While we stood still...

While we stood still...

Empty shelves

No one is exactly sure when it happened, or exactly how.  

Somewhere in Wuhan Province, China during the month of December, 2019 a virus made the leap from animals to humans.  This “zoonotic” virus is now known as “Corona Virus Disease, 2019” or “COVID-19” for short, and is presently responsible for over 800,000 confirmed cases and in excess of 39,000 deaths worldwide with no signs of stopping in sight. COVID-19 went from a footnote in the world news to the center of the universe in just 3 months, taking with it world commerce, consumer confidence, and our own freedom of association.  As news of the virus’ spread proliferated throughout the mainstream media, new terms were added to the average American’s lexicon; Terms like “flattening the curve,” and “novel virus” became staples of households, along with others many of us never thought we’d hear like “lockdown,” and “quarantine.” 

A “novel” virus, COVID-19 has never before been encountered by humans.  During an appearance on the Casual Swinger Podcast, Dr. Judy commented “It’s a virus that we’ve never been exposed to before.  Because of that, humans have no immunity to it. Unfortunately, it is spreading a lot faster than anything else that we’ve seen”  COVID-19 primarily spreads person to person, via contact with a contaminated surface (such as a handshake, or a doorknob) or via aerosol ingested by breathing.  It’s been labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), meaning it’s containment has been broken and it’s a global affliction. One Atlanta based M.D. (Doc Z) who requested anonymity said early last week, “We are currently in the minor disruption phase of the pandemic. We will be soon in the major disruptive phase. Buckle up. Very soon movie theaters, bars,  restaurants, and non essential businesses will close. This will soon be followed by heavily virulent areas being isolated.”  

COVID-19’s reach is nearly infinite, sparing no nation, race, or socioeconomic background from its implications.  Financial markets have been decimated by the spread of the disease and an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, further compounding the madness on Wall Street. In the span of a single month, the Dow Jones Industrial average shed over 10,000 points, or in normal-person speak, roughly 3 trillion dollars in market value. In just one week, over 3 million people lost their jobs in America alone as a result of an engine ground to a halt by lockdown orders, fear, and the realities of a service based economy. Unless you’re selling toilet paper or hand sanitizer, chances are you’ve been negatively affected by COVID-19.

From the first suggestions that non-essential citizens would be asked to remain home, grocery stores large and small found themselves set upon by hoarders of all ages, with toilet paper, sanitizers, and cleaning supplies prized among all shoppers fearing for their lives.  According to an interview by the British Broadcasting Company, consumer psychologist Dr. Catharine Jannson-Boyd said that people likely “need to do something practical to make it feel like they are in control.” She suggested that stockpiling is a result of consumers observing others stockpiling and doing the same lest they miss out on the goods when scarcity sets in.  Nearly three months later, many items remain scarce with lines forming early for staple items like meat & paper goods around America.

From spark to inferno

While COVID-19 presently exists on the tip of the world’s tongue, it hasn’t been that way for America prior to the last few weeks.  As the virus raged across Asia, COVID-19 languished in far-off corners of most news pages, even being referred to loosely as the opposing parties “new hoax” during a speech by the President of the United States in February, 2020.  Whether or not it was ignored socially or simply not taken seriously enough will be an argument to be settled by historians, but the impact of the slow response is irrefutable. The United States is rapidly becoming the most infected of any nation on earth, and the rules governing social responsibility vary widely across the States as Governors individually mandate policy based on the recommendations from the White House and the Centers for Disease Control.  (CDC) Presently the United States has 159,000 confirmed cases (and counting) as testing becomes more widely available to inundated hospitals across the country.  

Medical personnel around the country are reporting a shortage in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), with many resorting to making their own with sewing machines in break rooms to help prevent personally contracting the virus.  “My nurses are wearing masks they sewed at home,” said Doc Z. “It won’t help, but it’s all they have.” These same doctors have found themselves gagged by hospital administrators for spreading the gravity of their situations, with Ming Lin, an emergency room physician in Washington, being terminated by his hospital for doing so.  A glaring unanswered question is whether these administrators and politicians are withholding information to prevent fear and protect the public, or protect themselves?

Everything preceding these words has led up to a major disruption to American life, a severe prostration the likes of which that is unseen perhaps since World War II.  That disruption is largely driven by fear, both of the unknown and the media driven hysteria that accompanies a culture that has celebrated news as entertainment since the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. “The only fault here is the public’s gullibility in allowing a new and unfamiliar situation to be spun by the media and politicians into fear.  It’s fear that will cripple us all, the fact that people are now so panicked believing that if they stick their head out the window and take a deep breath, they will die of the plague. It’s fear that will decimate the economy...that fear is devastating,” said Mario, owner & proprietor of dozens of Mid-West restaurants. There is a growing concern among politicians and economists alike that this “temporary” disruption to the global economy will be anything but. With a multiple trillion dollar stimulus adding further crippling debt to the United States, the world’s greatest economy is legitimately imperiled.  “Viruses kill, but nothing kills like poverty,” added Mario.

