Swingers: Loving One, Playing with Many

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Swingers are mothers, teachers, brownie leaders, and car salesmen. The thing that makes swingers unique is the very fact that they are ordinary people. They reside within a realm of a normal lifestyle.

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intertext 2008
by Leah Brennan
Loving One, Playing with Many
Swingers:
Swingers are mothers, teachers, brownie leaders,
and car salesmen. The thing that makes swingers unique
is the very fact that they are ordinary people. They
reside within a realm of a normal lifestyle. Sex, orgies,
and bisexual encounters don’t define the couples in this
subculture, marriage and parenthood do. Understandably,
this claim is provocative, and it may be hard for non-
swingers to comprehend, but swingers do have strong
marriages; they just have an interesting choice of hobbies.
These couples chose to take an unconventional path to
lead them to a strong, dedicated, and ordinary marriage.
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“I consider [swinging] the double-diamond slope of marriage. It’s the hardest thing
you can do in a marriage. And, if you can do it, it means you have a very, very strong
marriage and excellent communication.”
-Documentary Filmmaker David Schisgall (Secret Sex in the Suburbs)
Swingers are a close knit group with their own
definition of monogamy and family life as well as their
own vocabulary. For example, many of the swingers I
had contact with referred to themselves as part of the
‘lifestyle’ and their sexual escapades to be ‘play-time.’
Scholar Terry Gould also noticed the recurring use of
these terms, and historicizes them to have been created
in the 1980s by swingers who wanted to give validity
and justice to the subculture of which they were a part
(1). The negative connotations associated with “swinger”
are derived from the belief that swingers participate in
orgy-fests, are insecure, and that women are coerced
in to this lifestyle. Swingers, in fact, are typically highly
educated and have strong marriages (Gould 1).
Swingers have a complex relationship with mainstream
culture. The sexual and emotional desires that they fulfill
through swinging (though viewed as deviant by society)
take place within the norms of middle class life, but the
swinging subculture is still viewed as a threat because it
challenges accepted views of matrimony and sexuality.
There is a popular saying in the lifestyle:
“Swinging never made a bad marriage good” (Gould 7).
As I began my research, I questioned why the majority of
the couples were older (about forty years old). Swinging
involves potential risks to marital stability, which is why
it’s not for insecure or new couples; it requires trust.
Young couples never fair well in the swinging world,
because they are not secure enough in their relationships
or with themselves to participate. I was able to conduct
an email interview with Matt
1
, a swinger from the west
1
Name changed for individual’s anonymity.
coast who provided insight regarding young couples in
the lifestyle, often referred to as “the beautiful people”
since they are so young and there are so few of them.
He has found that new couples are concerned with
cheating and their relationship is just not stable enough.
Frequently, play with these younger couples ends up
being more troublesome for him and his wife to achieve:
“also, new couples with whom you connect often crash
and burn because of jealousy before you even get down
to the play. It’s often better to avoid them and go for the
experienced.” On a popular online swingers’ message
board, swingers are able to communicate with each
other. The board is often a place where swingers dismiss
misconceptions about swinging that many nonswingers
have. On one message board thread, a woman shared
a story of a swinging date gone bad. Other swingers
gave her advice. Again, they strongly emphasized the
importance of communication: “although you both had
fantasized about it many times, it doesn’t sound like you
ever really talked about the what-if it happened, and
what you would want to happen, and about what you’re
comfortable with, therefore laying down some ground
rulesonwhatisokayandwhatisn’t”(MessageBoardPost).
Many of the questions I asked Matt centered
around jealously and monogamy. He stressed that
swinging is not for couples with problems in their
relationship. Swinging can not fix a marriage. He also
emphasized the importance of setting rules before
entering the lifestyle. He and his wife wanted to make
sure that their marriage wouldn’t be destroyed if they
began to “play.” For example, he and his wife found
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that it was important for them to establish a rule that they
only swing together, as a couple. Message board posts
recommend that couples new to the lifestyle discuss all
possible situations that might arise and set explicit rules.
As one user suggested, at no time should one spouse
have to convince or persuade the other spouse to partake
in an activity: “one of the primary rules that everyone
talks about here is to go as slow as the slowest person.”
Yet, not all swingers participate in explicitly sexual
events; as with any group, there are multiple levels of
dedication to the lifestyle. Actualswingers.com is a website
designed and run by swingers to break down myths about
swinging and provide people with the knowledge of and
advice about swinging. It discusses three types of swingers:
soft, closed, and open swingers. Soft swingers do not have
sexual intercourse with anyone besides their partners.
