To swing or not to swing!


Richard Jenks. The Journal of Sex Research. New York: May 2001Vol.38, Iss. 2; pg. 171, 4 pgs

Copyright Society for the Scientific Study of Sex May 2001


The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. By Terry Gould. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 1999, 392 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Jenks, Ph.D., IndianaUniversity Southeast, New Albany, IN47150

Gould is a journalist who has taken on the challenge of writing about a topic that has escaped the notice of social scientists in the last two decades: swinging, or what some have come to call "the lifestyle." Not a swinger himself, Gould was introduced to the lifestyle in 1989 when he was assigned to write a magazine article on the swinging scene in Vancouver. In this current book, Gould does not break any new ground scientifically, but does chronicle and portray this sexual phenomenon while avoiding the common journalistic pitfall of labeling swingers as misfits or deviants. This relatively lengthy book provides an overview of the history and contemporary nature of swinging, an inside look at the lifestyle (at least as practiced in North America), and an examination of evolutionary considerations.

The book opens with an introduction to the lifestyle. Here the reader learns that there are 300 "formerly affiliated" swing clubs scattered over two dozen countries, and that in the 1950s journalists "discovered" swinging, referring to it as "wife swapping." Needless to say, this term conveys the image of using the wife as an object of exchange and is therefore not a term that is appreciated in the contemporary lifestyle. Gould also introduces the reader to some basic terminology, such as open swinging (sexual activity between newly formed couples in the same room) versus closed swinging (where the new couples go to separate rooms). Later the reader is informed of the ethics of the lifestyle, including the three primary rules of etiquette: (a) consideration for your spouse; (b) decency, which means you keep your hands to yourself unless invited to do otherwise; and (c) politeness (for example, going along with the woman's wishes as to using a condom).

Gould also considers the historical and cross-cultural study of group sex (referred to as orgiastic sex). The Greeks and Roman orgies are discussed along with the more common, discreet exchange of marital partners. The Innuits practiced partner exchange and some modern-day swingers, he avers, reciprocate sexual liaisons with favors. A second form of swinging consists of partner exchange with a few carefully chosen couples. They establish something of a clan. Some, such as the Toda of India, engage in casual sex while other types of swingers practice what Gould terms celebratory group sex. Few, however, appear to practice any kind of group marriage.

To fully understand the lifestyle, Gould considers one of the most important, if not the most important, individual in the swinging movement-Robert McGinley. It is McGinley who runs the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) and the annual Lifestyles convention. Gould's chronicle of McGinley's rise to this position is both interesting and full of irony. A former aerospace engineer and boy scout troop leader, McGinley was raised a Nazarene Christian. A father of five who did not drink or curse, McGinley voted for Eisenhower. In the wake of disintegration in his marriage and religious faith, a job transfer to Japan served as a turning point. Returning home, Playboy replaced the Bible and his wife eventually filed for divorce. McGinley answered a swing ad and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1968, McGinley met his future wife Geri at a party sponsored by the Sexual Freedom League. Together they formed Club World Wide and sponsored the first swing convention in 1973. This initial convention drew 125 people, even though it consisted of two days of lectures and only one social dance. In 1975, after obtaining his doctorate in counseling psychology, he and his wife formed Lifestyles, the group whose annual convention is now attended by thousands.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is an insider's look at the conventions and some of the societal reactions to them. For example, one of the chapters focuses on problems McGinley faced with authorities while conducting the Lifestyles convention. The hotel where the convention was to be held was put on notice by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) that their liquor license was in jeopardy as a result of "lewdness" in conjunction with their Erotic Masquerade Ball. The ABC maintained that it would revoke the license if any infraction of the morals rules were witnessed by attending agents. Then the hotel informed McGinley that its 3-year contract was being terminated. Ironically, the Palm Springs Convention Bureau, unaware of ABC's involvement, informed McGinley that his convention was welcome in their city. The rest of the chapter deals with the legal machinations (including the involvement of the ACLU) and the subsequent victory for McGinley.

At one point, Gould and his wife travel to the Eden Resort in Mexico as one of thirty couples for a weekend of fun and sex. The reader is introduced to various swingers at the resort, practically all of whom are white-collar professionals. One such swinger, "Green" expresses her conservative, Republican views by stating that "the drug dealers in her neighborhood should be executed." She states that what makes swinging acceptable is that the participants are "consenting adults." Gould considers why these "free and honest spirits" all were "in the closet" with regard to their swinging lifestyle. The answer, of course, is how society views swinging. Although many of Gould's interviewees wanted to talk about their trips and what transpired, they felt there would be negative repercussions for doing so. Certainly this mentality is warranted. Gould cites two different police raids of Canadian swing clubs, one which resulted in the arrest of 149 people. Gould also discusses the religious and Biblical aspects (for example, the story of Soddom and Gomorrah) of engaging in this "deviant" kind of sexuality.

The issue of reconciling swinging with religion and their upbringing is apparently a concern for many swingers. According to Gould, some believe that God's word has been misinterpreted. Others feel that they will ultimately be forgiven. Still others say that, despite the "deviant" nature of the sexual behavior, they are good people-they help others, give to charities, and so forth. One of the most common justifications for engaging in swinging is the fact that swingers are not hypocrites. Since they are participating in the lifestyle with the knowledge and consent of the primary relationship partner (in fact, they do it together), it is not wrong. Swingers often point to the high rates of clandestine extra-marital affairs when discussing this issue.

