'Masks are the new condoms':
How swingers adapted in New Orleans amid coronavirus
Bob Hannaford, 54, organizer of the Naughty in N’Awlins swingers gathering, shows a photo of two wristbands for the event Saturday at the NOPSI Hotel in New Orleans. Purple bands are for attendees who have antibodies or tested positive for COVID-19 more than 14 days ago, and green bands are for those with a recent negative test. Participants must show paperwork to verify their wristband status. (Photo by Katy Reckdahl)
At 54, Bob Hannaford, host of the four-day Naughty in N’awlins swingers gathering, is old enough to remember when HIV first became a concern.
For polygamous people, HIV “changed the culture,” he said Saturday. Gay bathhouses and swinger clubs closed. Swingers who wanted to continue swapping spouses or having group sex with other married couples — and survive — started using condoms and testing regularly for sexually transmitted diseases. They thought unprotected sex would resume once there was a vaccine for HIV.
That was 40 years ago. And the HIV vaccine never came, so many people got in the habit of wearing condoms to protect themselves.
In short, they adapted, just as Hannaford said dozens of other swingers from around the United States adapted for attending Naughty in N’awlins during a global pandemic that has public health officials cautioning people about contact with strangers.
Hannaford knew some attendees were likely to have sex with people they had just met. So he instructed participants that they had to keep each other safe.
“Masks are the new condoms. No one likes wearing them, but we know we have to,” said Hannaford, whose staff handed out goodie bags that included little black books in which participants were asked to record the name and telephone numbers of everyone with whom they interacted. That’s not just for follow-up dates but for contact tracing, should someone become ill after the gathering.
Hannaford also made drastic programmatic changes. He canceled the sexual freedom parade down Bourbon Street and jettisoned the event’s handful of “dungeons,” where in years past participants practiced flogging, spanked each other on special tables and learned to tie up a partner with rope without causing unconsciousness. Instead, this year a “dungeonmaster” demonstrated on stage without audience participation.
Also gone were the dozen or so event “playrooms,” where people could “safely explore fantasies” with new partners or in groups.
“We didn’t think any of that was appropriate this year,” Hannaford said.
He has heard the outcry about people traveling to New Orleans to hook up with new acquaintances during a pandemic. But to him, the timing seemed to be right. On the day that the convention began, the city moved to Phase 3.3 of its reopening, allowing the event to host as many as 100 masked people in a ballroom instead of only 50.
And at this point, Hannaford said, the increase in positive coronavirus infections in New Orleans is still moderate compared with steep increases seen in other U.S. cities that are now experiencing their third wave of the pandemic. Still, Dr. Jennifer Avegno, health director in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration, advises that New Orleanians should still wear masks, wash hands regularly, stay 6 feet from others and generally keep their guards up. “You should act as if everyone outside of your house has COVID,” Avegno said.
Naughty in N’awlins, an annual event, was much smaller this year. Whereas some 2,000 attended last year, only about 250 checked in Wednesday at the NOPSI Hotel. Hannaford said that more easily allows for social distancing.
Relaxing in a rattan chair in the hotel courtyard, a 59-year-old participant named Ronnie, who would not give his last name, said he and his wife of three years traveled from Florida to New Orleans because swinging “is just part of our lives” and the clubs where they usually meet people for playing had been shut down for months. He said he and his wife tested negative for COVID-19 last week, and that he found the New Orleans event had far more virus protections than he has seen in his home state.
About half of this year’s attendees already have had COVID-19 and/or COVID antibodies and are finished quarantining, Hannaford said. Those people were given a purple wristband once they showed their medical tests to Naughy in N’awlins organizers. Hannaford wore a green wristband showing he had tested negative before the event began.
Most participants had gone in for tests as the event approached, Hannaford said. He also asked would-be attendees who had co-morbidities such as obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes to sit out this year’s event. Even his co-organizer, his wife, Tess, took herself out of the mix for the event, because she has a condition that affects her immune system.
Hannaford knows that even participants with negative tests and antibodies can contract COVID. “And I understand why people might be concerned,” he said.
“But I believe that we created the safest possible event.”