Swinging: a review of the literature

Swinging: a review of the literature. Richard J. Jenks.
Archives of Sexual Behavior v27.n5 (Oct 1998): pp507(15). From Expanded Academic ASAP.

Source Citation: Jenks, Richard J. "Swinging: a review of the literature." Archives of Sexual Behavior 27.n5 (Oct 1998): 507(15). Expanded Academic ASAP.

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No review of the topic of swinging has been done in the last 20 years. This review is intended to update the literature. Studies estimating the incidence of swinging the demographic and personality characteristics of swingers, along with how swingers are perceived by nonswingers are reviewed. Numerous theories explaining this behavior have been presented with a social psychological model being the primary focus here. Major reasons for getting involved in swinging initiation into the lifestyle, effects on marriage, and dropping out of swinging are also covered. Finally, the literature dealing with some of the major problems with swinging focusing on AIDS, are also discussed, along with the current state of swinging and suggestions for future research.

KEY WORDS: swinging; comarital sex; mate swapping.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Plenum Publishing Corporation


The purpose of this paper is to review the area of comarital sex, or what is commonly referred to as swinging. Although single people do engage in the swinging world, the literature on this topic has limited itself to married couples. Therefore, the definition of swinging as married couples exchanging partners solely for sexual purposes (Buunk and van Driel, 1989) is employed here and the studies focus on married couples.

In addition to the focus on married couples in the research, there is often a significant problem with samples. Like most areas of sexuality it is difficult, if not impossible, to get random samples. Therefore, most studies reported in the literature have been based on small numbers of people within a single city or community. Furthermore, studies, with some exceptions, [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE I OMITTED] have failed to use control groups. Table I lists the various studies conducted in this area along with information relevant to sample size and nature of the sample.

With these problems in mind, what has been found relevant to the size of the swinging population? Bartell (1971) placed the figure at 1% of married couples, whereas Cole and Spaniard (1974) conducted a survey in a Midwestern college community and found that 1.7% had participated in swinging at least once. In a nationwide survey Hunt (1974) found that 2% of the males and less than 2% of the females admitted to having ever swung, with a large proportion having engaged in it only once. It appears, then, that the incidence of swinging among married couples in the U.S. is fairly low, around 2%. It must be emphasized, however, that these estimates are dated; no current estimates exist.


Much interest has been shown in the characteristics of swingers. Fortunately, a number of studies have been conducted on this topic and the results have been consistent.

The majority of swingers fall into the middle and upper middle classes. Studies have found swingers to be above average in education (Gilmartin, 1975; Jenks, 1985b; Levitt, 1988) and income (Jenks, 1985b; Levitt, 1988) and to be in professional and management positions (Jenks, 1985b; Levitt, 1988).

Studies (e.g., Bartell, 1970; Jenks, 1985b) also reveal that the majority (over 90%) of swingers are White. Another demographic characteristic that has been studied is age. Nearly two thirds in the Jenks (1985b) study of 342 swingers drawn from attendees at a national swingers convention and readers of a national swingers magazine were between 28 and 45; the mean age was almost 39 years. The mean age in the Levitt study was 40.7 and, in the Bartell study they clustered in the 28-34 age group.

Politically swingers are moderate to conservative and identify with the Republican party. While 50% voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 only 23.7% voted for Carter (Jenks, 1986). Bartell (1970) also reported many Republicans in his sample of Midwestern and Southwestern swingers. There is strong evidence (Flanigan and Zingale, 1991) that higher income, higher educated, people vote Republican. As we have seen, swingers have above average incomes and educations. Thus, the swingers may be voting their class interests.

Their political philosophies are also in accordance with social class. When asked to label themselves the plurality of swingers said "moderate" (41%), followed by "conservative" (32%), then "liberal" (27%) (Jenks, 1985a).

One area, however, where swingers do seem to be liberal is the area of sexuality. In a study of over 400 swingers (Jenks, 1985a) it was found that the swingers were significantly more liberal than a control group of nonswingers on items dealing with areas such as divorce, premarital sex, pornography, homosexuality, and abortion.

