Swinging, sometimes referred to in North America as the swinging lifestyle or simply The Lifestyle (although this simplified term is also used by people into Leather and BDSM), includes a wide range of sexual activities conducted between three or more people.
Swinging activities can 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. This may be in the form of a threesome or group sex, or partners may literally be swapped.
- Full Swap: having penetrative sex with someone other than one's partner, which is the commonly understood definition of swinging (though 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 with either 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. Sex on these occasions is often referred to as play.
The phenomenon (or at least its wider discussion and practice) may be seen as part of the sexual revolution of recent decades, which has occurred after the upsurge in sexual activity possible due to safer sex practices that became prevalent during these same decades.
While the vast majority of swingers are heterosexual couples, a major part of Lifestyle activities are bisexual in nature. A large portion of female swingers, while they may or may not identify as bisexual, are interested in female-female sexual contact. Male-male contact is more rare, but does occur.
Swinging is sometimes called wife swapping, but this term is now relatively archaic, due to the misogynistic implications inherent in this phrase. A more common term is simply The Lifestyle, as it is becoming increasingly referred to in contemporary culture. Though there are certain key differences in the implication of the two terms, "The Lifestyle" and "swinging" will be used interchangeably within the scope of this article.
Certain Lifestyle activities are highly organized. There are over 3,000 swinging clubs worldwide. 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. Swingers also meet through lifestyle magazines, personal ads, swinging house parties, and Internet sites.
Clubs can refer to a physical location or building. In this context, clubs are typically divided into "on-premise" clubs, where sexual activity may happen then and there at the club, and "off-premise" clubs where sexual activity is not allowed at the club, but may be arranged at a near-by location. "Clubs" also may refer to the group that organizes the Lifestyle-related events in a particular area.
In the USA, many swinging clubs follow a bar or nightclub format, sometimes renting an entire existing bar for scheduled events, frequently termed a venue takeover. This is normally done to avoid interaction with non-Lifestyle segments of the population, and once again to avoid unwanted negative attention. This often relegates these activities to suburbia on the weekend, where bars in large industrial parks which attract a mainstream clientele during weekdays would otherwise sit empty or closed on weekends when offices shut down. On-premise clubs usually have a similar format. One notable exception to this is that most on-premise clubs do not serve alcohol, asking participants instead to bring their own because of the restrictive laws commonly in place regarding sexual activity and the presence of alcoholic beverages. Concordantly, the vast majority of swinging clubs do not advertise as such due to the stricter moral climate in the United States.
In Europe off-premises clubs are rare, but are becoming more commonplace. There are three standard formats: the bar/nightclub, usually smaller, in city centres and focused around a dance floor; the spa format which has pools, Jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms and where people strip on entry; and the country club format, which is out-of-town, usually serves a free buffet and may include elements of the first two as well as offering large play spaces.
A large amount of swinging activity is organised via the Internet, where there are countless different sites with personals, listings and local information. To many couples, the Lifestyle and the clubs can be as much a social venue as a sexual one. Like many sexual sub-cultures, there can be very much a community atmosphere, and the greater communication allowed by the Internet has fostered this sense.
Historically, it has not been uncommon to find societies that have advocated having multiple sexual partners. Furthermore both royalty and nobility in many cultures had consorts and concubines. Ancient Rome has been notable (if not infamous) for its enthusiastic acceptance of orgies and alternative sexual practices. However, though contemporary swingers celebrate those 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 , swinging began among U.S. Air Force pilots and their wives during World War II. In this small community, the mortality rate among pilots was significantly high. Consequently 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.
These arrangements persisted near Air Force bases throughout World War II and into the Korean War. By the time the Korean War ended, these groups had spread from the bases to the nearby suburbs. The media picked up on them in 1957 and promptly dubbed the phenomenon "wife-swapping."
It wasn't until the 1960’s in Berkeley, California that the first organization, "Sexual Freedom League", for swingers was opened. Ultimately, an umbrella organization called North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) was formed to encourage accurate information about swinging lifestyles all across America. In 1973, The Lifestyles Organization held their first convention in Riverside California.
