2 min

Swingers aren’t so tacky after all

Who gets busted for cheating?

Bitchy lower court judges thankfully don’t have the final say in this country. But their rulings and the outdated logic behind them get under my skin just the same.

Montreal Municipal Court Judge Louise Baribeau has been making me itch since her Jul 22 decision, which found the host of a heterosexual swingers’ club guilty of keeping a common bawdyhouse. (I like to think that if it had been a gay sex club, the charge would have been “uncommon bawdyhouse,” but I’m more whimsical than most municipal court judges.)

The club, run in an apartment above the Montreal bar L’Orage, was a place where straight couples could go to swap partners and engage in group sex. (A L’Orage translation of the French for swingers’ club is “a meeting place for liberated couples” – a phrase less Penthouse Forum, but not much less 1970s than “swingers’ club.”) Baribeau convicted club owner Jean-Paul Labaye, who could face as much as two years in jail. Labaye has appealed the decision.

Two factors in particular about this case have bugged me all summer.

First, there’s Baribeau’s ruling itself. Her definitions of public space (there were advertisements for the club and an admission charge to enter the apartment) and of indecency (group sex took place) are not out of step with the legal system as a whole. These same definitions haunt gay sex spaces, making bathhouses and back rooms zones of police tolerance rather than zones of legal sexual expression. On these points, the problems are with the Criminal Code itself and not Baribeau.

It’s when Baribeau quotes the Supreme Court Of Canada’s Butler decision – a ruling about pornography – calling the swinging club “degrading and dehumanizing,” particularly to women, that she reveals herself as a particular species of sexual dinosaur.

Baribeau has abandoned all the public debate on sexuality that has taken place in the last 20 years. She is mired in the sex-negative feminism that died on the Order Paper in the ’80s. As a society, we have accepted that a woman’s body belongs to her alone. We have accepted that situations that empower women are better than situations that do not. That means consensual activity like swinging, for all the tacky images it conjures, is less degrading than, let’s say, being cheated on. And who gets busted for cheating?

The second thing bugging me about the L’Orage ruling is how quickly it died as a media issue. Compare its coverage in the mainstream media to that of the Bijou raids. The Bijou story has been used in the dailies as an entry point for articles about public sex, anonymous sex, park sex, gay community standards, community policing and internal police politics. L’Orage was covered as a court story, period.

The gay and lesbian community is often flattered as being media savvy and activist-driven when hot button issues arise. But there must be a few articulate straight people willing to come to the defence of swingers? Or even a few benevolent homos who could say a thing or two about non-monogamy?

Perhaps straight sexuality is so hopelessly rigid, nobody can be bothered to talk about it. Instead, the pundits busy themselves exploring gay sex – an arena where progress has not only been possible, it’s been rapid.

Swingers are shut out. Nobody takes them seriously because nobody seems to buy swinging’s central premise – that the women who swing choose to have sex with multiple partners. And they do so for their own pleasure.

Suddenly Baribeau’s attitude does not seem like an anomaly. Perhaps the straight population itself has not yet accepted that women’s sexuality can’t be degrading or exploitive if it’s women themselves who are taking the initiative.

Oops. Sorry Judge Baribeau. Maybe you’re not the only one left behind by the debates of the last 20 years.