Should We Tell Our Kids We’re Swingers?

swinger shame
Paul Dalvaux, The Road To Rome, 1979

HIM: Last week, Belle and Adam of the ‘Swinging Outside the Lines‘ podcast released an amazing episode for their patrons, surely unparalleled in the short (but illustrious) history of lifestyle podcasts. They recorded a ‘live reveal’, where they informed their 17-year-old daughter of their non-monogamous relationship. It was compelling listening, but also a challenge to all of us who conduct our sexual adventures in secret.

HER: Oh, no – I can see where this is going. You want to tell your kids, don’t you?

HIM: How could you listen to that conversation and not want that kind of openness with your own offspring?

HER: Well, all I know is, we aren’t them. That discussion happened within a specific family with a specific history. What makes sense for them could go very wrong for us. For all my brave talk about fearlessly owning my choices, it makes me want to throw up imagining your kids having this information: the kind of clenching, twisting feeling I used to have on the worst days with my ex. But it isn’t telling my own children that makes me feel that way. It’s telling your three that scares me.

HIM: Why is it so different?

HER: I’m afraid that your kids will judge me more harshly than they do you. I’m not their mother. If I were to tell my own son, I know he would continue to love and respect me no matter how he took the news. But, to your kids, I’m the wicked step-mother, the temptress who ruined your ‘perfect’ marriage.

HIM: I don’t think they see you that way at all.

HER: Maybe not on a conscious level, but those tropes are very powerful. They can still do damage on a subconscious level. Think about the pervasive mythology around Pandora and Eve: women are the ones who tempt men away from purity. We are responsible for all the wrongs in the world. The double standard is still very real. It’s taken a lot of work to get past your kids’ early sense of betrayal. I don’t want to remind them of their first impressions of me: the woman of loose morals who dragged you away from their saint of a mother.

HIM: Trust me: they do not see their mother as a saint. I think their sense of right and wrong is more closely aligned with your secular, sex-positive perspective than her religious, close-minded one. Far from judging you, I think this news would actually cause them to respect you more.

HER: Honestly, I’m not interested in enhancing their opinion of me if that means oversharing about my sexual exploits. That seems desperate and inappropriate. But even if they don’t think the same way their mother does, it doesn’t mean they won’t tell her. All it takes is one unguarded moment. You know she can’t keep a secret – she would not be able to resist telling everyone we used to know. Remember how terrible it was when you first left her? I got hate mail from people who used to be my friends. We would quickly lose control of the narrative if she found out about our lifestyle, and the worst assumptions would be made. I can easily imagine my choices being weaponized against me. I just don’t think we live in a world that can handle unconventional marital arrangements. At all. We inhabit a moral universe that owes more to the Walt Disney Corporation than the Kinsey Institute. Disregard that reality at your own peril.

HIM: For me, it comes down to integrity. At an everyday level, we regularly lie to our kids about what we’re doing and where we’re going. That’s a reality for swingers. We double-think our answers so we don’t let incriminating information slip out. Keeping a secret is exhausting, and arguably, morally corrosive. But this is our truth. The fact is, our relationship has been enhanced by making our marriage a place of freedom and joy, not a place of rules and fear. If a diet or exercise program had brought us this much joy, you know we would never shut up about it. I’m not Dexter, keeping my vigilante serial killing on the down-low. My deep, dark secret is that I like to exchange pleasure in a respectful, consensual way with people I care deeply about. How do I not at least tell my own children about such a thing? Don’t I owe it to them to share a crucial perspective that could help them in their own relationships?

HER: They don’t need your help. The existence of non-monogamy is not a mystery to them. Two of your kids (in their mid-twenties) said at Thanksgiving dinner last year that the first thing they wanted to do after the pandemic was go to Oasis, a local sex club. They actually thought it was an inside joke, that we would have no idea what they were talking about. And both of them have already admitted to experimenting with bisexuality. They’re finding their own way sexually.

HIM: Sure, but just because your kids know what business is, say, it doesn’t mean that you can’t help them by sharing your own experience in the workplace. A first-person perspective from someone who wants what’s best for you is invaluable. Surely that should apply in the realm of intimate relationships more than anywhere else.

HER: But you know sex is different. Your oldest child (in his early thirties), recently said to me while watching a show, “I choose not to surround myself with people who make me uncomfortable, like swingers or people who have orgies.” He actually said those words! It seemed like a fairly pointed comment, so he may already have his suspicions about us. But, even if he doesn’t have a clue, he’s clearly not open to non-monogamy, so why force him into an uncomfortable realization?

HIM: Because wrong attitudes need to be challenged. When a child respects a parent, the way my eldest respects me, I think my story could change his mind. Telling him that this is something his dad does would at least force him to reconsider what I can only assume is a poorly thought-out position.

HER: I get it. Our culture prizes honesty and authenticity even above privacy. Social media ensures that we keep very little to ourselves anymore. And we write this blog, so we’re used to oversharing with strangers. All that openness with the public makes it feel almost dishonest to hold anything back from the people closest to us. So, I understand why you crave that same level of honesty with your kids. But children have long had authentic relationships with their parents without knowing (or wanting to know) anything about their sex lives.

