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How did the rumor get started about Steiner Ranch being full of swingers?

Steiner Ranch written on stones underneath some trees
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Rumor has it that Steiner Ranch, a suburban subdivision out near Mansfield Dam, is rife with swingers.

This story was originally told on stage at the Paramount Theatre during the ATXplained Live show on Oct. 11, 2023.

There’s a rumor that’s been going around for years in Austin that Steiner Ranch, a suburban subdivision out near Mansfield Dam, is rife with swingers. You know, couples who have sex with other couples. Think key parties and wife swapping.

The rumor goes on to say residents use pineapples – or, more specifically, upside-down pineapples – to communicate their openness to swinging.

A listener named Rachael said she didn’t think any of this was true, but she wanted to know how the rumors got started in the first place. So she asked KUT to look into it.

I got to work. The first place I turned to was Reddit, where I found an epic thread about this very subject. Commenters there were almost as intrigued by the possible signs of swinging, as they were with the possibility of swingers.

People think swingers have a lot of secret signs.

People wondered about pineapples and upside-down pineapples. But they also thought a sign could be a rock in the driveway. Or three rocks. Or maybe white rocks. Or windchimes. Or a blue planter. Or garden gnomes?

I had heard the rumors about swingers in Steiner Ranch from Evil MoPac, a person who tweets as the highway. So I invited him to drive around Steiner Ranch with me and look for signs of swinging. We went on the condition that I would not reveal his identity to his more than 60,000 followers on X, and I even disguised his voice – witness-protection style – for air.

We never saw any pineapples, though we did see five small blue planters. Evidence?

While we were driving, Evil MoPac told me why he’s been such a persistent spreader of the Steiner Ranch swinger rumor. Turns out, he knew a guy who was hanging out at the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse where he met a couple who invited him back to their house. He declined, even though they were persistent.

And unlike Rachael, Evil MoPac said he believes this rumor is 100% true.

“I think it's a big time swingers’ community,” he said.

A vocabulary lesson

I wasn’t convinced, but I didn’t know that much about swinging, either. So I reached out to John Melfi, who runs Colette, “a private membership only on-premise social club for couples, single men and women who are active in or curious about the swinging, polyamorous or open relationship lifestyles.”

I asked John to help me understand what we mean when we say “swinger.”

“The most common way would be a couple and they want to open up their relationship in some way,” he said. “And I see nine times out of 10 they want to find a single woman to get involved with. It could be just sexually; it could be more than that. They may find, though, once they get involved, that they meet couples they want to hook up with.”

He said the term “swinger” is out-of-date and people don’t really use it anymore. If anything, he said, people might say they’re in “the lifestyle.”

John said swinging fits into this larger universe of consensual nonmonogamy.

“A lot of younger people dating today don't really want to be confined to just being with one person in,” he said. “When you ask them what they are, they say, ‘I'm just open.’”

But we’re talking here about swingers — or people in “the lifestyle.” John told me these are typically heterosexual couples who invite people into their sexual relationships. These encounters tend to be less emotional and more recreational.

Miranda Wylie, an intimacy guide in Austin who is polyamorous herself, said the single women couples seek out are known as “unicorns.” And unicorns are highly sought after. All you have to do is look at the fee structure of John’s club:

A chart showing the cost for different people to go to Colette on different days of the week.

Couples get in for $40-$70. Single women get in for $10-$20. Single men get in for $100-$120 and aren’t even allowed in on Saturdays!

No boundaries

John and Miranda both had heard the rumors about Steiner Ranch. I asked if they had any confirmation that the rumors were true.

“Everybody I know who lives in Steiner Ranch is not [a swinger],” John said.

Miranda even did research.

“I inquired with my sources who like to play the unicorn on occasion, and they said, ‘You know, I've never gotten any specific invites from Steiner Ranch,’” she said.

However, John and Miranda both said the same thing about where swingers and other consensually nonmonogamous people live: They’re everywhere.

“I mean, they can live in a trailer park or in apartment complexes or in middle-class neighborhoods or in, you know, upper-class neighborhoods,” John said. “I mean, that really runs the spectrum of what you see.”

So, Steiner Ranch isn’t some kind of magnet for swingers. Sorry, Evil MoPac.

A vision

According to Terry Gould, author of The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, swinging in the U.S. started on military bases during World War II among fighter pilots and their wives. One in three pilots died in combat, and so they shared spouses with the understanding that the men who lived would take care of the widows.

But swinging really got a boost from Robert McGinley, founder of The Lifestyles Organization, an organization with a mission to normalize swinging.

“My whole life’s message is this: You can be a middle-class, mature couple, responsibly married yet free to responsibly enjoy your dreams,” he said in Gould’s book.

McGinley talked to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, Elle Magazine … everyone. There was even a documentary made about swinging that featured him called The Lifestyle: Group Sex in the Suburbs.

The film’s vibe is heavily suburban and aggressively normal. Many of the people in it identify as conservative. The majority are white and older.

Steiner Ranch is an upper-middle-class neighborhood filled with older couples who live seemingly ordinary suburban lives.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Steiner Ranch is an upper-middle-class neighborhood filled with older couples who live seemingly ordinary suburban lives.

This was McGinley’s vision of what swingers were. And his mission was for it to be your vision, too.

So this idea of swingers as married, middle-class, older white people who live in the suburbs is not an idea that just Austin has. It was fostered by a concerted, yearslong PR campaign.

When you look at Steiner Ranch, you find that it’s filled with upper-middle-class, older couples who live seemingly ordinary suburban lives. This is THE population McGinley wanted us to think were swingers.

A sense of community

But what about the pineapple? Is that really a sign of swinging?

“Upside-down pineapples, for sure,” John said.

The pineapple is a sign of welcome, so is an upside-down pineapple a sign that you’re, like, really welcome?

Even though those swinger signs might seem goofy, Miranda said people who live outside of mainstream norms often need signs to signal to each other that they exist and that it’s safe to be honest – especially when it comes to sex.

And even in 2024, straying outside the lines of acceptable monogamy can be tricky. John and Miranda are out, but a lot of people who engage in consensual nonmonogamy aren’t. That’s why you don’t think they live near you.

But I kind of think we could all learn from this community.

Being successful at consensual nonmonogamy requires deep honesty; you have to be in constant conversation about things like jealousy and trust.

“We, as people, we learn best in relation, and if you're in a monogamous relationship, you're basically in the same feedback loop a lot of times,” Miranda said. “And so when you get into other dynamics with other people, there's an opportunity to really learn about yourself and then you can take that learning and bring it back to your other relationships.”

Say what you will, but the people who engage in nonmonogamy are expanding the pool of people they can be open and vulnerable with. And even if we’re not ready for the sex part, we could all stand to increase our circles of honesty, vulnerability and care.

I know that’s a long way from Steiner Ranch, but it’s where I ended up.

Elizabeth McQueen is an audio producer and podcast host at KUTX 98.9, Austin’s NPR music station.
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