The Swing Community: A Profile


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Introduction

This article covers the emergence and growth of organized recreational sex amongst mixed-gender couples as a social activity.

The most frequently-used term for this community is the ``swing,'' ``swinging,'' or ``swinger's'' community. In the 1980's, Dr. Robert McGinley1 began promoting the use of ``lifestyles'' in place of ``swing,'' and ``playcouples''2 in place of ``swingers''; in addition to escaping media stereotypes that had built up around ``swingers,'' he wanted a term that was inclusive of couples who participated but didn't choose to interact sexually with other couples.3 This new terminology (while certainly well-intentioned) hasn't fully caught on yet4, and in the interest of avoiding confusion I'll tend to use the older term, with no offense intended, particularly when discussing swinging's origins or when discussing books or articles that themselves use the older term.

History and Politics

Community Origins

As far as anyone knows5, swinging (as this community exists today, in the United States) had its roots amongst an elite group of 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.6 These arrangements persisted near Air Force bases throughout World War II and into the Korean War.

By the time the Korean War ended, these groups7 had spread from the bases to the nearby suburbs. The media picked up on them in 1957 and promptly dubbed the phenomenon ``wife-swapping.''8 Although the media didn't treat this new phenomenon respectfully, the public's response made it clear that they wanted to hear more. By 1960, there were over 20 widely-available magazines which carried ``swinger'' ads.9 These magazines provided a medium through which the first swinger parties could advertise themselves, and the first permanent clubs began appearing in the late 1960's.10

Organized swinging outside California was originally all ``off-premise.''11 This was also true for New York until the legendary on-premise club ``Plato's Retreat'' was founded12; in the South, Midwest, and Northwest, dances13 remained the most popular form of off-premise swinging. All of these clubs were completely independent entities and there were no national gatherings.

Dr. Robert McGinley founded the Lifestyles Organization in 1975, through which he began hosting the first national Lifestyles Conventions14 along with his first efforts to improve the public image of swinging.15 He subsequently founded the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) in 1979, with the intent that NASCA serve as a trade and standards organization for swing club owners.

The swinger's community continued to grow throughout the 1980's and 1990's16, and is currently enjoying an upsurge of interest and growth.17 Although single women are almost always welcome at today's swinging events, the degree to which single men are accepted varies from club to club. Although female bisexuality is common in the swing community, male bisexual activity is still almost non-existent at swing events.

Political Struggles and Strategy

The swing community won their first major political battle in 1996-199718 against the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).19 As Gould [9] describes it, the rhetoric they used in this struggle was a textbook example of how sex-positive communities of any kind can find common ground with the public:

  1. They argued that the ABC was attempting to regulate the private sexual behavior of citizens, which made the ABC's actions everyone's concern rather than just one organization's concern.
  2. They got the ACLU and other free-speech / first-amendment advocates involved, as a result of the ABC's interest in shutting down a display of erotic art at their convention. McGinley considered this issue to be his ``high ground,'' and recognized that many consider censorship of art or speech to be warning signs that government is on the wrong path.20
  3. They aligned themselves, at least rhetorically, with the political struggles of other sexual minorities (particularly the gay community). This framed the debate in terms more favorable to them.
Swing clubs in some cities and states have faced unfair treatment from local authorities (typically via selectively enforcing zoning regulations, or passing new ordinances). Recently, this has occurred in Florida and Arizona.

The Arizona case is particularly interesting, because it essentially resulted from a failure to align with other sexual minority groups. When asked why Phoenix was shutting down its five swing clubs but leaving its gay male sex club (``The Chute'') in peace, a City Attorney gave the following remarkable answer [11]:

The gay constituency is very vocal, and they resist what they perceive to be the government's attempt to focus specifically on places frequented by homosexuals... They consider themselves a minority group, which creates an extra layer of analysis we have to go through so we're not perceived as picking on gay people.
At least on its surface, this is a compelling argument for cooperation and solidarity amongst the various elements of sex-positive culture.

