By Virginia Dickens
The “traditional” American dream: to work hard, get married, and raise a family. Today, that still reigns true, yet some are pushing the boundaries on what might be considered “traditional.” Sex has always been taboo in a fairly conservative America, despite the fact that Americans are constantly exposed to sex in television, movies, advertisements, music, magazines and pop culture. While many different forms of sexual content are suggested in American culture, from things like prostitution to affairs to polygamy, in society, sex is still to be private, shared with one other person, and never (or very rarely) discussed. Sex surrounds us constantly, and we are bombarded with images and innuendos on a daily basis, yet no communication and expression happens. For instance, the only “sex talk” I ever had in my life was from some dude that my (all-girl Catholic) high school hired to tell us not to have it until we’re married. Boom. That was it, which leaves room for a lot of interpretation, confusion and exploration, usually from an isolated and ashamed place.
However, some smaller (but growing) communities, or subcultures, have formed that don’t believe sex should be so taboo. They want to experience sex for themselves, embracing this act of human nature, and not suppressing any certain desires or fantasies. They want their sexual needs to be met, whatever those needs may be, in disregard to what society would say about it. One of these formed sexual subcultures refers to themselves as Swingers, and terms their actions as living The Lifestyle.
A Brief History
Swingers are typically characterized as single or committed couples partaking in sexual behaviors with other singles or couples as a recreational or social activity. These sexual exchanges can happen in numerous locations, from public clubs, to parties in someone’s home, to more intimate couple-on-couple meet-ups. The history of this subculture is a bit difficult to trace, but according to Terry Gould, author of The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers, he claims that swinging originated among American Air Force pilots and their wives in the 1940s. The families would form close bonds, and it was implied that the husband would care for his fellow pilot’s wife emotionally and sexually if the pilot were ever lost. These behaviors continued within American military families, and by the 1950s, at the end of the Korean War, swinging had spread to the suburbs (Gould 11). In 2011 some experts claimed that there were as many as 15 million Americans swinging on a regular basis (Kerner). With recent mainstream television shows such as CBS’ Swingtown or Discovery Health’s Secret Sex Lives: Swingers, perhaps more couples with a swinging mindset are realizing that there is a growing community available to them, and seeking to join the subculture.
Defining this “Subculture”
Ken Gelder writes in his book Subcultures: “Every subculture carries a set of narratives about itself, some of which are generated internally while others, usually more visible and pervasive, are developed and deployed in and by the society around it” (2). Swingers, from a societal perspective, have certain (usually negative) connotations that have been developed from mainstream culture. These connotations are typically made in comparison to the American, monogamist way of life. Yet swingers also have internal rules and codes for which they define themselves. Gelder continues by listing certain characteristics in which he identifies a subculture, requirements that the swinger subculture definitely meets. His characteristics are the basis of the content for the remainder of this section.
To help identify these characteristics, I analyzed a very popular “guideline” or lifestyle handbook for swingers titled The Ethical Slut written by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. The successful authors claim to have written this book from within the subculture, Dossie Easton being a therapist and polyamorous and Janet W. Hardy as a sex educator. They have interacted with many people in the swinger subculture and understand their identity, practice, and “ethics,” if you will. In addition, I will use documentary Sex with Strangers (which will be further explained later on) to fill in the holes of this subculture. Also, the documentary offers a visual representation which The Ethical Slut does not provide.
Swingers, in general, seem to have a very good relationship to labor or work. Because swinging is typically a recreational, as seen in Sex with Strangers when swingers would frequent parties and clubs on weekend nights, participants can carry on a “normal,” mainstream job just as anyone else. However, the labor force does have an opposition to the swinging culture. The co-authors of The Ethical Slut note, “We know people who have lost jobs, child custody, and more because the wrong people have become aware of their sexual choices” (43). Likewise, in the documentary, several of the characters lost their jobs once their swinging identity was revealed. Swingers then appear to make their subculture a “secret,” only to embrace among others that they can trust. This is in contrast to other subcultures, such as punks, who outwardly make their identity known and reject the acceptance of mainstream culture. Swingers hide this identity because they still want to be accepted and carry on a “normal” life outside The Lifestyle.
The swinging community does transcend class differences. They are not concerned as much with someone’s class as they are sharing sexual pleasure with others. According to the handbook: “Sluts [swingers] share their sexuality the way philanthropists share their money: because they have a lot of it to share, because it makes them happy to share it, because sharing makes the world a better place” (Easton and Hardy 4). There was no mention in the book or documentary of class ever being an issue when it came to swinging, therefore showing that they don’t define themselves in terms of income.
