Swinging, sometimes referred to in North America as the swinging lifestyle, is "non-monogamous sexual activity, treated much like any other social activity, that can be experienced as a couple." The phenomenon (or at least its wider discussion and practice) may be seen as part of the sexual revolution of recent decades, which occurred after the upsurge in sexual activity made possible by the prevalence of safer sex practices during the same period. Swinging has been called wife swapping in the past, but this term is archaic, as it is androcentric and does not accurately describe the full range of sexual activities in which swingers may take part.
Swinging activities may include (but are not limited to):
Exhibitionism: having sex with a partner while being watched. Voyeurism: watching others have sex (perhaps with the above mentioned partner).
Soft Swinging or Soft Swap: kissing, stroking, or having oral sex with a third or fourth person. Soft swap may be in the form of a threesome, group sex, or the literal swapping of partners.
Full Swap: having penetrative sex with someone other than one's partner. Although this is the commonly understood definition of swinging, it is not necessarily the most common type. Group Sex: An all-inclusive term for activities involving multiple partners in the same vicinity.
Typically, swinging activities occur when a married or otherwise committed couple engages in sexual activity with another couple, multiple couples, or a single individual. These acts can occur in the same room (often called same room swinging) though different or separate room swinging does occur. On these occasions, swingers will often refer to sex as play.
Historically, societies who have advocated multiple sexual partners are not uncommon. For example, royalty and nobility in several cultures had both consorts and concubines. Notably, ancient Roman culture enthusiastically accepted of orgies and alternative sexual practices. Nevertheless, though contemporary swingers may celebrate these historical ideals, the actual practice of swinging in the 20th century began differently.
According to Terry Gould's The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers (ISBN 1-55209-482-0), swinging began among United States Air Force pilots and their wives during World War II. In this small community, the mortality rate among pilots was significantly high. Gould reports that a close bond between pilots arose, with the implication that the husbands would protect and care for all the wives as their own, both emotionally and sexually, if the husbands were away or lost (thus bearing some similarity to levirate marriage).
This historical narrative is debatable, however, since it would have been highly unusual for military wives to accompany their husbands on foreign tours of duty. Other sources point to U.S. Air Force pilots stationed in the California desert as the original participants in modern swinging. Though the exact beginnings are not agreed upon, it is widely assumed that swinging began amongst American military communities in the 1950s.
By the time the Korean War ended, the practice of swinging had spread from the military bases to the nearby suburbs. The media promptly dubbed the phenomenon wife-swapping.
The first swingers' organization, the Sexual Freedom League, began in the 1960s in Berkeley, California, in the sexually liberal San Francisco Bay Area. Ultimately, an umbrella organization called the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) (now NASCA International) (http://www.nasca.com) was formed to encourage the dissemination of accurate information about swinging lifestyles across North America.
Some subjective scientific research into swinging has been conducted in the United States since the late 1960s. One study, based on an Internet questionnaire addressed to visitors of lifestyle-related sites, found swingers are happier in their relationships as compared to the norm.
- 60% of swingers said that swinging improved their relationship; 1.7% said swinging made their relationship less happy. Approximately 50% of those who rated their relationship "very happy" before becoming swingers maintained their relationship had become even happier.
- 90% of those with less happy relationships said swinging improved them.
- Almost 70% of swingers claimed to have no problem with controlling jealousy; approximately 25% admitted "I have difficulty controlling jealousy when swinging" as "somewhat true", while 6% said this was "yes, very much" true.
- Swingers rate themselves happier ("very happy": 59% of swingers compared to 32% of non-swingers) and their lives more "exciting" (76% of swingers compared to 54% of non-swingers) than non-swingers, by significantly large margins.
There was no significant difference between the responses of men and women, although more males (70%) than females completed the survey.
This study, while enlightening, is of limited accuracy of the swinging population as a whole, due to its self-selected sampling technique. Internet-based sampling procedures create a substantial potential for bias. For instance, swinging couples who had stronger relationships may have been more motivated to complete the questionnaire. Alternatively, one may infer that because swinging may cause stress on a marriage, only those with higher than average levels of commitment to their partners are able to remain married while swinging. Couples who have jealousy or strife issues caused by swinging will not usually stay in the swinging lifestyle, and therefore would have been less likely to respond to the survey.