Media Coverage

The national media has been fairly erratic on the subject of swinging, and frequently falls back on their tried-and-true approach to sex-positive culture in general (i.e. ``titillate the public with it so you can increase sales, then judge it harshly so you can maintain editorial credibility.'') A surprising number of reporters have stooped to making small-minded comments about attendees' appearances or ages, as if to imply that only fashion models should have the right to sexual enjoyment.

However, Gould's recently-published book [9], the increased level of respect gained through the recent legal victories in California, and the general public's negative reaction to media coverage of the Monica Lewinksy scandal, may ultimately result in more respectful and objective media coverage of swinging.

Comparisons with Other Sex-Positive Communities

Polyamory

Polyamory, a modern term for ``the love of many people at once,'' is discussed at length in [7], [1], and [21]. The question of what exactly distinguishes ``polyamory'' from ``swinging'' has been the subject of a staggering amount of internet debate.21

There is an increasing amount of crossover between poly communities and swing communities, and every participant and local community is different. What follows is my best attempt to characterize some general tendencies that (in my observation, and at this point in time) seem to distinguish these two communities. These are my personal observations and characterizations of general tendencies that I have noticed locally, they not rules, and there are always exceptions.

In my experience, it is the swing community's emphasis on sex as a social and recreational activity between couples, together with the paramount importance they place on protecting the existing relationship within each participating couple, that distinguishes it from the poly cultures I have encountered.

Forming ``triads,'' ``quartets,'' or any other arrangement where the new relationship bonds are of the same strength and priority as one's primary relationship, is common in the poly community but rare in the swing community. Likewise, regular participation in group sex is a fundamental characteristic of the swing community that is comparatively rare in the poly community. Finally, some of the modern poly community's current cultural influences (i.e. internet culture, science fiction conventions and fandom, and neo-paganism) have far less prominence in the swing community.

BDSM/Leather

The number of parallels between the modern swing community and the modern BDSM/leather community is truly remarkable.22

Each community began in the 1940's with World War II soldiers.23 During the late 1950's, the key clubs spread into the surrounding suburbs while leather-clad motorcycle clubs fanned out over the open road, respectively evolving into swing clubs and leather bars. NASCA was founded in 1979, the same year that the first International Mr. Leather contest was held.

Each community now has its own professional and media watchdog organizations24, its own conventions for enthusiasts25 and club owners26, and each had its own legal crisis in California during the late 1990's.27

Each community has struggled with persistent media stereotypes, difficulties with integrating all the new members the internet has brought them, and frustration with social scientists and commentators who study them with varying levels of cluefulness. Each community does things to irritate the other28, each has some points of etiquette where they agree (e.g. on the importance of consent) but other points of etiquette where they may disagree (e.g. on whether it's acceptable to casually touch someone while flirting). Each community has its created its own magazines, books, jargon, clubs, documentaries, and mythology.

However, each community also has sexuality as its fundamental basis, a continual need for play space, relatively equal levels of membership and political power, and a common interest in the right of consenting adults to engage in whatever sexual behavior they choose.

I'm reminded of those science fiction novels where two planets are populated by common ancestors, proceed along different evolutionary paths, and then re-discover each other many years later. I personally suspect that the similarities between the swing community and the BDSM community are stronger than their differences, and that they might be politically stronger working together29 than working apart.

Popularity

Estimates of the prevalence of swinging amongst U.S. couples range from 0.5% [18] to 2% [13]. This is roughly consistent with McGinley's total estimate of 3,000,000 (see [9] and [14]).

