Inside the sexy club where Joburg's swingers go to play
Bondage, knife play and orgies in dark rooms: there's a place for every fetish at Club Rome
Susan's* kink is having sex, lots of sex, with lots and lots of different men. She claims she has slept with 25,000 men in her lifetime, which is a few thousand people short of Wanderers Stadium at full capacity. The most men she has had sex with in one day, she says, is 104.
"I write about each experience in a book, the weird stuff that happens, the memorable stuff. I don't share it with anyone else," Susan says.
"You only come [to a sex club] if you have a strong relationship," says Tony*, Susan's partner. "I never come here to look at other women. I come here to be with my wife."
Tony and Susan are old hands in the swinging scene: they have been at it for 20 years. "Back then swinging was much more hardcore," says Tony. "There were no clubs - we would go to people's houses or hire venues."
Nowadays the place is Club Rome, and here you can't just swan dive into the orgy room. Even when you are invited to bang your brains out, rules still apply. You also can't chat up a woman and there is an indemnity form to sign at the door.
Established in 1996 as Marquee, Club Rome is the oldest swingers' club in Johannesburg. Gatherings usually happen on Saturday nights.
An invitation requires passing an online screening process. Only then are you allowed in to the establishment that sits discreetly off a dirt road in Kya Sand, northern Johannesburg.
For newbies, there is an induction tour. They are shown the warm-water pool and the warren of rooms where sex happens. Then there are the rules. "If the door is open to one of these rooms, you can watch. But you can only join in if you are invited," explains a staff member.
The rules are different in the Orgy Room and Dark Room. "It is in the Orgy Room where the craziness happens. Here, there are only two rules - you can say no to anal, and no to someone who is not wearing a condom," says the staff member. If you feel uncomfortable, you can leave the room.
By 8pm, patrons are mingling at the bar. A good night at Rome draws 200 people - including judges, pilots and big-shot businessmen. "We also seem to have a lot of teachers," remarks the staff member. Most patrons' friends, bosses and family don't know about this part of their lives.
Not everyone is here for sex. There are the voyeurs, who will come just to watch. Dan* and Cynthia* come to dance. "I like the way people dress, and I like that I can be myself," says Cynthia, whose adult children have no idea their mom hangs at a swingers' club.
At Rome, as with most other swingers' clubs, it's the women who make the moves: men are not allowed to initiate a hook-up. Members point out that women are safe here. Over and over husbands say they can leave their wives at the bar, knowing they won't be hit on or have their drinks spiked.
Once in a while, the kinks get darker and blood is drawn. On BDSM night patrons arrive in black leather. Some sport bondage collars. The playlist is tailored to the mood: Nine Inch Nails' Closer plays as participants take part in the Iron Bum competition, in which buttocks are bared and beaten. The participants are protected by safe words and can opt out at any time. Indemnity forms are signed.
Those doing the spanking start off using their bare hands. From hands, it moves to paddles, and one by one participants fall out. By the time a cane is produced, two women are left standing. We watch as angry red welts swell, then turn black and eventually bleed.
"It's a turn-on watching," says a spectator. Women, they say, usually win. But it's not all about pain. Candice's fetish is part of her healing. She's always had a thing for ropes and bondage, particularly the ancient Japanese art of kinbaku, but this changed when she and her husband were victims of a house robbery. The robbers tied her up. "I needed to get a different perspective, to see ropes as something that's not aggressive," she says.
For over half an hour her husband weaves a web of rope across her body. He checks and double-checks each knot. Satisfied, he hoists her into the air with a pulley system set up on the stage. There, blindfolded and a metre above the ground, she hangs suspended. This is the second time the couple has done this since the robbery. "It's freeing to do this with someone you deeply trust," says Candice*.
By midnight clothes are being discarded. A couple has sex on a bar table and no one appears to notice. In the Dark Room, where patrons have sex in pitch blackness, a woman can be heard having an orgasm. Some have had their desires sated, while others notch up the evening as part of that journey into understanding just what turns them on. Working out your fetish can take an unexpected turn. "It did for me," says a patron. "Want to know what my fetish is? I learnt that it's a beautiful antique chair with a beautiful naked woman sitting in it."
*Not their real names
WHAT IT IS
Swinging is a world of kinks and fetishes where sexual preferences are defined by a whole set of acronyms. Many see it as more than a pastime, and will often refer to it as "the lifestyle".
• MMFs: male + male + female threesomes
• FFMs: female + female + male threesomes
• BDSM: bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, where the lifestyle enters a world of pain.
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Within the genres are "plays". Participants can take part in knife play or rope play. And all of this is controlled by hard and fast rules. Even among couples who are a part of the swinging scene, there are what are known as hard rules and soft rules. Hard rules are what the couple agreed they would not take part in while swinging. Soft rules, however, can be negotiated and explored, if both partners are in agreement.