South Carolina

Is it legal? A look at how swinger sex clubs operate, what Myrtle Beach leaders think

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News of a North Carolina swingers club eyeing Myrtle Beach as a second location has residents and officials questioning how it would impact the city’s desired family-friendly image.

Swingers club You Know Where has been operating in Fayetteville, North Carolina for several years, and has seemingly remained obscure to Fayetteville officials who were unaware of the club’s existence upon inquiry.

“I had never heard about it until you reached out to me,” Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin told The Sun News. “So I can’t really make any statements about it.”

You Know Where Owner Chris Abram went before the Myrtle Beach Planning Commission on Tuesday, requesting officials allow a swingers club to operate in the wholesale, manufacturing district, an area predominantly located along Seaboard Street where tattoo parlors and strip clubs are permitted.

Abram said he’s interested in expanding his business to Myrtle Beach to accommodate area residents who frequent his private members-only establishment.

Currently, a swingers club is not included in the city’s zoning code. With the application before the Planning Commission, officials said they are compiling research to create a definition for swingers clubs in order to make a text amendment to the zoning district.

“There is nothing in the law that prohibits that kind of use, but it’s not allowed in the zoning code,” City Manager John Pedersen said. “They have a text amendment that would change the wording of the warehouse, manufacturing zone so that it would allow for this sort of activity.”

If the swingers club was, for example, another strip club, it could move onto Seaboard Street without requesting special permission outside of obtaining its business license so long as it’s in accordance with city code.

With patrons permitted to have sex within the establishment, Pedersen said there’s a fine line between a strip club, which the city has three of in the WM district, and a swingers club.

“I’m not aware of anything that makes it illegal per say, but that doesn’t mean the city has to allow it,” Pedersen said.

What is ‘You Know Where’?

You Know Where, which opened in its current location in 2011, was established to serve as a private, on-premises adult social party where people can explore their sexuality. Abram said the club provides an atmosphere for seclusion that is out of the “public eye.”

As of 2018, the club had over 11,500 members, with 85 percent of them couples, which translates to about 19,550 people, according to the club’s website.

Members comprise of all ages from all walks of life, Abram said.

“Swingers are not these disgusting, dirty, immoral people that some people may have false views and beliefs about,” Abram said. “Swingers are some of the most honest, trustworthy, friendliest people you will ever meet.”

Prior to becoming a member, clients are required to fill out an application, tour the 12,000-square-foot facility and watch a presentation of the rules, Abram said. Those who violate state law or the clubs rules will be kicked out.

While the business functions as a nightclub, with a dance floor and two DJs, it allows nudity throughout the facility with a back area comprised of private rooms for people to “play” or have sex.

Along with private rooms, the club also features a 20-foot buffet, two stripper poles, a shadowbox where only your shadow displays on the outside, a game room, locker room, a photo area, and several themed rooms, including a dungeon. The club, which serves soft drinks, allows clients to bring their own wine and beer.

While nudity is permitted throughout the establishment, unauthorized touching is strictly prohibited, with Abram noting that anyone who violates the club’s rules won’t be allowed to return.

“We tell everybody that comes in they can’t touch someone without asking; if they violate the laws, they don’t come back,” Abram said on Tuesday. “We try to make sure that everyone is treated with respect and doesn’t step out of line.”

Myrtle Beach’s family-friendly image

With portions of downtown Myrtle Beach losing its appeal over the years, city leaders have been eager to redevelop and revitalize specific areas as part of the Downtown Master Plan. The Master Plan, which was approved in March, aims to bring change to four districts: Oceanfront, Kings Highway, Historic Main Street and an Arts District.

With work already underway to liven the Arts and Innovation District, an area that includes approximately 56 acres along Main Street, Broadway Street, Oak Street and 9th Avenue North, Mayor Brenda Bethune told The Sun News she doesn’t think a swingers club would be a good match for Myrtle Beach.

“My personal feelings are that with all that the city is doing to elevate our image and with the investment we are making in downtown revitalization, I don’t believe that this type of business lifts our image or supports our efforts,” Bethune said.

Abram hopes to open his business in the WM District, an area that includes sections of Mr. Joe White Avenue, Harrelson Boulevard and Seaboard Street, where there are two strip clubs — The Treasure Club and Derriere’s Gentlemen’s Club – the latter a fully nude club.

Masters Gentlemen’s Club is located on Mr. Joe White Avenue.

“They (adult establishments) are regulated, they are zoned and the courts have consistently ruled that sort of dance is an expression of the First Amendment,” City Spokesperson Mark Kruea said. “You can zone that activity, but this is a different sort of request at this time.”

In Fayetteville, You Know Where is zoned commercial but is considered an assembly use, according to Fayetteville Communications Director Kevin Arata.

An assembly use classification is considered the use of a building or structure for the gathering of persons for purposes such as civic, social or religious functions; recreation, food or drink consumption.

