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There were a lot of wedding bands on a lot of left hands at Las Vegas's Tropicana Hotel. Thousands of married couples from dozens of states were strolling in and out of the hotel's casino and convention center. They were saying hello to people they hadn't seen since last year's convention, comparing tans, and gathering in even-ed clumps to gossip and catch up. Most of the couples in the hotel were holding hands or engaged in some form of PDA. Wandering through the casino they'd suddenly stop and kiss--and, really, why shouldn't they?

This weekend was a long-planned, much-anticipated romantic getaway, a time when the normal pressures of daily life were supposed to fall away. Over the next three days, the conventioneers were going to dress up, drink, gamble, and dance. Oh, and commit adultery.

For while the couples at the Lifestyles convention were most decidedly married, none were off-limits.

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Married heterosexual swingers, aka "playcouples," had taken over the hotel. I was researching a book on the seven deadly sins, and to explore the dynamics of lust I decided to hang out with adulterers. Selecting adultery, of course, had one big perk: I would have to commit adultery myself, and my boyfriend couldn't really complain, since it was, you know, my job. Faced with a relationship crisis grounded in a theological debate, I decided to call on a member of the clergy to settle this dispute.

We're not regular churchgoers and we don't know any priests or ministers, so I called a prayer line I saw advertised on a Christian cable network. A Baptist minister working from his home in North Dakota explained to me that it was impossible for me or any gay man to commit the sin of adultery. What you do is fornicate, and fornication is a sin. God hates all fornication, and all fornicators are sinners. Fornicating with another homosexual does not make you an adulterer.

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It only makes you a fornicator. All fornicators go to hell. Wife swapping was first mentioned in the media in the mids after military officers in southern California gave birth to the modern swinging movement. Legend has it that a tight group of cold-war-era military men shared their wives to cement their bond.

Organized wife swapping among military officers in the s and '60s, particularly in the air force, is well documented and routinely denied. Nonmilitary swing clubs started popping up in the early s, first in archconservative Orange County, then in San Francisco, Hollywood, and Los Angeles. Clubs started out as gatherings in members' homes, then certain bars began catering to swingers.

Insocial scientist Gilbert Bartell claimed in Group Sex: A Scientist's Eyewitness Report on the American Way of Swinging that one million people--half a million couples--were involved in organized swinging. Their club, according to LSO's Web site, was started "to provide recreational opportunities to couples who yearned to lead lives free from archaic religious and political restrictions.

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The convention I attended in attracted more than 3, couples, men and women wearing color-coded plastic wristbands that identified them as swingers. In his brief history of swinging he cites an unnamed report by "two well-known sociologists" that predicts 15 to 25 percent of all American married couples--some 22 million people--will become swingers at some point in their marriage, a statistic that should be taken with about a hundred thousand grains of salt. But it's impossible to dispute McGinley's claim that organized swinging is going on all over the United States.

A quick Internet search turns up swingers clubs in every corner of the country--including clubs in "red" states like North Carolina, Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, and Utah. A large chunk of LSO's Web site is dedicated to demystifying the lifestyle, a term the group embraces as passionately as they reject the term wife swapping. According to the site, LSO speaks out "in public and private forums" to advance the playcouple philosophy: "Sex between consenting couples is natural, wholesome behavior and to pretend it is not is to encourage physical and mental disorder.

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What you'll find are a lot of people--everyday people just like you--who are only interested in an open and friendly atmosphere where people are not afraid to talk about fantasies No one gets attacked. No one is pressured to do anything they don't want to.

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There's no rituals, no initiations. There are, however, a lot of people having fun. I've changed their names. We were eating hot, salty pretzels with yellow mustard in the Tropicana's coffee shop, a dingy hole-in-the-wall that wouldn't be out of place in a Trailways bus depot. David was wearing a tank top and a pair of running shorts.