Swinger parties appear to come in all shapes and sizes (usually outside the house. If they are hosted at someone’s home, anyone outside the subculture will not be present). “Parties may be openly advertised to the public, advertised only in newsletters or at support groups, or private and by invitation only. There are public clubs […] and smaller spaces, perhaps an adapted basement recreation room, whose owners host parties once or twice a month” (Easton and Hardy 252). And when they claim a space, they occupy all of it. For example, hotels will host conferences for various sexual lifestyle groups, “allowing party spaces, even dungeons, to be built in their ballrooms for the guests to enjoy… Hotels tend to like [their] conferences – [they] don’t drink too much, are polite to the staff and wear great outfits” (Easton and Hardy 253-54). Swingers see themselves as an enjoyable and agreeable bunch, and seem to have found some outlets of acceptance where they can successfully exist within their subculture.
In Gelder’s chapter titled “Bar Scenes and Club Culture,” he writes, “club cultures do tend to image themselves as discrete ‘social worlds’ through the distinction they invariably draw between themselves and the ‘mainstream’ – a distinction which is crucial to their valorization as a subculture” (63). This attitude can reign true for almost any type of swinger setting, not just swing clubs. Even if the gathering is at a home, opposed to a club, the hosts tend to adapt the environment to a more club-like atmosphere. The Ethical Slut authors explain sex parties they’ve attended, “There may be an area for dancing. There is almost always music with a very strong beat, to wake up your natural rhythm and to give a sense of aural privacy so you won’t be distracted by your neighbor’s heavy breathing or squeals of delight. The lights will be low, and often red or orange, so we all can look a little tan and perhaps a little sexier” (253-54). Essentially, the swinger subculture does seem to feel a sense of “separateness” from mainstream when they are in their own territory.
Swingers’ excessive behavior and style can be seen in how they attend sex parties, usually in the privacy of the subculture territory. In the documentary, all of the couples would wear anything from a “little black dress” and button down and tie to more provocative attire, appearance most-likely given a high status of importance. Several couples in the documentary had sex toys, particularly strap-ons. Swingers claim to practice safe sex, and according to the handbook, “most public sex spaces provide condoms, rubber gloves, and whatever else [they] may need to play safe” (Easton and Hardy 251). There is very distinctive behavior that, according to The Ethical Slut, needs to be showcased at a sex party. The Ethical Slut goes into great detail of what is appropriate etiquette, stating that many parties will show you a list of rules as you come in and post them on the wall. The authors go on to explain responsibility in voyeurism, another component of sex parties. They state: “You may watch what people do in public spaces, but always from a respectful distance. If the participants are aware of your presence, you are too close” (Easton and Hardy 255). Communication, boundaries, and consent (ESPECIALLY consent) are a key behavior of swingers. They seem to pride themselves on having responsible, but extremely fun and erotic sex. The Ethical Slut plays out an apparent ideal scenario for discussion before sexual play should happen:
Usually you start with introducing yourself as a person: “Hi, I’m Dick, what’s your name?” is way preferable to “Hi, do you like my big dick?” People will talk for a bit, flirt a little, and then ask quite directly, “Would you like to play with me?” When the answer is yes, negotiation follows: “What do you like to do? Is there anything you don’t like? Let’s check that we both mean the same thing by safer sex, and by the way I have this fantasy… (255).
The Ethical Slut maintains it is crucial that couple swingers set guidelines before attending a swing party, the reason being that “it is way too ugly to have a disagreement about that sort of thing in public” (Easton and Hardy 260). This suggested example of miscommunication was seen in Sex with Strangers when Sarah (who swung with her partners Calvin and Julie) felt left out, causing an upsetting scene and pulling Calvin into the bathroom to cry and express her frustration.
The swinger subculture is most-definitely still cast in opposition to mainstream culture. The Ethical Slut explains, “Those who set off down the path of exploring new kinds of relationships and new lifestyles often find themselves blocked by beliefs – about the way society should be, the way relationships should be, the way people should be – that are both deeply rooted and unexamined” (9). Mainstream culture ideologies are so persistent in a society’s mind that they find it difficult to comprehend an alternative way of living. “We are told that monogamy is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’: if our desires do not fit into that constraint, we are morally deficient, psychologically disturbed, and going against nature” (9). Many people, not wanting to feel “unnatural” may be discouraged from participating in this, or any, subculture because they do not want to be considered an outcast.