One 1974 study found a prevalence of 1.7% amongst their (regionally limited) sample, but found that 6.7% of their sample ``would participate if the opportunity presented itself'' [4], and a later study [20] found that 19% of males and 14% of females in their sample sometimes fantasized about group sex during intercourse.30

Prevailing Attitudes

What Swingers Believe

A 1985 study of over 400 swingers found its subjects ``significantly more liberal than a control group of nonswingers on items dealing with areas such as divorce, premarital sex, pornography, homosexuality [emphasis mine], and abortion'' [13]. This result is consistent with a much later and larger study [3], which found the swingers in its (internet-based) sample to be ``less racist, less sexist, and less heterosexist than the general population.''31

A poll taken at the Lifestyles 1996 Convention found that 92% of the respondents (presumably, almost all of whom were active in the lifestyle) believed that swingers ``should'' be using condoms [9]. This is consistent with a study completed four years earlier (see [13]) which found that 62% of the swingers in its sample had changed their behavior as a result of AIDS.

What Non-Swingers Believe About Swingers

In 1985, Jenks [12] found that non-swingers (inaccurately) believed swingers were mostly political liberals who identified as upper class. Non-swingers also over-estimated by a factor of three the percentage of swingers who drink or use illegal drugs.

Why Do People Like Swinging?

Here are some of the reasons that swingers have mentioned in surveys (paraphrased, in some cases) [13]:

Here are some other reasons (paraphrased) that I have heard swingers mention:

If You Have Privacy Concerns...

Being inadvertently ``outed'' (e.g. to family members or one's employer) is a concern for many. In my experience, swingers are very sensitive to this issue and expect each other to be discreet when discussing parties outside the club.

I was more than a little surprised by what the Adjudicative Desk Reference [5] (which the Department of Defense uses to help guide security clearance decisions) has to say about swinging:

Depending upon recency and frequency, participation in any form of group sex may contribute to a decision against security approval if it is part of a pattern of dissolute behavior (drinking, drugs, gambling), high risk behavior, or emotional immaturity. It may not be a significant security concern if pursued discretely, and if subject shows no other behavioral weaknesses and medical evaluation indicates no emotional instability.

Potential for influence or coercion may not be a significant security issue if the swinging is a consensual activity with one's spouse or primary partner, and if participants make no great investment in secrecy. Swinging in private with a few close friends is of less concern than attending a swinger's club or having a number of anonymous contacts.

Etiquette and Tips

``The Big Secret''

Swinging is primarily a social activity, and the ordinary social customs of being courteous, initiating conversation, getting to know people, and letting trusted acquaintances become friends are no different from any other walk of life. Put another way, it's your ability to form friendships with couples, as a couple, that will ultimately determine the quality of your experience in the swing community.

What Sorts of Issues Should My Partner and I Work Out Ahead of Time?

What Do People Usually Wear?

What If I Feel Left Out?

There's a community adage that ``the more enthusiastic member of a couple will get the couple into swinging, but the less enthusiastic partner will keep them there.'' As Carol Queen puts it [17]:

The swing community has noticed another prevalent dynamic in couples where one partner, more often than not the man, has more enthusiasm than the other. He has had terrific fantasies about freewheeling sex and plenty of it, and he finally convinces his initially reluctant partner to give swinging a try. When they get to the party, she has a great time and is high demand, while he thinks the party's a dud... Before you pack up your sexy outfit and fistful of condoms, take some time to consider and negotiate how you will deal with the chagrin of the less popular partner if such a dismaying event happens to you.
Obviously, this fear might be alleviated by choosing (at least initially) to only swing together as a couple.

What Are Some Tips for On-Premises Events?

Personal Ads

Although there are several good swinger magazines, personal ads don't tend to be as popular with couples who have already found a club they enjoy. If you'd still like to try personal ads, though, then here are some tips:

Bisexuality in the Swing Community

Male Bisexuality

I would like to begin by saying this: in the time I have spent in the swing community, I have never heard so much as one comment that I would characterize as homophobic. David Schisgall, when asked about homophobia at the Seattle premiere of The Lifestyle: Swinging in America, reported exactly the same thing [19]. Furthermore, as was noted earlier, several independent studies have found swingers to be less homophobic than the general population.

