By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Great gag, they thought, dressing up as vice cops and acting out a raid.
"I thought it was a joke at first, because everyone was in costumes," says one partygoer who was at the club with his wife. "It was a costume party."
Then the dance music screeched to a halt; the lights went on; eyes squinted, and real Dallas vice officers began barking orders for everyone to "go back to your original seats."
Up until that point, the predominantly middle-aged, professional crowd was having fun. If you believe the police version of what took place that Friday night, they were having just a little too much fun.
With the intensity of a drug bust--minus the threat of gunfire--a dozen uniformed and undercover police officers hauled away 15 people, mostly couples, on charges of public lewdness. One man, who apparently didn't believe the raid was real, was nabbed for resisting arrest and public intoxication.
In the stiff, legalese prose that's typical of police writing, the lewd acts alleged to have occurred are these: Seven people were engaging in "deviate sexual intercourse," including, but not limited to, "sodomy by oral copulation," and eight were making illegal "sexual contact...with the intent to arouse."
Roughly translated, police say they saw two blowjobs given; one muff dive; three incidents in which someone stuck their fingers into someone else's clad but accessible vagina; and six incidents of breast rubbing and crotch grabbing. Two women reportedly were topless.
Not surprisingly, the bust made sensational headlines. "Sex Raid," screamed one television broadcast, which, like other reports on the arrests, shied away from exploring the charges in detail.
Who could blame them? The corresponding police reports certainly are titillating. They suggest that a big, sweaty orgy was happening right there in the middle of the Jet Set's teardrop-shaped dance floor.
Never mind that four undercover cops, posing as couples, sat in the dark and crowded bar for two hours until they witnessed enough lewd acts to call in the uniforms. And consider that the police had not received any complaints about the bar before the raid. Instead, the officers were present because they suspected lewd behavior might be on display that night.
Jet Set owner Charles Poteet contends that nothing happened in his bar that doesn't happen in every other dance club in Dallas. What made the Jet Set a police target, he says, is that it caters to "swingers"--that is, couples, usually married, who have open sexual relationships with other couples and singles.
The Jet Set is one of five "off-premise" swingers' nightclubs in Dallas, which in the lingo means no sex in the bar. Together with the five local "on-premise" swingers' clubs, which are located in private homes where sex is encouraged, they make Dallas the unofficial swingers' capital of Texas.
In the world of swingers, Dallas also is known as the nation's morally uptight capital because of the comparatively high number of swinger-related raids, which seem to be carried out about once a year.
Word of the raid on the Jet Set has traveled far and fast in the world of swingers, who complain that the police are wasting their time and money policing a recreational activity that has no victims and is carried out by consenting adults. They point out that on weekend nights only couples and single women are allowed in the Jet Set, and everyone must read and sign a waiver that explains what the bar is before they are buzzed through the club's locked door. Swingers say police are turning the state's public lewdness laws into a tool to regulate morality.
In the coming months as the Jet Set cases go to trial, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office will have the task of proving that the alleged lewd acts occurred--if the cases go to trial. Cases like these seldom get that far in Dallas County because either the district attorney dismisses the charges, or, as is more often the case, the defendants quietly plead no contest in exchange for keeping their records clear and avoiding unwanted publicity.
But the fact that the arrests have nothing to do with crime fighting doesn't stop the district attorney's office from spending months, sometimes years, pushing the cases through the courts.
"If an activity occurs which is a violation of a law of this state, and a filing agency files it properly with us, then we prosecute it," says Assistant District Attorney Tim Gallagher, dutifully regurgitating the department's official prosecutorial policy.
Public lewdness is only a Class A misdemeanor, but because it is a crime involving morality, the social consequences of a conviction can be far more damaging than any punishment a judge can impose. As a result, the merits of the cases and the enforcement of the state's public lewdness laws are seldom challenged--even when the lewd acts allegedly occur inside the privacy of someone's home.
