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Swinging in Tango City

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The joke goes, I’m not a sex tourist, but I play one on vacation.

I’m in a cab in Buenos Aires, on business. The driver is a young kid with a shaved head and wire-rim glasses — not the typical paunch-bellied porteño cabbie. After a dinner of pork intestines and Quilmes beer, I’m just buzzed enough to forget that my girlfriend Kyona is sitting next to me. Before I know it, I’ve asked about the zona roja. The driver takes us around the block to a cobblestone street in Jorge Luis Borges’s old neighborhood. But tonight there are no transvestite hookers, just policemen at every corner. The driver offers to take us to the strip of actual niñas instead; he sounds like a waiter sorry to have run out of the house special.

But I’m not interested in streetwalkers. I’m after the type of attraction Frommer’s is too prudish to mention. Something like the disco in Rio where all of the women on the dance floor are prostitutes, or the termas where you can enjoy a sauna before heading to the strip bar in a bathrobe. The taxi driver strokes his chin and thinks about it.

Argentina is not Brazil. Only in the past decade, after a transitional period following the fall of the repressive Peron dictatorship, has this staunchly Catholic country experienced its sexual “opening.” In 2002, restrictions were finally loosened on contraception and reproductive health, but abortion is still illegal. Hate crimes against gays and transvestites persist. Until 1995, adultery could get you a month to a year in prison. So my jaw almost crushes my crotch when, on this quiet Wednesday in May, our cabbie offers to take us to a swingers club.

I’d always thought swinging was something a man convinced his wife to do before finally divorcing her. I’m twenty-six, so I have no wistful memories of free love at Plato’s Retreat. And while I’m not morally opposed to group sex — the more, the merrier — the word “swinging” conjures images of flabby nudes at suburban buffet parties, where grey pubes threaten to become inadvertent ingredients in the casserole. And this was before I watched The Lifestyle.

In any event, I had never thought of swinging as something to do on a Tuesday night. After a year together, Kyona and I hadn’t had the threesome conversation, but I’m sure she felt the same way I did. Yet in Buenos Aires, a city whose mythology is practically synonymous with illicit sex, thanks to the tango, a trip to a swingers club seems like visiting the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. And so, after a few hairpin turns, we pull up to a nondescript black awning adorned with marquee lights. This, the cabbie tells us, is the Anchorena, Buenos Aires’s premier boliche swinger.

I ring the buzzer. Through frosted glass I see the outline of a woman. The door opens, revealing her to be young, attractive and dressed like a stewardess. We follow her miniskirt and stockings down a red carpet, passing the door to the bar and restaurant touting dinner specials for couples only. At a reception stand next to the curved marble staircase, we pay $20 for a ticket allowing us three drinks. In the mirrored elevator, I grin stupidly at Kyona’s reflection, and she shakes her head. I laugh, but I’m worried I’ll hear about this later. The thud of bass spills in shortly before we’re let off on the fifth floor.

Our host is a gay blonde who looks, somewhat reassuringly, like Lance from ‘NSYNC. In the blacklights of the hallway, his blue eyes light up like glowsticks. He leads us into the brightly lit men’s room. Next to the urinals, Kyona is asked to surrender something to the coat-check closet. I’m worried they want her clothes, but no, just her handbag. House rules. She shoots me another look.

And so the tour begins. “This is the disco,” Lance says, “where you can mingle with other couples.” A few are milling around high tables, others are lounging on the banquettes against the wall, languidly stroking the heart-shaped pillows. Hanging from the ceiling, playing ring-around-the-rosie with the disco ball, are four life-sized wooden totems of nude men and women, their genitals poised above the center of the dance floor. Lance takes us to the bar, and I divide my attention between his feline eyes and a wood carving of a female ass.

Next to us, a guy in a Boca soccer shirt talks to two mini-skirted blondes. In the U.S., he’d be wearing an Atlanta Braves hat and the girls would be psych majors at a state school: they look like they’ve been crane-lifted from a frat party. If they’re like most young, unmarried Argentinians, they probably live with their parents. I suspect we’ve wandered into a prostitution racket — surely these kids aren’t waiting around for frumpy hausfraus to hook up with — but Lance assures me, when I ask, that they aren’t for sale and that we’re to tell him if anyone asks us for money. Then he leads us past a fat man guarding a velvet curtain.

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In this dark room are three leather couches, each big enough to seat four. Two of them face each other, and a third faces the other two. “If you meet another couple, this is where you can go for a little more privacy. Only couples are allowed in here. The singles,” he says, as we walk up a flight of wooden stairs and pause on the landing overlooking the couples room, “are only allowed in this room up here.” Off the landing is a room the size of a treehouse. In the pitch darkness, a couple of smartly dressed men stand around as if auditioning for a Dockers commercial. Lance pulls me aside. “You can come in here if you’re a couple,” he warns, “but be aware that the single men are much more aggressive.”

