Photo: Darren Smith Erotic wallpaper, Sandstone Ranch, 2004.

Believe it or not, people are still having sex. The religious right’s jihad against sexual expression hasn’t put a lid on the American libido.

(Note: The following article originally appeared, under the same title but with different photos, in the spring/summer ’05 issue of Vogue Hommes, pps. 244-7. Under the inspired, focus-groups-be-damned guidance of Editor Richard Buckley, Vogue Hommes was, for a brief time, home to some of the most exuberantly over-the-top journalism and criticism ever to bluff its way into a glossy fashion magazine. Props to Richard for the act of intellectual courage implicit in commissioning this, and to photographer Darren Smith for his atmospheric images.– M.D.)

Despite the pitchfork-and-bible brigade’s crusade against gay marriage, sex ed, and that Mother of Harlots and Abominations, the smutty soap opera Desperate Housewives, pop culture’s low-slung undercarriage is still well-lubricated. The mass appeal of Desperate Housewives (the second highest-rated show during the fall 2004 TV season, averaging nearly 22 million viewers a week), not to mention the success of erotica such as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.; Jenna Jameson’s best-selling confessional, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star; Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits, a photo book calculated to steam the veneer off your coffee table; and the biopic Kinsey and T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, The Inner Circle (both about the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey), give proof through the night that the appetite for vicarious sex, at least, is undiminished.

America is a house divided, says Dr. Barnaby Barratt, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists. “The media are becoming more sensationalist and more titillating” even as the religious right is becoming “far more conservative and puritanical, sexually,” he said, in an interview with this author.

From his vantage point as an educator, sex therapist, and psychoanalyst, Dr. Barratt looks out on an America wracked by a civil war over what pollsters call “moral values.” On one side, sex-positive straights and gays, civil libertarians, and random rutters–you know, the guy who just has to have that Make Your Own Dildo kit (“Thousands sold worldwide! Just add water! Amazing detail!”), the girl who won’t leave home without her Ultraviolet Jelly Rubber Butt Beads.

On the other side are Christian soldiers marching as to war against frank, factual talk about sex, especially in the classroom. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Sex & Censorship Committee, fundamentalist groups are clamoring for censorship of medically accurate sex education. In its place, they champion a faith-based curriculum that urges America’s youth to gird up its loins against Satan’s temptations, foreswearing masturbation, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, and arming themselves with abstinence (some religious curricula urge kids to bring Jesus along on that hot date, as a “chaperone”).

By their fruits ye shall know them: According to a Planned Parenthood factsheet, the fruits of abstinence-only sex ed include public schools forced to host “chastity” rallies in which students pledge to God that they will remain chaste until marriage, and a seventh grade health teacher in Belton, Missouri suspended when a parent complained that she had discussed “inappropriate” subject matter in class. (The hapless instructor answered a student’s question about oral sex). In Granite Bay, California, a student asked where his cervix was; another wanted to know if oral sex could make her pregnant. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, faith-based cluelessness is suicidal at a moment when, according to Planned Parenthood, the United States “has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and American adolescents are contracting HIV faster than almost any other demographic group.”

According to Dr. Barratt, “there is more opposition to sexual expression than ever” because “sexual values” are a flashpoint in the culture wars. “We now have the government attacking scientific research,” he says. “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] has a blacklist of researchers who will not get funds because they are seen as being on the wrong side of the government’s agenda…of abstinence-only [sex] education.”

How did we get here? By the early ’70s, several decades’ worth of scientific studies and pop sexology, such as the Kinsey reports (1948 and ’53), Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response (1966), and Dr. Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex: A Cordon Bleu Guide to Lovemaking (1972), had exposed American prudery for what it was: a fig leaf covering our guilty pleasures. The nation was ready for the guilt-sucks, if-it-feels-good-do-it ethos of the disco, the bathhouse, and the swingers’ club. Celebrities, socialites, and hedonists flocked to discos such as the Manhattan-based Studio 54 (where 24-hour party people prowled for fresh meat of either gender), swingers’ clubs such as Plato’s Retreat (also in New York City), and utopian experiments in polyamory such as Sandstone Retreat and the nudist “growth center” Elysium, both in the hills of L.A.’s Topanga Canyon.