However, when asked about the reason for the utter lack of male bisexual activity at swing parties,36 Schisgall's best explanation was that, rather than being the result of overt homophobia, it was simply ``not part of the culture.''37 My personal assessment is similar.

Nevertheless, as was suggested by the City Attorney's comments following Phoenix's decision to close all of its swing clubs, as well as by the positive response Dr. McGinley received when arguing that the LSO's struggle against the California ABC was similar to the struggle for gay liberation, there may be tremendous value in the swing community being able to more systematically align themselves with other sexual minorities. If NASCA took a sexual orientation anti-discrimination stance similar to their stance against racism, they might create a prime opportunity to begin forging productive new alliances.

Female Bisexuality

In 1984, Dr. Joan Dixon [6] published some fascinating research on female bisexuality within the swing community. Summarizing:

  1. She noted that the prevalence of sexual activity between females in the swing community is extraordinarily high.38
  2. She assembled (apparently without difficulty) a sample of 50 women for her study, all of whom had their first experience with female-female sex in the swing community after age 30, and none of whom even fantasized about women before these first experiences.
  3. Her study found that ``the generally positive reactions of these subjects to their first sexual experience with other females after a lifetime of strict heterosexuality ... progressed through repeated experience to an overwhelming general rating of excellent,'' that the ``percentage of those whose masturbatory fantasies at times included other females as erotic sex objects rose from 4.5% to 61%,'' and that every one of the women in her study now self-identified as bisexual.
This suggests the swing community might be a stunning example of the impact ``social facilitation'' can have on adult sexual behavior, preference, and identity.

Male Bisexuality, Revisited...

Dixon noted that ``from the tone and content of the subjects' comments the vast majority of them made it clear that they would not have begun ... [same-sex] sexual activity had not their respective spouses suggested it, encouraged them to do so, and convinced them in various ways that they (the spouses) approved of it.'' This leads me to wonder whether we would start seeing a rapid increase in male-male sex (and eventually male bisexual self-identity) at swing events if female swingers began openly expressing their sexual desire and social approval for men who engaged in sexual activity with other men at swing events. Since watching men have sex together is a commonly-reported fantasy among women, this scenario may not be so farfetched.

Clubs, Conferences, and Resources

An up-to-date directory of swing clubs can be found on the NASCA web site at www.nasca.com. If there isn't a NASCA-affiliated club in your area, then you'll probably want to search for independent clubs.39 More information on the annual Lifestyles Convention is available at www.lifestyles.org

If you're interested in swinging and want to learn more, then you should read Gould's The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers [9] as well as Easton and Hardy's The Ethical Slut [7], and finish by watching the documentary The Lifestyle: Swinging in America [14].

The ACLU came to the aid of the Lifestyles Organization during their 1996-1997 struggle, and can be considered an ally on many swing community issues; more information on joining the ACLU is available at www.aclu.org

Bibliography

1
Anapol, Deborah (1997). Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits. San Rafael, CA: Intinet Resource Center.

2
Bean, Joseph (2001). Lecture in Seattle on March 25.

3
Bergstrand, Curtis, and Jennifer B. Williams (2000). ``Today's alternate marriage styles: The case of swingers.'' The Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, http://www.ejhs.org/volume3/swing/body.htm

4
Cole, Charles L., and Graham B. Spaniard (1974). ``Comarital mate-sharing and family stability.'' The Journal of Sex Research, 10 (1): 21-31.

5
Defense Security Service (2000). ``Information about specific sexual practices.'' Adjudicative Desk Reference, http://www.dss.mil/nf/adr/sexbeh/sexT2.htm

6
Dixon, Joan K. (1984). ``The commencement of bisexual activity in swinging married women over age thirty.'' The Journal of Sex Research, 20 (1): 71-90.