Bartell reported that the majority of his sample did not attend church regularly. Fully two thirds of the respondents in the Jenks' (1985b) study had no present religious identification. This finding also is consistent with other studies. Gilmartin's (1975) figure for the swingers was 63%. When asked if they had been raised in a religious home over 68% said yes. Although a little over 70% said they did not currently attend church services in a typical month, the most frequent response concerning church attendance when growing up was every week. Thus, swingers were raised in religious home but, somewhere along the path to adulthood, a majority gave up their religion. This contrasts with the American population in general. For example, 92% of Americans claim a religious preference (Gallup and Castelli, 1989) and only 4% can be seen as "totally nonreligious" (Bezilla, 1993).

A profile of the swinger, therefore, is of a White, middle to upper middle class person in his or her late 30s who is fairly conventional in all ways except for her or his lack of religious participation/identification and participates in swinging. This conclusion, however, is at odds with the popular perception of swingers.


It is safe to say that swingers do not enjoy the best of reputations in our society. Gilmartin (1975) found that almost half of a sample of nonswingers would mind if an "otherwise unobjectionable swinging couple moved into their neighborhoods" (p. 55).

To find out how swingers are perceived, a survey (Jenks, 1985b) was conducted where over 100 nonswingers were asked to give their perceptions towards swingers. These responses were then compared with the responses of over 300 swingers. Swingers were perceived as using alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs far more than the swingers themselves indicated. In addition, nonswingers overestimated the percentage of non-Whites participating in swinging, the proportion having a liberal philosophy, and having a Democratic party identification. When asked to place themselves and swingers on various attitudinal items the nonswingers placed themselves away from where they thought swingers would be on seven of the ten items. Finally, almost one half of swingers were seen as in need of psychological counseling; in contrast only 26% of swingers had undergone counseling (Jenks, 1985b).

Swingers, therefore, are often perceived by nonswingers as deviant in respects removed from their sexual behavior. The argument used by Jenks to explain this is based on a labeling approach. Specifically, Becker (1963) and Hughes (1945) have maintained that when the person is seen, or labeled, as having an undesirable trait, then that person is also assumed by people to have other undesirable traits as well.

In summary, from the little research that exists it can be concluded that (i) swinging is perceived as a deviant activity, and (ii) swingers are perceived not only as "specific" deviants but as "general" deviants, that is, deviating in not just one way (swinging), but in areas totally unrelated to their swinging.


What about the personality makeup of swingers? Are they more (less) authoritarian or alienated than nonswingers? What are their values?

One study included questions relevant to Authoritarianism, Machiavellianism, Philosophy of Human Nature, Internal-External Control of Reinforcement, and Alienation. Basically the results revealed that swingers and nonswingers were not significantly different on any of these measures (Jenks, 1986).

Swingers have also been asked to rank order a number of terminal values (Jenks, 1988). Terminal values are those that refer to a preferable end state of existence. This scale, developed by Rokeach (1968), has been given to different groups of people: police officers, Calvinist students, unemployed Whites and Blacks, and students at a university. It has been found, for example, that Calvinist students ranked salvation first. Jewish students, and those expressing no religion, placed the same value last (Rokeach, 1969). The results for the swingers are presented in order of preference (Table II).

The swingers emphasized the personal values over the more social ones. And, like the Jewish sample and people with no religious identification, salvation was placed last. Somewhere in the middle were those values which were personal but more achievement-oriented.

Duckworth and Levitt (1985) gave the MMPI to a sample of 30 swingers. The MMPI is the most widely used measure of personality and emotional disorders and consists of approximately 600 items. They found that half their respondents scored beyond the normal range on their clinical scale evaluations. The largest group (one sixth of all the subjects) was high on Hypomania, which consists of being hyperactive, often being irritable and low on behavior restraint. Overall, however, the findings did not seem to indicate grave psychological problems. The limited number of respondents and the fact that they were drawn from only one swingers' club should lead us to treat this finding with caution however. Finally, in a study of exswingers conducted by Murstein et al. (1985) no evidence was found that swingers were particularly disturbed individuals.


