The evolution of consensual non-monogamy in America.
By: Edward Fernandes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Barton College.
“So, you hang out with swingers, so what are they like?”
A friend, familiar with my research on swinging asked me that question as we sat by the pool and sipped on a cold beer.
“What do you mean by ‘they’?” I responded…
“Well, aren’t ‘they’ weird? I bet ‘they’ have orgies all the time and can’t get enough of screwing each other…”
My friend’s perception of swinging and swingers isn’t much different from conventional wisdom. The idea that swinging is a never-ending orgy of sweaty bodies is alive and well in our society. Some even refer to it as just plain “sport-screwing.” This, again, does not reflect what swinging is all about. Moreover, the idea that swinging is part of a deviant, liberal plot devised to corrupt the morals of the country and bring civilization to perdition is far too often endorsed by the popular media. I have heard people equate swingers with “those weirdoes that are featured on the Springer show.” Last year, on The Dr. Phil Show, swingers were portrayed as individuals whose relationships were in shambles and had resorted to “cheating” (or swinging) as a last attempt to save a moribund marriage. Of course, the good doctor had a therapeutic fool-proof solution: to put a stop to this deviant behavior and save the sanctity of the marriage bed, it was necessary for these misguided people to put a complete stop to this dysfunctional behavior. I was initially invited to participate in that show but politely declined.
So who are swingers and what are they like? Individuals and organizations in popular culture and scientific communities have attempted to answer that question, both with a particular bias that shapes their evaluation. Swinger friendly reports tend to show swinging in the best light possible, popular media shows the vagaries and pitfalls of swinging while the scientific-research community, which has little contact with the swinging community, really doesn’t have a clue either way.
First, swingers are just like anyone else. They are like you and me, our friends, our neighbors and co-workers, teammates or club friends, some are doctors, others are cars mechanics, cops, nurses, physicians, librarians, politicians, accountants (yes, even those…), clergy, devout religious people, hairdressers and military. In a nutshell, swingers are not a special breed of individuals that display a membership mark that identifies them to others as “different.”
But, there’s something that distinguishes swingers from everyone else in our society and that something is an open attitude toward relationship commitment and sexuality in general.
The following is a snapshot of “who” and “what” of swingers, and it seems to be in line with most swingers I have met in the last 20 years.
The demographic profile of the swingers suggests that they are white for the most part, between 36 and 55 years of age, mostly college educated, married for at least 11 to 20 years, and with an average household income between $40,000 and $200,000. Many professions and occupations were represented, from blue-collar and white-collar workers to individuals with advanced professional degrees. Some were self-employed; others worked in public organizations such as health facilities and educational institutions. The demographic findings of this study parallel, for the most part, those of previous studies.
The men in my two studies were, for the most, heterosexual, although about 20 percent did consider themselves bisexual. The majority of the women considered themselves bi-curious, with a small minority fancying themselves as pure bisexual. Female bisexuality is accepted within the swinging lifestyle; however, male bisexuality is discouraged and not welcomed. Perhaps one of the reasons why women are attracted to swinging is the opportunity to express their bisexuality in a safe and accepting environment.
Most of the swingers in my sample were married or cohabiting, the great majority had been in a relationship for well over 10 years, and for most this was their first marriage. A small number had been married more than once and there were no apparent differences between men and women in the length of and frequency of marriage. Most had been swinging anywhere between three years and 12 years, which suggests that swinging, overall, adds to the longevity of the marital relationship.
Since swingers are often characterized as having a more permissive attitude towards sexuality, a characteristic often associated with individuals who hold liberal social views, one would expect the swingers would be more “liberal” in their social and political affiliations. But my data suggests swingers’ political views that run the gamut of the political spectrum. It seems that swingers are not a politically homogenous group. Rather, swingers hold disparate political ideology, from social conservatism to liberalism and socialism with a certain percentage holding no political views at all. However, interesting to note that of all political categories, Republicans held the majority.
Perhaps my findings are counter-intuitive since Conservative individuals espouse strict sexual morality and monogamy, which contrasts the non-monogamous sexual behavior of swingers.
Just how religious are the swingers in my study? The swingers reported being somewhat religious, about a quarter of the respondents claiming to have no religious affiliation at all. It appears that swingers’ religious affiliation do not interfere with their willingness to engage in the swinging lifestyle. Religiosity may not be associated with monogamy when it comes to this lot.
And where do they? Mostly, swingers live in urban and metropolitan communities with populations between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. But swingers are no longer restricted to urban communities, it seems that they have migrated to suburbia and even rural communities as well. About one-fourth of the respondents reported living either in a rural setting or in a community with less then 50,000 people.
It seems that since swingers have become part of mainstream society and are indistinguishable in the general population they could be your next-door neighbors or a co-worker.
I also explored how swingers felt toward their swinging activities, and what made them decide to take this step into the realm of “deviant” society. As mentioned before herein, it had been suggested that swingers were mostly middle-aged men that subjugated their apathetic wives into the fiendish world of sexual “sick” fantasies and depravity.
Thus, from a research perspective, what prompted an individual couples to enter the swinging lifestyle? In addition, what happens once an individual/couple starts swinging? It seems that the vast majority of the people in my studies reported entering into the swinging lifestyle at the suggestion of the couple’s male partner. About two-thirds of the men reported having suggested swinging to their female partner. Less than one-fourth of the women admitted to having done so. Knowing the rationale for an individual’s involvement in the swinging lifestyle contributes to an overall understanding of the swinging experience. Also, the most cited reason given by both men and women for continuing with their swinging lifestyle was firstly pure sexual variety, sexual enjoyment, and personal fantasy. Regarding common swinging sexual activities, most individuals reported engaging in partner swapping and group sex activities. However, a small number of the respondents reported never swapping partners.
Other sexual activities involved woman-on-woman sex, but the most reported sexual activity in both studies was man-woman-man threesomes.
The majority of the people who participated in my studies reported enjoying their swinging experience. There was no difference between the levels of swinging satisfaction of men and women.
I also found that swingers are very happy in their marriages and have strong emotional bonds with their spouses, strong family units, and aren’t looking for additional emotional connections or trying to replace the ones they currently have. Moreover, my respondents claim that their spouses are able to satisfy them sexually: Swinging to them is a way of adding spice and variety to the marriage itself, (some even referred to swing as a “team sport,” or “the couple that plays together remains together”).
Although there is still a strong societal disapproval of swinging and a belief that swingers have unsatisfactory marriages and are unhappy with their primary relationships, there is no evidence to support such a claim. My research suggests that perhaps we are witnessing a new social paradigm regarding the dynamics of marriage and consensual extra-marital sex. It is possible that swinging is bringing about a re-definition of marriage and a change in the traditional expectation of marital monogamy. Future research on this topic is warranted and necessary to understand the changing dynamics of marital relationships.