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"Screwing Their Brains Out": Plato's Retreat and the Rise of Swinging

A new film about Plato's Retreat shows how the swinger's club helped challenge gender stereotypes and regressive ideas about sex.

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Some Plato’s habitués were concerned that they be perceived as "normal." One big-haired woman in vintage footage insists, "We all have jobs, we all pay mortgages, just because we’re swingers, we’re not freaks of nature." A couple of others pass judgment on the $25 all you can eat buffet: Annie lists the options as if they’re grand (chicken, lasagna, potato salad, chow mein), while Fred Lincoln, who took over the club when Levenson went to prison on tax charges, says the food was "horrible." Still, food wasn’t much on the mind of most attendees; there was too much else to do and see. Photographer Donna Ferrato (who calls herself a "shy girl from Ohio") says on her first night at Plato’s, she jumped into the pool and swam the length, only to come up and see a line of men "all jerking off, coming in an arc over the pool." She smiles, looking vaguely shy. "That is one of my biggest regrets, that I didn’t get that picture."

If the scene was lively -- or at least arresting -- Levenson was less compelling. Screw magazine editor Al Goldstein puts it bluntly, saying that Levenson "was boring. His whole world was sex. His world was genitalia. He never read a book, he never had a thought." The film winds down as films like this tend to do, with the sad story of Levenson’s fall (he ended his life doing crack, having heart trouble, and driving a cab), Mary’s institutionalization, and the end of sex in the ‘80s. A speech snippet by Ronald Reagan signals the world-changing consequences of AIDS, and with that, the "revolution" of Plato’s Retreat and the gay clubs it emulated was over. Still, a customer named Betty insists, "I’m an old lady with no regrets because that period was very special." American Swing does well to recover even a little of that. 

Cynthia Fuchs is Popmatters' film and TV editor.

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