Of the 15 people arrested at the Jet Set, one was subsequently fired, another was suspended with pay, and others are terrified that they'll lose their jobs if their names are tied to the arrests. In addition, the city forced the Jet Set to close its doors for five days last month as a result of the raid--all this before any of the cases even made it to court for an initial hearing.
Every other year or so, whenever a swingers' party is busted, the corresponding publicity conjures up images of a group of shifty-eyed perverts shtupping in some dingy, dark corner of the city. The truth is, apart from their views on sex, swingers are basically average Joes and Josephines: They are reliable, usually well-educated married people who hold down jobs, raise kids, and go to church on Sundays. What they do in their nightclubs might be tacky, and sometimes risque, but it really isn't all that different from what happens every weekend inside the dance clubs on Lower Greenville Avenue or in Deep Ellum.
"We're a nightclub. We just happen to cater to that clientele," Poteet says. "We supply them with a place to dance, drink, intermix, and go somewhere else. If we had as much fun as everyone thinks, we'd all be dead from overexertion."
"Franky" and "Stephanie" never considered themselves perverts, and, until they got netted in the Jet Set raid, they didn't have criminal records.
The couple, who would only grant an interview on the condition that their identities be protected, are now getting a crash course in the state's public lewdness laws and a lesson in just how far local authorities will go to police morality.
For the first time since his arrest, Franky reads over the official charges filed against him in Dallas County District Court as he sits at the edge of a beige leather couch inside the couple's modest suburban home.
In the eyes of the court, the couple stand accused of "deviate sexual intercourse," namely, that Franky was performing cunnilingus on Stephanie inside the Jet Set.
"Deviate sexual intercourse? What's that supposed to mean?" Franky asks, his brown eyes scouring the document for an explanation that isn't there. "What was I doing? I was with my wife! I was dirty dancing; let's put it that way."
"And the amount you dance," adds Stephanie, "I could put in a thimble and still have room left over."
Franky and Stephanie are hardly porno material, he with a stocky build and paunch and she tall, with average good looks and a body that's still shedding pounds after giving birth to twins a year ago.
The allegation certainly is not easy to swallow, and it is especially difficult to visualize on this frigid Monday afternoon, as Stephanie carves up a freshly baked apple pie and prepares a pan of chicken for dinner.
A living-room wall is covered with two enlarged pictures of the couple's smiling teenage daughters, taken at their first communions. One of those daughters, an honor student, is on a school trip to Washington. The other, who is autistic, is occupied with a Winnie the Pooh video upstairs.
One of the twins threatens to break free of a playpen that occupies the corner, while the other--who was born with cerebral palsy--sleeps upstairs in a room plastered with Mickey Mouse decals.
In the master bedroom, the lone wall decoration is a hand-painted picture of Pope John Paul, which carries the seal of the Vatican and a personalized blessing of the couple's 1984 wedding.
"[Stephanie] and I are so married," Franky says. "We count on each other. I wouldn't give her up for anything in the world."
In the world of swingers, Franky explains that he and Stephanie are what's called "soft-core" swingers, which means that they do not attend the private "on-premise" parties, where "hard-core" swingers swap partners and have group sex. They have, however, experimented with the harder side of the lifestyle.
"We are familiar with the hard swing," Franky says, letting a large smile freeze momentarily on his face.
One night several years ago, Franky and Stephanie were with another couple, their lifelong friends, when the evening took an unexpected but memorable turn. Franky, who declines to discuss the evening in detail, pauses as he searches for a way to describe the group experience.
"It's like if you eat vanilla all your life, and then along comes rainbow sherbet," Franky says. "If you go back to eating vanilla, then at least you've tried rainbow sherbet."
Nowadays, the couple are back to eating vanilla--mostly at "off-premise" swingers' clubs like the Jet Set, where they go to watch other couples "dirty dance." Going to the Jet Set is their weekend entertainment.
"The first time we went there, we got so hot, we came back here and had a grand old time," Franky says. "I like watching people dirty dance. I like watching two girls dance. That may be a perverted statement, but I do."
Franky and Stephanie prefer the Jet Set because everyone there is open about their sexual relationships. As a result, they say, there is no role playing, no obnoxious come-on lines, and no always means no.
