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Defending his domain: Bob Alexson

Ack! Sex! With Strangers!

In the coverage of a Schenectady B&B’s controversial swingers gatherings, a few central points have gotten lost in the rhetoric

‘I thought it was nothing but fair,” said Bob Alexson carefully. Alexson, the owner of a bed & breakfast on Schenectady’s Union Street, was commenting on media coverage about some of his neighbors attempting to shut down his inn because of the swingers parties he hosts there on weekends.

Laurie, a lawyer from the Albany area who was quoted in the Times Union story “Erotic Revelers Share Secrets,” mostly agrees, though she’s quick to point out that the story ignored her and other swingers’ insistence that the socializing is often much more of what goes on than sex. And, she noted, the reporter’s characterization of “palpable sexual energy in the air” as he met with some of the regulars prior to a party was entirely in his head. “We were talking to a reporter,” she said, amused. “There was no sexual tension.”

The coverage of the B&B controversy, which went public two weeks ago, has been complex. There have been a fair share of phrases that reinforce the opinion that swinger parties are de facto unsavory affairs. The parties have been described as “tawdry goings-on,” and the participants, “so-called swingers.” A couple of news sources have repeated that “state law says the club [sic] could be contributing to the spread of AIDS.” The law in question prevents any establishment that charges for entry, membership, or goods and services from making its facilities available for the purpose of sexual activities.

It’s a big leap from a proscriptive law to an accusation that these parties are spreading AIDS, said Susan Wright, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a group that defends the rights of swingers, polyamorists, and the BDSM community. Wright noted that swinger gatherings tend to emphasize safe and responsible sex more than the general population does.

On the whole, however, bias in the coverage of the B&B controversy has been more subtle, a matter of omission rather than commission. As Alexson said, the Times Union’s exploration of the swinger lifestyle was quite accurate as far as it went. But some readers noted that it stuck to a “Guess what? People do this!” level, leaving out many questions that might have allowed readers to make a more nuanced judgment.

Such details might include policies about secrecy, safety, and drugs. Cheating, for example, is not condoned. Alexson said he has thrown about 150 people off his mailing list for indicating that they wanted to attend without telling their spouses. He insists on safe words and discussion of limits ahead of time for anyone wanting to use his small basement dungeon to act out fantasies. He encourages condom use (though he says he can’t force it); drugs and paying for sex are not tolerated; and he will throw out anyone who isn’t respectful or gets too drunk (he doesn’t serve alcohol and says few people drink at all).

“I would say 50 percent of the people who come here don’t even have actual sex,” Alexson said, explaining that instead they use the parties as a safe place to flirt. As societal expectations might predict, husbands often talk reluctant wives into showing up, but “once they get here and see how laid back and relaxing atmosphere it is, he wants to go home and she wants to stay,” laughed Alexson.

Perhaps a more serious problem in the general news coverage, however, is that there are a few basic aspects of the public-policy debate that have gone basically uninterrogated. For example, what is the actual problem neighbors and the city have with the inn? Dana Swalla, the across-the-street neighbor of the inn who started the campaign to close it, has claimed that she doesn’t care what people do in their private lives, and that her problem was from the noise of the parties when they spilled out on the porch.

She started off making a convincing argument, giving detailed descriptions of being awakened at 4 AM, even with her windows shut, and being told “This is Schenectady, go back to Scotia,” when she politely asked that musical instruments being played on the porch be brought inside.

However, Swalla blurred the line between what could be a legitimate quality-of-life issue (although even that is a matter of he-said-she-said, as the police say they have never found a noise problem when responding to her complaints), and the question of what’s happening inside the walls of the inn. “I don’t want people coming into my neighborhood and paying a fee to have sex,” she said, and she frequently mentioned the proximity of schools to the inn as another reason the parties (which happen Friday and Saturday nights) are inappropriate.

Others are willing to go farther. “Everybody wants to be politically correct and say you can do anything you want. I don’t think so. I think ethically what they’re doing is not right,” said Richard Rheingold, president of the Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association. “Really, [the parties] shouldn’t be anywhere,” Mayor Brian Stratton told the Times Union.

Following up on this willingness to blur the lines, city and county officials have made blatant statements to the effect that they plan to go after the inn on any technicality they can drum up. “We’re researching how much they can fined,” County Attorney Chris Gardner told the Times Union. Other city officials have been described as poring over ordinances looking for ones the inn might violate, and the city has sent letters to neighbors seeking any complaints they might offer. It seems they are following the advice of attorney Sal Ferlazzo, who ominously told the Times Union, “They’re [sic] always ways to do things. . . .”

Such behavior is a common part of politics in any city. “Politicians love to get on the antisex bandwagon,” notes Wright. The silence from the news media on whether this is an appropriate slippery slope for city government to so proudly start down has been deafening. The officials haven’t even been asked what their statements imply about neutral application of the law, for example. (When contacted for this article, Schenectady officials told Metroland they are no longer commenting on the issue.)

The central legally relevant question for Schenectady at this point is this: Is Bob Alexson running a sex-based business out of his B&B, which would likely put him in violation of the zoning code, or is he, as he claims, just hosting private parties in his own home as part of his social life? This question has been all but ignored by every major media outlet except the Daily Gazette’s first article on the topic, and even the Gazette has since followed the path of the others in writing about it as if the matter were decided—for example, calling the inn a “sex club” or “swingers club,” even in headlines.

There are two major arguments that point toward the parties being part of a business. First, Alexson advertises them on his B&B’s Web site, on a page with the business name displayed at the top. Second, he not only has a fee for the parties, but that fee is different for single men ($40), couples ($30), and single women (free).

