-- As the saying goes in New Orleans, let the good times roll.
And at no time is that mantra on display more than during the Naughty in N’Awlins, an annual swingers convention.
Roughly 1,300 swingers from across the country, some who have been married for years and have children, gathered in New Orleans last month for a convention that took over a luxury hotel for four days.
Bob Hannaford, who has made a business around the swinging lifestyle with events like these and a number of cruises, put the convention together. He and his staff of 45 people replaced tables and chairs in conference rooms with beds to create “playrooms” -- a dungeon room, a bondage room and a sensual magic room just to name a few.
An introductory sex toy class, an introduction-to-bondage class, naked speed dating and body painting were just some of the 20 seminars the convention offered, not to mention the 25 wild themed parties, such as the red-dress charity party.
In true New Orleans fashion, the convention was kicked off with a first-ever Swingers Pride parade down Bourbon Street.
The convention is not just about bringing the swinging community together, Hannafold said, but it makes a statement about their lifestyle choice.
"I just want to live in a world where people accept us," Hannaford said. "We just want to live our lives, make our own choices. What we do in private is our own business and there’s a lot of people who do kinky things in private. Most people don’t want to tell people about it, but I’m here to tell the world, 'I’m a kinky guy, you gotta accept me.'"
Hannaford knows swinging isn’t for everyone, but while critics of the swinger lifestyle say it’s just an excuse to cheat on your partner, he believes it can actually help make a marriage stronger.
“This is not infidelity. They’re doing it together,” he said. “Does it work for everyone? No, it doesn’t. We know people that try it and regret it. We know people that tried it and end up breaking up. But how many monogamous people are breaking up every day, as well?”
Many married couples at the convention said the swinger lifestyle has helped keep their relationship alive.
Holli and Michael Bell from Los Angeles have been married two years. Michael Bell, 38, said they are “100 percent emotionally monogamous” and that swinging is a community where “you can come and be.”
“The perception is to have to have sex with everybody, and we don’t live by that. We live by it’s got to be what we want and how we want it,” he said. “If she was with another man, I’m OK with that as long as it’s a decision that Holli made personally.”
The Bells also have a child. They don’t believe what they do in their private moments impacts their family any differently than what other couples do.
“A non-swinging couple has sex with each other and there’s no reason they should be discussing their sex life with their children. Same thing with us,” Michael Bell said. “Our hope is that our children learn from us open, honest communication, true love and that we emotionally, again, are committed to each other.”
Convention attendees John and Jackie Melfi, both 50, from Dallas are also married, and have eight children and six grandchildren. They, like other swingers, have some guidelines about their lifestyle. They own swingers clubs together in Dallas and New Orleans and have a strict rule not to play in their own clubs.
“I think marriage is sometimes a threat to marriage. A lot of monogamous marriages, a high percentage of them, end in divorce and that’s really sad,” Jackie Melfi said. “I don’t have to stop loving him in order to have to start having feelings for someone else, and that’s pretty spectacular. That’s loving ... with your hands open.”
She said she found the swinger lifestyle "empowering."
"I didn’t realize that it was possible to have a relationship like this," she said. "The fact that I've had been in a situation, not only with someone who loved me but then someone else, and how powerful I felt, yet loved, and I felt respected and cherished -- it had me hooked from that."
Even young couples like Lisa and Jake Green from New York, both in their mid-20s, said swinging helps keep their new marriage interesting.
“We feel that because we’re young it’s the perfect time to start exploring what we’re into and then we can just, as we go on through life, figure out our likes and dislikes,” Lisa Greene said.
“I’d say it brought us closer, so far,” Jake Greene added.
If either became uncomfortable with swinging, the Greenes said, they would just stop.
“It’s about us,” Lisa Greene said. “It’s not about ‘sex is the most important thing.’ And it’s about us experiencing together.”