Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

The American Way of Swinging

Swinging swung in America in the 1970s.

Swinging (or mate swapping or group sex) had probably always been around to some extent in America but the wild west of sexuality in the 1970s was the ideal climate for it to thrive. In his 1971 Group Sex: A Scientist’s Eyewitness Report on the American Way of Swinging, Gilbert D. Bartell took what was probably the most in-depth look at swinging culture published to date. Over the course of three years, Bartell, a professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University, along with his wife Ann, met with hundreds of swingers (defined as people interested in “having sexual relations as a couple with at least one other individual”). Finding such people was easy. Bartell simply placed a number of ads in Kindred Spirits, one of dozens of magazines catering to swingers (others included Ecstasy, Swinger’s Life, National Registry, and Select), and the responses poured in. From there, the protocol was generally standard. Two couples would arrange an informal meeting and, if all went well, plan a much more intimate second encounter. As many as a couple of dozen couples converged at swinging parties, some of them involving literal group sex and others in which twosomes retreated to separate rooms. Candles or mood lighting often set the scene, with “stag films” sometimes shown on projectors to break the ice. For sexually adventuresome people, swingers could be initially surprisingly shy; strong drinks were often required to get participants to relax, and frequently no one seemed eager to make the first move. Swingers were also, rather oddly, obsessed with personal cleanliness, the Bartells found in their research (in which they did not actively take part). At one of their parties, swingers could be found in the bathtub or shower just as often as they could be found in bed, a generous supply of soap and towels an essential element of such get-togethers.

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Swingers could be said to be conservative in other ways. Outside the big caveat that one was sleeping with someone else than one’s spouse, sex was typically conventional. Two women might pair off but two men rarely did, as swinging culture was distinct from the gay scene. (Not only homosexuals but blacks were typically not welcome at early seventies swinging parties.) Interestingly, expressing affection for a partner was considered bad form, the brief relationship understood as being purely about sex. The general rule was to swing once, and only once, with a particular couple so that the activity would not cause marital discord or breakups. (“The couple that swings together stays together,” went the group’s motto.) Swingers were, demographically speaking, also quite “normal.” Of the estimated one to two million American swingers, most were middleclass suburbanites, according to Bartell’s study. A whopping 42% of the male swingers Bartells encountered were salesmen, with a fair number of the rest professionals of some sort. More than three-fourths of the female swingers he met were stay-at-home housewives, most of them with kids. Contrary to what some critics believed, Swingers also tended to be anti-drug and “anti-hippie,” not at all aligned with the ideals or lifestyle of the counterculture. Swinging was something quite different than the “free love” of the sexual revolution, in other words, its advocates wanting to have little to do with rebellious, anti-establishment youth culture.

Club 101, based in California’s San Fernando Valley, was one of the better- known swinger organizations in the early 1970s. Every weekend, about twenty couples met at a mansion as if it were any other party, the only difference being that in about an hour the strangers would all be having sex with each other. Club 101 was a much larger gathering than most swinger get-togethers, however, with two to six couples the norm. Bartell estimated there to be more than 8,000 couples regularly swinging in greater Chicago, and about 4,000 in the Atlanta area. Although most swingers found each other through classified ads (“Groovy couples wanted. Nothing way out. Photo appreciated. Can travel,” went one ad in Select), New Yorkers could connect in person at the Captain Kidd bar and Los Angelenos at The Swing bar.

Some group sex activity was, of course, more spontaneous. Party games like strip poker and spin-the-bottle were known to lead to more intimate recreation, and après ski soirees could get pretty wild after some fondue and a few bottles of Almaden or Blue Nun wine. Sexually restless husbands almost always were the instigators in a couple’s decision to swing, although Bartell found that initially reluctant wives were soon more than happy to have joined the party. Some women who had been married for some time became interested in swinging because it offered them assurance that men other than their husbands still found them attractive. Threesomes consisting of two women and a man were a popular choice, and husbands often took special delight in watching their wives have sex with other men. Couples typically found the anticipation of a swinging occasion as exciting as the event itself, the debriefing afterwards also a source of considerable titillation. Interestingly, spouses viewed swinging as a marriage-friendly alternative to cheating, i.e., a way to be sexually adventurous while remaining, paradoxically, faithful.

By the mid-1970s, however, swinging was in decline in America, much of the novelty of it gone for even its most enthusiastic participants. As with its close cousin, open marriages, couples were finding that having sex with other people was affecting their relationships despite the no-emotional-attachment rule. Nena and George O’Neill, co-authors of the 1972 bestseller Open Marriage, were retreating from their position, recommending in their new book Shifting Gears that couples seek “change and growth” in their marriage versus swinging. The only place that swinging appeared to be growing was Atlanta, where the phenomenon was relatively new. The porn industry also was retrenching, with sales of “dirty” books and magazines down considerably. Los Angeles had imposed a moratorium on new pornographic movie theaters and bookstores, and a number of cities were passing ordnances to bar such businesses from operating within a designated distance from a residential area, school, church, or park. The courts too appeared to be tilting back towards a more conservative position regarding sexual content. Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler, was ordered to stand trial in Atlanta for disseminating obscene material, and had already been convicted of the same charge in Cincinnati. “After an era of revolution, is a counterrevolution under way?,” asked Time in 1977, the sexual mood in America showing all signs of reversing stream.

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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