Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
It's 12:45 on a Sunday morning, and at the Little Rock dance club Discovery, a man in a red dress and a redder wig is lip-syncing country queen Reba McEntire's "Fancy" for a packed house. Like the people on the dance floor outside the large show hall, the crowd is a mishmash, gay and lesbian couples laughing over drinks, straight married folk from Searcy ducking when the trash-talking transvestite emcee comes their way, drag queens, muscle men in tight shirts and beer-bashing frat boys in ball caps. Once a club that exclusively served a secretive gay and lesbian clientele, Discovery has become in recent years one of Little Rock's most vibrant night spots for gay and straight alike. Anyone who lived in Little Rock as late as 20 years ago might call it a quantum leap of tolerance that instead of being hidden away, accessible only by password, Discovery is in the phone book, has a sign above the door, and is open to anyone who wants to pay the $8 cover. Though it calls a fairly non-descript warehouse space home, it still stands out as the only place in the city where a gang of Monticello-bred sorority girls out to howl, two well-dressed women holding hands, and a middle-aged man in fake eyelashes and a skirt can feel equally welcome.
While getting caught frequenting such a place might have once gotten you a trip out of town on a rail if you were lucky, Little Rock has become a bit more cosmopolitan. For even the most buttoned-down among us, it's probably not news that we've got our strip clubs, our lingerie stores, our escort agencies, our dirty-talking radio DJs. Go looking, and we've got porn movie rentals, sex therapists, a gay rodeo association, the world's most famous groupie, and in-home "Passion Parties" - something like Tupperware sales for sex toys. For someone who wants to look even deeper, you can even find a thriving community of dominatrices, a chapter of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, swinger's groups, and at least one club for those who relish a good spanking.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
As one resident recently pointed out to this reporter, sex is only an issue in this town when it becomes too tacky to stay off the front page. The Starr Report notwithstanding, the fact of the matter is, as long as your sexual bent doesn't draw attention from the politicians, the preacher, or Jerry Springer, what you do between the sheets in Little Rock usually stays there. Still, our most recent sexual flap - the controversy over a new porn palace going in on 65th Street near a daycare, and a spate of city rezoning that rose to meet the outcry - got us thinking: in a city that still tends to crucify anyone hapless enough to get their sex caught in the printing press - the capital of a state with an ordained minister at its head - what is the sexual climate? The answer is: Our relationship with the S-word is by turns funny, secretive, torturous, confused, guilty and ecstatically vibrant. A bit like sex itself.
By all appearances, Susan and Phillip (not their real names) are normal suburbanites slipping gracefully into middle age. They're both good looking and smart, well-spoken and white collar, residents of a small bedroom community outside the city limits. They have kids, and grandkids, which they will gladly show you pictures of. Coming into the new West Little Rock IHOP for an interview after a windy evening of last-minute Christmas shopping, they could be any couple there, grabbing a quick bite before re-entering the fray.
The difference between Phillip and Susan and most other married people in Little Rock, however, is that - for the past 22 years - they have been swingers. To boot, Susan and Phillip are the founders of the largest swingers group in Arkansas, with a very visible website full of member pictures to prove it. At least once a month, in a variety of Little Rock convention halls, they host meet-and-greets for people involved in or curious about The Lifestyle, as they call it; what the uninitiated might call wife-swapping. The parties are catered affairs, RSVP only, and draw upwards of 120 people (their New Year's Eve party, which they were gearing up for when we spoke, was expected to draw more than 200).
Constantly in mind of the infamous 1980's bust of a swingers' party by former Pulaski County Sheriff Tommy Robinson, Susan and Phillip insist that their soirees are strictly soft core, strictly for couples to meet and get to know each other before continuing their interest elsewhere. For $40 for each male invitee (women get in free), participants get dancing, food, friendship, and the opportunity to meet others who share their passion for sex with someone else's spouse. For people who call them deviants, Susan and Phillip have one answer: In a society with a 60 percent divorce rate, their 27-year marriage is the proof in the pudding.
Talking to Phillip and Susan is sometimes like talking to members of an evangelical religion. Every answer sounds long thought out, full of words like "trust" and "honesty." Too, like the best evangelicals, after awhile, their ideas seem to make all the sense in the world. Talking to them, one often has to question the societal foundations of marriage in general: When push comes to shove, is there a difference between physical sex and emotional cheating? If your partner knows about it - and indeed might be watching in approval as you do it - is it still infidelity? For Phillip and Susan, after 22 years in The Lifestyle, the answers are clean cut.