"You usually sit down, meet a couple, and talk about the kids. Honey? How much did we talk about the kids that night?" Franky asks Stephanie, who responds with a sarcastic laugh from the kitchen. "Funny," she says, "you go out, and all you talk about is the kids."
To this day, Franky and Stephanie are convinced that they didn't do anything wrong. Instead, they believe the police have too much time on their hands.
"I went to a club and danced with my wife. I got frisky with my wife. For that I'm thrown in jail and treated like the robbers, the drunk drivers, and the rapists?" Franky says incredulously. "Do they have nothing better to do than pick on married couples in a club we considered private?"
Two days after his arrest, Franky was let go from his job as an accountant. Although the job wasn't going well long before the Jet Set raid, Franky didn't guess his departure would happen so quickly. And because Stephanie took a year off from her teaching job to care for the newborns, Franky's dismissal has left the couple without an income or, more importantly, health insurance.
Now in heavy pursuit of a job, Franky is realizing that his last trip to the Jet Set is turning his otherwise tranquil world on its head.
An accountant by profession, every time Franky fills out a job application he is asked whether he's ever been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. If Franky gets convicted, or even if he pleads no contest, that might be just enough to harm his standing with the state board of accountancy.
"You're talking about throwing a whole career out the window," he says. "What do you do, approaching 40 and having to start all over?"
As he gives a tour of his two-story house, Franky explains that after 15 years of perfect credit, he is, for the first time ever, late on a car payment and, worse, he may not be able to make mortgage at the end of the month. In recent weeks, he's begun selling some possessions in order to make ends meet.
He stops in his daughter's bedroom, where three red and blue ribbons are tacked to the wall. The girl, who has been riding the family's horse since she was a tot, has become a championship rider in her teen years.
"How do you think it felt when I had to tell her that I had to sell her horse?" Franky says, his voice cracking. "Why are they pursuing this? God, these are people who don't even have a speeding ticket on their record."
The sound of turning pages echoes in the telephone receiver as Capt. Eddie Walt turns to section 21.07 of the Texas Penal Code, which defines the state's public lewdness laws.
As head of the Dallas Police Department's vice unit, Walt is responsible for rousting the city's hookers, pornographers, gamblers, booze peddlers, and of course, its "perverts"--that is, people arrested for public lewdness or indecent exposure.
With the humor of a Catholic sex-education instructor, Walt monotonously sounds off the four acts that constitute public lewdness in Texas.
"It includes an act of sexual intercourse, an act of deviate sexual intercourse, an act of sexual contact, an act involving contact between the person's mouth or genitals and the anus or genitals of an animal or fowl," Walt says, pausing briefly. "So it includes chickens."
Under the law, all of those acts become illegal if they're conducted in a public place or, if not in a public place, committed by someone who is reckless about whether someone else might be present who would be offended.
The law's wording may sound ridiculously rigid, but the nit-picking phrasing has its purpose: Attorneys have made all sorts of artful arguments in attempts to excuse their clients' carnal behavior.
In the 1885 case of Cross vs. State, for example, an attorney unsuccessfully argued that his client shouldn't be found guilty of doing it with a "mare" because the authorities failed to accurately describe the "genus" of said animal or properly identify it as a female.
So in drafting the modern public lewdness code, state lawmakers were precise when they defined each lewd act.
Deviate sexual intercourse means "any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person" (read oral or anal sex). Or, the definition continues, "the penetration of the genitals of another person with an object." The latter includes animate and inanimate objects, meaning everything from fingers and dildos to fresh vegetables.
It's probably safe to argue that most folks in Dallas would rather not see couples having intercourse--deviate or otherwise--in public. But anyone who likes to spend an evening grinding away on the dance floor should pay attention to the portion of the law concerning "sexual contact." This definition refers to "any touching of the anus, breast, or any part of the genitals of another person with intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."