7
Easton, Dossie, and Janet W. Hardy (1997). The Ethical Slut. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.

8
Gilmartin, Brian G. (1978). The Gilmartin Report. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel.

9
Gould, Terry (2000). The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. Westport, CT: Firefly Books.

10
Greenberg, Jerrold S., Clint E. Bruess, and Debra W. Haffner (2000). Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

11
Klein, Marty (2000). ``Pheonix orgies -- gay only, please.'' Sexual Intelligence, Issue 2. http://www.sexed.org/newsletters/issue02.html

12
Jenks, Richard J. (1985). ``Swinging: A replication and test of a theory.'' The Journal of Sex Research, 21 (2): 199-205.

13
Jenks, Richard J. (1998). ``Swinging: A review of the literature.'' Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27 (5): 507-521.

14
The Lifestyle: Swinging in America (1999). Directed by David Schisgall. Fox Lorber Films. DVD.

15
Michael, Robert T., John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata (1995). Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. New York: Warner Books [also known as the National Health and Social Life Survey -- please see http://www.norc.org for more information].

16
NASCA International (2000). International Directory: Swing Clubs, Publications & Events. Buena Park, CA: LSO, Ltd.

17
Queen, Carol (1995). Exhibitionism for the Shy. San Francisco, CA: Down There Press.

18
Reinisch, June M. (1990). The Kinsey Institute New Report on Sex: What You Must Know to be Sexually Literate. New York: St. Martin's Press.

19
Schisgall, David (1999). Discussion with the audience following the Seattle premiere of his documentary The Lifestyle: Swinging in America at the 1999 Seattle International Film Festival on May 24.

20
Sue, David (1979). ``Erotic fantasies of college students during coitus.'' The Journal of Sex Research, 15 (4): 299-305.

21
Weitzman, Geri D. (1999). ``What psychology professionals should know about polyamory: The lifestyles and mental health concerns of polyamorous individuals.'' http://www.polyamory.org/~joe/polypaper.htm



