The Modern Origins of Swinging
You may be under the impression that “key parties” and “wife-swapping” were inventions of the sexual revolution, but before the 1960s and The Summer of Love, Air Force pilots and their wives were having sex with each other’s spouses in a dynamic that came to be known as swinging. The details are somewhat in dispute since this was not a topic that was studied or written about much at the time that it was first happening, but there is consensus that modern swinging began mid-century in the Air Force. There may have been some underground clubs in the roaring 20s, but it was military couples that really brought it out into the larger culture.
According to one source, pilots during WWII were often able to move their wives close to bases where they were stationed.
Swinging has its roots from U.S. Air Force fighter pilots during World War II. These men were wealthy enough to move their wives close to base, and the fact that their fatality rate was the highest of any branch of service led to an unusual social milieu in which non-monogamy between these pilots’ wives and other pilots became acceptable. 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.’’
Investigative journalist, Terry Gould, who wrote a book called The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers believes that it is unlikely that wives would have been housed near to places where WWII pilots were stationed and that this kind of thing more likely took off in the 1950s. The close bonds formed by sexually sharing spouses made the group feel closer and more cohesive and it helped ensure that widows would be taken care of both emotionally and sexually in the event that their husbands did not come home. Gould believes that this took place before deployment, not in the midst of it. However, it is true that by the time the Korean war ended, swinging had spread out from military communities into the larger suburbs.
It may seem counter-intuitive to some that sexual sharing would build community rather than create a lot of divisiveness and problems, but it is something that has taken place in other human cultures and often occurs with our primate cousins as well. The Inuit have traditionally had a system of spousal exchange that helped to cement bonds of affiliation and assistance that might be called upon to help get through life in such an unforgiving climate. Some were a part of a religious ceremony and others were part of a larger communal context.
This was reciprocal spouse exchange, sometimes described as co-marriage. It was found in all or almost all areas inhabited by the Eskimos, although it was rare in some regions. Even in areas where it was common, many couples did not participate. Co-marriage was not entered into lightly since it usually resulted in lifelong bonds amongst all members of both families. Besides the obvious motive of sex with a new partner, the purpose was to strengthen economic and friendship bonds between the two families, who could depend on each other in times of need.
Generally each married couple maintained its own household. Every so often, each man would move into the household of the other couple (often in another village), taking over the other man’s responsibilities, rights, and privileges. The practice is often called “wife exchange,” but more logically it should be “husband exchange” since it was almost always the husbands who changed places. The exchange might last any length of time, with a week or so being typical. The husbands would then move back to their own houses until the exchange was repeated, which might be in a few months, or maybe never. The family-type bonds remained in force even in cases where the actual exchange was made only once. Participating couples might have such arrangements with one other couple or with several.
My own experiences with extra-pair sexual encounters including group sex are that they do indeed build feelings of human bonding and connection. Even casual encounters that are based in mutual respect and a desire for shared pleasure have the same effect as times that my husband and I have been with people we are emotionally invested in. As long as everyone has communicated beforehand about what the expectations and parameters are, there is little jealousy or conflict that arises due to having sex with someone who is not your spouse. This is not to say that problems never arise for anyone and that things always go smoothly, but a dynamic cultivated amongst a group of people who share a particular culture does seem to work well much of the time.
Before my husband and I got into stable polyamorous relationships we used to go to a swinger’s club (also known as a sex club). We discovered an atmosphere that was in many ways much healthier than the society at large. Members were primarily couples, with a few single women and a very small number of single men who were allowed to join. During our orientation, we were instructed that you must always ask before touching someone else and that no means no the first time. It wasn’t said in so many words, but it was made clear that in many ways women had a kind of authority and autonomy that they typically don’t elsewhere. Bouncers were on hand to make sure that everyone obeyed the rules, but I never saw any time when they were actually needed.
