“I don’t know who are the animals and who are the humans in this zoo,” the bare-chested man in yellow shorts shouts as he bounces on a trampoline inside a nondescript Salt Lake City warehouse. He suddenly stops and lies down, half covered by a blanket, on the trampoline surface. A woman with spiky red hair and wearing a red chemise starts bouncing up and down beside him. As other couples watch from nearby sofas, she crawls under the blanket, forming a conspicuous hump over the man’s groin.
Welcome to a nighttime service at Eden church. If the trampoline is an altar, then the oral sex taking place on it is about as close to an act of devotion as this particular religious institution favors. Eden is a church unique in Utah—if not in the United States. It is a hedonistic order dedicated to those who like to trade their spouses for sex—better known as swinging. Adult couples gather in this 2,800-square-foot building to swap conversation, partners and bodily fluids, all under the grandmotherly eye of their pastor, Cindy, and her husband Vaughn, who requested their last name be withheld.
Cindy and Vaughn, 50 and 53 respectively, have been married for 33 years. Despite the reputation for promiscuity swingers have, Vaughn says, there are fewer notches on their bedpost than you might expect. “We’ve had sex with 30 or so couples” over the past two and a half decades, he says. Cindy is a stalwart of the local sex industry. She owned a lingerie boutique in South Salt Lake from 1989 to 1999. She grew so frustrated over battles with law enforcement over displaying sex toys, she decided in 1990 to up the ante: She started a magazine for swingers wanting to advertise for other couples called Talk and Play, which closed in 2000.
Despite swinging’s media image as a 1970s relic of the pre-AIDS sexual revolution in movies such as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, “the lifestyle,” as adherents call it, is booming across the United States. The Kinsey Institute estimates 4 million in the United States swap sexual partners. Utah is very much a part of that boom. Check on Swingular.com, a Utah-based Website, and you can find thousands of online Beehive State swingers looking for like-minded couples. Some of those couples, no doubt, were at Utah’s first “erotic ball,” hosted by Swingular and three other local adult-party Websites this past Halloween at the Wells Fargo Center at 299 S. Main in downtown Salt Lake City.
Like most hobbyists, people who swing need a place to gather. But the last thing Cindy wants, she says, is other couples leaving “their DNA” all over her home furniture. She decided to open a place where swingers could get to know one another without worrying about the prejudices of “vanilla people.” (That’s what swingers call those who don’t share their sexual predilections.) A place where—with apologies to the 1980s sitcom Cheers—everyone knows far more than just your name.
Such a venue would have required Cindy to secure a sexually orientated business license. That would have exposed her and fellow swingers to possible scrutiny by the state. She was ordained a high priestess by the online Universal Life Church in April 2001. So sanctioned by Universal Life, Cindy opened a sanctuary for her fellow swingers in the shape of Eden’s hedonistic religious order. Universal Life’s only requirement, Cindy says, “is we do the right thing.”
With a $15,000 budget, Cindy rented warehouse space and, on Oct. 21, 2007, the day before her 49th birthday, opened the doors to her flock. “The way for ‘our kind’ to cope in Utah is to not fight the ways of the land but join them,” Cindy wrote in an adult Website ad. “We have a ‘couples’ church’ here in Salt Lake City where we can go and ‘congregate’ with other NSA [National Swingers Association] couples in the area.” Forty people showed up the first night, and Eden now claims 240 members.
Stepping inside Cindy’s ministry can feel like an oddly subversive act. In conservative Utah, where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses its wealth and cultural influence actively to promote its view of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, Eden’s members are living out their sexual fantasies with little concern for the mores of society around them. “Sex is not love,” Cindy says. Eden can be a harsh testing ground of the sexual and gender politics of the couples who worship there, not to mention the strengths and weaknesses of their relationships.
Women of Eden can certainly find swinging empowering. Eden women ask men if they want sex. Men, however, rarely succeed if they ask the same question. Sidestepping such apparent inequality, Cindy and Vaughn say the best sex they have is with each other—after a night of swinging. They prefer to swing separately, one-on-one with the opposite sex, behind closed doors. A spouse is more open, they argue, more sexually giving, if the other spouse isn’t around. Cindy and Vaughn, like other members of their curious order, see no reason why they can’t have it all—emotional intimacy at home and sensual intimacy with both friends and strangers at their church.
Eden opens its doors Friday and Saturday from 9 p.m. till the early hours every weekend, all year to fee-paying members. It’s $25 for an annual membership with $15 due at the door each visit. Swingers at Eden range from multimillionaires to a couple living on food stamps, from senior female corporate executives with a taste for 10-gauge nipple piercings to construction workers, from lawyers to doctors and nurses. “Take any five people coming out of a Mervyn’s department store,” Cindy says, “and they all could be swingers.”
Swinging in Utah nevertheless differs from other states. Its underground status outside Utah, local swingers say, is, in part, to keep single men away. Not so in Utah, where “the problem is the lack of single men,” Cindy says. Local swingers argue their efforts to fly beneath society’s radar reflects the state’s religious climate.
In Utah, Vaughn says, both LDS and non-LDS swingers fear their LDS neighbors, “might burn their house down,” if their sexual preferences became public. Cindy says her concern for anonymity is about protecting loved ones, including her 81-year-old Mormon mother, who would be deeply humiliated if she ever learned what her daughter does on the weekend. Fear of identification by co-workers or family members means all Eden’s members quoted in this story requested aliases.
Concerns over public exposure don’t stop many men begging their wives to join “the lifestyle,” Cindy says. Some quickly learn, though, they need to check their egos at the door. Wives can become commodities, hit upon left and right by women and other men. In swinging, Cindy says, “It’s the men that end up at the bottom of the totem pole.”