ABC News reporter John Stossel produced an investigative report into the lifestyle. Stossel reported that over 4 million people are swingers, according to estimates by the Kinsey Institute and other researchers. He also cited Terry Gould's research, in which Gould concluded that "couples swing in order to not cheat on their partners." When Stossel asked swinging couples whether they worry that their spouse will "find they like someone else better", one male interviewee replied, "People in the swinging community swing for a reason. They don't swing to go out and find a new wife;" while a woman interviewee asserted, "It makes women more confident -- that they are the ones in charge." Stossel interviewed twelve marriage counselors about the lifestyle. According to Stossel, "not one of them said don't do it", though some also said "getting sexual thrills outside of marriage can threaten a marriage". Nevertheless, the swingers whom Stossel interviewed claimed that "their marriages are stronger because they don't have affairs and they don't lie to each other."
Certain swinging activities are highly organized. Most major cities in North America and western Europe have at least one swingers' club in a permanent location (although they often keep a low profile to avoid negative attention); over 3,000 swinging clubs exist worldwide. Swingers also meet through lifestyle magazines, personal ads, swinging house parties, and Internet sites.
Although the term "club" may refer to a group that organizes lifestyle-related events in a particular area, it can also refer to a physical location or building. In this latter context, clubs are typically divided into on-premises clubs, where sexual activity may occur at the club itself, and off-premises clubs, where sexual activity is not allowed at the club, but may be arranged at a nearby location.
In the US, many off-premises swinging clubs follow a bar or nightclub format, sometimes renting an entire existing bar (frequently termed a venue takeover) for scheduled events. Takeovers are normally done to avoid interaction with non-lifestyle segments of the population, and to avoid unwanted negative attention. Consequently, on weekends in suburbia, bars in large industrial parks that attract a mainstream clientèle during weekdays and would otherwise sit empty or closed on weekends (when business offices are closed) are likely locations for a takeover.
On-premises clubs usually have a similar format as off-premises clubs. A notable exception is that most on-premises clubs do not serve alcohol, asking participants instead to bring their own, thus avoiding issues from restrictive laws regarding sexual activity and the sale of alcoholic beverages. Concordantly, the vast majority of swinging clubs in the US do not advertise as such due to the strict moral climate there.
Another format is the swinger party or house party, which typically occurs in a private home. Ideally, these homes are equipped with a hot tub, a pool, a dance floor or area, several bedrooms, and possibly an assortment of sex furniture such as a sex swing, a stripper pole, or a BDSM dungeon. Within the party atmosphere condoms, lube and breath mints may be readily available throughout the house. Sometimes the host may hold events such as a striptease or dance contest, a flogging, or other BDSM demonstration.
In Europe, off-premises clubs are rare, and the majority of swinging venues allow sexual contact and serve alcohol. Three standard formats exist: the bar/nightclub (usually smaller, in city centres and focused around a dance floor), the spa (which has pools, Jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms and where people strip on entry), and the country club (which is out-of-town, usually serves a free buffet, and may include elements of the first two formats while also offering large play spaces).
A large amount of swinging activity is organized via the Internet on various sites with personals, listings, and local information. For many couples, the swinging lifestyle and the clubs can be as much a social venue as a sexual one. Like many sexual subcultures, a strong community atmosphere exists, fostered in part by the greater communication enabled by the Internet.
The prime directive in swinging is no means no, meaning that rejection of a sexual advance does not require justification and must always be respected. Respect for one's play partners is a hallmark of swinging activity, and violation of this directive can result in immediate expulsion from an event. Concordantly, in the US it is often regarded as impolite to touch without asking, whereas in Europe both touching and gently but firmly removing a touching hand are widely regarded as polite non-verbal communication in the playroom context.
Many swingers who participate in penetrative sex while swinging are strict about condom usage, including insisting on changing condoms between partners. Nevertheless, some members of the swinging community do engage in unprotected sex, a practice commonly known as barebacking. When unsure, swingers consider it a polite necessity to establish these ground rules before becoming sexually involved.