HIM: But your parents were quite open with you, and you have one of the best attitudes about sex I’ve ever encountered.

HER: The few details my mom volunteered were interesting, yes, but they were also a little scarring. Did I really need to be told how ‘big’ my dad was? I wish I could unsee my mom wrapping her fingers around her forearm to demonstrate his girth! Did you want that kind of information about your own parents’ sex lives?

HIM: Absolutely not. I would have quietly slipped into a coma if my mother ever said anything like that to me. But I’m not advocating going into that level of detail. It’s one thing to tell someone that you have sex with other people, and another thing to completely describe, for example, your first double penetration for them. “Yes, kids, I remember it well. I was in the front, and Dr. Miller — that’s right, your dentist — was in the back”.

HER: Ok, but there is a middle ground. I’ve been able to have very open communication with my 21-year-old about sex without saying I’m a swinger. Over the years, I’ve told him that I’m a nudist and that I’m bi.  Both of those truths seemed less shocking, more socially acceptable than ‘swinger,’ but they helped me explain some situations that might have required a lie. I told him that I had a sexual relationship with my best friend (who he knows well) before you came along. He’s told me about a threesome he had and asked questions about his own sexual explorations. When he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to get married, I took that opportunity to start a conversation about how there are lots of different ways to be in a relationship. I told him about the options: he could be open or poly or monogamish. I told him he doesn’t have to be with one partner for the rest of his life or even be limited to one at a time. All of these authentic, open talks can happen without me having to lay out for him that I have sex with lots of different people. Which I would admit if he asked me about it directly. I don’t want to lie outright, but I think that I can be very honest while still holding a few things back.

HIM: But, even the most open discussion about theoretical concepts isn’t the same as having real-world examples. I want to show the kids how healthy non-monogamy can be. I want to shatter any illusions they have about what ‘typical’ non-monogamous people look like. I want my oldest to realize that the people he’s imagining when he says he would be uncomfortable with swingers are not what real swingers look like at all.

HER: I agree with you there. If I were to tell my kids, it would be for that reason: to show them that we’re happy and normal, and that we also do this other sexual thing that isn’t all that weird. But I’m afraid you have a hidden agenda. Honestly, I think a major part of why you want to tell them is because you think it will make you seem cooler to them.

HIM: I’ll freely admit that’s part of it. What parent wouldn’t want their kids to think the best of them? But, as you well know, there are also plenty of uncool things about me that I happily own. I’m afraid of small animals, for example. I eat brown sugar directly from the bag by the spoonful. Those things are not cool, but I don’t care. They’re me. My life isn’t about desperately trying to be something I’m not. This is more about authenticity. When people look at me, they see a very conservative-presenting person. I don’t drink or swear, I keep my hair cut short and I dress in solids. No graphic tees for me! But, that’s not the entirety of my being — I am all those things, but other things as well that you might not guess if you merely extrapolated from my appearance. My sexuality is central to who I am. Unless you consider both my conservative and adventurous sides, you aren’t seeing me in the round. I want my kids to get the full picture of who their father is.

HER: If it was just you that this ‘full picture’ exposed, I’d be all for it. But I would be included. You’re telling my story too, and once it’s out there, it’s out there. I’ll admit that the people I am most afraid of finding out probably aren’t even your kids.  When your ex-wife was spreading stories about us when we first got together, they eventually made their way to my parents through the church grapevine, even though she had never met them. Those stories damaged my relationship with my mom and dad. It’s easy for you, because your parents are gone, but mine are still with us and of sound mind. I’d almost rather jab a pointy stick in my eye than see that mixture of judgment and disappointment on their faces again. And then there are the possible ramifications at my work. You’re your own boss. I’m not. It’s just so risky.

HIM: I understand. That’s why I’ve given you a veto on this. I promise I won’t tell my kids until you feel comfortable with it. And just so you understand, I’m actually not trying to win an argument here. I am not as gung-ho as I might sound. There are friends of mine who would probably not understand at all, who might pull away from me if they found out. I have my own fears, and I’ve come to count on you to hold me back. Sometimes I wonder if I’m hiding my cowardice behind the certainty of your reluctance.

HER: I appreciate you saying that. I hope you know that I feel conflicted when we talk about this issue. I look back with deep admiration for all the brave members of the queer community who stood up and demanded to be seen. They didn’t back down at Stonewall. They fought for their right to look the way they wanted, to love and sleep with whom they chose, and ultimately the right to marry and parent as freely as their straight neighbors. We all benefited from their courage, and I get that we need people from the non-monogamous community to be similarly brave. We need to make ourselves visible if we’re ever going to achieve the same level of acceptance. So, maybe I should stop being such a hypocrite and just let you share this truth with your kids, and own that it’s my truth too. Just give me a little more time. I’m almost there.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. What a beautiful conversation.
    I like the way you go into the depth

  2. Partners ID says:

    Very thought provoking.

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