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Bridget had on blue-jean overalls and a small Star of David on a chain around her neck. They were in their early 40s but neither looked a day over They'd been married for ten years and "in the lifestyle," as they call it, for four. They live in a suburb of Chicago and have three children under the age of ten. They keep kosher, attend services at least once a week, and were giddy with anticipation about their boys' future bar mitzvahs.

Before meeting me in the Tropicana's lobby, they'd spent an hour in their hotel room reading the Torah. Or is it hiding that sex from your spouse? But people are complex. Torah says a man should leave his parents and cleave to his wife," and David and Bridget feel that swinging has brought them closer together. God forbids adultery in the Sixth Commandment. In the Jewish tradition, sin requires an action.

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Wanting to commit adultery, according to the Christian god, is every bit as bad as actually committing adultery. It may seem harsh that God would condemn millions of straight American men to eternal torment for, say, wanting to fuck Jennifer Aniston, who happens to be married to Brad Pitt, but hey, who are we to question God?

As God points out to Job, we weren't around when he was hanging the stars, so who the fuck are we and what do we know about anything? Early Christians believed that the act of lusting after someone was not only a sin on the part of the luster but also potentially the lustee. It's on other grounds entirely that the object of lust becomes guilty of sin," such as behaving or swinger in ways that they know make others lust after them.

Which means, of course, that Brad Pitt, Heath Ledger, and Tom Cruise have sinned grievously--all three appeared shirtless on the cover of Vanity Fair--as their actions inspired lust in my heart and the hearts of millions of other straight women and gay men. When someone's dress or lack thereofactions, or words tempt others to sinful thoughts or deeds or boththat's "what is called making oneself an 'occasion of sin,' and there is potentially some guilt incurred by that," says Vaughan. Since Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt make themselves the "occasion of sin" about as often as I make myself toast, Jennifer can expect red roast in hell for prancing around on Friends in her underwear, and Brad will burn right beside her for splashing his abs all over the cover of Vanity Fair.

And here's some more bad news: Man and wife, according to early church fathers, were to love each other like brother and sister. Lust even within marriage was considered a clarion of adultery, believe it or not, which means it's not OK for Brad and Jennifer to lust after each other.

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The remedy for lust, marital or casual, was chastity--with some kinds of chastity considered better than others. Virginity was the best kind of chastity, according to church fathers, which led some early Christians to castrate themselves. If you couldn't be a virgin, the second-best chastity was widowhood.

What "pro-family" advocates won't tell you about the couples who happily share each other with strangers.

If you weren't disciplined enough to be chaste or lucky enough to be widowed and too horny to go without sex, "it's better to marry than to burn," Saint Paul said. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the institution of marriage. But despite all the compliments the "ancient" and "sacred" institution of marriage gets from American clerics and candidates who ignore the many ways in which the "unchanging institution of marriage" has evolved and changed over the centuriesearly Christians regarded marriage as vastly inferior to celibacy.

Which is still the Catholic church's position.

Swingers: a love story

Unlike the Jews--an embattled tribe trying to make as many babies as possible--early Christians believed the world was coming to an end. Jesus said as much: "There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power" Mark With the world coming to an end, the early church discouraged its members from bringing more children into the world. With the Kingdom of God at hand, Jesus H. Christ, who had time to arrange for child care? Judaism isn't so insanely antisex, according to David and Bridget.

King David was very promiscuous, but he is still seen as the greatest king and a Jewish hero, so maybe missing the mark sexually isn't so serious a sin. David and Bridget got into swinging the same way most swinging couples get into the lifestyle: David asked his wife if she'd like to attend a party.

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He had gone to a few before with a long-term girlfriend, he'd enjoyed them, and he thought Bridget would like them just as much as he did. Bridget was afraid the parties would be sleazy. She would be in charge.

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I told her that going to a club is like going to the most fun bar you've ever been to. Nothing is going to happen that you don't want to have happen. None of the men are obnoxious or drunk, since they know they'll be asked to leave if they make any of the women feel uncomfortable.