Today's alternative marriage styles: the case of swingers.

Author:Bergstrand, Curtis


The results of a national on-line survey of 1092 swingers are discussed. Questions from the General Social Survey are used to compare political, social, and sexual attitudes of swingers with the general population in the U.S. Measures of marital and general life satisfaction from the G.S.S. are also used to compare the groups. A preliminary attempt is also made to determine the level of childhood abuse and family dysfunction in the backgrounds of swingers. It is concluded that swingers surveyed are the white, middle-class, middle-aged, church-going segment of the population reported in earlier studies, but when it comes to attitudes about sex and marriage they are less racist, less sexist, and less heterosexist than the general population. Swinging appears to make the vast majority of swingers' marriages happier, and swingers rate the happiness of their marriages and life satisfaction generally as higher than the non-swinging population. Implications of the study and its limitations are also included.


In the fifties the media referred to it as "wife-swapping." Today it's called "swinging," but regardless of its name this alternative lifestyle seems to be increasing in popularity among mainstream, middle-aged married couples in America. The popular media, GQ, (Newman, 1992); New York, (Gross, 1992); Los Angeles Times, (Mahrer, 1998); Mademoiselle, (Chen, 1998); are paying increasing attention to the phenomenon, often putting a positive spin on the effects which swinging has upon marriages. The North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) claims there are organized swing clubs in almost all states as well as Canada, England, France, Germany, and Japan. These clubs are lucrative businesses which provide all levels of social activities for swingers including vacation plans, special vacation sites for swingers, and yearly conferences and seminars. Lifestyles, Inc., a swingers travel agency, booked 700 couples at a resort in Jamaica in January of 1998 (Los Angeles Times, 1998; Jenks, 1998).

What exactly is swinging? Unlike "open marriages" of the 1970's which promoted non-possessive love and tolerance of infidelity in their spouses (O'Neill and O'Neill, 1972), or "polyamory" (Wesp, 1992)--the love of many people at once--swinging is non-monogamous sexual activity, treated much like any other social activity, that can be experienced as a couple. Emotional monogamy, or commitment to the love relationship with one's marital partner, remains the primary focus. Swinging is usually done in the presence of one's spouse and requires the consent of both to the experience. Although swingers often become close friends with other swinging couples, there are rules restricting emotional involvement with non-spousal partners. While swinging involves having sex with people other than one's spouse, its adherents claim that it enhances the relationship of the swinging couple both sexually and emotionally. By removing the secrecy and dishonesty inherent in one's natural desires for sexual variety, the couple can explore their fantasies together without deceit or guilt. By removing the necessity for deceit from the relationship, a new level of trust and openness about all of one's feelings is supposedly achieved without the destructive baggage of jealousy. (McGinley, 1995)

Swinging as an alternative lifestyle is of both practical and scholarly interest because the attempt to combine sexual non-monogamy with emotional monogamy is fundamentally "deviant" from the western model of romantic love which assumes that sexual and emotional monogamy are mutually reinforcing and inseparable (Boekhout, Hendrick and Hendrick, 1999). It has yet to be demonstrated empirically whether this alternative lifestyle actually strengthens or weakens marital relationships, but in an era where 37% of husbands and 29% of wives admit to having had at least one extra-marital affair (Reinisch, 1990), where divorce rates for first marriages are approaching 60% (Jones, 1995), and where family instability and parental neglect of children has become a major national concern (Wagner, 1998; Lowe, 1996; Jones, et al, 1995), any attempt to redefine "love" and strengthen the marital bond is worthy of our attention. If swingers have found a way to stabilize relationships, prolong family ties, and enrich the lives of couples we would be remiss if we did not take their lifestyle and their redefinition of monogamous love seriously.

This paper reports on the results of a national survey of 1092 swingers and their views on politics, sex, marriage, family, and how swinging has affected their relationships with their partners in a preliminary attempt to answer some important questions about this unusual lifestyle.

Previous Research on Swinging

The origins of formalized swinging in the U.S. are not specifically known. In the 1950's the media reported a new phenomenon which it dubbed "wife swapping". California military couples reportedly gathered at "key clubs" where husbands tossed their keys into a large pile in the center of a room. The wives then drew a set of keys at random and the owner of the keys became the sexual partner of that woman for the night (McGinley, 1995). Beyond such lore, however, we have very little scientific information about swingers. What little research is available on swinging, which began to appear in the early 1970's and continued through the 1980's, is out-dated and confined to very small, localized samples (Jenks, 1998).

Estimates of the size of the swinging population vary widely. Research provided by North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) (McGinley, 1995) found that 15% of couples in the U.S. have at some point incorporated swinging into their marriage. More conservative estimates are offered by studies which are unrelated to NASCA. Hunt (1975) and Weiss (1983) estimate that two to four percent of married couples have engaged in swinging at least on an occasional basis. Bartell (1971) found the figure to be one percent and Cole and Spaniard (1974) found, based on a small college community sample, that 1.7 percent had experienced swinging at least once.

Demographically, swingers appear to be surprisingly mainstream, even conservative, in their characteristics. They have been found to be predominantly conservative to moderate in political orientation and to identify with the Republican party (Bartell, 1970; Jenks,1986 cited in Jenks, 1998; Friendship Express, 1994). The majority fall into the middle to upper-middle classes and tend to be in professional and management positions (Friendship Express, 1994; Jenks 1985; Levitt, 1988, Murstein, 1978; Weiss, 1983). Over 90 percent of Swingers are white (Bartell, 1970; Jenks, 1985) and middle-aged. Jenks (1985) found the mean age of swingers to be 39 years and Levitt (1988) found it to be 40.7. Data gathered by private swing clubs indicate that 90 percent of swingers identify a religious preference and 47 percent regularly attend religious services (Friendship Express, 1994; Miller, 1994). Others (Jenks, 1985; Murstein, 1978), however, have found low rates of religious affiliation and participation by swingers.

We know very little about why couples decide to adopt the swinging lifestyle and its subsequent effects upon the marital relationship. Research in the 1970's seemed to be geared towards viewing swingers as marginalized people (Walshok, 1971; Gilmartin, 1974...

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