"Does it not totally beat cheating?" Phillip said, "To love? To honor? You can still have that with your mate, because you aren't doing something behind their back. You're not lying. You're being open and honest. ... This is honesty with each other because you know who your wife or husband is going with. You know what your partner is doing all the time."
In addition to confronting society's taboos about swinging (Susan, formerly a registered nurse, said she has lost jobs after co-workers found her out), Susan and Phillip both said that they struggled with their emotions: jealousy, doubt, and fear. "(Jealousy) is the hardest thing to put away," Phillip said. "And you never put it away. It's still always there. Insecurity. You don't run around thinking about it everyday, but it can still creep up on you."
Susan agrees. "I think everyone sets their own rules," Susan said. "This is going too far, or that is going too far. And as you grow, you can change that to fit yourself. Everyone has to have their limits before they get started."
The inability to set such limits, and the inability to deal with emotions like jealously is number one reason why many people who try swinging don't stay in it for the long haul. For that reason, Phillip admits The Lifestyle is not for everyone, or even most people. "Sometimes," Phillip said, "we will tell people straight up. There have been couples I have gone to and said, this isn't for you."
"A lot of times," Susan said, "It's couples where one of them catches the other one cheating, and they decide that, well, swinging will fix that. This doesn't fix anything."
Phillip and Susan say that the longevity of their union is not the exception but the rule for other couples they know who swing. "I'm amazed how many couples have been married as long as we have in this," Phillip said. "Most of our friends have been married 20 years." According to Susan, the longevity of marriage that they see is the result of a mix of the excitement swinging introduces into their marriage, and the shared acceptance of swinging in the first place.
"When you think about it," Susan said, "the only people who can succeed in this lifestyle are the people who can sit down and talk before they even start in this."
Susan has been involved in swinging since she was 24, then married just five years. She says that while The Lifestyle is impossible for some people to understand, it has become normal for her and Phillip over time. "It's about knowing yourself and what you want to learn about each other," Susan said. "If you have a good marriage, then it only makes it stronger. If you've got a bad marriage, then nothing's going to save it."
Sitting there with them, watching waitresses bus tables as Phillip and Susan talk matter of factly about things that would shake most relationships to the core, any married person couldn't help but think the worst of them at some point, that one or both of them has a screw loose, that their marriage is built on ... what, exactly? There is the refrain: If you can sleep with anyone you want, why be married? Then Susan's cell phone rings. She chats briefly, and in a bit, one of their sons comes in with his wife, cheeks wind-bitten by the cold. They've got a bundled-up grandchild in tow, and were in the neighborhood doing some shopping. They wanted to show off the boy's new outfit. All of their children know what they do, Phillip and Susan have told me, and accept it.
"Oh, how cute," Phillip says, hugging his grandson, maybe 2 years old, making a big to-do over his new Christmas outfit. After a few moments of chatting, the boy's parents say it's time for him to be off to bed, and leave, the child waving back over his father's shoulder. Out the window, we watch them drive away.
"See?" Susan says after awhile, smiling, sitting close to her husband, "This isn't all we are."
The office of sex therapist Michael Standridge is something like sex in Little Rock in general: It's there, but doesn't draw attention to itself. The exterior doesn't look promising: a dirty blonde building behind Children's Hospital, just up the street from an abandoned school. The only sign that the place houses a therapist's office - or an office of any kind, for that matter - is a simple placard that stands in front of the building on a stake, reading "The Phoenix Group."
Through a door and up a flight of stairs, however, one finds an office as modern and finely appointed as any in West Little Rock. Glass and stainless steel predominate. Gentle music plays from hidden speakers, and tasteful frosted glass lets light in from the street. Still, Standridge says, the split personality of his office is a must. His clients, both those suffering from sexual problems and those he treats for addiction, demand discretion. "When people come to my office, they want to be able to have some kind of anonymity," he says.
A licensed professional counselor whose undergraduate interest was in the field of addiction therapy, Standridge said he fell into the field of sex therapy by accident. While studying for his master's degree in psychology at UALR in 1992, Standridge's professor offered extra points for a project on abnormal sexuality. "I had a friend of mine whose name was Chuck," Standridge said. "He was a candy maker, but he had announced to me in 1991 that he was also Mr. Leather of Arkansas." With Chuck's help, Standridge was able to gain access to a Central Arkansas community of leather and bondage aficionados. In addition to receiving his extra points, Standridge went on to help his professor, Ralph Hammond, author a three-year study of 60 adults involved in sadomasochistic behavior, the largest of its kind up until then. Whereas Standridge and his colleagues had assumed those involved in S&M would have some kind of defect in their psyche, a battery of psychological tests revealed no measurable difference between those who practiced S&M and a control group of 60 people who didn't. From that moment, Standridge said he realized how complicated human sexuality was, and wanted to study it further. "The next thing you know, I'm reading all I could about anything to do with sex that might be considered problematic," Standridge said.