According to a study by Henshel (1973), initiation into the world of swinging generally takes place through the husband. She found that the husband was the first to learn of swinging in 44% of the cases; the wife learned first of swinging in only 16% of the instances. Once the initial discovery had been made there was a time lapse until they actually considered swinging, a second time lapse between considering it and actually reaching the final decision, and, finally, another lapse between deciding and actually becoming involved.

In 68% of the cases it was the husband who made the original suggestion to swing. Only 3 women (12%) in Henshel's sample made the suggestion; the remaining 20% was a joint decision. Finally, 16 (64%) of the husbands, as opposed to only 2 (8%) of the wives, were responsible for the final decision to swing.

Henshel, then, found the male to be the dominant force in the swinging situation. On the basis of her findings she argued that swinging is a male institution and the often used argument that swinging is an egalitarian situation needs to be reassessed. These findings, however, were based entirely on the responses of only 25 respondents in the Toronto area. In addition, she interviewed only the wife and, therefore, a possibility for bias exists.

Varni (1974), who found that the male initiated swinging in 15 of his 16 cases, also agrees that swinging is a male institution. It should be noted, however, that this has been a point of debate (Bartell, 1971; Palson and Palson, 1972, Smith and Smith, 1970).


Why do people become involved in swinging? What motivates them to engage in an activity clearly seen as outside the norms of our society? The reasons are many and varied. However, there are a number of major reasons that have been found to be important.

One of the primary, if not the primary, reasons for getting involved in swinging is the variety of sexual partners and experiences. When asked to indicate the major reason for swinging, variety was named by 26% in one study (Jenks, 1986).

The second most frequent response (19%) in the same study was that of pleasure or excitement. This included the idea that it was, in one swinger's words "forbidden fruit" providing the opportunity to participate in a "deviant" life-style, to defy societal sexual norms.

The third most popular reason was the possibility of meeting new people. Thirteen percent gave this response. Bartell (1970) also found the increased social life aspect to be important with his sample of swingers.

Voyeurism has also been noted as a reason for swinging. Swingers in the Bartell study indicated that watching others perform enabled them to either learn new techniques which they used when they returned to their marital relationship or to overcome any sexual inhibitions which they might have had with their spouse. Beyond the "educational" aspects observing swinging activities provides, especially for the man, sexual thrills and excitement.

Other reasons that have been cited include providing a means by which the person can recapture ones's youth, providing an ego lift for the person in that the person learns that she or he is attractive and desirable to people other than one's spouse, and increasing their interest in their own spouse (Stinnett and Birdsong, 1978).


A number of theories have been developed to explain swinging. These theories emphasize social variables like middle class marginality (Walshok, 1971), autonomy from one's family and the other institutions in our society (Gilmartin, 1974), economic property (Palson and Palson, 1972), and male socialization emphasizing sex (Bartell, 1970).

The most recent theory argues (Jenks, 1985c) that these models fail to tell us why all marginal people, autonomous people, etc., do not engage in swinging. based on his findings, along with a model presented by Stephenson (1973), Jenks developed a social psychological model of swinging (Table III).

The first step involves either an interest in, or early involvement in, sex. Not everyone is interested enough to become a swinger. As Stinnet and Birdsong (1978) have pointed out, swinging requires a great amount of time and energy. It seems logical, therefore, that a person have this strong interest in sex.

On the other hand, the behavior, rather than the attitude, may be important. The basis of many theories (e.g., self-perception theory) is that a person, who may not have given much thought to something, or not have a well-developed attitude, may engage in a behavior and then his or her attitude changes or develops to match the behavior (Bem, 1972). Gilmartin (1974) argued that this early involvement in sex is crucial in paving the way for an interest in sexual participation and the swinging life-style.