Swingers use specific terms and languages to define their subculture. They also attempt to change the association of certain words. Stuart Hall, author of Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices explains, “There is no simple relationship of reflection, imitation or one-to-one correspondence between language and the real world… Meaning is produced within language, in and through various representational systems which, for our convenience, we call ‘languages’.” (28). The Ethical Slut greatly attempts to redefine some connotations of langue within mainstream society. For example, in Chapter 1 the authors blatantly state, “From the moment you saw or heard about this book, you probably guessed that some of the terms here may not have the same meanings you’re accustomed to (3). Hall also writes, “Meaning is produced by the practice, the ‘work,’ of representation. It is constructed through signifying” (28). Even just the term “slut” has been signified as an extremely negative characteristic. Society has associated the term with being shameful and dirty, among others. The representational work done on the word “slut” can be seen in contrast to the word “stud,” which used to describe a highly sexual man, and is often a term of approval and envy (Easton and Hardy 4). The authors of The Ethical Slut are attempting to reclaim such words. To highlight the glossary in the back of the book, this is how swingers represent certain terms differently than mainstream:
Sex: Sex is whatever you and your partners think it is. Whatever you think sex is, we approve of it – because all forms of consensual sex are wonderful.
Slut: A person who celebrates sexuality with an open mind and open heart.
Promiscuity: One of several words used to pathologize those who like to have a lot of sex. Mainstream culture tips its hand about its underlying paradigm of sex-as-commodity when it refers to such people as “cheap.”
Fidelity: This term is generally used to mean having sex only with one person. However, the dictionary says fidelity is “demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support,” and that sounds about right to us.
Swinger’s attempt to justify and support their behaviors by reclaiming and reconstructing certain words and their meanings. At least within the subculture they most-likely carry different innuendos than outside of the subculture.
Representations in Film
The 2002 documentary Sex with Strangers, by directors Harry and Joe Gantz well known for their 2013 award-winning feature documentary film American Winter on HBO, takes the viewer into the lifestyle of swingers. They follow two couples and one threesome through their experiences with swinger parties, clubs, and more intimate encounters. The film also highlights some of the obstacles swingers face within their coupled relationships, sexual relationships, family relationships, and general relationship with society.
The directors chose to film this documentary in an observational mode. Bill Nichols, author of Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, explains that the observational mode “stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker. Such films cede “control” over the events that occur in front of the camera more than any other mode… Observational films rely on editing to enhance the impression of lived or real time” (38). There would be some personal interviews given by the swingers, but over-all the film followed these couples. It came across as “raw” footage and the viewer became a true voyeur within this community. While observational filming does seem the most “honest,” there is a certain level of ethics involved. Nichols asks the question, “Has the filmmaker intruded upon people’s lives in ways that will irrevocably alter them, perhaps for the worse, in order to make a film?” (39). Some viewers may think “yes” the filmmaker did intrude too much. The viewer is taken into orgies that occur in the privacy of someone’s home. The viewer doesn’t only see those participating in the orgy, but of the people watching the orgies and their reactions. Usually the group participating in the public sex is in some part performing for the intimate viewers, but when a film crew is involved, there may be an entirely new type of performance happening to make the film less authentic.
The ending credits of the documentary announced that three of the swingers had lost their jobs once their subculture identity was revealed. That makes one wonder how discreet and careful the filmmakers were when they shot the footage, or how much they attempted to protect their identity. The film did not necessarily portray the characters negatively, but because sex is so taboo in mainstream culture, especially non-monogamous sex, there may have been very little the filmmakers could actually have done to protect the cast from the harshness of mainstream reality.
Overall, the representation of swingers in Sex with Strangers is primarily up to the viewer. They were shown in a very straight-forward light, and very little was left to the imagination. The only interaction of the subculture with mainstream culture happened at the very beginning when couple Shannon and Gerard, who have a young son, sit Shannon’s mother down and explain their sexual behaviors. The mother’s reaction is shock at first, but then accepting, after clarifying that her grandson wasn’t exposed to the culture. Yet, that segment was very brief.
Some viewers may be uncomfortable due to the explicit sex content, partially due to our conservative society. However, that is up to one’s own personal judgment. Society can choose how to interpret that representation.