The statement is somehow exciting. This new world has entirely different rules of engagement. The singles are penned up like bulls in the Mataderos stockyard while we couples, for once, enjoy sexual freedom and privilege. I glance at Kyona to see if Lance’s comment unnerved her, but not knowing Spanish, she merely smiles at him. He has disarmed her with his warm smile and way of touching her arm as he walks us around. At this point, he might as well be a real estate agent showing off a funky duplex.

We climb the playhouse to another landing, where a stiff bench is hidden by a velvet curtain (“another private area,” Lance nods), and then to the top floor, where I peer through a glass door and am astonished to see a skylight swimming pool surrounded by pool furniture. The pool bar doesn’t open, Lance apologizes, until the weekend, when the club gets a crowd of hundreds.

When Lance returns us to the disco, a “streeper” is humping a chair and flinging her clothes at the happy couples. One by one, she runs her hands over the women and fiddles with their boyfriends’ collars. I’m starting to worry that the fourth wall is about to come down on us, too — I’ve never seen Kyona dance, much less with strippers. She hasn’t even seen a strip show before. And given that she’s the only black woman in the room, how will this stripper resist? I turn to Kyona, expecting the let’s-leave look she gave me in the bathroom. Instead, she leans into my ear and whispers boozily, “Dude, she’s hot.”

So hot, I guess, that Kyona and I end up making out on one of the couches in the private room. We hadn’t come here for that, but we’re drunk and alone and the guidebook said something about Buenos Aires being a city of stolen kisses in dark places. I’m excited by Kyona enjoying the strip show, and I’m not turned off when I open my eyes and there is suddenly a couple sitting a few feet across from us — a chubby middle-aged woman with red curly hair and a man in a suit who looks like a drunken diplomat. If Kyona has seen them, she is pretending not to. When I open my eyes again, the man is sliding his hands over his partner’s love handles and up her blouse.

It’s all very tender and innocent — what the make-out room must’ve been like at that sixth-grade party I stormed out of. But the Wonder Years moment vanishes when the woman’s palm begins moving up and down on the man’s crotch. So it’s back to the disco, where Madonna is playing and four women are dancing in a circle. I excuse myself to use the bathroom and predictably, I end up in the singles room. The men are still milling around. They hold their beer bottles to their button-down shirts and say nothing, as if waiting on the elevator at an art opening.

This is why I don’t register the sounds of sex until a couple of seconds later, when I see a man seated at the other end of the tiny room holding open a velvet curtain. Soon my hand is drawing the curtain open from the other side, and we’re looking in on an alcove the size of a camping tent. On a king-size futon, a naked brunette is on all fours, ramming herself backward onto the cock of a muscled, shaven headed man on his knees. His hands are locked on her waist, his jaw is clenched in a silent grimace. I can’t see the woman’s face behind her long hair, but she screams ecstatically every time her ass ripples against the man’s muscled thighs. The sound of flesh on flesh is sharp and loud, like the volley of a ping-pong ball. In front of her, another naked, sweating muscle man pushes his crotch into her face. His eyes are trained on her, never once looking up at his audience. The man behind the brunette rises from his knees without taking himself out of her, planting his feet on the thin windowsill behind him so he can push deeper into her. As he begins thrusting violently, he loses his footing, and for a second I imagine him exploding backward through the glass, landing on the floor below. But he is stable again, and then he’s really lost it. Sweat rolls down his clenched pecs as he smacks himself into her over and over again.

It is one of the most erotic things I have ever seen: three perfectly attractive strangers so lost in sex that they’re oblivious to the guy holding his beer just a few feet away. It’s as if the TV has fallen away and the porno has come to life. The voice in my head that says, “How can this be happening?” is silenced by the voice that says, “Shut up and watch.” And so I do — until I remember that I’ve left my girlfriend alone in a swingers club.

Forget the tango — these days, Argentina swings. Along with Mexico and Brazil, the country is at the forefront of a burgeoning Latin American libertine movement. According to Daniel Bracamonte, the country’s swinger guru (and co-founder, with his wife, Beatrice Musaquio, of the magazine Entre Nosotros Swinger), more than 60,000 Argentinian couples swap partners. Not only is that number rising steadily, the libertine population is diversifying. A decade ago, the swinger community comprised mainly upper-middle-class, thirty-five to forty-five-year-olds; now it spans nearly every social class and age. The reason, say Bracamonte and others, is la crisis (the devaluation of the peso that has also led, more famously, to the rebirth of the tango) and the spread of AIDS. Swingers clubs and parties are a way to practice libertinism in a controlled environment: swinger rules stress the importance of condoms, although they aren’t required.