The culture was very much one of respect even though oftentimes women were partially naked or at least dressed in ways that they likely wouldn’t be in the larger world. I have never felt safer in my life in a public space, no matter what I was wearing, because I knew that the culture of the group supported women being fully in charge of anything that had to do with their bodies. I never worried that I would be leered at, catcalled, groped, or stalked and that I could express my sexuality without it necessarily been seen as an invitation — a distinct difference from the outside world, even when I was fully covered up.
The rules were merely the parameters that guided all interactions, and those parameters created an environment where they were naturally upheld. The bouncers didn’t have to police people into following the rules because club members had all bought into the culture. Perhaps one of the reasons that so many women find this kind of activity empowering is that it dismantles patriarchal hierarchy, which although it may be largely subconscious, is still prevalent in most heterosexual marriages. It’s also a safe semi-public space to embrace your sexual self — something that most women never get to experience.
Women have been told their entire lives that their bodies and their sexuality exist for the pleasure of men, and in particular for their man. The orgasm gap exists in part because women are reluctant to ask for their own pleasure. Swinging dismantles these old paradigms and puts women squarely in control of their own sexual enjoyment and expression. A certain percentage of women find through this exploration that they are actually somewhat bisexual.
There was often a lot of kissing between the women at the club and one couple we met told us that the wife was the first one to suggest opening their marriage and that she now has a bevy of adoring female playmates. I didn’t ask where the husband fit into the equation, but he seemed quite happy with the state of things, and their relationship appeared quite close and loving. Many of my first experiences with women were with those I met at the club.
A large percentage of swingers self-identify that their lifestyle improves both their overall happiness and their relationship with their partner, although some do site issues with jealousy or possessiveness. As the description on Amazon of Terry Gould’s book says, “A deeper biological urge seems to motivate this pleasure-seeking practice, one that combines two paradoxical urges: the drive to seek long term partners for raising offspring and the equally powerful drive for sexual and genetic variety. Lifestyle couples have resolved these conflicting urges.”
Gould also notes that swinging has been around since ancient times, from prehistoric fertility rituals to Dionysian festivals and on to the nineteenth-century Oneida community. The group bonding that took place for mid-century Air Force pilots through swinging was just the latest iteration of a long-standing human practice; one that brought this kind of social dynamic back into greater prevalence.
Swinging is practiced by around 5% of the American population and also takes place around the world. There are lifestyle-oriented cruises and travel, as well as a wide variety of clubs and associations related to swinging. Condom use and safer sex practices are common and normalized and many swingers get tested regularly for STIs. Although there is still some risk of contracting herpes or HPV regardless of condom use, people engaged in consensual non-monogamy (CNM) tend to have about the same rates of STIs as the general population.
In addition, “Approximately one-quarter of monogamous partners reported sex outside of their primary relationship, most of whom indicated that their primary partner did not know about their infidelity.” Cheaters are a lot less likely to use condoms than those who are consensually non-monogamous potentially exposing themselves and their primary partners to unintended pregnancies and STIs. Swingers tend to be more careful and responsible.
Ethical (open and honest) non-monogamous practices are gaining popularity in some quarters, particularly among Millennials, but it is still largely misunderstood by the general public. Many swingers loathe the term “wife swapping” since it tends to imply men trading property rather than an activity that both partners are willingly engaged in. In addition, swinging has many more possibilities than simply trading spouses, and some two-thirds of relationships that decide to open up do so at the suggestion of women, many of whom find it empowering and liberating, as well as enjoyable.
What Terry Gould found when he dug deeper into “the lifestyle” is that most swingers are not seedy deviants on the fringes of society. They are by-in-large heterosexual middle-class couples with jobs and children who like to explore their sexuality with others while maintaining the primacy of their own relationship. As one couple told Gould, most of the time they didn’t even swing, but just enjoyed being a part of a close-knit group of married people where the boundary between friendship and sex was a “titillating line to be openly approached, not a wall to sneak around in deceit.”
We found this to be the case at the club that we used to attend. Some nights there was a fair amount of sex going on, but quite often people were just enjoying getting to openly be themselves around like-minded friends. There was dancing and a little bit of flirting, but it was far from an orgy, even on the wildest nights. Each weekend the club had theme nights and it was fun to dress up and fully embrace our sexual selves in a safe environment.