Research into Swinging Lifestyles
Some subjective scientific research into swinging has been conducted in the USA since the late 1960s. The most recent study, based on an Internet questionnaire addressed to visitors of lifestyle-related sites, found swingers are happier in their relationships than the norm.
- 60% of swingers said that swinging improved their relationship and only 1.7% said it made their relationship less happy. Half of those who rated their relationship very happy before becoming swingers maintained it had become even happier.
- 90% of those with less happy relationships said swinging improved them.
- Almost 70% of swingers claimed no problem with controlling jealousy, around a quarter admitted "I have difficulty controlling jealousy when swinging" to be somewhat true but only 6% said this was "Yes, Very Much" true.
- Swingers rate themselves happier (59% against 32% very happy) and their lives much more exciting (76% against 54% exciting) than does the rest of the population, by surprisingly large margins.
There was no difference between the responses of men and women, although more males (70%) than females completed the survey. (Bergstrand & Williams, Today's Alternative Marriage Styles: The Case of Swingers, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Vol.3, 10 October 2000 ).
It should be noted that this study, while enlightening, is not useful as a direct indicator of the broader swinging population as a whole, due to its self-selected sampling technique.
Internet-based sampling procedures create a substantial potential for bias. It is likely that those swinging couples who had stronger relationships were more motivated to complete the questionnaire. Alternatively, the stress that swinging may place on a marriage means that only those with higher than average levels of commitment to their partners are able to remain married whilst swinging. Couples that have jealousy or strife issues caused by swinging will not usually stay in the swinging lifestyle and thus would have been unlikely to respond.
The 'prime directive' in swinging is "No means no". This signifies that rejection of a sexual proposal does not require justification and must always be respected. Violation of the ground rules can result in immediate expulsion. Other hard and fast rules at many swing clubs include the use of condoms and changing condoms between partners. Regardless of club rules it is considered polite within the scene to always assume that condoms are to be used.
In the US it is often regarded as impolite to touch without asking, whereas in the UK and Europe both touching and gently but firmly removing a touching hand are widely regarded as polite non-verbal communication in the playroom context.
Some swingers believe that it's 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, currently, there is no commonly used method 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. The growth of many swinging web sites on the Internet is partly due to this, allowing swingers to communicate and meet without public attention or the risk of offending non-swingers.
Traditionally swinger clubs have been accepting of all ages and body types, and a large portion of sexual activities occurred within the confines of swingers homes. 'Urban swinging' began with Fever Parties in London in the late 1990s. This style of swinging caters to affluent urban young people, where discrimination can occur on the basis of looks; and an upper age limit is frequently in place (usually around 40). In Europe, urban swinging events include mostly childless, unmarried young graduates and can have average ages as low as the late 20s, whereas traditional swingers events tend to have average ages in the 40s. Though the same holds true for similar such events in North America, the term "urban swinging" is not in common use.
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 co-ordinator of a British Conservative Party pressure group, Conservatives for Change.
Urban based swinger outfits such as Fever and Lounge Parties in London and Belle Baise in the Midlands try to elevate themselves from historic swinging clubs by hosting their events in upmarket venues, serving champagne and asking their guests to dress in smart evening attire. Due to the success of these events, they are no longer exclusively urban in nature and have subsequently spread to Manchester (UK), Norway, South Africa, France, Sweden and the USA. 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.
The critique of urban swinging among traditional swingers is that it is unethical to discriminate. The growing upsurge interest in urban 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 urban swinging claim an entitlement to peer-group options in this as in other leisure pursuits. A large effort among members of the Lifestyle as a whole is being made to unify the two sub-groups, because arguments between the two are seen as divisive and destructive to the community as a whole.
Female bisexuality is extremely common in both the urban and traditional swinging scene and tends to be the norm amongst participants.