After making numerous TV appearances, the Bracamontes have become quasi-celebrities in Argentina. Nine years ago, while in their early thirties, they quit their day jobs to start a homegrown defense of their lifestyle. Now their full-color magazine is sold at kiosks throughout Buenos Aires. It has a monthly circulation of more than 10,000 and features swinger etiquette (i.e. don’t ask for one couple’s phone number in front of the other couples, or you’ll hurt their feelings), testimonials and forty pages of classifieds. The magazine’s website attracts more than 6,000 visitors per day; it advertises events ranging from couples’ bowling nights to an annual Swingers Convention. (The last was attended by 400 couples from countries throughout Latin America.) A search of the “contacts” section yields 2,600 couples seeking other couples, most of them in their twenties and thirties.

Last year, the Bracamontes petitioned to receive the same legal status as a nudist association. A panel of judges refused, condemning the organization as “immoral” and insisting the Bracamontes were violating the civil code by undermining the institution of marriage. Meanwhile, the couple has started seven swingers clubs in Buenos Aires. Star New opened more than a decade ago, claims to be the city’s first, “the classic of the Argentine swinger movement.” After growing out of two smaller locations, it now hosts about 100 couples a night. In photos, the club looks like Willy Wonka’s harem: a black-and-white checkered floor, a semicircular couch seating about a dozen people, a giant bed draped in red velvet, modernist art on the walls, even an aluminum fireplace. On Saturdays at six a.m., the club hosts a breakfast featuring complimentary media lunas (the Argentine version of croissants) and “for dessert, the hottest show in Buenos Aires.”

Back at Anchorena, I’m not sure what to say to Kyona about the threesome I’ve returned from. It’s as if I ran into an old lover while waiting for my girlfriend on the street: I’m dying to tell someone, but Kyona probably isn’t the right person. I tell her anyway, leaving out adjectives like hot, sexy, incredible. She doesn’t believe me.

We sit next to a thick, bald man in a black suit who has the air of a Russian mobster. I ask if he comes here often; considering the venue, the question doesn’t seem cliché.

“I don’t usually go to these places,” he tells me. “My friend brings me here. She’s kind of crazy.”

On cue, an attractive woman in her late forties appears, holding two drinks. She must have been a dance major, the sort of woman you call a “spark plug” or “firecracker,” the kind who has endless stories about drugs and travel. She is delighted to practice her English on Kyona.

“Is that your wife?” I ask the man.

No, she’s his amigovia — part amiga (friend), part novia (girlfriend).

I ask if he has a wife, but he doesn’t hear. He is eavesdropping on the conversation between his amigovia and my novia, knowing that our sexual fate lies in their hands. I’m beginning to understand why women get annoyed when men talk to their breasts. Although in this case, it’s my girlfriend’s chest he is talking to.

I ask him about other clubs, and he shakes his head. “They’re not selective. They let anyone in, and there are fights.” After a few minutes of small talk, he gets down to it. “Do you want to go into the other room?”

I thank him but lie, saying that my novia is tired and that we have an early flight tomorrow.

He is silent for a few seconds. “And she doesn’t want a happy send-off?”

I’ve never blue-balled another man before. I’m not sure where to go from here. Pat him on the knee and tell him he and my girlfriend can still be friends? I feel strangely sorry for Kyona’s would-be lover, as if he has some legitimate claim to her. I try for casual conversation, but we both know there is no reason to keep talking. I excuse myself to use the bathroom, and when I come back, Kyona is politely exchanging numbers with Claudia. When they leave, she tells me that Claudia made a move for her breast. “You don’t like women?” Claudia pouted as Kyona removed her hand, and that was the end of that.

Kyona seems more amused than anything — after all of the advances she has endured from her male co-workers, this woman’s overaffection is no big deal — but I suppose this is one of the “unfortunate moments” that swingers etiquette refers to when they implore swingers to be respectful, that no means no, to establish the rules of an orgy up front.

We decide to head back to the couples room, where the scene has changed. Flesh is suddenly everywhere. Couples are spilled out on the couches in various states of undress. A fully clothed pair leans against a couch back, the woman’s hand jammed down her man’s pants while he watches another couple fucking over her shoulder. Off to the side, on a platform that rises a foot off the floor, a man lies naked on his back, sixty-nining with a woman while holding the hand of another woman lying next to them. This second woman delicately traces her fingers over his while she watches him get his dick sucked, seemingly hypnotized by the scene. A few feet from them, in an alcove under the stairs, a man with his pants around his ankles is shoving himself into a pair of spread legs as their owner cries out in what is either pain or pleasure, I can’t tell which. Couples are gathered around the scene in a semi-circle, holding hands. From the landing above, singles watch. When I turn my attention back to the threesome, the woman who was holding the man’s hand now seems to have passed out. A balding man with a beer belly and hairy chest stoops over her and works his fingers into her. He would be wearing the same expression if he were trying to unclog a drain.