Jealousy is also discussed at this point. Indeed, this is a crucial topic within the lifestyle. Swing conventions sometimes have sessions which cover this topic. One swinger told Gould that you cannot be a swinger and be jealous. Although jealousy is a problematic issue, according to swingers, the lifestyle has beneficial effects for many marriages. One of the major tenets of swinging is that it cannot make a bad marriage good; however, it can enhance an already good marriage. One person told Gould that swinging increased the primary couple's communication skills. Many couples also indicated that when they return home from a swing party that they have even better sex than they do when there is no such stimulus. Swinging is, apparently, an aphrodisiac.

In one chapter Gould explores the biological and evolutionary aspects of sexuality. For example, the biology of the clitoris and sperm production syndrome (the idea that "men may actually ejaculate sooner when they perceive a potential risk of sperm competition") are described, and Gould goes to considerable lengths to show that females have. strong sexual appetites and that swinging is not just for men. The point of this chapter seems to be an elucidation of the potential evolutionary underpinnings for a nonmonogamous lifestyle. Here the reader is introduced to the work of Sherfey, a psychiatrist who wrote on female sexuality from an evolutionary perspective. Gould considers Sherfey's 1966 theory of the "sexually insatiable female," which argues that women had the capacity to be the partner for numerous men during each ovulation phase. Gould also describes the group-sex-favoring bonobo chimpanzee which, he says, swingers have adopted as their mascot.

Gould also devoted a chapter to polyamory, a relatively new concept in the social scientific literature. Whereas swingers concentrate on the sexual aspects of their encounters, polyamorists are prone to focus on the emotional ties in their multiple sexual relationships. Polyamory, Gould writes, originated in Oneida with John Humphrey Noyes and his belief in Perfectionism. Noyes believed fervently that romantic love was selfish love. He advocated a system of complex marriage, a system where everyone in their community was married to everyone else.

There is debate within the polyamory community as to whether they should be mentioned in the same context as swingers. Some "polys" are swingers, others are not. Here Gould draws the distinction between




utopian and recreational swingers. The former are seen as more revolutionary in that they want to change the norms relating to marriage; the latter have no such intent. Polys are compared to the utopian swingers.

Gould attended a polyamory conference (called "Loving More") held in California in 1997. He found these polys to be approximately ten years younger than the swingers he encountered. The book Stranger in a StrangeLand by Heinlein is said to be the "Bible" of polys and Paganism is very much in evidence according to Gould. Of course, making generalizations is dangerous. My own discussions with a person who is very active in the poly movement stated that not all polys are Pagans and Heinlein's book, while quoted among polys, is overemphasized by Gould. My informant said, "It's comparable to a claim that all Christians pray the rosary and attend confession each week."

Gould ends his book with a prognosis. He argues that "the lifestyle" has grown in the last few years and is not about to die. His arguments are that our culture has moved to a position that one's own sex life is one's own business. Certainly the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky affair demonstrated that a large segment of the American population apparently does not care about what goes on behind closed doors. Gould's second argument for why he believes that swinging is here to stay is that women have increased their power over the past several years. He encountered women who were thoroughly happy with and involved in the lifestyle. Swinging, for them, represented a viable alternative to monogamy. Gould argues that swinging will increase in popularity due to the growth in the Internet, citing the large number of swing clubs now on the web and the belief that this is a safe way for couples not only to learn about swinging but to learn about the existence of clubs and other swingers in their own city or town. Finally, he believes the media is softening its attitude toward swinging.

For a swinger, or someone just interested in learning about the lifestyle, I wondered if some of Gould's excursions into the evolutionary and biological aspects of sexuality was needed. I suspect most readers would skip over these sections. As a social scientist I found the book to be most interesting when he was dealing with such topics as the development of NASCA, interviews with people involved in the lifestyle, and the problems McGinley faced with the authorities. Indeed, the reader is introduced to some interesting examples of swinging couples, including a Mormon couple (perhaps the most unusual couple I became aware of in my research on swinging was an Amish couple!).

The diversity of couples involved in the lifestyle underscores Gould's point that swingers have been found to be just like others except for their swinging behavior. However, I would have liked to have seen more citation of the social scientific literature in terms of their characteristics and theories of swinging. Gould also fails to give citations where he does present relevant social scientific data. For example, he states that the 1996 Lifestyles Convention was made up of a large proportion of individuals who had graduate degrees, voted Republican, and identified with one of the three major religions in our culture. Were these the results of a survey? Did these conclusions rest on the results from someone else's study? In addition, there are more recently published sources than Bartell's book Group Sex (1971), Butler's Traditional Marriage and Emerging Alternatives (1979), and Gilmartin's The Gilmartin Report (1978). Similarly, Gould's somewhat lengthy excursion into the evolutionary aspects of swinging rests on a work (The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality) that is nearly 30 years old.

In addition to the scholarly weaknesses in the book, some may disagree with Gould's position that swingers are deserving of at least the same kind of treatment from the press as that received by gays and lesbians. Gould has, however, drawn our attention to a form of sexuality that has escaped social scientific notice for the past several years, and he does so in a way that neither belittles or glorifies. For that he is to be congratulated











Bartell, G. D. (1971). Group sex: A scientists eyewitness report on the American way of swinging. New York: Peter H. Wyden Inc.

Butler, E. W. (1979). Traditional marriage and emerging alternatives. New York: Harper & Row.

Gilmartin, B. G. (1978). The Gilmartin Report. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel. Sherfey, M. J. (1972). The nature and evolution of female sexuality. New York: Random House.


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