Nestled in the pages of the March issue of Self magazine, right after a feature on jazzing up chicken and veggie dishes, is a piece called "Meet the Swingers." And no, Self editors aren't talking about dancers.
Hallie Levine Sklar opens the curtains on the kinkier side of suburbia. With a nod to the key parties of the 1970s, the article explores the new American pastime:
[O]wners of swinger websites and event organizers say the popularity of the practice is increasing, with estimates ranging from 2 million to 15 million people engaging in the lifestyle worldwide. "It's tough to get hard data because we're such a secretive society," says Dave Vandewouw, one of the founders and owners of Swingers Date Club (SDC.com), the world's largest swinger site. "But since we launched 11 years ago, people have opened more than 7 million profiles." In the past seven years, SDC has also helped to establish four swinger resorts.
"It's so easy to meet couples online now," adds Jason Jean, owner of SwingFestEvents.com, a company that organizes swinger events. Moreover, data suggests that many swingers fit the image of the neighbors next door: the media age for attendees of SwingFest 2008, held in Hollywood, Florida, was 34, with an estimated household income of $60,000.
Sklar profiles five different couples, representing different levels of involvement in the lifestyle: Gregory and Jenna, Kayla and Edward, Talia and Gavin, Steven and Melissa, and Elizabeth and Chris.
Interestingly, many of the participants identify as being from conservative backgrounds. Kayla mentions she and her husband are "your average suburban conservative couple," while Jenna and Gregory keep their swinging a secret from their conservative Christian families.
Other couples say they joined the lifestyle in order to spice up their sex lives. Sklar reports that many women turn to swing parties as a way to explore sexual fantasies without feeling like they are cheating on their partners. However, one of the major pitfalls in the lifestyle is partner jealousy.
After failing to find a single woman to try a threesome with, Talia and Gavin switched to looking for couples. After a drinks date that moved into hot-tubbing and oral sex, the couple decided they were ready for the full monty, but the night quickly derailed as Gavin found that he was too jealous to watch Talia have sex with another man. Power dynamics within the relationship also play a major role: Elizabeth and Chris are swingers - but the description of their activities feels seriously one sided. Though it was Chris' suggestion to swing (he says he wanted to "show [his wife] off,") Elizabeth agreed, but only if her husband didn't participate in the activities. Relegated to the role of a voyeur, Chris and Elizabeth's swinging life consists of male-male-female threeways with Chris or female-male-female three ways without him. Chris has pushed the boundaries before by fondling one of the other wives during a tryst, and Elizabeth claims if he does it again, their swinging life will be over. The experts Sklar quotes in the article frown on relationships like Chris and Elizabeth's, noting that swinging relationships generally do not prosper without trust.
Even if trust exists, outside forces are also a strain.
Melissa (coupled with Stephen) explains how difficult the terrain can be to navigate. Starting slow, the couple experienced some problems trying to transition into a more active swinging experience. Melissa recounts a time where she, Stephen, and the other couple all got way too drunk and ended up in bed - which was a problem, since she'd decided over drinks that she did not want to sleep with other man. She awoke the next day upset and disgusted with herself. Stephen told her they could stop swinging at anytime, and that she shouldn't feel obligated to sleep with any of the couples they meet.
Melissa wanted to continue - only to end up in yet another sticky situation. After booking a vacation at a swingers resort, they hit it off with another couple who lived in Europe but the relationship with the other couple soured once Melissa discovered the other woman tried to keep in touch with Stephen on her own.
The article portrays the women involved in swinging as generally a reluctant crew, often talked into joining because of a husband's interest. There is also some internal pressure to follow through with each encounter. Though Melissa's husband is generally supportive of her wishes, she also notes:
I'm choosier than he is, so there were times I wouldn't see anyone I was attracted to, but would 'take one for the team,'" she says. Or I would refuse, and we'd get into a huge fight."
While ultimately, most of the couples profiled are happy within the lifestyle, the end of the piece leaves some of the same strange aftertaste as the recent Marie Claire piece on threesomes. Why do so many of these women, who expressed no desire to have sexual relationships outside of their marriage, still feel pressured into it by their husbands? And why was experimenting with other women consistently referred to as a less intense experience than swapping partners?