Kyona and I take a seat on a couch next to the riser where the sixty-nining couple are now cuddling, the man’s dick shriveled up against his belly. The air is thick and musty like a locker room, although I can’t pinpoint a specific odor. Across from us, a few people in clothing are craning their necks into a doorway that leads to a tiled passageway of shower stalls and massage rooms. I wonder aloud what might be going on in there, hungry for still another layer of debauchery, but Kyona has seen enough. This is too much for her.

I don’t see how she can be bored by a mass of naked copulators, but the look on her face reminds me of the times I have accompanied female friends on shopping trips. These were pleasant enough at first, as I picked out items of clothing here and there, but in the end, as my shopping date tried on her fiftieth pair of shoes, I had to wonder what the hell I was doing there. Kyona has that same air of exasperation.

In the world of swingers, the woman has final say. So I follow her to the elevator, and we bid our host farewell. Swinger parties usually kick into gear after two a.m., and this one will go until at least six in the morning, when couples will migrate to the hotel’s fantasy suites or to the Caesar’s Palace-style love motel at the end of the block.

A few days later, we visit another swinger club hidden on a leafy residential block in the Palermo district. It’s called Reina Loba (Wolf Queen). The cabbie, who is older, has some trouble finding it; we don’t have the exact address, and he doesn’t know what a boliche swinger is. He insists there are no clubs in this neighborhood and asks a lone pedestrian if he knows of a place “where these young kids can dance.” The man, who turns out to be the Reina Loba’s doorman, points us to an inconspicuous door.

The Reina Loba houses a “swinger hotel” and an “aphrodisiac restaurant,” but it is not quite Anchorena. When we walk in, to no fanfare, middle-aged couples are surveying each other from their cocktail tables and enjoying an “erotic spectacle” featuring a stripper, a Fabio-esque man who is being taken out of his overalls, and a giant dildo. It must be a slow night. The Reina Loba’s website offers far more impressive attendance numbers in its one-line party minutes: “October 7, 2004: We appreciate the 435 friends who, along with us, keep celebrating the most important swinger party in Argentina”; “April 8, 2004: 302 people fulfilled their fantasies at the swinger party. Everything was erotic and sensual.”

The club seems to be just a room with a U-shaped bar, mirrored walls and a couple of couches. Then a man who is nursing a drink at the bar points me to a velvet curtain covering a back wall. I ask Kyona to come along, but she doesn’t want to — she stays behind, talking to the barfly. When I venture into the back room, two couples have just finished a session. They sprawl naked on a gigantic leather-sheeted bed, enjoying the afterglow. I wish I had opened the curtain sooner. One woman gets up and crawls across the bed. She looks up at me as she reaches for her panties, as if to gauge my intentions. I am self-conscious and let the curtain fall closed.

Turning away from this pornographic diorama, I bump into a drunken, disheveled Jack Lemmon look-alike. He nods to the curtain. “Things are complicated in there,” he tells me. I laugh; after the orgy of the other night, they don’t seem complicated at all. Then again, Jack is of another era; he tells me this is his first time here.

I return to the bar, where Kyona is talking to a man who has the air of a regular. He is slumped over his drink, only half-interested in the conversation. He agrees that the other clubs aren’t as good, because they don’t have a cover charge or dress code. I ask him if he has been to Anchorena, and he perks up, drawing his barstool closer. Perhaps because I know I will never be back and want someone else to experience what I did, I write Anchorena’s address on a napkin.

“I’ll check it out,” he says. I envy him. Tomorrow, Kyona and I will return to New York City, the vacation will be over, and our night lives will return to the usual routine of professional mixers and smokeless bars with identical jukeboxes. Perhaps this is for the best. Who knows where my infatuation with this new scene would have led us?

Now the drunken Jack Lemmon approaches the bar. Grinning stupidly, he slurs a request for our phone numbers. I give him a fake one, and he insists on taking a picture of us with his camera phone. We haven’t brought a camera to Buenos Aires, so this will be the only photographic record of our trip. He lifts his phone and tries to keep it steady. Before the flash goes off, we smile. We try to say “swingers” like the Argentinans do.

Daniel Maurer is a writer and book editor in New York City. 

This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.