They may have oral sex or fondle others, but sexual
intercourse only takes place between the couple. Closed
swingers typically swap between couples. There is not a
large party; usually it is just one-on-one sex. The couples
go into separate rooms and have sexual intercourse with
each other’s partners, though they sometimes stay in a
room together. Open swingers are what often comes
to mind when the term ‘swinger’ is mentioned. They
partake in orgies and have sex with multiple partners
in one night. Sometimes voyeurism takes place and the
men stand by and watch while their wives experiment
with bi-sexual desires (Actual Swingers). Society views
deviance as deviance, but not all swingers are the same.
Swingersmustcontinuallybattleagainstmainstream
culture in order to validate their lifestyle. One popular
misconception about swingers is that there is a power
struggle between husband and wife. I came across an
interesting message board thread titled, “What makes a
man let another man fuck his wife?” This question irritated
other readers because it took the power of decision-making
away from the woman. Swinging relies on a couple’s joint
decision-making. The women involved are not tricked into
swinging by the men in their lives; they too have sexual
fantasies that they have a desire to fulfill. One user posted a
response to this question that gained praise and admiration
from other readers. He said: “I don’t own her, I don’t
control her and I DON’T loan her out. You see—swinging
isn’t about me letting other men fuck her. Swinging is about
us, partners in crime, experiencing adventures that we—as
a couple—want to share.” He explained that swinging is
something couples jointly participate in and not something a
man feels he is entitled to and has to convince his wife to do.
Mainstream culture often views women as non-
sexual beings who don’t play as active a role in sex as
men do, when in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth.
A number of researchers have explored the adaptability
of women in the lifestyle and have found that women are
often more adaptive and sexually satisfied by swinging
than men. Author Anne-Marie Henshel published a
study in The American Journal of Sociology that might
explain why. It is inarguable that men have been given
the sexual power for centuries. Society is much more
accepting of males’ sexuality than females’. Women have
been suppressed sexually for so long that when given
the power and freedom they are able to thrive (889). A
sexual revolution took place a few decades back with the
development of the birth control pill and wider acceptance
of premarital sex. During this time, women were liberated
from centuries of suppression and widely accepted sex
as an enjoyable leisure activity (885). Henshel believes
that “swinging may be a more important channel of
socialization toward true sexual freedom for them” (889).
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Women are able to enjoy swinging more, because it
liberates them from the suppressed sexual lives.
Researchers have found biological explanations
for why women participate in the swinging lifestyle and
for their desire for multiple partners. Mary Jan Sherfey
is a researcher who published her theory about female
sexuality in The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic
Association in 1966 (10). She coined the term, “Sherfey
syndrome,” a woman’s ability to have multiple, seemingly
unlimited orgasms. She argues
that women are biologically built
for having multiple partners for
two reasons, the first being that
they are able to have unlimited
number of orgasms: “to all
intents and purposes, the human
female
is
sexually
insatiable
in the presence of the highest
degrees of sexual satisfaction”
(10). One male, who can only
achieve one or two orgasms per
night, can not satisfy a woman
(10). The second reason is that
as women grow older their
sexual desires grow, as opposed to
men’s whose decline. Her findings
proved that women are not built for monogamy. So why
then don’t most women act upon their desires and sleep
with multiple men? Sherfey argues that women fear it
will anger men, who suffer from an unconscious fear of
having to raise a child that is not theirs. Also, women
invest much more in raising offspring than males do (10).
In fact, there is also a biological argument for
why men swing. This theory is presented by Terry Gould
in his article which links the arguments of researcher Tom
Shackleford, researcher Mary Jane Sherfey, and even
evolutionary biologists, such as Charles Darwin himself.
Whether his conglomerate argument is valid or not, it is an
interesting biological take on swinging. Males of all species
compete with each other because they are programmed
to have an unconscious fear of having to raise a child
that is not theirs or of losing their mate to a more suitable
partner (Gould 8). This is linked to why many men involved
in swinging enjoy participating in
voyeurism—that
is,
watching
their
wives have sex with other men. Tom
Shackleford’s theory states that males
report more powerful orgasms and
are found to release more sperm
when they see their wife having sex
with another man, which is referred to
as the “sperm competition syndrome”
(Gould 11). It is not watching their
wives have sex that necessarily arouses
the men; it is the competition and their
own sexual pleasure achieved through
a more intense, powerful ejaculation
that
arouses
them
(11).
