One lifestyle is starting to open itself up to new relationships and taboo forms of sexual expression.
It is said that swinging took off in the U.S. during World War II, when the mortality rate among pilots got so high many formed pacts to help take care of each other’s wives if one were to die. Before shipping out, the men and their wives would get together, where that layer of emotional support was allowed to turn sexual.
Today, it is estimated that there are as many as 15 million Americans swinging on a regular basis, though most now refer to the scene as “the lifestyle” and those participating in it as “lifestylers.” Sex researcher Katherine Frank defines the modern swinging lifestyle as a “system of erotic relations and a cultural experience as a way of theorizing beyond identity and the binary oppositions of homo/hetero or straight/queer that often underlie discussions of sexual desire, practice and homophobia.” If an open attitude toward a multi-partnered approach to sexual expression constitutes being “sexually free,” then lifestylers would appear to fall into the top tier.
Still, no lifestyle, even “the lifestyle,” is immune to the social environment in which it functions. Many have dubbed the swing scene a hub of heteronormativity and its participants proponents of that system. Couples and single women are accepted at almost all venues, while single men are typically denied entry. Female bisexuality is encouraged, while spikes in same-sex activity among men remain unexpected, and unusual. But that might not be the case for much longer, because according to the group of insiders and experts we spoke with, the lifestyle may be opening up to same sex exploration for men, too.
Saul, who asked us not to use his last name, runs a Manhattan-based party called DDevious Delights. Involved in the scene since 2001, he sees a need for a new kind of event. “All swing clubs accommodate bisexual women,” he says. “Almost none of them accommodate bisexual guys. For that you’d have to go to gay parties. But they’re not gay. So we’re developing that party.”
“I think that people are getting a little more explorative,” he continued. “I think people are less afraid to express their desires, their kink. Years ago, you wouldn’t have had guys coming out and doing this.”
In 1990, just 4.5 percent of men admitted to having had a same-sex encounter. By 2014, that number had nearly doubled. “What we’re seeing is this movement toward more sexual freedom,” Jean Twenge, the author of the study that chronicled the change, told Time.
More research suggests those involved in the lifestyle today are more likely to favor gay marriage, less likely to condemn premarital or teen sex, more likely to reject traditional sex roles in their relationships, and are “less racist, less sexist and less heterosexist than the general population.” That kind of conviviality seems to present itself in the language adopted by self-identified swingers. Many relate to the idea of being “closeted” and the process of “coming out” to friends and family.
Today’s scene also appears a bit more inviting than in years past. New technology has made locating people and parties a lot easier. Webcams and video chat have paved the way for different forms of play (yes, cyber swinging is now a thing). Most sexually transmitted diseases are now easily controlled, and even HIV can be treated with some success. But perhaps the most fundamental changes stem from the new sexual landscape people have been carving out over the past few decades. Back in 1973, only 11 percent of Americans believed there was no problem with sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. According to survey data, by 2014, 49 percent of people and 63 percent of millennials believed this kind of relationship was “not wrong at all.”
Still, some resent the tags attached to that behavior. Model Paul LaBlanc (a pseudonym) once told AlterNet, “I am often forced to call myself bi, but I rarely find labels appropriate.” It’s true that we’re getting better at introducing different lines of sexuality, and in order to do that, we need to create terms that allow us to define the conversation. But a return to ambiguity might better serve those holding back to dodge unwanted labels. When we blur the lines, we might find that the stigmas attached to them start to lose their significance. And the swing scene has all the right ingredients to nurture that shift. As Joe Kort, sex therapist and author of Is My Husband Gay, Straight, or Bi?: A Guide for Women Concerned about Their Men, explains, “Circumstance takes away meaning.”
According to Kort, it’s the stitching of the swing environment that gives guys a pass to act on their same-sex desires. “In swinging situations, there are women involved. And if there are women involved, it doesn’t seem so gay.” In fact, women might be part of the engine driving these experiences between men. According to user data, gay male porn is among the most popular genres for female users. If girl-on-girl is the ultimate guy fantasy, then guy-on-guy could be starting to serve that same purpose for some women. “When you do it for the benefit of the group, you share the responsibility with everyone,” Kort points out.
In her book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, Jane Ward writes, “By understanding their same-sex sexual practice as meaningless, accidental, or even necessary, straight white men can perform homosexual contact in heterosexual ways.”
“It’s not like these guys are necessarily kissing and embracing,” explains Kort. Same-sex encounters at the swing club aren’t necessarily about romance or intimacy. Often times, it comes down to a raw sexual act, and knowing you have permission to pursue it.
As Frank noted back in 2008, “Given the experimental attitudes towards sexuality that many lifestylers express, male same-sex activity may be an eventual extension of risk-taking and erotic exploration.” There are countless outlets and experiences that can accompany a same-sex encounter. But the swing scene is increasingly providing a specific context to do so. It allows you to be sexual first, and whatever clipping you’d like to accompany that phrase second. For some, that might be just the right format to start feeling around.