Articles on the swinging lifestyle, like this one, are growing tiresome. They go like this: curious author, protected — thank you God! — by her protective husband, ventures into the horrifyingly dangerous and unknown wilds of “swingers” [sic] and miraculously emerges unharmed, not having had to remove any precious items of clothing or actually view any naked people, with a greater understanding of this exotic culture.
Anyone who’s curious about the Lifestyle (as its called these days) can simply google “sex clubs [city]” and find the addresses of several local establishments. Or search “the lifestyle swingers” and find a dozen books on the subject at Amazon. Or listen to a podcast (“Life on the Swingset” is the best known, with a companion book). Or visit a dating site (SLS and Kasidie are the largest). Or read articles just like the ones published here or in a variety of perfectly ordinary magazines. Or just find a friend who knows a friend. After all, although the data are bizarrely unreliable, it looks like on the order of 1-4% of North Americans(see numbers here and here) are at least somewhat in the Lifestyle, which gives us about 5 million people. Finding a “non-vanilla,” as they often call themselves, is not much harder than finding a lower back tattoo on an older millennial — in fact, the two groups overlap.
So yes, there are a lot of “swingers” in this country, and why shouldn’t there be? Most are long-married couples in secure relationships who want to add some excitement to their lives. They are not some sort of new age cult with secret handshakes and code words (although some people do like to wear black rings on their right hands or pile a stack of rocks in their yards as a sort of Lifestyle bat-signal). They’re just middle-aged (or thereabouts) people, often with baby-sitting issues.
There is a wonderful old collection of short stories called Is That What People Do? and yes, this is what lots of people do. They use dating sites to meet two by two. They throw parties, sometimes for dozens of people. They have in-jokes (“you know it’s an orgy if there’s a cheese platter”). They go to clubs, which are not nearly as fancy (in general) as those in the movies. They go on clothing-optional cruises and to clothing-optional resorts (all of which advertise and can be found easily in an online search) and to clothing-optional hotel takeovers, which can have hundreds of couples attending. They have rules, which vary from couple to couple and sometimes get broken: couples only/”hall pass” allowed; kissing/no kissing; penetration/oral only; anal/no way Jose; safer sex/bareback; no drama—no, really, no drama. They’re your neighbors. You didn’t know that? That’s because you have to look to see things. There are swingers everywhere.
Far more interesting question is why do people do that? We are hardwired for sexual novelty. Passion fades. Lust wills out. The nanny/babysitter/personal trainer/person in the PTA looks better and better. Even Jimmy Carter, as close to a true saint as this country may ever birth, lusted in his heart. It is, as Paul Simon tells us, in our hearts and in our bones. Most of us manage by pushing the lust down, having affairs, engaging in serial monogamy, aching for the “who-knows-what” we don’t have. Those in the Lifestyle say “fuck it” and play as they please.
All the data — and they’re sketchy and limited — say non-monogamists are happier and at least as healthy as monogamists. After all, only “monogamous” people take monogamy for granted and don’t get tested regularly. And many people are in non-monogamous relationships without knowing it!
But still…why? Why take the risk of blowing up your entire life? Most people in the Lifestyle guard their activities carefully; being outed can cost you anything from your kids’ ability to play with their neighbors’ kids to your kids being taken away from you, along with your job and your reputation. And when you play with sex there’s always emotional risk, all kinds of emotional risk. You may end up destroying your primary relationship even if nobody outside the Lifestyle finds out what you like to do on the weekends.
Maybe it’s because our life expectancy — our healthy, sexually active life expectancy — keeps going up. And sexual interest doesn’t have a set “use by” date. Have you decided that when you are 50/60/70/80 you will immediately swear off sex? Didn’t think so. But you will wake up on your 50th birthday and see stretching before you decades of sexual potential; and all the toys and role-playing in the world won’t keep that from seeming — or being — scarily boring.
So your options are:
- Downplay the importance of sex, which used to make sense until your life expectancy went up.
- Kick over the pieces of your old life and start again, and the devil take what you’ve left behind, which only makes sense if it’s your only alternative.
- Lie and cheat until you blow up your world.
- Find a way to add sexual variety to an existing relationship by bringing in some new players.
I don’t blame you for hating these options. Most people do. So we beat on, boats against the current, held together by love and family and the comfort of long intimacy, and we call the loss of lust the price we pay willingly for all the rest. But the people in the Lifestyle choose option 4. And it is surely no coincidence that the typical self-description of couples in the Lifestyle is “married for 20 years, best friends.”
We don’t need any more outsider guides into the mystery of swinging. The mysteries have long been exposed, and they never were hidden very deeply anyway. The more interesting essay topic is whether the Lifestyle will stay a niche market — like single malt scotch or Star Trek fandom or a love of Twin Peaks — OR if it’s the beginning of a sweeping change in societal expectations about sexual fidelity and family structure that greatly lengthened lifespans, less blind faith in prudish scriptural rules, and more honest communication and negotiations among partners are slowly making not only possible, but necessary.
Is something like the Lifestyle going to be right for you, someday? Probably not. It only works if jealousy somehow got edited out of your genes and you can take some amount of pleasure in your partner’s satisfaction, even if you’re not the source of that satisfaction. Seeing your sweetie naked with someone else, even if you think you’ve agreed to it, has hurt at least as many relationships as it’s helped. And trying to separate sex from the softer emotions is not the way many of us live. Or can live, even if we wanted to.
But. But. The swingers do seem to be having a lot of fun, don’t they?