Swing City: How Ireland became a hotbed for swappers
Broadcaster Mariella Frostrup was scandalised when she recently discovered that her choice of balcony foliage was seen by some as a sign that she was into swinging.
Unbeknownst to the 49-year-old mum, her choice of pampas grass is a visual code used by some wife-swapping couples to let other sexually-minded folk know where they are.
Frostrup was outraged, as were all her Twitter followers, as was Esther Rantzen who made a similar faux pas with her foliage the year before. It seems when it comes to swinging everyone loves to be scandalised ... until they're behind closed doors.
Because, for all the middle-class tut-tutting that goes on about the spouse-swapping way of life, there's always a lot of interest in the subject and there's plenty of Irish husbands and wives actively engaged.
A glance at the number of sexually liberated couples across Ireland proves the point.
On the website www.irishswingers.ie alone, there are now 129,490 registered Irish members, with figures growing year- on-year since the site was set up in 2007.
But according to Philip Moore, a Belfast-based businessman behind irishswingers.ie and several other adult websites, it's not pampas grass that anyone here needs to be looking out for.
"We don't tend to go in for plants here, maybe we don't have the climate for it," he chuckles. "At the moment it's all about ankle bracelets. They're subtle but also something not typically worn by older women.
"If someone is interested they can go up to the woman, comment on the bracelet and ask if there's any significance to it."
Others tend to meet online on sites like irishswingers.ie, Irishswingersclub.com, swingernation.ie or in hotels, clubs and bars where events have been organised by the websites.
However, it's not a community easily infiltrated. Ireland's swinging community is inherently secretive and wary. Just two couples off IrishSwingers agreed to answer questions emailed to them regarding their lifestyle choice.
"Thanks to the way the press have portrayed swingers in Ireland and the fact that we think our children would see us as cheating on each other, we can't be open about our lifestyle, even though we would love to be," say fortysomething therapist Denise and sales executive Sean from Co Dublin.
The couple have been married more than 20 years and decided to try swinging 16 months ago, during which time they've met 15 other couples.
"I mentioned the idea to Jim while we were having sex," says Mary, a thirtysomething swinger from Co Cork.
"I told him I'd always had a fantasy of us being with another couple and watching each other with another man and woman.
"The first time we did it was nerve-wracking and exciting, but it's liberating and in all honesty we both agreed we were sorry we hadn't done it sooner. You can get stuck in a rut when you've been married a long time and sex can seem like the same old chore."
But because of the taboo surrounding swinging, many couples such as Jim and Mary decide to keep quiet.
"There's a lot of suspicion in the swinging community and people are very shy talking about it," said one source within the community.
He adds: "I think religion has a lot to do with it. It took Irish people a long time to accept homosexual relationships; swinging is something else that is taboo, even though I know for a fact a lot of people do it."
The majority of swingers hail from a curtain-twitching suburbia well-versed in keeping matters behind closed doors. Website data shows that typically they tend to be over 30, academic and middle class.
Amusingly couples searching online tend to judge each other as much on the house and décor revealed behind someone's profile shot as on their looks. One swinging site's discussion forum has a lively ongoing debate about the importance of home cleanliness in making the right impression in a profile picture.
Often couples are NOT married. "By and large it's a partner or a girlfriend, not a wife, that a guy goes swinging with," explains our source. And while the practice is popular enough in the capital, swinging is rife in the country. He adds: "Gorey is a hotbed for it, so are Kildare, Mayo and Galway."
"It's rife in Co Down," adds Moore, "but there's no swingers party established there, as was recently reported in a tabloid. Those sort of close-knit, regular groups throwing car keys in a bowl week after week are a myth.
"Swingers are always looking to the next, new sexual experience. If it was the same people in the same house all the time, that would get boring, and being boring isn't what swinging is all about."
But searching for that new sexual high doesn't mean throwing out the rule book. "There's a definite etiquette to swinging," says Pat, who is not a swinger himself but has developed a close understanding of the world through running his website which he set up after noticing a gap in the market for an all-Irish swinging site.
"Most swingers have a 'playphone' used exclusively for setting up dates. When meeting someone off the website for the first time it's always the women who speak to each other over the phone, to confirm that there is definitely a woman involved."
He explains: "There are a lot of single guys who want to get involved with a couple but voyeurism is usually frowned upon. A whole new branch of swinging has developed called cuckolding aimed specifically at couples and single males, but often swingers only want to meet other couples."
He adds: "It's also unusual to have young couples on the scene, firstly because there aren't many young swingers but also because not many female swingers want to be compared to twentysomethings. And of course the biggest rule is that 'no' always means no."
So why, with all the secrecy, rules and moral outrage, is everyone so fascinated by swinging? The answer is glaringly obvious. "We have a great sex life!" exclaim Jim and Mary.
"Five years ago we decided to try something different and it was more amazing than we ever thought it would be. We're open about what we do and people have their opinion about it.
"Either way, it's our lives and we don't much care what anyone thinks -- we're too busy enjoying the sexual freedom swinging gives us to enhance a great sex life!"