The result is a thriving practice of around 125 clients. For many people having problems with some aspect of their sexuality, Standridge is the man to see in Central Arkansas. "Some people just have shame," Standridge said. "They come here because they can't understand why it is they like what they like. They don't know why they've turned a high-heeled shoe into a fetish object. They don't know why they are devoting emotional energy to something that is inanimate. Individuals coming to me are people are usually caught in some structure that is causing them shame, or pain, or guilt or some legal problem."
While normal sexual dysfunction is a large part of his practice, Standridge said that a growing trend among the patients he sees are those having problems with addiction to Internet sex, specifically pornography and sexually-oriented chat. As far as he knows, Standridge said, he is the only therapist in Central Arkansas treating this kind of problem.
"With the Internet," Standridge said, "you have access immediately to a whole community; websites, chat whatever you seek, within a few strokes of the keys," Standridge said. "Cybersex allows anyone who has a computer an anonymous window with low risk, and offers anyone who has a computer access to sexual materials at any level. This instant availability can quickly turn something as benign as fantasy into a problem that consumes a person's life.
"By and large, my clients have had sexual problems for long periods in their history," Standridge said. "They've either suppressed it, or they've not owned it at any level, then, all of a sudden, the Internet comes along, and it's like saying to someone with a drinking problem, 'Okay, we're going to open a bar in your house, and it's going to be open twenty four hours, seven days a week. And it's free. Well, not actually free. It's going to cost you $9.95 for your membership every month. But after that, the sky's the limit.' "
The primary thing the Internet has done in Little Rock, Standridge said, is remove the small town "Shame Factor," the threat of being caught indulging your darkest desires by friends or loved ones. With the buffer of anonymity that the Internet provides, Standridge said people are free to pursue their desires, healthy or unhealthy.
"In Little Rock, if you wanted to access anything sexual, you'd have to go to a bookstore, or go to something that existed in your community," Standridge said. "If you wanted something you couldn't get in your community, you'd have to go to Dallas or Memphis or someplace that has a higher concentration of sexual venues. With the Internet, everything is switched, because you can have any venue you wish right in your home."
Standridge says there is nothing wrong with most sexual interaction between consenting adults, as long as it doesn't consume their lives. But Standridge cautions that a person can't simply disregard their surroundings when indulging in a sexual preference. "We drive 55 miles an hour down the freeway, because there are normal structures that tell us, drive 55, or drive 70," Standridge said. "But ultimately, you'll see people pass you by. They're not driving the way everybody is driving, and they know there are consequences. They know that those consequences may not be positive, but they're going to drive 85 miles an hour anyway. If they get caught, they are going to have to deal with those consequences."
And what about the consequences of the path he has chosen in his professional life? "They say that a surgeon is a frustrated sadist," Standridge said with a smile, "so you can imagine what people say about what I do."
It says something about America that when Bob Oliver opened Little Rock's first VHS rental store in 1977, the only films he could get on videocassette were five black-and-white westerns and five porn movies. Even more surprising is that, while most other video stores in the city limits have cleared their shelves of porn or bit the dust, driven out by stringent zoning laws and political pressure, Main Street's RAO Video is still ushering Little Rock residents into the garden of videotaped carnal delight, almost within sight of the state Capitol.
Downstairs, RAO is your standard video store, full of Hollywood blockbusters, schlock, classics, cult favorites, and possibly the best selection of foreign films in town. But it's what's upstairs that keeps customers coming back for more. Buzzed through a locked door at the back of the store and up a flight of stairs, the over-21 customer can rent a videotape depicting pretty much anything one consenting adult can do to, with, or on another. For anyone who has never been in the back room at RAO, the choices are mindboggling. Shelves easily 75 feet long run each side of the room, movies stacked shoulder to shoulder and several shelves high, every possibly legal human combination you can imagine, sorted by interest, film company, and actress or actor. Most are on tried and true VHS, but - in a nod to the future- there is also a selection of DVDs. Interspersed among them are signed photos of porn stars, some featuring Oliver mugging alongside. Tacked in the stairwell is a poster of Bill Clinton, one of those photo-mosaics made up of thousands of tiny pictures (in this case, pictures from "Penthouse" magazine).