Some swingers believe that it is possible to spot others in the same way that Gaydar is supposed to work (sometimes referred to as Playdar), while others may rely on more overt signs. Among homosexual communities, a traditional means to identify one another was a single earring in the right ear; however, there is no similar visual signal for identifying swingers. Some believe that actions such as a woman being flirtatious while their significant other is present, men who offer their wives to dance or couples entering a bar separately and spending the evening apart are ways to tell if a couple swings. Obviously, these signs, both subtle and overt, are difficult to perceive, and swingers are often averse to identifying themselves in public. Consequently, the popularity of swinging web sites on the Internet, which allow swingers to communicate and meet without public attention or the risk of offending non-swingers, has increased.
- Bisexuality and same-sex activity
Attitudes to same-sex activity and bisexuality vary by culture and locale, and by gender.
As a rule, female bisexuality and bicuriosity are common in both the "selective" (see below) and traditional swinging scenes and tend to be the norm amongst participants; by contrast, male same-sex activity has a wider variation in its handling, and may be welcomed, accepted, frowned upon, or forbidden. Swing clubs and other facilities exist for gay and bisexual interests for both genders, but differ – for example bathhouses and the like for gay males, sometimes described as being "controversial" even in the gay community due to safer sex concerns, whereas women's clubs are "comparatively rare" and tend to be organized as private events, or niche clubs with high popularity for their events.
No studies have been conducted as to what percentage of swinging men or women who define themselves as bisexual would be open to romantic as well as sexual relations with both genders.
Dogging is a British term for swinging based in cars that takes place in a public but reasonably secluded area. There are several known dogging spots across the UK where people go after dark, typically to engage in voyeurism and exhibitionism but also to take part in group sex.
- Hot Wife
The term hot wife refers to a married woman who has sex with men other than her spouse, with the husband's consent. In most cases the husbands take a vicarious pleasure in their wives' enjoyment, or enjoy watching, hearing, or knowing about their wives' adventures. Husbands may also take part by engaging in threesomes, or arranging dates for their wives.
A distinct subculture of hotwiving, cuckolding, is a subgenre in which emphasis is placed upon the sexual humiliation of role reversal, with the woman free to flaunt her sexuality and show blatant enjoyment, and the husband restricted to a passive or subordinated role, possibly involving erotic sexual denial.
Polyamory is the desire, practice, or acceptance of having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with full knowledge and consent by everyone involved. Poly lifestyles vary, with some being open relationships and others being polyfidelitous.
The concept of polyamory is similar to swinging in that adherents to both believe that long term full and intimate relationships need not be sexually or emotionally exclusive, but swingers rarely form deeper emotional relationships outside of their primary relationship and polyamorists do not necessarily have casual sex.
- Selective swinging
Traditionally swinger clubs are accepting of all ages and body types, and the average age of swingers at events tends to be around 45. Younger swingers who wish to swing with their own age group find that this isn't always possible in swinging clubs.
Fever Parties began running parties for affluent under 40s in London in the late 1990s. Other party organisers, such as Lounge Parties in London (who select on looks, but not age) and Belle Baise in the Midlands (who select on looks and age) have sprung up in recent years. These organisations try to elevate themselves from historic swinging clubs by hosting their events in upmarket venues, serving Champagne or cocktails and asking their guests to dress in smart evening attire. Entry to these parties is often competitive and photographs are usually required to demonstrate attractiveness.
Due to the success of these events in the UK, they have subsequently spread to Norway, South Africa, Sweden and the US. This, more than anything else, has given rise to the term The Lifestyle as a way to encompass all swinging activities, due to the fact that younger couples are somewhat averse to the term "swingers" because of its traditional connotations.
'Selective swinging' events include mostly childless, unmarried young graduates whose average ages are as low as the late 20s, whereas traditional swingers events tend to have average ages in the 40s. Selective parties are often referred to as "exclusive" or "elitist." Contravening the usual assumption that such organisations are not associated with groups propagating "family values," the Fever parties were revealed in June 2003 to be organised by a senior coordinator of a British Conservative Party pressure group, Conservatives for Change, who was older than the maximum age allowed to attend his events.