COVID-19 and the Lifestyle

Naturally, the lifestyle has not been spared the wrath of a disease that has wreaked havoc on every aspect of our lives.  From closures to cancellations, postponements to pauses in business, activities and options for the consensually non-monogamous have dwindled to nearly zero.  Some lifestylers have communicated that a large part of their social lives has vanished, like lifestyler “TT&AT”, who said “I love to go to the clubs on the weekends.  That’s completely stopped. Even though it’s only been a couple of weeks, it was a large part of our lifestyle for me. I enjoyed the energy and atmosphere.” His wife added, “I’m enjoying the enforced home time, and increased playtime with my hubs.”

Other lifestyle couples maintain a similarly positive outlook on the subject, like Central Florida resident “Slightly Sophisticated,” (SS) who said “We had met two couples that we were chatting with and looking to advance with a follow-up meeting.  COVID has definitely slowed down the timing, but we believe we will meet those couples once the epidemic is over.” It’s set in a host of other challenges for these couples, not the least of which is parenting. “It has been screwy, with 3 kids under 10 our daily patterns have definitely changed.  Most notably, the bedtimes for the kids have gotten later and as a couple we’ve had less time to connect than we both expected,” said SS.

Not since the public realization of the AIDS pandemic in America during the 1980’s has the lifestyle fallen so still as a community.  The effects have been broad reaching, with virtually every club, resort, party, trip, and playdate canceled across the globe in a matter of weeks. Fear of infection has many in the lifestyle canceling even the most basic of social visits.  “We have no vanilla friends. All our friends are lifestyle. So the social aspects are driving them to risk getting sick for social interactions and spreading it. Hence no visitors at our home,” said De of lifestyle podcast “The Euphoria Chronicles.” Even lifestyle dating sites have seen a dropoff in activity resulting from COVID-19.  According to Andi of “Double Date Nation,” “Daily traffic is down, however, members do have a longer session duration on the site than before. We have noted an increase in updated personal information such as bios, photos, selfie walls, etc.” In a broad response to COVID-19, DDN and fellow lifestyle dating site Swing Lifestyle, took the additional step of deleting all dates and events for the foreseeable future.

Lifestyle dating sites may be seeing a decrease in traffic, but internet citizens may be turning to pornography in their search for a little happiness among the chaos.  As a matter of fact, those figures have been increasing over time with a recent update reflecting an over 18% increase in PornHub traffic globally vs a similar time period in February.  “Porn is 'safe' in the sense that sexual fantasies can be watched but without increasing the risk of contracting COVID-19. Since more people are working from home, people have more downtime. People that were typically active in lifestyle activities have pent up sexual tension, porn is a logical step on bringing a sexual scenario to a safe environment. Due to social distancing, couples are only playing together and getting creative with video calls with lifestyle friends or watching porn together,” said Andi.  Out of morbid curiosity or unabashed audacity, some internet users also used the venerable outlet to search the term “coronavirus,” over NINE million times. Curious viewers can visit https://www.pornhub.com/insights for other metrics from around the world on traffic & usage during the crisis.

Porn is a personal activity, usually.  In today’s climate, that’s a very good thing.  The call for social responsibility has never been higher as exposure to other humans risks the safety of each of us.  To mitigate that risk (and to Andi’s point above), many lifestylers have taken to videoconferencing applications such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime, or Facebook Messenger to stay connected among friends.  From game nights to voyeuristic romps, modern videoconferencing technology has proven to be invaluable in the COVID-19 era for staying in touch with the ones we want to touch the most.


“Social Responsibility”

The former chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company famously said, “Companies should not have a singular view of profitability. There needs to be a balance between commerce and social responsibility... The companies that are authentic about it will wind up as the companies that make more money.”

That might be true, but it’s also true that small and medium business owners around this country have stood before employees, people who are mothers & fathers with the weight of the world on their shoulders and informed them that their business is closed for the foreseeable future, and their jobs (and wages) are no longer secure.  They’ve been told to join the over 3 million Americans who filed for unemployment last week alone in hopes of receiving enough from the government to make ends meet. There is a balance between the need to trudge onward in the pursuit of the almighty American dollar, and the responsibility to the social construct around us. "I’ve been in emergency triage mode for my company. I’ve laid off hundreds of employees and shuttered my stores. It’s infuriating. I’ve seen grown men stand in front of me and cry because they don’t know how they are going to feed their families. I’m all for flattening the curve but people don’t seem to realize the economic impact that these restrictions will have. You can’t just close down entire states. The bankruptcies are going to be incredible,” said Mario. 

Tabu Social Club (TSC), has been owned and operated for 16 years by Vicki Gonzalez and her husband’s best friend, Gary.  Nestled outside Baltimore in the quiet burg of Catonsville, Tabu has grown to be a part of the overall surrounding community in addition to the lifestyle, with contributions to charities and local institutions alongside being a hotspot for swingers. “We grew very strong relationships with the police department, fire department, and the surrounding community.  We have tried really hard to be a good business partner also. We personally are committed to helping provide for the homeless, and anything (we can) to show the community how we represent the lifestyle and what we do,” said Gonzalez. 