White-haired and 60ish, with a boyish grin, the plain-spoken Oliver looks more like a small town bartender than a video store owner who has butted heads with the law. Born in tiny McGehee, Oliver said his father owned a grocery store, and kept a small stock of 8mm stag movies under the counter. The movies got him in frequent trouble with the local sheriff. "They used to come arrest him nearly every week," Oliver said. "He'd pay a fine and come home. So I guess you could say it runs in my family."
Going to jail over porn is not just family lore for Oliver. A few years back, he himself was arrested for distribution of pornography, cuffed, and carted off to jail. Asked about it, Oliver just shrugged. "When you'd get within a couple of months of the election was when you used to have to worry about it," Oliver said. "That's when all the politicians said, 'Let's clean up the porn!'"
Oliver said that growing up in small town Arkansas left him and many others of his generation with misunderstandings about sex in general. He said that while fundamentals of sex were common knowledge among young men of that day and age, they were simultaneously told that sex was something dirty, and not to be discussed. "I was bombarded by so many sexual fears when I was younger," Oliver said. "I was bombarded by sexual taboo. I never heard anything good about it. I'm in my 60s now, and I'm just getting over some of the inhibitions I had from all the fear that was driven into me as a kid."
Something of a countertop philosopher, Oliver said he thinks many of society's hang-ups about sex have loosened in recent years thanks to access to adult films. He said that women's enjoyment of sex in particular has blossomed. "We used to laugh at a guy who'd give a woman oral sex," Oliver said. "When I was in my 20s, we would have laughed him out of town. It was unheard of." For that reason, Oliver said that much of the feminist furor over pornography that he has seen in his life is misplaced. "If I was a woman, I'd be out on the street campaigning with a sign for adult movies. Women's pleasure has increased 50 times because of adult movies teaching people about sex."
Oliver said that his upstairs room sees people from all walks of life, men, women, politicians and local celebrities. After all, Oliver said, sex is something everyone wants, even if they won't admit it, and pornography is a harmless facet of that. "Porn is just another form of stimulation," Oliver says, grinning. "Some people get stimulation from looking at a Cosmopolitan magazine, and others need more."
It's 7 in the morning, a wet snow is falling on Jacksonville, and radio DJ Tommy Smith is talking to a 50-ish woman about things that would have gotten him thrown in the hoosegow for discussing on air in Central Arkansas 15 years ago.
"Next thing I know," Betty Fason says, "I sit up, and guess what? We're in town."
"So you didn't even look," Smith says. "You're down there, doing your business, you're in a convertible, and you're bopping his bologna down there, and your look up, and you're in town?"
"Yeah," Fason said. "There were cars all around us! I could have killed him."
Smith and Fason are not strangers, though on Smith's show that probably wouldn't have made a difference in their conversation. Fason, along with her daughters, runs Fantasy Fashions, a lingerie and marital-aid store in a freeway-side strip mall just outside Jacksonville. Smith has been bringing his Rock and Roll Breakfast, the sometimes raunchy morning show of KMJX 105.1, here for years. It's all another chance for Smith, co-host Roger Scott, and their usual assortment of unusuals to talk about sex on the radio. Though his ratings have slipped a bit in recent years as other morning shows have taken up his shock-radio format, Smith's frank and funny talk about average guy topics - sex, beer and sports - has made him a perennial favorite, and a frequent whipping-boy, in Little Rock radio. A few years back, a rival station's entire advertising campaign was basically that it wasn't Smith.
Par for the course, Smith is here for the most unlikely of causes: a live remote and fund-raiser for the Make a Wish Foundation, a charity that fulfills the dreams of sick children. Men in suits, women in sweatshirts and soldiers in fatigues from the nearby airbase, called in from the interstate by the sound of Smith's voice, mill around among the racks of lingerie, eat the generous spread of pizza and barbecue provided by restaurants in exchange for an on-air plug, and peek into the glass display cabinets at the rainbow-bright equipment on display. Mostly they grin and look at Smith, a man with a self-described face made for radio, waiting for him to say something else.