Another factor contributing to this situation is the continued upsurge in growth of Lifestyle-oriented Internet sites. These sites provide much more accessible gateways into Lifestyle activities for people who are curious about swinging. By offering greater flexibility when searching for potential playmates, it becomes possible to look for playmates that specifically match certain characteristics, including location, looks, wealth, and age. In the United States, it is still uncommon to find parties where stringent age requirements are in effect, and most groups remain non-discriminatory. However, the acceptance of 'elite' parties continues to grow, with couples and single females becoming more and more willing to pay an additional premium to spend time with only a select segment of the swinging population.
The critique of selective swinging among traditional swingers is that it is unethical to discriminate. The growing upsurge interest in selective swinging has given rise to a growing rift between the two groups. Couples who identify with traditional swinging may advertise themselves as "not Ken and Barbie" as an implicit rejection of what they perceive to be a superficial ideal of youthful physical attractiveness. The proponents of selective swinging claim an entitlement to peer-group options in this as in other leisure pursuits.
The acceptance of singles at swinging events varies by geographic area and by event. Some swinging clubs have a policy of allowing only couples and females, but most do allow single men on selected nights. Single females are often admitted at reduced admission price. Parties and private events may differ, however, and are often restricted to couples or couples and single females only.
Reasons for the restrictions against single males vary. Most (but certainly not all) of the people who participate in swinger events are male-female couples who are more interested in interacting with other couples (or with single women) than with single men. Thus, swinger events strive to achieve a balance between male and female participants or have a (usually slightly) larger number of females than males.
A common complaint among swingers is that single men change the tone and nature of an event. While outright hostility towards single men is rarely prevalent, an abundance of single males is not often looked upon favourably in any swinging context. When single males are permitted, their numbers are usually limited by high entrance fees or stringent membership requirements.
In the UK, swinging nights designed to cater to women who want multiple men are referred to as Greedy Girls' Nights, and are essentially gang bangs. These parties are often held in swingers' clubs (on less busy nights) or take place as private parties, and are attended by both couples and singles, a proportion of which are sometimes prostitutes.
Controversy and debate
- Objections to the swinger lifestyle
Arguments made in opposition to the practice of swinging and partner swapping fall into two broad categories: first, objections based on the practical considerations of engaging in a swinging lifestyle, and second, moral or philosophical objections against the principles of swinging itself.
- Practical objections
The most common objections based upon practical considerations include arguments such as the health dangers of having multiple partners (since swingers are not maintaining monogamous relationships), or the emotional attachments to sexual activity (which may cause friction in a relationship).
A subset of swingers play without protection, a practice called barebacking; however, the majority promote their activities as safe sex and will not engage with others who do not also practice safe sex. An informal survey of swingers (most of whom were from the UK) showed that 73% practice safe sex. Opponents of swinging argue that even protected sex is too risky, especially in the light of the upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, and the risk of pregnancy.
Some who object to swinging assert that sexual relations, by their very nature, have an emotional component to them. Since many swingers are in a committed emotional relationship with one partner (see History, above), engaging in sexual relations with a person outside the relationship could emotionally damage the relationship of the committed couple. Intimacy might be diminished by sex with others, and this diminished intimacy may lead to the end of the relationship.
Another argument states that one partner (stereotypically the male) may be more enthusiastic about swinging than the other, and the less willing partner may feel pushed or coerced into taking part, thus leading to the break up of the relationship or psychological problems. No data supports this hypothesis, however.
- Moral and philosophical objections
Objections pertaining to the basic principles of swinging on a moral or philosophical basis may include the sacred nature of sexual relations between two persons, or the view that sexual relations should only occur within a committed relationship (sometimes stated as "only within a marriage"). Those invoking this reasoning may assert that in order to engage in a swinging relationship, one must degrade sexual relations to the most basic element of pleasure, which would be in violation of the sacred nature of sexual relationships. Some argue that if sex becomes the main reason for swinging, sex may become mechanistic and less satisfying than the intimacy experienced by monogamous couples.