TSC closed to the public on Friday, March 13, 2020, with an initial goal to re-open at the end of March after the threat had passed.  To this writer’s knowledge, and with extensive research, TSC was the first lifestyle club to close to the public in an effort to protect its membership and the public at large from the threat of COVID-19.  “It was a very hard decision, lots of sleepless nights. We’re not only thinking of the members, but our employees. The reality is that if we kept opening, I’m going to get a phone call that somebody that attended died.  It’s that serious of an issue,” said Gonzalez. Other clubs that closed preemptively in an effort to protect their members include (but are almost certainly not limited to) Bronze Party in San Francisco and PlayhouseLV in Las Vegas.  Gonzalez added, “For us, the reality is that these people are family to us. The thought of having anyone come into our establishment and get sick, and they or a family member dies...none of us can live with that. I love the interaction with people, but it’s not worth losing them. That’s what we really feel in our heart.”

Other clubs around the country reacted in wildly different fashions, mainly in accordance with the varying regulations handed down by local authorities.  Prior to other mitigating circumstances, one such icon of the lifestyle community, The Champagne Club, announced “Champagne will be reducing our capacity to 225 to comply with our local and state public safety guidelines. We are fully aware other clubs are not taking this same stance. Many will say their zoning or private club classification excludes them but in reality, it does not. These guidelines are put in place to ensure the safety and well being of all citizens. As the owners of Champagne, we believe the discretion and SAFETY of our members should ALWAYS come before collecting money at the door.” 

Clubs around the country remained open, as localities lagged behind in regulating the closure of bars and restaurants in an effort to protect the population from itself.  Noteworthy businesses with deservedly excellent reputations were called into question in the coming weeks, like Trapeze, Menages, Secrets, Caliente, Purrfect LV, Sea Mountain, and The Playground, as they all remained open over the days that followed.  Legendary resorts around the globe also remained open, like Desire and Hedonism II, as their countries continued to allow tourists to enter, keeping their travel-driven economies in full swing. It would be weeks before either of these bellwether resorts would close their doors.  Just days later, Desire resorts announced they would be voluntarily closing, effective March 31, 2020 through April 30. Hedonism II in Negril, Jamaica had less choice in the matter, as the government closed the borders to incoming travel on March 21, 2020. Hedonism CEO & Owner, Harry Lange saw the silver lining, however as he said “We have a skeleton staff at Hedo continually cleaning and airing everything out.  Also, we’re doing maintenance items we didn’t have time for, or were too difficult to do when guests were in-house. We want to be ready to go day one when travel restrictions are lifted.”

While many members of the lifestyle community expressed compassion for their fellow community members, frustration fueled many to resort to posting online to express themselves.  “So, right now I am watching the individual event producers as to how they are behaving. As a read on their actual give a shit about us, the community. Some really care. Some are visibly demonstrating fake care and are just attempting to bullshit potential customers into hurting themselves and those around them.  Just keep some revenue going this month and maybe next,” said an anonymous Reddit user. As time wore on, the vitriol for businesses remaining open wasn’t exclusive to the anonymous on social media. “Personally, I believe anyone that didn’t close knowing what was coming is really irresponsible. They’re putting their members lives in jeopardy, and are more interested in revenue than the actual people involved.  This is supposed to be about community. If you’re not supporting the community and making the best decisions for them, you’re in the wrong business,” said Gonzalez.

To Be Continued

The social and economic paradox continues to play out across America as citizens and businesses of all sizes grapple with a near global halt in production, a crippling drop in stock market value, and a virus that has shown nearly no weakness in carving its deadly path through humanity.  This isn’t a problem the lifestyle is facing, it’s a problem for human life. It’s economic and physiological. It’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’ll be remembered as a referendum on Capitalism vs Communism, and either the story of the Great American Resolve...or the downfall of an empire.  Success isn’t measured in dollars for healers. It’s measured in lives. Entrepreneurs are still asking whether it’s better to die of a virus or to starve to death while waiting for a handout from a benevolent government. Still, there is cause for hope in the American entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re gonna make it.  My husband and his business have been very supportive, our landlord has been receptive in giving us a reduction in rent, but as soon as we open back up things are back to normal...Things will go back to normal. We’re gonna make it,” said Gonzalez.

Despite the challenges of layoffs and a potentially overwhelming blow to consumer confidence, business owners like Gonzalez and Mario remain confident that we will ultimately prevail.  When asked about the road back from this nightmare, Mario replied “As soon as possible, go back out and LIVE again. Shop, travel, dance, eat. Go back to the gym. Go on vacation. Invest, create, make friends and party.  That’s the engine that powers our economy and our lives. Hiding in fear is the poison, and living with confidence is the antidote.” In the meantime, the lifestyle stands as still as we did just before COVID-19 was a household name.  

We stand individually for now, but ultimately, we stand together.

(Written for ASN Lifestyle Magazine April 2020)

ASN Lifestyle Magazine April 2020