HER: Last year, Lisa Ling did a feature on swingers for CNN’s This Is Life, using the 2019 Naughty in N’awlins lifestyle convention as the background for her inquiry. Having been there ourselves, we were curious to tune in. In the endless quest for ratings, it must be tempting to play up the most salacious details to tell the most outrageous story, but Lisa’s coverage was excellent. It made us feel there might finally be hope for fair and open discourse around alternative relationship styles in mainstream North America.
HIM: The real revelation came afterward, however, in the online reactions of average people to what they had just witnessed. It was a sad reminder of the angry, frightened, and close-minded attitudes we’re often up against as swingers. So, like every person who’s ever imagined the perfect response to an accusation long after the conversation was over, we decided to address a sampling of the comments we found on Twitter:
“I would be more impressed by a couple who are in a monogamous relationship than those who engage in promiscuity. It takes will-power and commitment to stay monogamous.”
HIM: It’s interesting to me that some people see the lifestyle as a movement of people ignoring what’s right and taking the easy way out. All worthwhile things are hard, they seem to say, and monogamy is one of those difficult challenges that good people accept with steely self-discipline. But if that were true, the best life anyone could live would be a joyless series of obligations, with maybe a grim satisfaction at the end that you did things the right way.
Whatever happened to the pursuit of happiness? To building a life that brings you joy?
HER: And who says non-monogamy is free of will-power and commitment? You and I have worked hard together to build and maintain strong communication as we navigate this lifestyle. And we are fully committed to our relationship in every way. Deciding to renegotiate the sexual boundaries doesn’t negate our love and devotion to each other or the daily work of doing life together.
HIM: I think people should think twice before congratulating themselves on all the hard work they’ve put into sticking with just one person. Many experts now believe that the modern concept of monogamy is flawed. We don’t seem to be well-suited to it as a species, nor is our modern version of monogamy as ancient and evolutionarily ingrained as we’ve been led to believe. All that hard work monogamists like to brag about is really like trying to set a swimming record while working against the current. It’s hard work because it’s not actually possible to be everything to another person, and the pressure of that expectation can be suffocating.
HER: When we impose the socially-created rules of sexual monogamy on a relationship, we create all kinds of related stressors like jealousy, possessiveness, deception, and self-denial. We make work for ourselves. But you and I have chosen to renegotiate the ‘rules’. It’s not about being lazy. It’s about making a conscious choice to customize a system that just didn’t work well for us out of the box.
“I have a nagging question: what is the difference between a ‘swinger’ and a sex addict?”
HIM: I actually liked this question. It seemed to come from an honest place, and it was put forward in a genuine spirit of inquiry. This individual is really asking, “How do swingers know they’re not hurting themselves with all their wild antics?” I think it comes from a general suspicion of all things sexual. Swinging — like drugs, alcohol or overeating –just sounds like too much fun to be good for you. It must be harmful. I guess that’s the essence of sex negativity. But we, and so many of the people we talk to, report a deepening of love for and connection to our partner when we give up our sense of ownership over another human being. It feels very healthy, and there are lots of couples in the lifestyle who have been happily married for decades. It might look deviant from the outside, but it feels very healthy from the inside.
HER: There’s also an implication in this question that, if you can’t get your needs met by one person, you must want more sex than is normal or healthy. But the truth is, we are not sexual gluttons. We probably don’t actually have ‘more’ sex than other adults in (happy) monogamous relationships. We might sleep with someone else once or twice a month, at most. It’s not about quantity or satiating some out-of-control need for more, more, more! It’s about freedom and genuine connection. We have made friends with whom we don’t have limitations. We genuinely like and respect the people we sleep with, and have quite often hung out together in completely sex-free settings because our social connection is just as important as our sexual connection. No one is being taken advantage of or used. Everyone is a willing, enthusiastic, respected participant who is not being hurt in any measurable way. That doesn’t sound like a harmful addiction to me.
“I wonder how many sexual predators visit these conventions? I mean, if this feels so good, prove to me these people don’t target children.”
HIM: This is a misconception that the LGBTQ community has had to deal with for a long time. It was definitely behind the decision to ban gay men from being Boy Scout leaders. The thinking seems to go that if a person takes one step outside of the sexual mainstream, they’ll feel free to set aside all propriety. Suddenly, anything goes. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
HER: One trip to a lifestyle resort will reveal people who are professionals, who have good jobs and advanced degrees. They’re parents who are raising healthy children and are involved in their communities. The only difference is they have a sense of sexual adventure that may differ from the ‘norm’. There are creepy people in every walk of life, but they are certainly not more prevalent in this community than others. If anything, swingers would be less likely to commit sexual crimes, since they have the freedom to have nearly any kind of sex they want. I think the instances of predatory behaviour must always be higher in populations where there’s deprivation. Think of all those priests in the Catholic Church! Not so for us: we’re basically guests at a sex buffet.
“I guess I’m old-fashioned. This is making me blush, and I’m a nurse! All the germs!! Yuck!”
HIM: I feel like the concern of this individual is more than just epidemiological in nature. Jonathan Haidt has written extensively on the role of disgust in moral reasoning. It’s like our fear of contagious disease can easily morph into a fear of contagious ideas. One person even joined in with #thisisGROSS, a hashtag used more commonly for hot dog eating contests and sewer cleaning.
HER: Well, in fairness, there is a public health dimension to swinging. STI’s are for real. But it is relatively easy to avoid infection by simply using condoms, which is what most swingers insist on. We are also aware of the risk we are taking, so I would wager that swingers get tested for STI’s more frequently than the average person having casual sex. And, honestly, how many singles on hook-up apps get comments like this? Is it gross to think of two people having a one-night stand? No? Then why is it MORE gross to think of four people having a one-night stand?
HIM: The other thing they don’t get is that swinging doesn’t necessarily equal swapping. No couple has ever caught a disease from having sex beside another couple having sex. It would be interesting to do a survey of all the people who attended Naughty to find out how many of them had sexual intercourse with someone other than their partner: many just wanted the thrill of being in a sexually charged environment with the person they love the most. And this is true of the clubs and resorts we’ve been to. Swinging is more than just a playground for pathogens. Like any other dimension of sex, it’s primarily psychological and only secondarily physical.
“It’s wrong and you know it.”
HER: How do you respond to that? This is probably the argument behind all other arguments — this person was just brave enough to be blunt. So, let’s address it bluntly. There are some for whom the idea of non-monogamy sounds intriguing, and others for whom it sounds frightening. This person is afraid. The potential wider acceptance of non-monogamy threatens their deeply held beliefs, whether those are religious or social in nature. And, more importantly, it threatens their deepest insecurity: that their partner might want, or even need, something more than they can provide. For that type of person, the thought of swinging must threaten their very identity.
The thing is, we’re not asking them to swing. In fact, we don’t want that kind of person anywhere near the lifestyle! The judgmental, insecure, moralistic attitudes reflected by this comment are the antithesis of what we love about the lifestyle. We want people who are open-minded, flexible, fun-loving, and deeply committed to their partner in a way that does not require ownership or possession. The people we love in the swinging community are a breath of fresh air in a world of intolerance.
HIM: It seems to me that the worst mistake someone can make is confusing their own preferences for some form of universal truth. We would never try to say that what we do is right for everyone. The lifestyle has been good for us. Surprisingly, amazingly good. While we know it’s not right for everyone, we do think everyone should at least consider it.
HER: And thanks to Lisa Ling and CNN, many more people will.
Liam & Kate are a married couple, very much in love, writing honestly and insightfully about their adventures in the world of non-monogamy.