Male bisexuality is less common in the swinging scene, but is becoming more common and more accepted. More openly bi men and bisexual couples (male-female couples where both partners are bisexual) are appearing on the scene. Whether this is due to increasing acceptance in the scene or greater numbers of men "turning bi" is open to discussion. Depending on the club or social situation, male bisexuality among swingers may either be frowned upon, or openly accepted. Generally, however, the open minded nature of the Lifestyle community as a whole is conducive to acceptance of bisexual men (though some choose not to engage in sexual activity with them or with their partners.)
Clubs for gay or lesbian couples, where available, operate quite separately from the broader swinging community. The organised gay community attempts to be tolerant of this to some degree, but also exhibits some characteristics of biphobia. Namely, they are hesitant to accept more "fluid" sexual preferences such as bisexuality, believing that it undermines the category of homosexuality as a whole. The primary difference, though, is that the Lifestyle has, at its heart, a focus on sexual activity while the gay community is centered around sexual preference.
Polyamory specifically refers to individuals who sustain multiple emotional relationships with other individuals. This allows for some overlap within the swinging community. Polyamorists may engage in activity common to swingers such as group sex and partner swapping. Swingers, through extended sexual engagements with the same partners, may also develop strong friendships with these partners. Deeper emotional relationships, however, are not the norm and are considered a rarity. Most swingers distinguish between the multiple emotional relationships present in polyamory, and the multiple sexual relationships present in swinging.
The term hot wife refers to a married woman who has sex with men other than her spouse with her spouse's consent. In most cases the husbands of these women will enjoy watching, hearing, or knowing about their wife's adventures. Often the husbands take part, sometimes by engaging in a threesome, or sometimes just arranging dates for their wives. A distinct subculture of Hotwiving is Cuckolding. This subculture is generally defined by a relationship in which the husband enjoys the humiliation of his wife being sexually satisfied by other men.
Some clubs that cater to swingers have a policy of allowing only couples and single women, but most allow single men on selected nights. Single females are rarely turned away, however, and most (but not all) clubs admit single females at reduced admission price. Swingers' parties are often different, however, and are often couples or couples and single females only.
The reasons for this vary. Most (but certainly not all) of the people who pay to participate in swinger events are male-female couples. Most swinger couples 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 event. It should be noted that while outright hostility towards single men is rarely prevalent, an abundance of single males is rarely looked upon favourably in any swinging context. When single males are permitted their number are usually limited by high entrance fees or stringent membership requirements.
The exception to this are what the UK scene calls "greedy girls" nights, where a few women have sex with several men. At these events, the aim is for men to outnumber the women by a large number, and couples infrequently attend. At many of these events, the girls attend free, or may even be paid to attend. This is, to all intents and purposes, a Gangbang. These events are rare, if not practically non-existent, in the USA.
Some oppose the involvement of any singles of any gender in swinging due because of the imbalance in sexual partners and the resulting fear that they would split existing couples.
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.
The lifestyle in film and entertainment
The random partner swapping "key party" depicted in Ang Lee's film The Ice Storm (adapted from the novel by Rick Moody) has been reported by someone who attended such parties in the Midwest (Indiana) in the 1950's. "Key parties", according to this source, were small (3 to 12) couple events where everyone knew everyone else, so all combinations of partners were pleased to spend an evening with each other.
The movie Zebra Lounge talks about Swinging and its effects on the lives of a married couple with kids who seek some sexual adventures.
In the movie The Blood Oranges, two western couples, one with children, come together in the fictional Mediterranean village of Ilyria. The film was adapted from the novel by John Hawkes.
In John Irving's novel The 158-Pound Marriage, two New England college professors and their wives enter a ménage à quatre with disastrous consequences.
The movie Eating Raoul is a comic send-up of swinging stereotypes.
The movie The Sex Monster is a comedy about a couple who begin a menage-a-trois with another woman.
The lifestyle was also the setting for a recent episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, a popular TV drama depicting forensic investigations. Episode #97, "Swap Meet", is about the investigation of the murder of a woman who had attended a "swinging party". Some of the key rules of the lifestyle are presented during the episode.