Footnotes

... McGinley1
president of the Lifestyles Organization (LSO) and spokesperson for the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA)
... ``playcouples''2
which is apparently now a registered trademark of his company, LSO Ltd. [16]
... couples.3
According to [9], ``a lifestyle party quite often does not culminate in sexual intercourse among couples; roughly 10 percent of the people who attend just like being in an atmosphere where such an interchange is conceivable.''
... yet4
Most of the material being published today still refers to the practice as ``swinging,'' including McGinley's own essay in the most recent NASCA International Guide [16].
... knows5
and according to the summaries in [9] and [16]
... acceptable.6
The reasoning seemed to be: ``at least a third of us will die, and if I'm killed I'd like my wife to still be able to stay within this elite brotherhood of pilots.''
... groups7
frequently referred to as ``key clubs,'' stemming from an (almost certainly apocryphal) story that some early participants would all throw their keys in a pile, and the set of keys you picked at random at the end of the evening indicated whose spouse you would go home with
... ``wife-swapping.''8
a term which the participants generally find misleading and offensive
... ads.9
Ironically, it's still unclear just where the term ``swinging'' actually came from, though it may be derived from swing dancing.
... 1960's.10
Dr. McGinley's own ``Club WideWorld'' began in 1969 and continues to this very day, though the Berkeley ``Sexual Freedom League'' (active one or two years earlier) was noteworthy both for influencing people like McGinley as well as for having an unusually political and and utopian basis.
... ``off-premise.''11
i.e., swinging was arranged privately amongst members or attendees, and took place in private homes or hotel rooms rather than at the actual event location
... founded12
the press coverage for which inspired the founding of many more on-premise clubs along the entire East Coast
... dances13
also known as ``socials'' or ``circles''
... Conventions14
by 1980, attendance at these conventions would top 1000
... swinging.15
this included recruiting several distinguished authors and academics (e.g. Butler)
... 1990's16
though with two significant dips in membership: once during the onset of the herpes epidemic and again as AIDS reached public awareness
... growth.17
The number of NASCA-affiliated swing clubs doubled to 300 between 1987 and 1997 [13]. There are also thousands of unaffiliated clubs and at least eleven major conventions each year. Attendance at the largest convention (Lifestyles) topped 3500 in 1996 [9].
... 1996-199718
and again in 2000-2001, against the same institution
... (ABC).19
which was attempting to prevent Lifestyles from offering its conventions at any venue under their jurisdiction, via strong-arming the host hotels
... path.20
Of course, it also gave people uncomfortable defending co-marital sex something ``loftier'' to defend.
... debate.21
on poly discussion lists, at any rate -- I've never seen this debate taken up anywhere else.
... remarkable.22
Some of this section's BDSM/leather history came from a recent lecture by Joseph Bean [2], and most of its information on swing history comes from Gould's [9].
... soldiers.23
in the swing community's case via middle/upper class straight men (fighter pilots) who wanted their wives to stay within their existing social milieu should they be killed in battle, and in the leather community's case via working/middle class gay men (calvary and infantry) who wanted to preserve through their motorcycle clubs the feeling of brotherhood they experienced during the war
... organizations24
LSO/NASCA and NLA/NCSF, respectively
... enthusiasts25
the Lifestyles Convention and Living in Leather
... owners26
NASCON and the Leather Leadership Conference
... 1990's.27
the Lifestyles Organization vs. the ABC, and Club X vs. the City of San Diego
... other28
sometimes hazy positions on bisexuality and safer sex in the swing community's case, and the overly-smug use of ``vanilla'' as a pejorative in the leather community's case
... together29
under their shared themes of ``sex-positivity'' and ``the rights of consenting adults to have whatever sex they choose''
... intercourse.30
The 14% figure also seems consistent with a more rigorous 1992 study (which, unlike every other study referenced or mentioned in this article, was designed to be statistically representative of the entire non-incarcerated and non-homeless 18-59 year-old population in America during 1992) that discovered 10% of women aged 18-44 ``found the thought of sex with a stranger appealing'' and 9% of women aged 18-44 ``found the thought of group sex appealing.'' [15]
... population.''31
This same study also concluded that ``swingers rate the happiness of their marriages and life satisfaction generally as higher than the non-swinging population.''
... marriage32
As reported in [8], ``About 85 percent of both husbands and wives feel that swinging is not a threat to marriage or love between spouses. None of them reported that their marriage became worse since they began swinging, and the majority feel their marriages have improved. ... Many swingers reported that rather than dampening their ardor for each other, swinging often caused an arousal of sexual interest for each other. Many of them often engage in sex together immediately after returning from a swinging party.''
... no.33
Although not all couples find it necessary to do this, some couples feel more comfortable having social ``codes'' that only the two of them know. Examples might be discreet phrases or gestures which mean one of you is attracted to the people or person he or she is talking to, or that one of you is not having a good time and wants to get away from things for a while.
... ``couple.''34
Put in another way: most experienced swingers are used to thinking of attendees in terms of their couplehood, e.g. ``Look, sweetie, there's Dave of Dave and Jan...''
... better.35
However, even if your ad clearly states ``couples only,'' you'll still receive a ton of responses from singles, which you needn't consider it a violation of etiquette to ignore.
... parties,36
i.e. in contrast to the widespread female bisexual activity
... culture.''37
It is true that the swing community remains (for all practical purposes) the only option for straight men and straight OR bi women seeking organized recreational sex, while gay and bisexual men have always had additional options of their own (e.g. the baths, more recently men-only sex clubs). It's unclear to what degree this fact plays a role in the apparent lack of interest outside the swing community for increased acceptance of male bisexual activity at swing events, but whatever the cause there currently seems to be almost no pressure from either inside or outside the swing community for any sort of change.
... high.38
Whatever the true figure may be (68% was the lower of several results that she quoted), it is clearly far in excess of the prevalence of female-female sexual preference or activity within the general population [15].
... clubs.39
Directories such as the ``Regional Guide'' at http://www.janesguide.com may prove helpful.

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