Premarital involvement, for example, gives the person the experience of participating in "deviant" sexual activities. Although significant percentages of males and females engage in premarital sexual relations today (Allgeier and Allgeier, 1995) it is still "officially" condemned. And, for people who grew up in the 1940s or 1950s, premarital sex was certainly interpreted as going against the prevailing norms (Bryant, 1982). Having participated in a certain kind of activity more than likely will increase the probability of engaging in future, similar, types of activities (Ajzen and Madden, 1986). In other words, given two individuals, one of whom has had extramarital involvement and one who has not, it might be expected that the former would be more likely to do it again. Gilmartin (1975) reported that, in his sample of 100 swinging couples, they started to date earlier, dated more often, and were much more likely to have had sexual intercourse earlier than a control group of nonswinging couples.

An active interest or involvement, however, is not enough; only certain types of individuals are susceptible to swinging. Two personality characteristics are important here: a liberal sexual predisposition and a low degree of jealousy.

As indicated above, swingers tended to be politically moderate and conservative but more liberal when we consider various issues relating to sexuality. In addition, Jenks (1985c) found that his sample of swingers scored significantly lower on jealousy than did a control group.

At this point Jenks states that a model proposed by Stephenson (1973) becomes relevant. In this model the person first becomes involved in a passive phase. Here, the individual finds out about swinging and does some thinking and talking about it. Next, comes the active phase. Here, contact may be made with swingers. Finally, the commitment stage encompasses an actual involvement in, and acceptance of, swinging. The new swinger also becomes socialized into the subculture, learning the language, a rational for swinging, etc.

This perspective, a process model, helps us to understand why, within certain groups of people (middle class, etc.), particular individuals may become involved. Finally, the model is argued to pertain to longterm, successful swinging. If only some of these factors are present, the individual may only try swinging for a while and then drop out of the scene.


Several major problems have been noted in the research. Six of the more common ones are discussed.

Fear of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

When asked to indicate the biggest disadvantage of swinging, the number one reason given in the Jenks's (1992) study was the fear of contracting venereal disease. An earlier study by Murstein et al. (1985) reported that 33% of husbands and 10% of the wives feared VD.

More recently AIDS has come to the forefront as a reason for not swinging. In a 1992 study assessing the impact of AIDS on swingers it was found, somewhat surprisingly, that the swingers expressed, overall, only a moderate fear of contracting the HIV (a mean score of 2.6 on a 5-point scale). Around 58% expressed at least some fear of contracting AIDS (Jenks, 1992). In contrast, a national survey reported by Quinley (1988) found that only 13% of respondents reported at least being "fairly worried" about the disease. Therefore, although the figure for the swingers is not as high as some might expect, it is higher than a random sample of American adults.

Almost 22% indicated that they knew someone who had the AIDS virus; however, swinging was not mentioned as the reason why these people had contracted the virus. Those who knew someone who had died of the disease expressed more fear for themselves (Jenks, 1992).

Over 62% said that they had changed their behaviors because of the AIDS scare. The two most frequently mentioned changes were being more selective with whom they swung and practicing safer sex (e.g., using condoms). Almost 7% said they had quit swinging because of the AIDS epidemic. Finally, one third said that they had not changed any of their habits, and, of these respondents, more than a third said nothing, not even AIDS, would get them to change.

It seems, therefore, that the swingers seemed to recognize the deadliness of the disease, but many felt their selectivity in sexual partners and practicing "safe sex" lowered their risk of contracting AIDS. In addition, only a minority knew someone who had died of AIDS and, of those, the plurality indicated that the person was gay. It is possible that these factors combined to create no more than a moderate fear of contracting the disease.

Finding People

This involves finding the right kind of people with whom to swing. Many people indicated that it was difficult finding another attractive couple or another couple with whom they had some mutual interests (Jenks, 1986).


Although the swingers in the Jenks' (1985c) study were significantly lower on jealousy than the nonswingers, this was not true of everyone. Therefore, being jealous of one's partner, being attractive to others, and/or having sex with others was named by 13% as a problem (Jenks, 1986). Stinnett and Birdsong (1978) also discussed this factor as a problem.


