It was 2004 when my 24-yo self stepped foot into my first sex club. This would change everything for me.
Growing up in conservative Macedonia, my nontraditional desires made me feel like a freak. I was curious about casual sex, group sex, kink, nonmonogamy, nonheterosexuality, yet was consistently slut-shamed and shut down for it by partners, friends, and family alike. Walking into Berlin’s infamous Kit Kat Club finally felt like home. In a single evening, I’d felt more acceptance and belonging for who I truly was than in my entire life before that. It was the beginning of decades of frequenting sex parties (both as a single woman and as part of a couple), and studying nonmonogamy and other stigmatized sexualities professionally.
In 2021, things are a bit different. It seems almost all the younger generations are poly-something. In a 2020 nationally representative YouGov survey, 43% of US Millennials said that their ideal relationship is nonmonogamous to some degree; an additional 14% weren’t sure. There are a lot of ways to have a nonmonogamous relationship. One of the oldest and most well-known ones is swinging, or what many call “the Lifestyle.”
Swinging is a practice and type of consensually (or ethically) nonmonogamous relationship that typically involves a couple that is romantically committed and emotionally exclusive with each other, but has casual sexual interactions with other people. Swinger couples typically play with others together by going to sex parties and clubs, or by inviting another person or couple to join for a private play session. Some couples may go “all the way” in their play with other people, while others may limit their extracurriculars to “soft swap” (no penetrative sex), or set other boundaries that distinguish the sex they have with their primary partner from the sex they have with casual partners.
Single people can also be a part of the Lifestyle, although due to the realities of the “mating market,” this is often easier for single women than for single men.
Depending on how frequently one swings and how embedded they become in the swinger community (these days there are swinger conventions, cruises, conferences, hotel takeovers, vacation resorts…), some people strongly identify as a “swinger” while others might dip into that world every now and then without adopting the swinger label.
Swinging has been around for a while. Rumor has it it got started in the 50s and 60s in the US military (ever heard of wife swapping “key parties”?), got popular in the 70’s during the sexual revolution, then went underground in the 80s and early 90s when many swinger clubs closed due to the AIDS epidemic. Swinging, together with other forms of consensually nonmonogamous relationships (polyamory, open relationships, solo poly, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, etc), has seen a remarkable comeback in the past 20 years or so, with more offline and online spaces, communities, and dating apps (my favorite is Feeld, an inclusive app for folks looking for nontraditional relationship styles) popping up to facilitate these lifestyles than ever before.
Back in the day, swingers tended to be mostly middle-aged, white, married, suburban couples. Contrary to popular belief, about half of them were at least somewhat religious and politically conservative. As nonmonogamous lifestyles of all kinds become more mainstream, the practice of swinging is increasing across all demographic groups. At the same time, there seems to be an interesting generational shift away from the term “swinger/swinging.” A 2017 study found that Google searches for words related to “polyamory” and “open relationships” have significantly increased between 2006-2015, while searches for words related to “swinging” had remained the same.
Regardless of the idiosyncrasies of language, the practice of swinging is here to stay. It’s a format of relationship that fits the needs and desires of a large and growing section of the population.
The main reason for swinging is to bring sexual novelty and fun into couples’ lives. It provides a way to get various sexual needs met that no one partner can meet, from desires for group sex and high need for sexual novelty, to attractions to multiple genders and various kinks. Swinging can often bring couples closer together and be a great source of excitement and passion that a couple can draw on for their 1-on-1 sex. Additionally, the Lifestyle can foster a social network of open-minded friends and community, and offer an incentive to stay fit, get dressed up and take pride in one's appearance.
Swinging can be a lot of fun and a source of personal and relationship growth, but it’s not always easy to navigate. Between the added complexity of negotiating multiple partners, potential jealousies and insecurities, and the social stigma still attached to nontraditional relationship styles, there are a number of pitfalls couples interested in swinging need to be aware of. Try some of these tips I’ve gathered over 20 years of having and studying nonmonogamous relationships.
There are a lot of different ways to do consensual nonmonogamy. Start by educating yourself on all the options to find the one that works best for you and your partner. In 2021, there are a plethora of podcasts, books, therapists, coaches and courses that specialize in nonmonogamy, including my online course, Open Smarter, that guides you to discover your ideal relationship style based on your unique relationship personality (including sexual novelty seeking, jealousy, attachment style and more).
Some people like to dive in head first, but for most couples I recommend starting slow. Have multiple conversations around opening up, what that means to you, and how you’d like to go about it. Don’t feel the pressure to do everything your first time. Start with going to a party where you just watch or play with each other; maybe next time you go, have a heavy makeout session or only have oral sex with someone else. Start with “the lowest hanging fruit”--whatever’s the least threatening--for you and your partner, and build from there. Spend some time processing your experiences, assessing for triggers, and building some trust. As you develop more trust and security, you can take your explorations farther.
It is really important that you set clear boundaries and agreements around what / when / where / how / how often / who with you and your partner will be playing with other people. These can be (and should be) somewhat flexible and up for renegotiation, but you need to have them. Do not skip this step. Swinging without “a container” is a recipe for disaster, especially in the beginning. That said, try not to make the container too restrictive, and find a balance between feeling safe and letting each other have fun.
One important set of boundaries and agreements in swinging revolves around maintaining emotional exclusivity. Feelings for others can, and do, get caught, so think about strategies you and your partner can use to keep unwanted romance at bay. Of course, there are no guarantees, but we do have some amount of control over whether we fall in love with other people.
Swinging works best when you and your partner are in a great place with each other. Make sure your relationship needs are being met before bringing other people into the mix. Always work on maintaining a strong bond between you, making each other feel special, spending quality time together, and connecting before and after your extracurricular experiences to mitigate the chances of miscommunications. And please don’t use swinging as a way to end a failing relationship; if the relationship has run its course, end it without bringing other people into it.
Don’t expect that everything will feel easy or work right away. Discovering how you and your partner are with other partners, and how to best navigate publicly sexual spaces together is a process. You will likely make mistakes, and so will your partner. It’s OK. Have patience and compassion for yourself and each other, and keep the lines of communication open.
If relationships were easy, we wouldn’t be writing poetry, singing songs and crying about it. If we had it all figured out, you wouldn’t be here reading this right now. That said, have some fun! They don’t call them “play” parties for no reason. Swinging is one of the few distinctly adult pleasures available to us. Just like anything worth having, it takes some work. But the rewards can be exceptional.
There’s no single blueprint to the “perfect” relationship because, spoiler, we are all built differently and need a somewhat different type of relationship to feel truly happy and fulfilled in it. What’s the right relationship type for you? The answer to this question starts with understanding your own and your partner’s unique relationship personality. Check out my Open Smarter course to learn more about you and your relationships. Curious about a nonmonogamous lifestyle, but unsure how to bring it up to your partner? Join our FREE monthly Open Smarter Social.