Common responses to objections to the swinger lifestyle
- Responses to practical objections
Many couples enter into swinging while already in secure relationships, providing an added motivation to avoid excessive sexual health risks. While sexual affairs outside of relationships may be committed in the "heat of the moment" without regard to future consequences, most swingers maintain that sex among swingers is a much more thought-out and practical affair.
Many swinging clubs in the US and UK do not have alcohol licenses and have a "bring your own beverage" (BYOB) policy. Also, it is not uncommon for experienced swingers to remain sober; these individuals may consequently state that they take a far safer approach to their sexual health than that of comparable non-monogamous singles (who would ostensibly have impaired judgment from becoming inebriated).
Condoms are required at most swinging clubs and parties, unless clearly stated otherwise. In addition, a minority of swingers rely on regular STD testing to ensure their safety. A small portion of swingers alternatively focus on massage and other activities that are unlikely to transmit STDs; however, most participants in a swinging lifestyle acknowledge that they are accepting the same risks that any sexually promiscuous member of society does.
Although the risk of pregnancy does exist (as no form of birth control is 100% effective), most swingers contend that the effectiveness of current birth control methods is so great that such a risk is minimal. Further, a fraction of those engaged in swinging relationships are past their child bearing years, and as such the risk of pregnancy is reduced to zero.
Some believe that sexual attraction is part of human nature, and as such, it should be respected and openly enjoyed by a committed or married couple. Some swingers cite divorce data in the US, claiming that the quality (or lack of quality) of sex and spousal infidelity are significant contributing factors in divorce. One study showed that 37% of husbands and 29% of wives admit to having had at least one extramarital affair (Reinisch, 1990), and divorce rates for first marriages approached 60%.
As one study asserted:
According to King (1996) one of the things that normally occurs in a relationship leading to changes in how we interact with our partners is sexual habituation. At approximately three to seven years into a marriage, it begins to take increased levels of stimulation to produce the same level of sexual excitation previously obtained by a glance or a simple touch. A couple that is receptive to new and different sexual experiences will begin to explore different avenues of shared sexual fulfillment in order to continue to grow together. At this stressful point in marriages infidelity increases and the divorce rate peaks. Couples who find a way to reconnect physically and emotionally are more likely to make it through this period. Swinging may be one creative solution to the problem of habituation – it provides sexual variety, adventure, and the opportunity to live out one's fantasies as a couple without secrecy and deceit.
In essence, some swinging couples maintain that by enjoying the very nature of sexuality with one's partner, a great number of marriages and relationships would be saved.
Many swingers report that their core relationships are actually strengthened through swinging, and they usually claim that their sex lives are more, not less, intimate and satisfying. Jealousy can occur, but proponents of swinging assert that jealousy is mainly reported among couples whose relationships were already unstable. The effect of swinging on unstable relationships has yet to be conclusively determined.
- Responses to moral and philosophical objections
Swingers provide a variety of responses to moral and philosophical objections. As with any group or large enough community, the depth and type of spiritual philosophies among swingers varies greatly. A common response given by swingers to moral and philosophical objections is that there is a difference between having sex and making love. Ironically, this is one of the main objections that religious groups have to swinging: namely, that this distinction should not exist.
Swingers differentiate between fun and friendship, and the love and companionship provided by their existing relationship. Thus, though swingers may have many sexual relationships, only a single emotional relationship exists. Although many close friendships are formed within the swinging community, swingers often feel that nothing is more important to them than their relationship with their own partner. The intimate friendships formed among swingers strengthen the primary relationship, rather than damage it.
Swingers often claim that the sex they have is more intimate (rather than less intimate) because they are with a partner who encourages them to fulfill their fantasies; therefore, the partner is so confident in the relationship that jealousy is not an issue. Swingers also claim that swinging makes infidelity less likely, as they know they can have sexual contact with others with their partner's consent.
Various responses exist to those who object to swinging on the basis of their faith. Many swingers feel that their activities in their own homes or private clubs, simply put, are not for others to judge. Others believe that as long as they remain in love and consider their relationships to be sacred, any playing they do does not contradict the sanctity of their relationships, and is consistent with their spiritual values.