'Swingland' offers peek into kinky sex underworld

The book is part memoir, part how-to for those curious about "exploring the coital landscape," as Stern calls it.

A Hollywood screenwriter, Stern knows how to tell a story, and documenting life as a swinger in Los Angeles makes a great elevator pitch. He follows his own sexual journey - from fearful adolescent to insecure, inexperienced college boy, to empowered adult - inviting readers in with self-deprecating humor and honesty.

The book is full of comical anecdotes, including two injuries Stern sustained while in the throes of passion. But his ability to laugh at himself and the absurdity of some situations helps create a bond with the reader.

A self-proclaimed average Joe in looks and prowess, Stern suggests that you don't have to be a male model or porn star to participate in the "Lifestyle." Dissatisfied with his lack of experience and poor performance under pressure, he got into swinging as a way to conquer his angst.

"I was demystifying the act of sex ... chipping away at the fear it held over me ... I'd escaped the performance-hindering anxiety and understood sex for what it was: fun," he writes.

Breaking into swinging circles isn't an easy task. The group has its own rules and lexicon - and is fiercely self-protective. It takes Stern about two years of cruising websites, networking and successful encounters to build up a roster of partners to meet for "playtime." As he racks up the "certs" (positive certifications or testimonials) from former lovers on his website profiles, his dance card stays full, playing as often as three times a week.

But happy endings aren't always guaranteed. Stern confides one of the hazards of swinging: "unrelenting, soul-crushing, suicide-inducing rejection." Once he becomes indoctrinated, he enjoys the variety and unpredictability, and finds it difficult to go back to a "Vanilla" life.

Stern's writing is engaging, but the book should be 100 pages shorter. Much of the advice is repetitive and takes the reader out of the narrative.

It's the misadventures in "Swingland" - crazy mismatched couples, hotel rooms crowded with nude strangers and sexting at work - that draw readers in. The chapters on exact email wording to attract partners get tedious, and advice on preparing for a swinging experience - from hygiene, to clothing, to manners - is similar to the regular dating world, and not revelatory.

There are dozens of explicit sexual encounters in the book, but those looking for erotic fiction may be disappointed by Stern's matter-of-fact descriptions. It's more 50 Nights of Play than "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Most swingers only use a first name or pseudonym, and rarely discuss their personal lives. Perhaps this detachment prevents Stern from delving into how swinging affects relationships with his family and friends. It might have added dimension to the book to know more about how swingers navigate the world, while maintaining their secret diversion.

While divulging their lascivious desires and behavior, Stern speaks of his fellow swingers with respect. He accepts that they come in all shapes, sizes and ages, and he believes their unconventional hobby doesn't preclude them from sustaining loving relationships.

Stern is forthright about his reasons for trying the lifestyle, and admits to becoming somewhat addicted to swinging. Although the book has a light-hearted tone, the author is able to look inward to question his motives. He writes intelligently about his fears of commitment and returning to monogamous "vanilla" life, even as he desires companionship.

"Swingland" is a seductive story about a mysterious subculture, but ultimately, it's about transformation and one man's search for his own naked truth.

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