On the other hand, Alexson argues that using those two things to define him as a business would be a clear double standard. Political parties host events they charge for and advertise on their Web sites all the time without being defined as a business or being required to pay sales tax. The same thing goes for Union College students who post on the Internet about parties that they charge entrance fees for.

Alexson continues to maintain that the fees are donations to cover supplies and cleanup fees. He says they are not required for entrance—some people don’t pay, and he doesn’t force them to—and that he charges the differing fees to encourage the kind of demographics he prefers. “Most single men don’t know how to be a gentleman,” he explained.

Alexson is more than ready to take the issue to court—he’s fought the city several times before and never lost. And he’s got plenty of people—including neighbors and self-identified nonswingers—who have contacted both him and the local papers to stick up for his right to host the parties.

Of course, the question remains whether the people who say it’s the zoning code and the noise that bother them will be satisfied with any resolution that leaves the parties happening. When asked if she would be happy if the noise abated and Alexson stopped advertising and charging for his parties, Swalla responded, “I’m not interested in finding ways for him to creatively get around the law. . . . If he had been more respectful of our neighborhood, then nobody would even know. Now that we do know, we don’t want it here.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net.


What a Week

Double Talk of the Union

According to reports from Knight Ridder newspapers and The New York Times, President Bush’s State of the Union promise to reduce 75 percent of imported oil from the Middle East and simultaneously research renewable energy sources shouldn’t be taken, um, literally. Bush’s energy secretary, Samuel Bowden, told reporters the day after that “This was purely an example.” He went on to explain that decreasing oil imports from any one region would be difficult due to the free market. The New York Times has also reported that the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has scheduled layoffs of people researching wind and ethanol, energy sources that Bush said in his speech he wants to encourage.

Warrant? We Don’t Need no Stinking Warrant!

According to the Boston Globe, a librarian in Newton, Mass., has been under attack for demanding that the FBI abide by the law. Kathy Glick-Weil, director of the Newton Free Library, told the FBI they needed to produce a warrant if they wanted access to all her library’s computers to find out who had e-mailed a threat to Brandeis University. Glick-Weil did allow them access to computers that were likely used. Glick-Weil has been the target of public scoldings by conservative talk radio hosts and U.S. attorney Michael Sullivan. Sullivan insists that getting a warrant is time consuming, and discovering who sent the threat was urgent. Said Glick-Weil, “I believe in the rule of law.”

James Bond Gadget, or Harry Potter Magic?

Russian professor Oleg Gadomsky may be on the verge of something so huge, people may not see it at all: the world’s first invisibility cloak. He’s been busy at Ulyanovsk State University applying his knowledge of quantum and optical electronics to make any object placed behind a certain area become invisible to any observer. As of now, the technology works only for still objects, but the scientist is confident that soon a “cap of darkness” for moving objects will be created. The scientific theory behind this new invention may be opaque to most, but the implications of such a gadget should be plain to see.



Honoring History, Celebrating the Present

photo:Martin Benjamin

Minutes before this Monday’s Albany Common Council meeting began, the crowded meeting room of City Hall was full of activity. Many of the people there had gathered because, in honor of Black History Month, the first half-hour of the meeting would be dedicated to recognizing 14 of Albany’s African-American citizens who have worked to improve and unite the city. Pictured are (l-r) 10th ward councilman James Scalzo and Dennis Mosley. Nearly all of the individuals recognized worked with youth. Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) said the recognition was a way to do something more meaningful than the usual simple resolution recognizing Black History Month. The ceremony ended with a unanimous decision to make the ceremony an annual event

—Katherine Lee

 

 


photo:Joe Putrock

Seeking Justice in the Prisons

“I’ve learned that a book is like a child,” laughed Sister Helen Prejean last Thursday (Feb. 2) at Union College. “You give it life, and when it starts to walk, it will go wherever it wants.”

According to Prejean, whose experiences with death-row inmate Patrick Sonnier inspired both her 1993 book Dead Man Walking and the Oscar-nominated 1995 film of the same name, decades of work within the nation’s prison system have made it clear to her that criminal justice in America is “95 percent politics and only 5 percent justice.”

The New Orleans nun has become one of the country’s most prominent opponents of capital punishment, acting as other death-row inmates’ spiritual advisor—even accompanying some to their executions. Her second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, chronicles the life and eventual execution of two men she believes were wrongly convicted.

During her speech, Prejean commended New York for suspending the state’s capital-punishment statute, and had a few words for politicians who invoke the Bible to defend the death penalty.

“Everyone would like to say, ‘Excuse me, God agrees with me,’ ” said Prejean, “but when you go through the Bible finding words that support what you already believe, you’re ignoring the greater message.”

—Rick Marshall


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends
The St. Patrick’s Day Four [“Blood for Blood”, Sept. 29, 2005] were sentenced last week after being convicted of trespassing and destroying government property in September (they were found innocent of larger conspiracy charges). Teresa Grady was sentenced to serve four months, Peter DeMott was sentenced to four months in jail and four months of community confinement, and Danny Burns and Clare Grady were sentenced to six months. The four also face fines for contempt of court and for damage done to the recruitment center where they poured their blood in protest. . . . The Regional Farm and Food Project has completed its directory of places to purchase locally grown foods, including restaurants that serve it [“Local Is Luscious,” March 31, 2005]. The directory is available online at farmandfood.org/directory.html. . . . Saratoga Springs is proceeding with the plan to draw its water from Saratoga Lake, rather than joining a countywide system [“To the Last Drop,” Dec. 2, 2004]. According to the Jan. 18 Times Union, city engineers say the connection should be working by 2007. The city’s new mayor, Valerie Keehn, had made supporting the lake plan one of the major planks in her platform.


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