One of my favorite theme nights was men’s shirts and I spent the evening dancing and chatting to new friends wearing only one of my husband’s button-downs, some high heels, and a thong. Relatively speaking, I was pretty covered up, but still felt sexy and playful. Some women just wore regular street clothes, but most of them dressed up to some extent (either for the theme or in evening out clothes), as did the men.
It’s difficult to draw a clear line between those who practice swinging and those who engage in polyamory but in general, falling in love with a sexual partner is not an issue in polyamory. Although swingers may well have affectionate feelings for those they play with, their emotional allegiance is to their spouse. Polyamorists have different kinds of intimate relationships with more than one person, and although most of those have a sexual component, it isn’t necessarily a part of every poly connection. Having a new love has little impact on other pre-existing relationships.
For swingers, falling love with someone else might well cause problems, but as some of those interviewed told John Stossel in his 2005 report on swinging, “People in the swinging community swing for a reason. They don’t swing to go out and find a new wife.” Also, as one woman commented, “It makes women more confident — that they are the ones in charge.”
I’ve heard some men who are not “in the lifestyle” say that they think any form of ethical non-monogamy is an excuse for women to run wild while leaving their poor cuckolded husbands home alone, but this is not my experience of swinging at all. Swinging has always been primarily a couple’s activity and one that both partners participate in equally, whether that means simply being a voyeur, having sex in the same room or beside another couple, engaging in soft swap activities (kissing, erotic touching, or oral sex), full swap (either in the same room or in separate ones) or some form of group sex.
One couple used to like to have sex on a bench late at night when hardly anyone was left in the club. They’d be completely naked, just going at it with each other, oblivious to the rest of us, but clearly getting off on the fact that they were having sex in public, albeit in a safe place to do that. They weren’t interested in playing with anyone else; they just wanted to be in a sex-positive environment.
Swinging probably isn’t for everyone, but it has become a much more widely spread activity than many people may realize. Most larger towns and cities have some type of swinger’s club and a few of them have become quite famous, such as Trapeze in Atlanta and Colette’s with three locations — two in Texas and one in New Orleans. Naughty N’awlins is an annual 5 day festival of sex-positive events, including the world’s only “sexual freedom parade” as well as seminars, themed balls, hotel parties, and more.
There are several lifestyle resorts in the Caribbean, including Hedonism, and Desire. My husband and I spent some time at Desire in Cancun two years ago and can’t wait to go back. It’s a clothing-optional couples-only resort, and once we adjusted to walking around naked, in broad daylight, we had a great time. Everyone was very friendly, including the staff, and although there didn’t seem to be a lot of overt hooking up going on, it was a relaxed and sexy atmosphere without being in-your-face sexual all the time. We felt very comfortable there and enjoyed it a lot. Most of the people there were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and had bodies that reflected that, but no one was self-conscious. A nice change of pace from everyday life.
One new friend told us about going on a lifestyle cruise that included a playroom with most of the lights turned off. In other words, you were just in a dark room in a tangle of naked bodies and didn’t quite know who was touching you or who you were touching. She thought it was amazing and although that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, I do appreciate the sense of freedom and sexual expression that goes along with that.
Swinging and later, polyamory taught me a lot about myself and helped me to truly reclaim my sexuality from a world that had told me it didn’t belong to me. The high level of openness and communication meant that my relationship with my husband also grew. We had a good relationship to start with, which I think is important for opening up an existing marriage, but it has definitely brought a lot of good things to our lives. We’ve had a few negative experiences and not everyone always behaves ethically or responsibly, but overall, we found it to be a very accepting and positive environment.
In an American culture that is both prudish and sex-obsessed, it was refreshing and healing to get to spend time with other people who had a more balanced outlook on sexuality and who used that environment to support their own marriages. I can absolutely see how the idea might have taken off among a close-knit community of pilots who feared they might not come back from their deployments, and how their way of bonding and supporting each other spread to become a wider movement.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.