Inside Christchurch's swingers community

Steve and Jo, owners of Canterbury's Tawse Manor, where swingers parties are held. They provide nibbles, introductions, ...
CARYS MONTEATH/FAIRFAX NZ

Steve and Jo, owners of Canterbury's Tawse Manor, where swingers parties are held. They provide nibbles, introductions, beds and more, all for $40 a head.

Christchurch is often thought of as a conservative city, but as Abbie Napier discovers, there is a hedonistic swingers world operating behind closed doors. 

All together now. The social stigma about swinging means most involved guard their identity closely.
CHARLIE BARD

All together now. The social stigma about swinging means most involved guard their identity closely.

John* is a silver fox. On the high side of middle-aged, he is dressed in a well-cut suit, wears a tie and speaks with measure and thought.

John and his wife are long-time members of the Christchurch swingers community. They have almost a decade's experience. Cards on the table, there have been times when jealousy and misunderstanding have taken a toll on their relationship. They have fought and made up, like any couple, and to this day remain party regulars.

It all began on Bedford Row. An innocent early evening stroll in the central city ended with a curious look inside the ambiguously named Club SE.

On discovering the club was a swingers venue, most would have promptly turned on their heels and made a hasty, red-faced exit, but something compelled John and his wife to stay.

Later that night they had their first swinging experience with another couple.

The conversation after was, "Did that really happen? How are you feeling?".

"I had fun and she had fun ... it enhanced our love-making .. it was a turn on."

They must have been open to the idea, he admits. The decision has changed their lives. 

That first night lead to many more. Not one person in their lives knows what they get up to behind closed doors. While they're happy with their choices, their lifestyle is not widely accepted. 

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"It's a lifestyle choice but it's not for everyone. There's certain types of people who can do this. They're not conservative and have been in a partnership for a while, they want to experience sex in another way. 

"It's about living out each other's fantasies."

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John and his wife are regulars at the largest swingers party venue in Canterbury, Tawse Manor. 

The house itself is unassuming - a brick-clad rambler in Swannanoa, North Canterbury, hidden behind high hedges and a strategically curved driveway. It sits in a neighbourhood of large, recently built homes. Apart from a small gatepost sign, it is inconspicuous. 

Owners Steve and Jo have kept it that way. Not out of any sense of shame, but because it is polite to be discreet. The music is always off by midnight and guests park on the property. Love thy neighbour is taken to heart. 

Steve started Tawse Manor as a secluded "fetish bed and breakfast". Once upon a time, Steve managed several alternative lifestyle events in Canterbury catering to sexual fetishes. He became the manager of Club SE, with a view to "bringing a bit of kink" to the venue. 

"I've always been kinky," he says. "There is a lot going on in Christchurch in the swing scene. There's a perception that Christchurch is conservative, but that's only on the surface.

"We got to know the swingers scene really well."

When the club was destroyed in the 2011 earthquakes, Steve and Jo took it upon themselves to host private parties at Tawse. They had the space, the set up and the contacts to make it work. Demand was high and venues sparse. 

Parties cost clients $40 a head and includes the huge amount of cleaning required the next day, and Steve and Jo's time on the night. 

So, do people at Tawse throw their keys in a bowl and cross their fingers? 

"Never." Films, apparently, have a lot to answer for. 

People at swingers parties start the night socialising, before mutually agreeing to take things further. 

The key to swinging is consent. No means no and every couple has its own boundaries. Most are heterosexual with a few bisexuals in the mix. For the most part, action tends to be in groups of three or four. Larger groups are not out of the question. 

At Tawse, the party starts out like any other house party. Steve has a mailing list of more than 400 couples. Single males are vetted, "otherwise we get over-run". 

"There is a tendency to view [swinging] as having sex without paying."

Party-goers show up on a pre-arranged evening, bottle of wine in hand. Tawse provides the nibbles and the guests provide the small talk and the social foreplay. Old friends catch up on their news and "newbies" hang back, too nervous to join in. 

"There is no hyper-charged atmosphere, people are always surprised at how relaxed it is. 

"We have new people turn up and sit in their car for an hour — that's quite common."

★   ★   ★

Monique* is an attractive woman. She is young, career driven and candid, easily sharing details of her "amazing" sex life. She still gets flirty texts from her long-time partner when she travels for business. Over black coffee, her smartphone on the table beside her, she openly shares her decade of experience in the swingers world. 

It all began at university when a girlfriend took her to a "different" kind of party. She was nervous, but admits she must have been curious because it didn't take long for her to become comfortable. 

Her first swingers party was an eye-opener, and spurred a year of lesbian experimentation and a long stint being the 'three in threesomes'. 

In the swingers world, she was a "plus-one" for couples wanting another woman to join in. Being bisexual helped. 