While
biologically the sexual drive causes one to
seek out swinging, the social contexts of
why couples swing can not be ignored. It is their rejection
of monogamy (a socially-constructed concept) that causes
them to be defined as swingers, not their desire for sex.
Because swingers reject a belief that is widely
accepted by society, they must find a space to play
in which they are not only free to live out their deepest
sexual desires, but also in which they feel safe doing so.
They must stay behind doors in order to avoid the prying
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eyes of a society that views them as deviant. This typically
takes place in one of two places: a house party or a
swingers’ club. A swingers’ house party is similar to any
other party thrown by middle-class American suburban
families.
On
‘Secret
Sex
in
the
Suburbs,’
an
Oprah
Winfrey Show episode, hosts discussed how they barbecue
for their guests and make sure to always have appetizers.
Sometimes they even throw potluck karaoke parties (14
Nov 2004). There is, however one, exception: the sex.
Author Claudia Dowling accompanied world-renowned
photographer Donna Ferrato to a swinging party for
her article “Donna Ferrato on Libido Road”. Since the
late 1970s Donna Ferrato has been following the lives of
swingers, and has gained great trust within the community
for her depiction of the subculture. She has also documented
the lives of battered women in America, and following
swingers has provided her with a way to give power back
to the women, both sexually and emotionally. The party
these women attended together was seemingly “normal”
with the forty-six year old hostess setting out appetizers,
lighting candles, putting the dogs outside, and preparing
for a night with friends. “An hour later, our nice hostess
is lying in a pile of bodies in front of the fireplace, with a
man’s head in her crotch, as another woman straddles the
host” (Dowling 1). The house parties, where the deviant
and normal can unite, provide a safe haven for individuals
who are not “out.” A couple can revel in their complete
love and dedication to each other while having sex with
other people. Two couples can talk about work and children
and then the next minute be having sex with one another.
There is no fear in being discovered when surrounded by
friends; for a moment, these individuals can reveal both
sides of themselves: the soccer mom and the sexy swinger.
Swing clubs are notoriously outrageous and highly
sexualized. They are a place where nothing is censored,
and nothing is viewed as deviant. Clubs are spaces where
the most outrageous sexual practices reach their full
potential, and they are places where swingers differ from
the rest of society; for once they are anything but normal.
Within clubs, a couple can abandon all reality of their lives
as parents and/or spouses and fulfill every sexual fantasy
from voyeurism to bisexual encounters. Author Terry Gould
visited Seattle’s New Horizons, the largest swing club in
North America. At this club, Gould was able to see the toys
with and environment in which swingers play. There were
peep rooms called “condos” where men could go to watch
their wives with another partner from above the action.
There were massage tables, waterbeds, couches, beds with
curtains,andswivel-chairs(knownas“erosseats”)(Gould4).
Matt mentioned his close proximity to the New
Horizons Club, but how attending the club also brings
problems. Going to the club is expensive: couples must find
sitters for their children and deal with cliques that form
and single men trying to enter in on the play. The efforts
swingers make to be active in the lifestyle exemplifies the
true desire and importance that swinging holds for them.
Similarly to how ‘straight couples’ will go to many lengths
to save their marriages (therapy, vacations), swingers will
also go the extra mile to fulfill happiness within theirs.
Each couple participates in different ways and
wants to fulfill different needs. The things held valuable
in the swinging world are not necessarily what is held
valuable in the “straight dating world.”
One common
theme across swinging situations is the difficulty a man
has holding an erection. Matt stated that one of the things
his wife looks for in a partner is someone of good size
21
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who can hold an erection, and the message board
posts stated the same thing. Michael himself desires
a partner who is comfortable not only with herself,
but also with her own sexual desires: he places value
on “a good sex partner who is interested in telling me
what she wants and is willing to do different things.”
The number of male and female orgasms in
a swinging situation is quite disproportionate, and this
may be why many are turned on by voyeurism. As Skala
discussed in Gould’s article, the men are turned on and
take pleasure not in achieving an orgasm themselves,
but rather in staying in the state of arousal as long as
possible: “the men look at the women and if the women
are aroused that gives them their pleasure….they seem
to know their orgasm kills their arousal” (Gould 12). In
the interview, Matt stated that he fully enjoys watching
sex from the sidelines, sometimes not even participating
himself. Many swingers report being the most turned on
by seeing their spouse engage in sexual intercourse with
another person. It provides them with a light in which to
view their partner: “to most Americans it is inconceivable
that a person could allow his or her own spouse to engage
in casual sexual intercourse with another partner in his or
her own house. To the swinger, on the other hand, to do so
is most often seen as an aphrodisiac” (Gould 3). Instead
of being jointly involved in the sexual act and concerned
with their own sexual needs, the spouses are able to
see each other in the state of ecstasy. That is a turn on.