If that definition sounds awfully vague, rest assured that the courts have ruled that it is not. In 1978, in Ronald Resnick vs. Texas, the defendant was charged with illegal sexual contact after he put his hands on the portion of a police officer's pants that covered his crotch.
Resnick argued no sexual contact occurred because the officer had his pants on and, therefore, Resnick never made contact with the officer's penis. But the court disagreed, concluding that contact means "to perceive by the sense of feeling" and that the "interposition of a layer of fabric" is not a sufficient defense.
Although that case involved an undercover police officer, it still applies to ordinary folks who might be tempted to cop a quick feel on the dance floor. But there's still a catch--the touching has to be done with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.
In the 1986 case of Balash vs. State, police observed Balash "rubbing [the] genitals of her male dance partner through his trousers at a local nightclub." Unfortunately for her, the man was smiling at the time. In that case, the courts ruled that the police could reasonably infer from the man's smiling that Balash had "intent to arouse or gratify her own sexual desire, as a necessary element to her conviction of offense of public lewdness."
The Balash case means that the ball is in the cops' court when it comes to deciding whether someone is getting aroused on a dance floor, providing, of course, that some illegal contact is going on. (In other words, if your mate ever grabs your crotch on the dance floor, look sad, unless you want him or her to spend the night in jail.)
In Dallas, the job of judging intent often comes down to the two fellows who are seated inside a booth at Baker's Ribs in Deep Ellum. They are vice cops, and they asked that their names be withheld, given the nature of their undercover work.
With their Ken-doll good looks, these two are certainly evidence to the theory that the police recruit good-looking cops to work vice. Lowering their voices so as not to disturb nearby diners, the officers are happy to discuss intent.
"Say if you reached over and grabbed me to see if I get a hard-on. That's intent, intent to arouse," the first officer says, locking his eyes on a man passing by with a plate stacked with ribs. "If that man right there reaches over and grabs your tit and keeps walking, that's assault. He just wanted to grab your tit."
"When people normally greet people, they shake," the second officer adds. "They don't walk up and grab each other's crotch just to say hi."
And that, to these officers, is what separates swingers' clubs from the rest of the nightclub pack. On the night of the Jet Set raid, they and two female officers assigned to be their "dates" arrived at the club shortly before 9 p.m. The four took a table and watched the activity. Occasionally they danced, in order not to arouse suspicion.
"A lot of this activity initiates on the dance floor. They start the light petting out there, and it goes from there," the first officer says.
The two officers stress that they have a high tolerance for various behaviors, and that they let many risque acts slide.
"The petty stuff, we don't enforce that. If someone comes behind you and puts their hands on your breasts, we don't enforce that. We want the hard-core cases," the first officer says.
"My 'date' was touched several times on the dance floor," offers the second officer. "None of those people were taken to jail that night."
After two hours, shortly before midnight, there was so much sexual activity going on among the 150 or customers that the officers decided to call for backup.
"It overwhelmed us. It was all taking place so quickly, we had to cut it off," the first officer says.
The behavior they witnessed indeed was not petty. The most sensational of all the acts, of course, were the three alleged cases of oral sex, which were supposedly taking place in an especially dimly lit corner of the bar.
But the meat of the bust involved nine people who were dancing as a group. According to the police, this friendly mosh pit featured two women with their tops off and lots of probing fingers and roaming hands. One couple was arrested after the husband lifted up his wife's shirt and rubbed her breasts. Naturally, she wasn't wearing a bra.
To Capt. Walt, the arrests are simple to justify. Because the Jet Set holds a state liquor license, it is a public place. And as long as public lewdness is against the law, Walt says, his unit will continue to police the behavior.
"For the most part, if they set up private parties in private houses, we don't care. As a matter of fact, that's a great idea for that sort of thing," Walt says. "Our only concern is when they start doing these activities in public. That includes when they start opening a house to the public and charging admission."
Although swingers complain that the arrests are a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, Walt says his unit's routine monitoring of swingers' clubs represents a very tiny portion of its enforcement activity.