It was through the swingers scene that Monique found love. Jason* was also playing the plus-one role at a party up north. Feeling a connection, they stepped outside, swapped numbers, and are still together (and still swinging) to this day. 

Once in a while, they will go to parties at venues like Tawse Manor — they're on the mailing list — but for the most part they organise their own sex life online. The key to a successful relationship is communication, she says.

Jason has more time on his hands and will often begin checking out couples online. If they hit it off, Monique is included in a multi-user conversation online. Being a busy businesswoman, she might not weigh in on the flirting and meeting arrangements, but she's kept in the loop. 

"We talk about things. I give him freedom and expect the same in return. 

"As long as we communicate, we're OK. We love each other and we're not hurting people." 

There are plenty of websites and forums online for couples wanting to meet other couples. Some couples they have met have gone on to be firm friends in a platonic sense. The couples babysit for each other, meet for a platonic lunch or get away together. 

Monique and Jason will meet a couple in person at least once before deciding to take things further. A coffee or dinner is proper first date material and from there, they mutually decide if a second date is on the cards. 

"If one of us isn't comfortable we just leave the scene. We have our own signals with each other." 

She lists her other essentials: "Physical attraction is definitely a must. Someone who can hold an intelligent conversation. Age-wise, between 30 and 45-years-old, roughly." 

"If things go well, we'll go further." 

★   ★   ★

At Tawse, it usually takes newcomers a while to "open up". There is no pressure to participate and many guests just watch, or sit outside and chat. 

Everyone is entitled to their own choice of partner. 

"Things will just organically move along," Steve says. "Couples will find their way off to a room."

The catch is, not every room in the house has a door on it. One room has a live camera feed on to a big screen in the lounge for the voyeuristic to enjoy. 

"In any given room there might be only one couple, or more than one, with others watching.

"People come out to watch others and then go off and have mad sex at home."

A functioning positive body image seems essential to successful swinging. With little privacy and a lot of nudity, guests have to be reasonably self-confident to take part if the closed rooms are taken. 

There are a range of shapes, sizes and ages to choose from at Tawse. Everyone agrees, physical beauty is not a pre-condition to swinging, far from it. Most guests are middle class or higher – police officers, teachers, accountants, doctors and lawyers – and have been in a relationship for a while. 

Steve is quick to caution that swinging will not save your marriage. 

"The majority of people are couples. They're secure in their own relationships and swinging gives them the opportunity to experience sexual things without the downsides of going to prostitutes etc."

Tawse provides a room of sex toys and equipment for couples to engage in foreplay before deciding to take things further. 

The importance of consent is a message widely spread in the swinging community. Monique says she has met women who have been dragged against their will to a party by their husbands, but those women are few. 

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One of the downsides to swinging is the risk of being caught in the act by a friend, colleague or client. The social stigma about swinging means most involved guard their identity closely. 

Monique never reveals her surname or occupation, but is quick to point out that it could be found online if someone really wanted it. She has bumped into a colleague and a client at parties. 

The co-worker wasn't much of an issue, but the client moved his portfolio elsewhere. Some months later, he contacted her again wanting to start a more personal relationship. She declined. 

"I don't want drama. It's a small world," she says. 

"There are a lot of nice couples in Christchurch. They're professional people who work hard. We're not hurting anyone."

Monique and Jason's approach makes use of a busy lifestyle and a house to themselves, whereas John and his wife have children and want to keep their sexual adventures out of their home. 

Tawse is a suitable location. For starters, Steve and Jo manage the whole evening. They fill up drinks, carry around food, make introductions and keep their guests happy. Visitors are more respectful when they are partying in someone's home. 

Most importantly, they diffuse drama. It's rare, but it happens.

"If people haven't made their expectations clear before the night, or someone oversteps the boundaries, it can be difficult," Steve says. 

For the most part, couples set their own limits. 

John and his wife never kiss other swingers, but Monique and Jason have agreed she can kiss other women, but not men. He doesn't kiss anyone. Both couples set clear limits and agree that regardless of the situation, nothing happens without the other's consent. 

"We've had our moments when we weren't happy with each other for some reason or another," John says. 

He thinks women are typically more jealous than men, and most conflict arises from husbands taking things too far, or their swinging partners expressing too much enthusiasm. 

They always use condoms and never take phone numbers. Nothing happens outside the party. 

"That starts to threaten the relationship in a different way. It has to be open and agreed upon, permission given step by step, moment by moment." 

Both John and Monique agree that swinging is better than cheating.

"I think the cheating rate in Christchurch is high," Monique says. "My partner knows what I'm doing ... I don't go behind his back.

"Don't you think it's safer when you do something with someone you love and you're open about it? I trust my partner 110 per cent. Don't people think it's better to open up and be yourself?"

* Names have been changed

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