For all intents and purposes, swingers are normal
people who not only lead normal lives, but participate
in and add to the middle-class nuclear family ideal.
An article published in Archives of Sexual Behavior by
Richard Jenks titled “Swinging: A review of the literature”
discusses how studies have consistently discovered that
most swingers are members of the upper and middle
class, are above average in not only age but income as
well, and are white (over ninety percent) (2). Not only
are they able to live the American values of family and
marriage but also hold them in high regard: “Couples
in the lifestyle believe they live in a certain style that
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Posted by Bones at 10:10 PM Thursday, May 17, 2007
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melds conservative family values—matrimony, children,
emotional
monogamy”
(Gould
1).
Swingers
don’t
devalue the sanctity of marriage and family life, they just
find a way to fulfill their fantasies within that. On Oprah’s
televisionshowPhD-educatedaccountantsfreelydiscussed
their participation in the swinging world. They discussed
not only their battle for their subculture’s validation, but
also what effects being parents have on swinging. Indeed,
many swingers are parents. The couple on the show said
that their kids are grossed out and have no desire to hear
about their sex lives, but this can be said for most children,
whether their parents are swingers or nonswingers.
Swinging couples still have a desire to live a
normal life; they work as teachers, police officers and
scientists. They marry not only to pledge their devotion to
each other, but also to raise children together. Couples
do not define their relationships by their swinging. They
measure their self-worth not on their sexual escapades,
but just as any other married couple does: the strength
of their relationship, the success of their careers, and the
accomplishments of their children. Swinging is not who
the couple is; swinging is their play time: “it’s not reality,
it’s just pure fun, a comfy place where you can come with
your partner, where you can have your fantasies, and then
you can go back to your real life and your inhibitions”
(Gould 5). Swinging is not a way for these couples to act
out against society; it is a way for them to live their normal
lives and be a part of society all while fulfilling their desires.
As a member explains on the message boards, “I believe
that we pursue swinging because of how much we love
each other. To be able to trust someone so much as to
let them have sex with someone else is the ultimate show
of trust in a relationship. Trust is a key element of love.”
23
Beta Current ABC News Online Posting. October 31. 2008. Acessed April 4. 2008 ABC
News.<http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://a.abcnews.com/images/Health/pd_guy_girls_071030_ms.jpg&imgrefurl=http://s.current.com/items/86363841_one_in_10_men_has_multiple_sex_
partners&h=310&w=413&sz=33&hl=en&start=9&sig2=bfdgdEXT7SVuetN9G4PyAA&um=1&tbnid=5-6SQ0Nlm2asrM:&tbnh=94&tbnw=125&ei=FWj0R7OxEJyYeaT7mHg&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dguy%2Bguy%2Bgi
rl%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26sa%3DG>
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Actual Swingers. 2005. 1 Feb. 2007 < http://www.actualswingers.com/ >
AdventureUS2. “Love and sex two different things?.” Online Posting. 6 Feb. 2006.
Swingersboard.com. 1 April
2007. <http://www.swingersboard.com/ forums/
Dowling, Claudia. “Donna Ferrato On Libido Road.” Aperture Summer 2004: 40-47Ferrato, Donna. Orgy Self
Portrait. 2002.
Halberstam, Judith. In A Queer Time and Place: Transgendered Bodies, SubcultualLives. NY, London: NYU Press, 2005
Henshel, Anne-Marie. “Swinging: A Study of Decision Making in Marriage.” The American Journal of Sociology.
January 1973: 886-891.
Jenks, Richard. “Swinging: A Review of the literature.” Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Oct. 1998: 507-512.
Littlebit54. “Re: Dealing with a hint of jealousy.” Online Posting. 4 Oct. 2004Swingersboard.com. March
2007.<http://www.swingersboard.com/forums/
showthread.php?t=12771>.
Michael. E-mail interview. 16 March 2007.
“Secret Sex in the Suburbs.” The Oprah Winfrey Show. 14 Nov. 2004.
Spoomonkey. “Re: What makes a man let another man fuck his wife?.” Online Posting. 5
Jan. 2007.
Swingersboard.com. March 2007. <http://www.swingersboard.com/forums/showthread.php?t=30485>.
Walshok, Mary. “The Emergence of Middle-Class Deviant Subcultures: The Case of Swingers.” Social Problems. Spring
1971: 488-495
Works Cited
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