In 1996, the vice unit made 248 public lewdness arrests, compared with 2,064 prostitution arrests, 311 obscenity arrests, and 63 gambling arrests. The unit also made 666 citations for state liquor law violations and 340 city ordinance violations. Of the police department's $208 million budget, the vice unit spends $2.8 million, or 1.3 percent of the total.
"Public lewdness we do because the citizens don't like it going on in their city. People don't like to be exposed to it," Walt says. "If the people of the state of Texas don't want it enforced, then the Legislature would strike it from the books."
Dallas attorney Steven Bankhead, who is representing several of those arrested at the Jet Set, isn't convinced the general public is exposed to any public lewdness because of swingers. Although the Jet Set is a public place under the law, Bankhead argues that the general public does not have access to it.
"You're not going to have a couple of tourists who are going to stumble in there and be appalled by what's going on in Dallas," Bankhead says. "That's just not going to happen."
The Jet Set is by no means easy to get to. Located two blocks off Cedar Springs in Uptown, the 250-capacity bar stands where Routh Street dead-ends into the shrubbery of Turtle Creek. With its wooden walls and blood-red aluminum trim, the one-story structure could be mistaken for a barn if it weren't for the blue and red "Jet Set" sign that illuminates the parking lot.
A handwritten sign tacked up in the entryway reads: "Please remove ski masks and unload weapons before entering."
On this Thursday afternoon, Jet Set owner Charles Poteet stews from his perch on a barstool. A thin man with long black hair tied into a ponytail, Poteet says the raid has scared off his clientele.
"Sucked," he scowls, answering a question about the last weekend's business. "Big time. We might as well have not been here."
To make matters worse, Poteet has just received a letter from Capt. Walt, who informed him that he was suspending Poteet's dance hall-license permit for five days, meaning he'll have to shut his doors. The vice unit--which issues the licenses--concluded that Poteet was unable to operate his bar in a peaceful way because of the raid.
"The unfortunate thing is, you're no longer innocent until proven guilty," says Poteet, who notes that none of the people arrested in his club has yet been convicted of a crime.
After vice raided the Jet Set in 1993, arresting several couples for public lewdness, Poteet decided that he would take a few extra precautions to avoid any similar problems in the future. To gain entry to the bar, customers must first sign a "temporary membership" card, which warns them about the behavior they might see inside the club. Customers also sign a waiver stating they won't be offended.
Once signed up, they are buzzed through a second door, which conceals the inside of the bar.
"We expect that at times the conduct on the dance floor may become offensive to some. This conduct may include a moderate display of nudity or suggestive behavior," the waiver states. "If you have a question as to what type of conduct we are talking about, please ask now."
While Poteet acknowledges that the waiver isn't legally binding, and it doesn't make his club any less of a public place, he contends that it goes a long way to show that the last thing he and his clientele want to do is offend people.
"You don't get many people wandering in here that didn't try to find us," Poteet says. "We're down here by ourselves. No one bothers us, and we don't bother anyone else."
Attorney Bankhead says the Jet Set cases raise an important question about the idea behind the state's public lewdness law. Bankhead contends that the law was designed to protect the public from happening upon offensive behavior--not to be used as a morality tool by police to seek out questionable behavior carried out by consenting adults in places to which the general public has no access.
"I don't know that you'll find anybody who'll say that you can just have sex out in a public park, and that that ought to be proper conduct," Bankhead says. "But I don't know if there's a need for the police, spending my tax dollars, to go past several barriers just to make an arrest."
On this point, Bankhead may have the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on his side, given its 1983 ruling in the case of Liebman vs. State.
On August 3, 1979, Lawrence Liebman and Norman Bloomer entered neighboring booths inside the old Paris Adult Theatre in Dallas. Convinced that lewd behavior was imminent, three Dallas vice officers entered a booth next to Bloomer's.
Because the booths were 7 feet tall, the officers took turns hoisting each other up so they could see into the neighboring booths. From the first booth, the officers saw Bloomer standing flush against the wall. From that they presumed he had inserted his penis in a "glory hole" that opened inside Liebman's booth.
