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Essay

Backstory: Looking for Swingers

Armed with only a search engine and overwhelming curiosity, I set out across the murky vastness of the internet in a voyeuristic search for “swingers,” hoping to learn more about “swinging,” and am back to report my findings. I’m 24 years old and single.

What is swinging? Swinging, it turns out, is a term that mostly non-swingers use: real swingers prefer to speak of “the Lifestyle.” In Lifestyle networks, parties, and clubs, mutually consenting couples enjoy sex with other couples, without (in theory) threatening their primary romantic bonds. It saves or wrecks marriages, depending on whom you ask, and raises a host of philosophical questions: “What is love?” “Why do we have sex?” “Are sex and love mutually reinforcing and inseparable or are they distinct, isolatable drives?” “What’s a family?” “Does marriage work?”  

Writing about the Lifestyle ranges from the diaristic to the commercial and the academic, and it’s consistently full of contradictions: the Lifestyle is a “subculture” but it’s “worldwide;” it’s “increasingly mainstream” yet still trades in the “forbidden.” I found one dissertation on the Lifestyle that opens with a heartfelt, paragraph-length thank-you note to the author’s wife. On the other end of the spectrum, an LA Weekly article titled “Swinging: The Underground Lifestyle that Lets you F*ck your Friends,” suggests that “typically,” couples start swinging when the woman expresses a desire to sleep with other women. (This unsupported assertion strikes me as a bona  fide bit of male fantasy.)

“We’re a husband and a wife trying new things!”

“We love meeting interesting new people!”

“Almost none of our friends are vanilla anymore!”  

Searching for Lifestyle communities, I cannot find a social network for swingers that doesn’t feature sexually explicit imagery on its homepage and doesn’t immediately ask for my contact information. I do find some endearingly amateur blogs by swinging couples, with headlines like: “We’re a husband and a wife trying new things!” “We love meeting interesting new people!” and “Almost none of our friends are vanilla anymore!” These are often followed by long trails of homemade, semi-pornographic images. I feel weirdly moved. Far from the Photoshopped, hyper-sexual barrage of blockbuster culture, these are authentic personal quests for fulfillment. 

The average swinger is college-educated and makes between $70,000 and $200,000.

Nude swinger selfies are unusual, in part because swingers tend to be late-middle-aged, upper-middle-class married couples. For a long time, that also meant they were white and straight. A 2009 study found that the average swinger is college-educated and makes between $70,000 and $200,000 per year. A 1985 study of 10,000 swingers found that 50% voted for Ronald Reagan, and fewer than 24% voted for Jimmy Carter. All this should perhaps be unsurprising: if you’re seeking the small amount of controlled chaos that swinging offers, you’re likely otherwise secure. 

According to swinger lore, swinging was first practiced by American fighter pilots during WWII. The physical proximity, comfortable incomes and (most importantly) high fatality rates of Air Force families created an environment in which inter-marriage promiscuity seemed not only fun but logical. The pilots dubbed their naughty hobby “wife-swapping,” a term that suggests a subtle patriarchy lingering behind the origins of this mythically subversive practice. Indeed, there’s something suburban-flavored about swinging. Contemporary swingers like to wax nostalgic for 1940’s “key parties,” where everyone would throw their keys in a pile and pull out a different pair — discovering, in the process, their bed partner for the night. The “key party” evokes  a quaint geography: keyholes, bedrooms, houses, rows of houses, lawns, lawnmowers, driveways. 

So how does swinging look from a historical perspective? Sexologist Marty Klein notes that before the bicycle, the average American woman had to wear 37 pounds of clothing just to leave the house. The bicycle made that impractical, and within two years of its popularization, women were wearing half the clothes they used to. Following that example, he speculates that the technologies and cultural trends that will shape sexuality in our time are as wide-ranging and unpredictable as Amazon.com, the disappearance of downtowns, female clergy, female police, young adults moving back home, popular therapy, trend diets, whites becoming a minority, and chlamydia, to name a few. This was in 1999. In a similar list of historical events that indirectly shaped Western sexuality, he lists the story of Adam and Eve, the twelve male apostles, paper, clocks, light bulbs, women going to theaters and acting on stage, anti-masturbation campaigns, procreation as duty, and the 19th-century belief that conception required female orgasm. 

While broad and eyebrow-raising, I’m surprised how these lists inspire in me an appreciation of our complexity and diversity. Who knows, years from now, what practices will seem fair, unfair, emancipatory, irresponsible, empowering, progressive, sexy, exclusive, problematic, stable, crazy, fun, painful, good, bad, weird, or normal. 

Milo Cramer
Literary Resident