Anxiety stemming from the beliefs concerning sexual performance can be a problem in swinging. Bartell (1971) reported that only 25% of males are able to achieve an erection on a regular basis at the large swing party. And, while feeling sexually desirable is an advantage of swinging, the other side of the coin is the anxiety or fear that no one will see him/her as attractive.

Fear About Public Exposure

Since swinging is a "deviant" activity one must always be guarding against exposure. This concern may run all the way from their children to their neighbors and employers (Stinnett and Birdsong, 1978).

Time Factors

Swinging often comes to dominate the person's life (Stinnett and Birdsong, 1978).


What effect, if any, does swinging have on the swinger's marriage? Contrary to what many might believe, positive effects have often been found. Gilmartin (1974, 1975), for example, found that approximately 85% of his sample of swingers felt that swinging posed no real threat to their marriage. In fact, the majority felt that their marriage had improved.

Varni (1974) interviewed 16 couples who were actively involved in swinging and found that half believed that swinging led to an increased feeling of warmth, closeness, and love between the husband and wife. This feeling was reported to be strongest after swinging with someone else. Levitt (1988) found that almost three fourths indicated that swinging had a positive influence on their marriage; only 6.2% indicated a negative impact. Similar results have been found by Bartell (1971), Smith and Smith (1970), and Palson and Palson (1972).

Finally, Jenks (1986) found no reason to believe that swinging was particularly detrimental to marriage. Over 91% of the males and 82% of the females indicated that they were happy with swinging. Less than 1% of females were displeased with swinging; no males expressed any unhappiness. And, when an analysis was done comparing their perception of their relations, both sexual and nonsexual, before and after swinging, it was found that the majority expressed either no change or an improvement.

It should be pointed out that these studies have asked their perceptions of how swinging has affected their marriages. Perceptions, of course, can be quite different than reality. However, Stuckert (1963) has argued that perceptions, rather than actual behavior, are more important in determining marital happiness and satisfaction.

While the research does point to the conclusion that swinging does not affect the majority of marriages in a negative way, there are no doubt couples whose marriages are negatively effected. Levitt's (1988) study found that almost 17% felt that swinging had a negative impact upon the marriage. Unfortunately, no study exists analyzing factors that might have a negative impact on the marriage. A study by Denfeld (1974), however, did look at married swingers who had dropped out of the life-style. From this we can get an idea of some variables that might play a role in decreasing the feasibility of swinging for couples.

Dropping Out of Swinging

When the disadvantages start to outweigh the advantages getting out of swinging becomes likely. Denfeld sent over 2000 questionnaires to counselors listed in a national and a California directory of marriage and family counselors. Approximately 45% of the questionnaires were returned and 49% of these reported they had seen at least one dropout from swinging. The reasons given by the swingers for dropping out were, in order of frequency: Jealousy: 24%; Guilt: 15%; Threat to the marriage: 15%; Development of outside attachments: 12%; Boredom with swinging: 11%; Disappointment with swinging: 7%; Divorce or separation: 6%; Wife's inability to "take it": 6%; Fear of discovery: 3%. The point should be made that these were couples who were in therapy and, therefore, may not be representative of all swingers who drop out.

The Murstein et al. (1985) study found the major reason for dropping out of swinging to be the "wife's inability to take it." (p. 26). Other concerns cited were fear of VD, guilt, fear of discovery, boredom, and jealousy.

Current State of Swinging

Almost no research on this topic has been published within the last 10 years. To get a more current perspective a telephone interview with Dr. Robert McGinley (personal communication, August 26, 1997) head of the largest organization relating to swinging, North America Swing Club Association (NASCA), was conducted.

According to McGinley, swinging, within the last 10 years, has shown a significant increase. The mailing list for NASCA, e.g., approximated 12,000 ten years ago; today it is around 30,000. Attendance at Lifestyles, a yearly convention which brings swingers from all over the country, had a preregistration of 900-1000 couples with almost 2000 registrations on site. He indicates that attendance at this event has increased every year. The latest convention, held in Palm Springs, CA, is estimated by the Chamber of Commerce to have pumped more than $1.6 million into the local economy (R. McGinley, personal communication, August 25, 1997).