To verify their hunch, the officers left the booth and regrouped in the booth next to Liebman. After hoisting themselves up again, they "observed Mr. Liebman...seated on a bench with his hands in skin contact with the penis that was stuck through the wall...and he was masturbating this penis in a vigorous manner."
The officers waited for the two men to finish before they arrested them for public lewdness.
But the courts found that the police had no reason to believe the defendants were about to commit an offense. More importantly, they concluded that their decision to hoist each other up to peer into the defendants' booths was an invasion of the defendants' privacy.
Although the theater was a public place under the law, the court was of the mind that, once inside the locked booths, the defendants had a reasonable expectation of privacy. In that event, the only way they could be found guilty of public lewdness is if they were reckless about whether someone might be present who could be offended by their behavior.
In that case, the only people who were offended were the police officers--a fact that did not impress the court.
"There is no question that law-enforcement agencies have legitimate interests in deterring and punishing sexual conduct committed in a manner which would offend the average citizen who might inadvertently confront it," the court wrote. "But the need for law-enforcement agents affirmatively to seek out this conduct...and thereby knowingly and voluntarily subject themselves to the alarm and offense the statute seeks to contain, seems minimal if not nonexistent."
As far as the Jet Set goes, Walt confirms that his unit had not received any complaints by anyone who was offended by the behavior going on inside the bar. Instead, the October 25 raid was part of a "routine check" on the five swingers' clubs in town, and, when it was over, the only ones who were offended by what they saw were the arresting officers.
Although the Jet Set raid may be old news here, word of it spread far and fast in the cozy world of swingers, who communicate via a loose network of public and private clubs, through adult magazines, and on the Internet.
"I am alarmed and concerned," says California psychologist and national swingers spokesman Robert McGinley, who keeps in regular contact with swingers across the continent and heard about the raid within days after it happened.
No one has compiled any statistics on swingers-related arrests, so it's impossible to accurately compare Dallas with other cities. But McGinley says that the swingers' grapevine anecdotally ranks Dallas No. 1 when it comes to police activity.
In California, for example, McGinley says police haven't raided a swingers' club as far as he can recall in the last 10 years. By comparison, Dallas police have carried out at least four swingers raids in the last four years--one of which was at a private home.
Swinging may seem like some 1970s fad that died by the time Ronald Reagan took office, but McGinley says the "lifestyle," as it is now called, is alive and thriving.
Given the discreet nature of the lifestyle, however, getting an accurate head count of swingers is a challenge.
In 1980, McGinley founded NASCA International, which stands for the North American Swingers Club Association. NASCA is the United States' national trade association for swingers, but its membership reaches into Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, and Russia.
In addition to publishing a national directory of swing magazines and clubs, NASCA also maintains a World Wide Web site that allows couples to place personal advertisements, plan an exotic getaway, or get the dish on upcoming events.
On its Web site, NASCA explains that swinging is "social and sexual intercourse with someone other than your mate, boyfriend, or girlfriend." It may be defined as "recreational social sex" that occurs at a party, a couple-to-couple encounter, a liaison, or with a third person in a threesome.
Contrary to popular opinion, McGinley says, the lifestyle isn't just about sex. Like Franky and Stephanie, most swingers are professional, happily married couples in their 30s and 40s, who view swinging as a way to socialize and fulfill their sexual needs--not as a remedy for a bored or failing marriage.
McGinley says swingers believe that the lifestyle strengthens marriages because it breaks down sexual barriers and improves communication. Unlike monogamous couples, McGinley says, successful swingers are not possessive about their mates, and they view group sex as a pastime akin to bowling or tennis.
"One of the major social recreations in this country is swinging," McGinley claims. "It's more than sex; these people have a community."
In Texas, the easiest way to find a local swingers' community is to go to the Texas Swingers Network Web site, txswingnet.com, which will celebrate its second anniversary this Christmas.
The site allows couples to place personal ads in search of other couples and singles. Others interested in learning more about swinging can download a variety of informational articles, which range from the "Responsible Non Monogamy Report" and "Intro to Liberated Christians," to "The G Spot and Female Ejaculation."