The music video for "Beautiful", by Moby, revolves around a swinger party where all the participants are dressed up in fursuits.
In Season #1, Episode #7 of Nip/Tuck, Christian Troy and Kimber Henry attend a swinger party.
Objections to the Swinger Lifestyle
While a great variety of criticisms have been made against swingers themselves, two basic categories of arguments exist in opposition to the swinging and partner swapping as a whole. First are those objections that are based on the practical considerations of engaging in a swinging lifestyle. Second are those objections that argue against the principles, often moral or philosophical, of swinging itself.
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). These seem to be the most common objection to such activities.
A very small subset of swingers play without protection; however, the vast majority promote their activities as safe sex and simply will not engage with others who do not. 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 HPV.
Some may also state that the risk of pregnancy is also a factor that must be taken into consideration.
A second set of objections under the practical category are those of an emotional basis. These arguments maintain that sexual relations by their very nature have an emotional component to them. Since many who engage in such a lifestyle are also in a committed emotional relationship with one partner (as was stated in the history above), to engage in sexual relations with another could irrevocably emotionally damage the relationship of the committed couple. It could be said that intimacy could be diminished by sex with others and that this could spell the end of the relationship.
It is a common belief that one partner may be more enthusiastic about swinging than the other (stereotypically the male) and the less willing partner may feel pushed or coerced into taking part, leading to the break up of the relationship and/or psychological problems. Whether this is actually the case is open to debate.
The second category of objections pertains to the basic principles of swinging on a moral or philosophical basis. Such objections may include the sacred nature of sexual relations between two persons, and/or the view that sexual relations should only occur within a committed relationship, sometimes stated as "only within a marriage." This view is particularly espoused by most organized religions, such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Conference.
Swinging can be opposed by many widely accepted theological worldviews. Examples of worldviews that clash with the concept of swinging are those of "family values" and – more prominently – most branches of the three Abrahamic religions.
Opponents of this category will also often state that in order to engage in a swinging relationship (that is to engage in sexual relations with others while remaining committed to one person), one must degrade sexual relations to the most basic element of pleasure. Naturally, this is a violation of the sacred nature of sexual relationships. If sex becomes the main reason for swinging it may become mechanistic, it is argued, and less satisfying than the intimacy experienced by monogamous couples.
Common Responses to Objections from the Swinger Community
As mentioned previously, many swingers report that their core relationships are actually strengthened through swinging, and they usually claim that their sex lives are more intimate and satisfying rather than less. Jealousy can occur, but proponents of swinging argue that it is mainly reported amongst couples whose relationships were rocky beforehand. The cause and effect nature of swinging on these relationships has yet to be conclusively determined, and it is doubtful that it ever will be.
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 USA and UK do not have alcohol licenses and take a "bring your own" approach to alcohol for reasons previously mentioned. Also, it is not uncommon for experienced swingers to remain sober, and consequently state that they take a far safer approach to their sexual health than that of comparable non-monogamous singles.
Most swinging clubs and parties should be assumed to require condoms unless otherwise clearly stated. 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 acknowlege that they are accepting the same risks that any sexually active member of society does.
As for the risk of pregnancy, while a risk 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. It should also be noted that a fraction of those engaged in swinging relationships are past their child bearing years, and as such a risk of pregnancy is reduced to zero.
Responses to Moral/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. The most common response revolves around the core relationship. Swingers point out that there is a difference between having sex and making love. Interestingly, this is is one of the main objections that religious groups have to swinging: namely, that this distinction should not exist.
Another means to describe this philosophy put forth by swingers is that there is a difference between fun/friendship, and the love/companionship provided by their existing relationship. Thus, though they may have many sexual relationships, there is only one single emotional relationships that exists. While it is also true that many close friendships are formed within the swinging community, swingers often feel that nothing is more important to them than their own relationship with their partners. 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 and is so sure of their 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.
There are various responses 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, aren't 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.
It should be stated that for some swingers, faith-based arguments against swinging are just simply dismissed due to the intractable problem of reconciling these two belief systems.