Secret catalog is required reading. They demand Jacuzzis, pool tables and big dance floors.

But they were recently left to wonder if their lifestyle was under attack. There is no evidence, other than for a building inspector's decision to bulldoze an Orange County club in November, of any crackdown in Florida outside Broward.

Sheriff Ken Jenne says the raids were a response to citizen complaints. He said that while his department does not want the image of morality police, it plans to send a message. Section 796.07 of the Florida Code states that it is unlawful "to own, establish, maintain, or operate any place, structure, building, or conveyance for the purpose of lewdness, assignation, or prostitution."

Early-morning raid

The Fort Lauderdale raid occurred at 1:10 a.m. Feb. 7, when 150 patrons at Trapeze II - a glitzy club on Commercial Boulevard - were partying in the three Jacuzzis and private rooms located off a communal room jammed with couches. Many of them were clad only in towels.

Patrons said more than 20 sheriff's deputies - including a half-dozen vice squad members wearing hoods and toting guns - burst in and arrested 24 people. A sheriff's spokesperson said the department was investigating two anonymous reports to Crime Stoppers that prostitution was occurring, but found no evidence of that.

Nine married couples were having sex, however, police said.

Among the alleged offenders were a Fort Lauderdale road patrol officer, his wife, who works for the Oakland Park Police, and a sheriff's office corrections officer.

Like all the others, they were charged with lewd behavior, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Club owner Alan Mostow, a tall man with a true New Yorker's chutzpah, says the raid was out of line because Trapeze II is a private club. The "Certificate of Use" Broward County issued his establishment describes it as a "private social club, nonprofit."

The sex was occurring in rooms without windows, said Mostow, who was also arrested and charged with lewdness. The nearest residential area is a quarter-mile away. Trapeze II is in a small commercial development surrounded by open fields. He and his staff do not participate in the sex. There was no intimation of drugs or organized crime in deputies' description of the raid.

Private acts?

Sam Halpern, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who is representing several Trapeze II patrons, said the key question is "whether sexual activity between consenting adults in a private place can be considered lewd under state law."

"The answer in my opinion is no, " Halpern said. "In order for it to be a lewd act you must commit it in order to substantially infringe on the rights of others.

"This was a private club. It was a membership club. It is well known what the club is for. . . . What is the sheriff saying? You can't have sex with your spouse?"

The couples and a few single men and women who crowd into the club on Friday and Saturday nights pay a membership fee, plus a door charge that can amount on Saturdays to $125 per couple. Single men pay $100 every two months plus a door fee, and single women get free membership but pay a $10 door fee.

Mostow says 6,000 people have joined Trapeze II since it opened a year ago, and his staff has given out 15,000 condoms. The first version of the club, which was also on Commercial Boulevard, was torched in November with gasoline. No arrests have been made in that case.

The other club sheriff's deputies hit was Athena's Forum on North Federal Highway in Pompano Beach. The Jan. 17 raid, which was not revealed by the sheriff's office until it described the raid on Trapeze II in a Feb. 7 press release, netted 31 people.

'Sexy out there'

Changing sexual mores in America are fueling the second wave of sex clubs, Mostow said.

The Internet is loaded with sexual content. Several Web pages include phone numbers and addresses of hundreds of swing clubs coast to coast and in Europe.

In South Florida, the demographics of swinging are suburban and white. Studio 69, for a long time Miami-Dade's only club, closed last year because it failed to attract members. A new club has just opened to replace it.

"It is sexy out there, " Mostow said.

On a recent Thursday night at Trapeze II, loud disco music boomed from the stereo system.

It was 10 p.m. Patrons - who use only a first name (not necessarily their own) - were beginning to arrive. Some took seats around the dance area, decorated with framed erotic prints by Olivia, a Penthouse magazine artist.

John, 40, and his wife, Stacey, 32, were among the first there. The Boston couple, dressed in hip gear out of the pages of Details and Cosmo, were relaxed and talkative. They left the club about an hour before the Feb. 7 raid, they said.

"It is wicked, twisted, totally wrong, " John said of the raid. "A lot of married couples - married 12 or 15 years - are not stimulating each other. To come through the doors here takes courage, guts. This lifestyle has a positive effect on their sex lives. But what these cops did, it could cripple [patrons] mentally.

"I swing, " said John, who said he made more than $1 million last year from a business employing 200 people. "I'm not ashamed of what I do. These are not criminals here. They are consenting adults trying to find people like themselves."

Stacey said it was "a step" for her when she married John 18 months ago and went to her first swing club.

The couple said they do not swing in Boston. To enjoy the lifestyle, they bought a $150,000 condominium in Pompano Beach. Stacey said she and her husband have made many friends. "A concert pianist. Really good people."

Longtime swinger

Chad, a 40-year-old Drug Enforcement Administration agent, said he and his wife have been going to clubs like Trapeze for more than 15 years.

"It is not illegal, " he said of swinging. "This is just my chosen lifestyle. Sex should not be a forbidden thing.

"It should be something everyone enjoys, " he said. "Swinging is not something we do every day. My wife and I agree that when we get here, anything goes. And then we leave it here and we go home."

Julie, a 29-year-old who was with her husband, says trying to define lewd behavior is like trying to define what is pornographic or obscene. Everyone has their own standards, she said.

"It is not up to the government to decide what is lewd behavior, " she said. "You have a problem when the government decides what you can and cannot do."

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