Network creator Richard Clinkenbeard says it's impossible to guess how many swingers there are in Texas, but his Web site continues to attract an increasing number of visitors. Last year alone, the Arlington-based network posted 2,000 personal ads, and Web surfers downloaded 1.5 million pages.
"We get 40 to 50 [personal] ads a day, 85 to 90 percent from Texas," Clinkenbeard says. And many of those ads come from Dallas, which Clinkenbeard says has more swingers' clubs than any other city in the state. "In Dallas, it just happens to be easier to go and try swinging because of the 'off-premise' clubs."
The Jet Set is one of five "off-premise" clubs in Dallas. In addition, at least five "on-premise" clubs advertise in adult magazines and the Internet, including the Cherry Pit, Midnight Rendezvous, and TLC Returns.
In order to weed out police officers and other unwelcome guests, the on-premise clubs require visitors either to be invited by a known couple or to complete an interview, via e-mail or telephone, before they will disclose their locations.
Each club has its own set of rules, and most follow the "NASCA Code of Swing Etiquette," which encourages swingers to be punctual and well groomed, and to bring a gift--"cheese or other snack"--as well as a donation to help with expenses. (Those donations can be a sticking point with the law, but more on that later.)
In all cases, no means no. While there is usually a large room reserved for group sex, most couples expect privacy when they retire to a bedroom. To be a bedroom "cruiser" (read: ignored single) is simply not tolerated.
"To go into a private swing area as a stag to see if there is something for you is a major breach of etiquette," the code states. "Should you become known for such behavior, you may find the party invitations become few and far between."
At TLC Returns, hosts "Lee & Dee Dee" throw parties every Saturday night that offers couples a nude-only hot tub, X-rated movies, and hot and cold buffets, according to an advertisement they placed on the Internet.
While most of TLC's couples are light drinkers, the club strongly discourages drunkenness, and it strictly forbids drug use. Anal sex, known as "Greek," is also prohibited, and the men must adhere to a 7 1/2-inch penis limit.
"Most women can not handle more than that," states the club's Web site, which includes pictures of smiling club members posing for the camera in their underwear with narrow black rectangles concealing their faces.
On-premise or hard-core swingers take their privacy very seriously, though it's not because they're ashamed of what they do. Even though the parties take place in private homes, the Dallas police are known to claim they are public in order to justify a raid.
"Cops bust orgy, gamblers," screamed one newspaper headline in the summer of 1996, after Dallas police raided an "on-premise" party at the Inner Circle club in residential North Dallas. In that case, police arrested 10 people on charges of public lewdness, gambling, and indecent exposure. One of those arrested was Drug Enforcement Agency agent Gary Alan Jackson, who was charged with public lewdness after allegedly getting a blowjob from 40-year-old Robin Avalos.
The bust represented the fruit of a six-week investigation, which ended when four undercover officers arrived at the house in a stretch limo and paid $30 a head to gain entry, according to news accounts of the raid.
Not surprisingly, the cops saw groups of people having sex in the common area. They also saw a slot machine and a pool table, where people were supposedly betting on games of eight ball.
The police argued that the house had become a "public" place because it was charging a $30 cover charge. They also claimed the owner was operating a gambling hall, based on the slot machine and pool table.
"That was not a private party," Capt. Walt says. "That was a case where they were inviting the public and charging admission."
Dallas attorney George White, who represented several of the people arrested at the house, including its owner John Ochs, says the case is the ultimate example of police seeking out behavior by which they are the only ones offended.
"You throw a party for 10 of your friends to watch the Super Bowl. You decide to charge them $5 each so you can buy food. Is that a public place?" White says.
In this case, the partygoers weren't the only ones who were imbibing. After the raid, Ochs complained that undercover officer James Collett, who was betting on pool, was intoxicated. Last November, Collett resigned while under investigation, and the department subsequently sustained Ochs' complaint. The department also concluded that Collett had improperly released a prisoner (a woman White says Collett brought to the party) and that he falsified a report.
