Civil Libertines

The battle over Phoenix's groundbreaking sex-club ban moves into federal court

Ronald Roe is a wife-swapper.
The 31-year-old psychiatric case worker for a Valley hospital enjoys, on frequent occasion, watching his wife copulate with other men.

And Ronald's wife, a software engineer, fondly encourages him to have sex with other men's wives, usually while she's in the same room, having sex with other men.

Roe (not his real name) says he and his wife discovered their sexual nature about six years ago, before they were married. The two were in grad school, and double-dated with the same Tempe couple nearly every weekend. Usually, he says, all four wound up back at one of their places after dinner, watching a movie in the dark.

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"One night they started making out on one side of the couch, and we started making out on the other. Gradually, we became aware of what was happening, as we watched them and vice versa. Eventually, we all started touching one another while making out, and it evolved from there."

Today, Roe and his wife have relationships with four other married couples in the Valley who are fellow swingers--consenting adults who practice group sex, spouse swapping, voyeur/exhibitionism and other self-proclaimed acts of liberated sexuality. Of those four couples, Roe says, he and his wife are especially close with one--he calls them Karl and Sharon. "They're our best friends," he says. "Sharon is my other wife, and Karl is my wife's other husband."

Roe arrived for a recent interview (on his way to a Suns game) with two wood-framed photographs of him, his wife, Karl and Sharon together on a vacation last fall in the West Indies. In one shot, the two couples are dressed to impress in the living room of Roe's time-share condo, linked arm-in-arm. In the other, they're swimming naked in sapphire waters.

"We travel together a lot," Ronald says. "We're at each other's houses for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We take care of each other's sick children. Sex is an integral part of our relationship, but our relationship is more than sex."

Roe and his wife met their friends and lovers (all four couples) at two of the six swingers' clubs in the city of Phoenix--Club Chameleon, which opened in January 1997, and Sociables, which has been around for almost 30 years. Both clubs are now outlawed in the city of Phoenix for being what they are: out-of-the-way places where adults gather to socialize, dance and, sometimes, have sex, either in private or public chambers.

On December 9, the Phoenix City Council made sex-law history when it unanimously passed a new ordinance that makes it a crime to own or operate a swingers' club in Phoenix. The Scottsdale-based National Family Legal Foundation, a conservative Christian organization, helped Phoenix city attorneys draft the law.

The ordinance is the first of its kind in this country, and appears primed to spark a monumental battle in the legal war over the business of sex in America.

Until Phoenix, no U.S. city had passed a law specifically banning swingers' clubs, which have quietly existed in most major metropolitan areas since the early to mid-1970s.

Now, officials in at least four other cities, including Las Vegas, Nevada, and Indianapolis, Indiana, have drafted their own swingers' club laws, using the Phoenix ordinance as a model. Before they make their next move, those officials are waiting to see how the Phoenix law stands up to the first waves of a constitutional attack in federal court.

Locally, the city of Glendale was more keen. In January, its city council, without any public hearings or debate, unanimously passed an exact replica of the Phoenix law, even though there are no known swingers' clubs in Glendale. "The simplest way to get rid of them was not to allow them in the first place," says Glendale city council member Phil Lieberman. "I'm pro-business, but I'm not pro-dirty business."

Since the Phoenix ordinance took effect January 8, five of the six swingers' clubs have remained open in violation of the law. The owners of four of them have filed a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging the ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution.

That lawsuit will likely go to trial this summer. In the meantime, the clubs have asked U.S. District Court Judge Roslyn Silver to prevent the city from enforcing the law until after the trial. Silver heard arguments and testimony for and against the injunction on March 4, and should make a ruling before the end of the month.

Phoenix city attorney Jim Hays (who authored the swingers' club law and is leading its defense in court) says that if Judge Silver rules in the city's favor, the grace period between the enactment of the law and its enforcement will come to an end.

"The wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly, but they are turning," says Hays. "We have a pending case here. Hopefully we'll get a favorable ruling. And if we do, and these places are still in violation of the law, those wheels will pick up speed.

"Of course, we're not going to do anything to prevent these men and women from practicing the swinging lifestyle in their private homes, as they have for years and will do so for many years to come. Please enjoy. Just don't run them as businesses. That's all. And don't run six of them in the city of Phoenix. Some things are just better kept in private, in your bedroom. And there's nothing private about sex clubs."

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