So how did we go forward, into the past? How can the ’70s seem so futuristic while our own era seems so retrograde? Over 30 years ago, Dr. Comfort noted Western culture’s emergence from “a period of moral panic into a re-awareness that there is nothing to fear,” rejoicing in society’s “recovery from Puritanism.” Now, America is gagged and bound by the “moral values” of neo-Puritans and paleoconservatives.

What happened on the way to the orgy?

Photo: Darren Smith Welcome to Sandstone Ranch, 2004.

In search of some answers, I asked Marty Zitter, the former public relations director and longtime resident of Sandstone, to take me on a tour of the now-defunct utopian commune and weekend retreat. There, on a 15-acre estate in the hills of Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon, a handful of couples (and hundreds of weekend utopians) shed their clothes and lived the Dionysian dream. From 1969 until the end of ’73, the aerospace engineer-turned-free love visionary John Williamson and his wife Barbara, along with a flock of converts, embarked on a radical social experiment, “living in open sexual freedom and seeking to eliminate sexual possessiveness and jealousy,” as Gay Talese put it in his chronicle of the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. (Sandstone closed in ’73, then reopened in ’74 under new owner Paul Paige, closing for good on December 30, 1976, a victim of financial troubles.)

On a hot day in August 2004, Zitter, now 62 and retired from a career in real estate, is driving me up the cliffhanging road that zigzags into Topanga Canyon’s chaparral-covered hills. At last, we come to a rambling, mission-style mansion overlooking the canyon. The caretaker, a tanned, amiable man named Alan Zellar, lets us in through the front door, where in Sandstone’s heyday the exuberant, fast-talking Zitter greeted guests, buck-naked. Everyone came (one uses the verb advisedly): Timothy Leary, Peter Lawford, Bobby Darin, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame), Paris Review editor George Plimpton, Dean Martin.

Photo: Darren Smith Marty Zitter greeting the ghosts of polyamorists past at Sandstone Ranch, 2004.

There was the time Sammy Davis, Jr., showed up with his wife, Altovise, accompanied by porn star Marilyn Chambers. “He grabs hold of me and takes me out to the middle of the room [Zitter, as always, was naked] and says, ‘This is a warm cat!,'” recalled Zitter. “People are laughing, and he says, ‘Wow, I think I’ll get into this place.’ So he takes off a cufflink, probably a 10-karat diamond cufflink, and drops it on the floor. And Marilyn Chambers grabs the cufflink! And then he takes off one of his diamond studs and drops that on the floor, and Marilyn grabs that. Then he lights a cigarette with his diamond-encrusted lighter [and tosses it aside] and Marilyn grabs that. And then he started doing a soft-shoe…”

Another time, a big fire swept through the hills of Topanga Canyon, in ’71, and a woman swimming in the Sandstone pool slaked the lusts of a dozen or more firefighters, one by one. “She said, ‘We need more fires around here,'” laughed Zitter.

We step out onto the terrace. “On a typical weekend, you’d see as many as 200 people out here on the front lawn, sunbathing or in various stages of encounters,” says Zellar, with a dry chuckle.

Photo: Darren Smith View of Sandstone Ranch from the front lawn, 2004.

We head downstairs, which back in the Sandstone days was wall-to-wall waterbeds and coupling couples. Hence its name: The Ballroom. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Talese describes it as a delirium of “shadowed faces and interlocking limbs, rounded breasts and reaching fingers, moving buttocks, glistening backs, shoulders, nipples, navels,” all flecked with light from a spinning mirrorball.

Moving on, we come to the Playroom, a back room where “you might walk in and find 20 people all wrapped up around each other,” says Zellar. A nearby bathroom features a double shower–for group showering, naturally. The wall still flaunts the X-rated wallpaper it wore in the ’70s, a gold-and-white tangle of foliage and Art Nouveau curlicues that reveals itself, on closer inspection, to be inhabited by fornicating Lilliputians.

Photo: Darren Smith Wallpaper, Sandstone bathroom.

Of course, Sandstone, whose official name was the Sandstone Foundation for Community Systems Research, was more than just a “‘fuck club,'” insists Judith Boyd, 64, a semi-retired therapist who frequented the retreat from 1973-’77. “It was definitely a place of open sexuality,” she says, “but it wasn’t a swingers’ club. And yet it was, because there was all the overt sexuality.” In an e-mail, she added, “The time I spent there was worth more than several years of college in the study of sensuality, sexuality, and intimacy.”