Unlike the authors of The Ethical Slut, the directors of the documentary do not, and did not participate or engage in the swing culture, according to my knowledge. Both sources do portray the subculture in different ways, while still overlapping with many common concepts, several of those which were discussed in “Defining a ‘Subculture’”. The documentary comes across as more of a spectacle, creating an “otherness” between the viewer and the film’s characters. This is mostly attributed to the fact that film is a visual media representation. Within that context, one can virtually see actions, feel tension, and witness drama. Viewing (and hearing) a documentary creates a closer experience to actually being present, as opposed to reading a handbook and feeling somewhat removed. The Ethical Slut, on the other hand, had a more inclusive tone. When reading it, I actually witnessed several moments where I (representing the mainstream culture) could relate their words to my own life in some way, actually finding some advice quite helpful and insightful. Yet, when viewing the film, I was a voyeur and not nearly as engaged.
Through weeks and weeks of researching the swinger community, I have decided that there needs to be a more genuine and accessible visual representation for them. Yes, there have been several television shows about swingers, especially reality television, but people tend to treat reality TV as a spectacle, and even though it is “reality” there is always a certain element of surrealness (for example, take the “Jersey Shore” or “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”). I struggled for weeks to even find a decent documentary to analyze (there was nothing on Netflix!). Therefore, a documentary (or HBO mini-series) should be filmed, but in more of a “Big Brother” manner.
What do I mean when I say “Big Brother” manner? I mean that the documentary should have elements of a reality show and documentary. The film should be observational as well as have raw footage. In addition, there needs to be a more intimate development of characters. In John Corner’s piece “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions,” he writes, “An interest in inner stories has developed too, particularly in the last decade of work on television. The development of inner stories often requires extensive use of interview and sometimes of part-dramatization to get the personal and the microsocial fully realize on screen” (256). Not only should it have more interviews at great depth, but also showcase a broader spectrum of swingers, not just suburban swingers. There should be an equal mix of urban and suburban swingers who go to swing clubs, bars, parties and even answer casual encounters ads on Craigslist or a similar site. Corner also writes, “The documentary foreground has frequently become a highly defined narrative of localized feelings and experiences presented against what is often a merely sketchy if not entirely token background of social setting” (256). That comment is crucial in that this documentary should highlight the differences between mainstream culture and subculture. Sex with Strangers briefly touched on this tension, but to get more involved in the contrast of the two cultures, as well as paint the backdrop of this subculture taking place within mainstream culture, would be a more welcoming and inclusive format for those who have never been exposed to such a subculture and have a very deeply-rooted mindset of mainstream ideology. Also, the “Big Brother” style has been proven successful within the television industry. The key is to find a balance between a “reality television” feel and an observational documentary. This can be done by creating deep characters and contrasting the cultures in an honest way, not a “one way is better than the other” but as an alternative way.
Swinger representation can vary, depending on the type of outlet the information is being received from, and the mindset of the receiver. The general consensus is that mainstream culture accepts swingers in that they acknowledge them. Yet, they want the subculture to remain unseen and unheard. They need to keep their swinging behind closed doors and not speak of it in public. Some may even think that swingers are bad parents, but that may be getting too into personal opinions. Honestly, I’ve mostly witnessed swingers being viewed as a joke. They are people to gossip about, most-likely because of their promiscuity (the mainstream term), and society’s lack of understanding of what exactly they do and how they come about deciding it. People tend to make fun of things they don’t understand. Especially sex. Just think of all of the homosexual jokes that have happened throughout history, even to this day. Humor is a way of passing off a reality that one does not want to truly acknowledge and deal with.
Yet, I believe the representation of swingers in mainstream society will change when mainstream society adapts their views of sex, monogamy, and marriage to suit alternative lifestyles. Until then, swingers will remain a taboo and oppressed subculture.
Corner, J. “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions.” Television & New Media 3.3 (2002): 255-69. Print.
Easton, Dossie, and Janet W. Hardy. The Ethical Slut: A Roadmap for Relationship Pioneers. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 2009. Print.
Gelder, Ken. “Bar Scenes and Club Culture.” Subcultures. London: Routledge, 2007. 47-65. Print.
Gelder, Ken. “Introduction.” Subcultures. London: Routledge, 2007. 1-4. Print.
Hall, Stuart. “Chapter 1 Representation, Meaning and Language.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in Association with the Open University, 1997. 1-74. Print.
Kerner, Ian (15 September 2011). “Would you ever swing?”. CNN Health. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.
Sex with Strangers. Dir. Harry Gantz and Joe Gantz. Crushedplanet.com, 2002. Online.
Terry Gould, The Lifestyle: a look at the erotic rites of swingers. Vintage Canada, November 23, 1999