Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Not All Military Adultery Results in Scandal

Can military adultery support unit cohesion?

When I give presentations or interviews, I'm often asked about the biggest surprises I came across in researching Sex at Dawn. I was reminded of this by all the recent talk about adultery among top military brass. As it turns out, not all adultery in the military is so scandalous.

Asked to imagine the first swingers in modern American history, most people probably picture hairy hippies in headbands lolling about on waterbeds in free-love communes under posters of Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane on the hi-fi. But be cool, Daddy-O, ’cause the truth is gonna blow your mind.

It seems that the original modern American swingers were crew-cut World War II air force pilots and their wives. Like elite warriors everywhere, these “top guns” often developed strong bonds with one another, perhaps because they suffered the highest casualty rate of any branch of the military. According to journalist Terry Gould, “key parties,” like those later dramatized in the 1997 film The Ice Storm, originated on these military bases in the 1940s, where elite pilots and their wives intermingled sexually with one another before the men flew off toward Japanese antiaircraft fire.

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Gould, author of The Lifestyle, a cultural history of the swinging movement in the United States, interviewed two researchers who’d written about this Air Force ritual. Joan and Dwight Dixon explained to Gould that these warriors and their wives “shared each other as a kind of tribal bonding ritual, with a tacit understanding that the two thirds of husbands who survived would look after the widows.” The practice continued after the war ended and by the late 1940s, “military installations from Maine to Texas and California to Washington had thriving swing clubs,” writes Gould. By the end of the Korean War, in 1953, the clubs “had spread from the air bases to the surrounding suburbs among straight, white-collar professionals.” 

When I mentioned this at a recent presentation in San Diego, a former fighter pilot in the audience raised his hand and said, "Same thing; different war." He explained that among his colleagues flying air missions in Vietnam, mate-swapping was the norm. Another woman in the audience, who had dated military pilots confirmed that in her experience, non-monogamy was understood to be standard in that community.

Whether this is due to an awareness of death that brings on a sense of carpe diem, an expression of the sort of interdependence and love typical of military units, or both, it's clear that not all adultery in the military results in scandal and shame.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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