For Tommy Smith's part, he says that talking about sex on the air is not as controversial as it used to be. "The outrage is gone," Smith said. "Those that have learned to accept it accept it, and those that haven't have gone on down the road and given up on having us burned at the stake." For all the braggadocio of his radio persona, a closer look reveals Smith as something of a sexual pragmatist, never prone to the hardcore debauchery that has propelled some shock DJ's like Howard Stern to the top. It is exactly this brand of regular-guy talk that has kept Smith on the razor's edge in Little Rock, able to talk about sex, but also able to stay his critics' fury, and stay on the air. "With other people doing what we do," Smith said, "we've pretty much resigned ourselves to being the updated version of Floyd's Barbershop. A bunch of guys sitting around talking about what guys talk about."
True to form, Smith said that society's casual attitude about violence offends him much more that sex ever could. "I've said a million times," Smith says, "it's amazing to me that a guy will sit there with his son and watch Bruce Willis blow people's heads off and not bat an eye. But the first time Chevy Chase walks into the shower with Beverly D'Angelo, it's like, 'Hey, look out the window, it's the ice cream man,' because they don't want him seeing a naked woman." Born and bred in Arkansas, Smith said that his 27 years on the radio have seen Arkansans' sexual hang-ups wax and wane over time, but he cautions that the hypocrisy that fuels the self-righteous is still around.
"There's a lot of hypocrisy out there when it comes to that kind of stuff," Smith said. "I've been down to RAO video, and I've seen who goes upstairs and who rents them. And the number of suits that go up there and the local TV anchor and anchorettes that I see up there will blow your mind." Still, Smith said, doing a radio show it's important to remember that it's not his job to be anyone's therapist. "It's just to have fun," Smith said. "We're not up here counseling people. But I do know that anybody who can learn how to get their partner to enjoy sex to the utmost, or at least better than they do now, that can't be all bad."
As Smith and co-host Scott riff bawdily with each other at Fantasy Fashions, Betty Fason's cash register is steadily ringing (while bagging up the purchases of one customer who has just bought more than $100 worth of merchandise, Fason says, nonchalantly, "Now don't store this anywhere damp, like under the kitchen sink."). Smith starts talking about a chicken that he once loved so much he choked it. After a commercial break, he and Fason survey the wares under the counter, discussing the choices in detail while "The Thrill is Gone" plays softly in the background.
To look at her, Betty Fason seems more like a lady-who-lunches than someone who can talk seriously about battery-operated versus AC. For 15 years now, from her strip mall shop (half of which was once a Pentecostal Church before Fason took over their space - "When they moved out," Fason said, "we said, we don't want to take any more chances"), Fason has been helping Central Arkansas keep the spice in its love life.
Originally envisioned as a simple lingerie store, Fason branched out into marital aids soon after opening, after her husband, Billy, showed her a catalog. "It had novelties in it," Fason said, "and I'm turning the pages going, 'What's that?' 'What's that?' Of course I'm 30 years old, been married forever, and got four kids. I thought I knew something."
What a difference 15 years makes. Though Fason said that selling the things she does is no more troubling than selling a candy bar for her now, in the beginning it was something of a problem for her. "It took every courage I could conjure up to be able to sell vibrators and pocket pals and things like that when we first opened up," Fason said. One of her first sex toy sales was to a good looking man, who probably never knew how close he came to seeing her break down. "When I sold that to him, I went in the back room and cried and cried," Fason said. "I was so embarrassed that I thought I was going to die. But you know, that was 15 years ago. You get over it."
As per city ordinance, Fason doesn't sell videos or magazines, just lingerie, adult toys, lubricants, oils, and shoes that look like a sprained ankle waiting to happen. While the lingerie is out on the floor where everyone can see, Fason keeps the cabinets containing the goodies covered with a drop cloth. "What's X-rated, we hide," Fason said. "We don't offend people, and that's why people don't mind coming in here. They don't feel threatened. When people come in here, they don't have to worry." Too, Fason said, it's part of the reason she and her shop have never run afoul of the law. "I've never gotten a ticket here, not even a parking ticket," Fason said. "I told my husband, if they came in here to arrest me, they'd have to take me by the hospital first, because I'd be having a heart attack."
Fason, raised in Tyler, Texas, is a small-town girl at heart. "I could have never done this in my hometown. My family and [my husband's] family would have crucified us. But this is far enough away that they don't come up here," Fason said. "And they don't listen to the radio," Fason laughed, nodding toward Tommy Smith. Still, she said, after 15 years, word has gotten around her straight-laced Southern family about what she does, and it hasn't always been met with approval. "I'm sure that for awhile, they bad-mouthed us to the hilt," Fason said. " 'I knew she was going to grow up to be pervert!'" she hissed, then tilted her head back for a good laugh.