The raid is an example of how the cases quietly go away once they enter the legal system. Earlier this year, the district attorney's office dismissed its case against Ochs, who was charged with keeping an illegal gambling establishment. Last month, Jackson pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct and received a $500 fine. In January, Avalos signed a plea bargain in which she pleaded no contest in exchange for 30 days of unsupervised community service.
As a result of that raid, on-premise hosts are more careful about the issue of money. Neil, who hosts Midnight Rendezvous, says his $30 fee is a donation, and he stresses that he does not require his guests to pay it.
"If somebody doesn't have it, that's fine. It's very simple," says Neil, who declined to give his last name. "We do everything on the up and up."
While that may be true, most clubs still expect their guests to pay a fee that covers the house's expenses. If the police wanted to, they could certainly make a living cracking down on swingers' parties from Oak Cliff to Plano.
But the more important question is, Why would the police, or anyone else, care? The Dallas Observer took a trip to the Midnight Rendezvous to try to find out.
On this Friday evening in Garland, a steady sleet is turning into the season's first snowfall. A neighbor casts a suspicious glance at a couple bounding up the walkway to Neil's one-story house, which is located in a neighborhood filled with rusting basketball hoops, dinged-up pickups, and the occasional HUD home.
For the last four years, Neil has thrown discreet swinger parties here, usually attracting about eight couples on Fridays and Saturdays. Tonight, however, it's apparently too cold to swing.
After an unusually long wait, a carrottopped woman with a deeply lined face opens the door to the tiny, darkened home. "No party," she reports. "No people."
A gracious host, the woman takes a seat on a black vinyl couch in the TV room and explains that Neil is already in bed. Dressed in blue jeans and a fitted blouse that exposes her bellybutton, the 40-something woman looks worn.
The walls are decked out with cheesy pictures of women, posed seductively with pursed lips, and the coffee table is stacked with home-recorded videos. The living room has been transformed into a bar, centered on a pool table that looks like it was bought secondhand.
In the bathroom, a copy of Dominatrix Domain and a Penthouse lie on the floor, alongside an economy-sized bottle of wintergreen mouthwash. The group room lies just off the bathroom. It is small, distinct for the mirrors on the wall and a row of plastic-wrapped mattresses on the floor.
An unidentifiable musky odor permeates the air.
"I'd hate to take your money when there's nobody here," she says apologetically. She is, of course, referring to the $30 "donation" the club asks its visitors to make.
The following Monday, Neil apologized for the slow turnout. To make up for the miscue, Neil extends an invitation to a special upcoming event.
"It's a Wesson Oil party," he says, adding that the party will be like regular parties, "only you do it in oil."
Hours before nobody showed up at the Midnight Rendezvous, business is equally slow at the Jet Set. The lack of turnout could be the weather, but the presence of a Dallas squad car and two vice officers, their faces hidden underneath ski masks as they stand outside the bar, isn't helping matters.
Officially, the officers are here to gather some additional information stemming from the October 25 raid, but the people inside the bar interpret their arrival as an intimidation tactic.
"Don't they have anything better to do?" asks a fortysomething woman who is propped at the bar next to her husband.
With short brown hair and heavy eyeliner, the woman is dressed in an elegant black camisole that makes her look hopelessly out of place. Her husband, like most of the men present, has a paunch and could easily pass as a chaperon at a high school dance.
About 10 couples are seated throughout the bar, which is equipped with round black booths and metal chairs. A woman seated on a barstool slyly slips her hand on her companion's knee, letting it roam precariously close to criminal territory. Prince's hit song "Sexy Motherfucker" blares from the DJ booth and rumbles across the empty dance floor.
A white-haired couple trots up to the bar, the disco light reflecting off of their eyeglasses. The woman is dressed in a red pantsuit, and with her pear-shaped frame, she resembles Mrs. Claus. The police out front, she says, gave her a green light to come inside.
"I went up to the officer and asked if we should bother coming in," the woman reports. "She said, 'We're not going to harass you tonight.'