“Simply, that category is when the building space is intended for a group of people to gather, hence- an assembly,” Fayetteville Development Services Director Jerry Newton said.

When the establishment opened in 2011, Arata said it met the state building code for an assembly use and did not fit the criteria for a nightclub or adult entertainment classification. He said no special accommodations needed to be made based on its zone and being in accordance with state laws.

“We leave the decision on whether the presence of such a club is good or bad to others,” Arata said. “To this point, the business has operated in Fayetteville without incident of notoriety, and consistent with all city ordinances.”

Google and Facebook reviews of the club revere it as friendly, professional and welcoming environment that’s clean, safe and fun. A search on Google Maps showed the establishment hidden in plain sight with no signs indicating the name of the business or what it is, aside from a logo on the entrance door.

“If you drive by my location in Fayetteville, you would not even know it was there or even what it is,” Abram said. “I do not want to ruin the city’s family-friendly mantra either, that is why we will not have any advertisement or the name of the club on the building nor do anything else to draw attention to us.”

With Myrtle Beach residents critical of the establishment, claiming it’ll bring an influx of crime, drugs, prostitution and human trafficking to the city, Fayetteville police records provided to The Sun News show nearly three dozen police calls over the course of the last five years, including three nuisance calls, three theft, two assaults and one for prostitution.

Abram said the Fayetteville Police Department kept a very close eye on the facility when he first opened, stating it shared similar concerns about crime increasing, but have since backed off. Noting that his club isn’t in the “best area,” with homelessness and prostitution an issue prior to opening, he said the police are only called when he personally calls them to report a crime.

“So as for the crime, drugs and prostitution concerns that people may be worried about, we are being checked out by several law enforcement agencies and have never had one violation,” Abram said. “Swingers are not the low-life, degenerate, poor, uneducated, immoral, criminals that some people think we are.”

While critics have been vocal on social media, Abram said he’s received several phone calls and emails of support since his planning commission appearance on Tuesday. He said many have offered a helping hand in moving his proposal forward, but he’s accepted Myrtle Beach will likely deny his request.

“I do not expect the city to change the current ordinance, but I am okay with that,” Abram said. “I just mainly want to shed more light on this subject and help people with any fears or misconceptions that they may have of swingers or the swinging lifestyle.”

Is this legal?

Operating and attending a swingers club is legal.

Adultery, however, is still considered a crime in 18 states, including South Carolina. Under South Carolina state law, adultery and fornication are considered a criminal offense against morality and decency that is punishable by up to $500 and/or six months in jail.

“Those laws prohibit intercourse between unmarried persons,” F. Patrick Hubbard, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, told The Sun News. “These are old laws designed to protect marriage and family.”

While adultery is frequently used as grounds for divorce in family court, these laws are rarely, if ever, enforced.

Adultery is also illegal in other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Abram said the law is outdated, asserting that swinging shouldn’t be defined as adultery. He said couples who participate in this “lifestyle” do it with each other’s knowledge, unlike someone in a traditional marriage or relationship who strays. Swingers do not cheat on their spouse or partner, he said.

“Instead they choose to have sex with someone other than their partner with their partner being fully aware and giving their permission to do so,” Abram said. “If two adults that are in a committed relationship give each other permission to have sex with someone else, then why is it the government’s right to tell them their decision is wrong and that they should be punished?”

Despite this law, the law professor said the city is required to answer Abram’s request by creating a definition, category or classification for the business to present to city leaders for a vote. For example, strip clubs are regulated as a sexually oriented adult business in Myrtle Beach.

“They have to come up with a category,” Hubbard said. “They can’t just tell someone they don’t have a category for their business and tell them to go home.”

Next steps

While Abram hasn’t purchased a storefront, he said he’s willing to open his business wherever the city allows. But a lot needs to happen before then.

The application to amend the zoning code to allow a swingers club is currently before the Planning Commission, which means a public hearing needs to be held prior to commissioners making a recommendation to city council.

A public hearing is scheduled on Nov. 5 at the City Services Building on Oak Street.

Following the commission’s recommendation, the proposal will go before city council, which will vote to either approve or deny the zoning text amendment. The proposal would need to be approved upon two readings by city officials, but if denied, no changes will be made to the zoning code, and the business won’t be permitted to operate.

Kruea stressed that any requests under consideration should not be viewed as an endorsement by the city.

“This is not something the city proposed or brought forward or has endorsed at this point; it’s a request,” he said. “It’s a novel idea for us, certainly.”

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Anna Young is the Coastal Cities reporter for The Sun News covering anything and everything that happens locally. Young, an award-winning journalist who got her start reporting local news in New York, is dedicated to upholding the values of journalism by listening, learning, seeking out the truth and reporting it accurately. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from SUNY Purchase College.