Although Lifestyles is the largest in attendance, there are other conventions that have annual meetings. Conclave, a convention held in Chicago draws approximately 300 couples. Originally held just once a year, it now has expanded so that a second convention is held in the fall of each year.

McGinley estimates that there were approximately 200 swing clubs in existence 10 years ago. Today the figure is approximately 400. One of the biggest changes which has come about, he states, is the growing sophistication of swing clubs. Once started as hobby clubs they now are a significant source of revenue. As a consequence the club is now able to put money back into the club and offer more services to the members. Also, the clubs have become more open in terms of advertising exactly what they are.

Swing-oriented magazines continue to thrive. Some of the major ones are Connection, which has two national publications and approximately 15 regional magazines. Others are Odyssey and Sundance. McGinley is quick to point out that magazines are not a major source for making contacts with other swingers; rather, clubs are a more likely source for contacts for the swinging couple.

Another change in the swinging scene has come about with the growth of computer technology, especially with the Internet. Most swing clubs have their own web site. One of the advantages of the Internet, according to McGinley, is that it allows couples to learn about swinging within the privacy of their own homes rather than going to an adult bookstore, for example. The International Couples Network lists 91 different swing clubs representing 27 states. The two top states are California (19) and Texas (12).


Although many people in our society disapprove of this behavior and believe that swingers are very unhappy and have unsatisfactory marriages there is no evidence for such a claim. Probably the best way to conclude a discussion on the effects of swinging is to quote Thio (1988): "We may conclude that swinging is like a two-edged sword - it may swing in the direction of positive consequences or in the opposite direction of negative consequences. The nature of the consequences depends more on the individual who uses the sword than on the sword itself" (p. 270).

Currently, we have no estimate of the incidence of swinging. On the one hand, given the AIDS epidemic, along with the somewhat repressive sexual environment of the last few years, we would predict that the incidence would be lower. McGinley states that AIDS did, in the beginning, have an impact on how often swingers would attend swinging events but this fear did not lead to a decline in membership. Swingers, he states, came to realize that AIDS was not everyone's disease as the media and government portrayed it, but a disease of only certain segments of the population. The Jenks's (1992) study showing no high level of fear concerning AIDS seems to verify this. McGinley believes that the greater problem for the swinger was the herpes scare which lasted for a couple of years. If swinging has decreased it may be more appropriate to attribute it to the repressive environment rather than the AIDS scare.

However, there are signs that the swinging life-style is alive and well. As indicated, major conventions draw thousands of couples each year and a perusal of the Internet revealed different Web sites for swinging. One such site, International Swingers Union, included tour packages for swingers and a discussion of swinging and the law. My impression is that, while the research on swinging has decreased, the incidence has not. The way to determine this would be to conduct a current study.

In addition to the question of incidence it would seem fruitful to conduct a longitudinal study of swingers to discover the factors related to their continuing to swing over a period of time, what factors influence those who drop out, and how long a couple stays in swinging.

Table II. Terminal Values in Order of Preference

1. Self-respect 2. Family security 3. Inner harmony 4. Happiness (Tie) 5. Mature love (Tie) 6. True friendship 7. Pleasure 8. Freedom 9. Sense of accomplishment 10. Exciting life 11. Comfortable life 12. Wisdom 13. World at peace 14. Social recognition 15. Equality 16. World of beauty 17. National security 18. Salvation

Table III. A Process Model of Swinging

Step 1: A strong interest in and/or early involvement in sex

Step 2: Personal characteristics conducive to swinging: liberal sexual orientation, low degree of jealousy

Step 3: Passive phase characterized by learning and talking about swinging, thinking about participating

Step 4: Active phase characterized by contact with swingers, possibility for withdrawal

Step 5: Commitment phase characterized by actual involvement, socialization into swinging and the development of a rationale for swinging


Ajzen, I., and Madden, T. (1986). Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 22: 453-474.

Allgeier, A. R., and Allgeier, E. R. (1995). Sexual Interactions, D.C. Heath, Lexingt

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