When I think of swingers, I picture straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged suburbanites trying to ‘spice up’ their sex lives. Swinging also evokes a strong undercurrent of heterosexism, misogyny, and objectification; I think of husbands making agreements about swapping their wives as if they were discussing driving each other’s cars. I’ll admit I only know a handful of these types of swingers from work, so my sincere apologies if this is a gross misrepresentation of the larger swinger community! Regardless, in my experience as an ethical non-monogamy educator, millennials steer clear of the term ‘swinging’ for many of the reasons I mentioned, preferring to label their relationships as ‘open’ or ‘polyamorous’. And while swinging does fall under the ethical non-monogamy umbrella, it’s a specific type of relationship structure with unique agreements that sets it apart from polyamory.
It might be too early to say definitively but I smell a swinging resurgence coming. Let me explain...
The Post-Lockdown Opening Up
Coming out of the 2020 lockdown, there was a boom in interest in ethical non-monogamy. Couples who spent months isolated together had a lot of time to stew and discuss the future of their relationships. Alienated from regular social interactions, a lot of people craved connection with folks outside of their primary partners. As a result, many monogamous couples came to the decision that they wanted to see other people – at least, in theory. Then reality set in. Once these couples were faced with the real possibility of polyamory, many backpedaled, realizing the amount of emotional energy that was required to sustain multiple relationships surpassed their initial expectations. My entire 2021 was spent facilitating negotiations between couples who wanted sexual exploration outside of their relationship but didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the difficulties and jealousy in polyamory. The pandemic, understandably, left a tremendous number of people burnt out and exhausted. Most of the ambitious couples who had jumped into non-monogamy closed back up within a few months while others trudged ahead. I came to the realization that ethical non-monogamy education needed to revisit swinging as a viable alternative.
“People were tired and overwhelmed due to Covid-19, and they didn’t want years of work; they wanted to fuck and not feel terrible when their partners did too…”
When I talk to couples who want to open up, one theme keeps unanimously popping up. Couples want to have novel sexual experiences but want to prioritize their existing partnership at all costs. This is extremely common for newly open couples. Normally, I work with folks on and off over the period of a year to slowly build skills that allow them to deconstruct compulsory monogamy and adjust to a polyamorous lifestyle. But people were tired and overwhelmed due to Covid-19, and they didn’t want years of work; they wanted to fuck and not feel terrible when their partners did too. A lot of couples told me they were only okay with having casual sex outside of the relationship; some went as far as setting ‘agreements’ (rules) that they could only see other folks once. While I sympathize with the fear and scarcity that drives this line of thinking, these rules are unethical since they completely negate the feelings and needs of the hypothetical folks who would be subject to immediate veto post first date. So we started exploring swinging as an alternative! When done right, swinging can provide the structure that addresses the majority of the issues brought up by these couples.
A Swing And A Hit
As I mentioned, swinging falls under the ethical non-monogamy umbrella but has distinct attributes that set it apart from other forms of non-monogamy. Swinging is characterized by high sexual openness and low emotional openness, meaning that swingers have sexual relationships with multiple people while maintaining a single romantic/emotionally exclusive partnership. What can be appealing about swinging is the tight boundaries held by individual couples, the specific time frames of sexual openness, the ability to be involved in joint sexual activities, and the focus on maintaining the integrity of each partnership. Unlike polyamory, primary couples are encouraged to establish rules between themselves that outline how they interact with other couples. Unlike unicorn hunting, engaging with other established couples can neutralize the power imbalance of couples’ privilege. Unlike open relationships, couples primarily engage with other established couples rather than singles or folks who might be looking for relationships. Basically, this form of ethical non-monogamy prioritizes the preservation of established relationships while allowing sexual exploration with others in a way that doesn’t feel inherently predatory.
“Unlike unicorn hunting, engaging with other established couples can neutralize the power imbalance of couples’ privilege.”
Now, I’m not saying that swinging absolves couples from deconstructing compulsory monogamy or that it should be used as a way to avoid responsibility. Like any form of ethical non-monogamy, swinging needs to be done with deliberate care and respect for everyone involved. I won’t pretend that jealousy and messy emotions can be entirely avoided either. However, swinging can be a fabulous way for couples who prefer dyadic relationships to embrace sexual openness without using singles as need fulfillment machines or unicorn hunting. By swinging, you’re engaging with other couples who have the same goals and likely have a similar set of agreements. In its best form, swinging can deepen the connection between couple friends. Sharing physical intimacy between established couples is usually frowned upon, but can actually be a safe space to explore multi-partner sexual experiences when trust is already established. Other swingers generally aren’t invested in forming more established partnerships with one another (although, I’d argue that can also be a legitimate option). Importantly, swinging sets clear expectations – and clarity goes a long way toward building security.
While I’ll admit, like many folks my age, I still have biases against swinging, I’m also having a change of heart. In my 30s, I can see the appeal of having sexual escapades with other established couples. Pre-pandemic, I dated entirely separately from my nesting partner, and I dated a lot. But post-pandemic, my nesting partner and I have become far more domestic and I enjoy the simplicity of our agreements. But I’m still strongly polyamorous and value having multiple important people in my life. Three years ago, I would have laughed at the prospect of swinging but things are different now. I can easily see my partner and me having fun for a set period of time with other couples that we care about before resuming our normal domestic partnership. The thought of not having hours and hours and hours of messy polyamory processing conversations also seems great. While I certainly love having multiple partners, the energy of sustaining those relationships can be a lot. I think it’s cool to be able to explore a variety of different ways of relating to one another. I have an inkling that within the next year, swinging will become far more enticing to the queers in my immediate and extended community. We’ll see how it goes! I’ll keep y’all updated.