Dr. Leanna Wolfe, a professor at L.A. Valley College and a doctor of sexology (she did her doctoral dissertation on “Jealousy and Transformation in Polyamorous Relationships”), confirms that Sandstone drew a “who’s who of cultural movers and shakers–highly literate people, avant-garde professionals.” She notes, “Swinging today’s a big business, whereas Sandstone had much to do with personal growth. Sex is powerful, sex is transformative, and Sandstone embraced those possibilities.”

In Hot & Cool Sex (1972), a booklet published by Sandstone, the Farleigh Dickinson professor of social biology Robert T. Francoeur and his wife Anna talk of “a revolution in consciousness, a night-to-day shift in our sexual images”; of our fixation on genital sex giving way to the “grokking” of Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, “a kind of demi-erotic relating and interpersonal knowing in the original biblical sense.” Yeah, baby. Grok me all night long. Hot sex is for the uptight; Sandstone sex is cool sex–”egalitarian, single-standard, sensually diffused and oriented towards intimacy and open relations with persons.” “Sandstone is an experimental transitional TRIBAL ENVIRONMENT.” Whoa! Is America ready for “the tribalization of our culture on a global scale”? Not to worry: Sandstone is “a bridge which will allow people to experience a tribal culture, then move back into our hot sex society and transform it from within.” Awesome, dude! (Did somebody say “hot sex”?)

Well, it was the ’70s. And now it’s history. The Playroom is all played out: in the nearby bathroom, a daddy-longlegs clings, motionless, to the wall. The swimming pool, where guests made love underwater, has been drained; a drift of leaves lies scattered in the deep end. (Is there anything more melancholy than a drained swimming pool?) The “sighs, cries of ecstasy…the slap and suction of copulating flesh, laughter, murmuring” that Talese once heard in the Ballroom have faded, the people who made them gone away and gone flabby or gray with age or, in some cases, gone to dust.

Pool, Sandstone Ranch, 2004
Photo: Darren Smith Pool, Sandstone Ranch, 2004

In 2004, when George Bush’s populist theocracy is trying to turn the United States into what Zitter calls “America the monastery,” Sandstone’s polyamorous Tomorrowland seems as dated as the unisex get-ups and orbital shopping-mall decor of Logan’s Run (1976), the sci-fi film set in a Sandstone-like pleasuredome where everyone is under 30 and free love rules.

Still, Regina Lynn, the sexpert who writes the “Sex Drive” column for Wired News, is hopeful. “It’s a cycle,” she writes, in an e-mail interview. “The more a group tries to repress, the more [the other] group resists and perhaps gets even more transgressive than before, sparking another surge of repressiveness. But this time Pandora’s box has been nailed open, and the repressives are not going to be able to put everything back inside.”

Zitter’s banking on that. “I think that human evolution is going to progress in the way that Sandstone led,” he says. “If you look at a [chimpanzeelike] primate called the bonobo, bonobo [society] is matriarchal and all disputes end with sex, oral as well as genital. From what I’ve read, it is a totally pleasure-oriented psychology.” In the near future, he predicts, medical technology will zap the AIDS virus and “other party-pooping infectious diseases.” Then, Sandstone’s experiment in free love will become a blueprint for a better world, a bonobo-like Eden of polymorphous perversities and demi-erotic relating. There, we’ll all wander naked through a kinder, gentler Planet of the Apes.
– Mark Dery (© 2005 Mark Dery).

    Sign up to receive blog posts and news about Mark's books, bylines, and appearances.


    1. Mark Dery on Paradise Lust

      Cultural critic Mark Dery tours Sandstone Ranch, a quintessential 1970s free love retreat in Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon. With the ghosts of countless swingers surrounding him, and former Sandstone PR director Marty Zitter as his guide, Mark takes a l…

      • oso

      • 18 years ago

      You could insert “Mexico” every place “United States” is written and it would equally apply. Desperate Housewives just made its primetime debut in Spanish down here a few weeks ago and is hot on fire. An absolute media circus.

      • M. Dery

      • 18 years ago

      Fascinating. How does the show’s jaded suburban amorality square with the country’s Catholic morals?