The Swing is Not the Entire Playground: Contrasting Polyamory and Swinging
Merry-go-rounds, monkey bars, slides, seesaws, bridges and swings. Everyone had their preferred play structure at the park; do you remember yours? Mine was the swing; I loved flying through the air, feeling weightless and free. The swings of the playground bring back great childhood memories. But more than a rope and seat, swinging can mean something else altogether. Swinging is not just a childhood playground adventure, but for many is an adult adventure all its own.
Swinging is the practice of consensual exchange of partners for sexual purposes1. It’s important to note that swinging is not the same as polyamory, as is often a misconception when people attempt to understand polyamory or other variations of consensual non-monogamy.
“Oh, you’re poly? So that means you go to sex clubs and screw a bunch of people? Do you go alone, or do you and your husband (or wife) go together?” This is a version of one of the most common questions I hear from people, and that’s perfectly okay because the concept of polyamory can be difficult to grasp at first. Since the media often portrays non-monogamy as either cheating or swinging (e.g. the television show Cheaters2 or recent film Swinging with the Finkels3), I don’t blame them for mistaking polyamory and swinging as one and the same. Truth be told, there is some overlap and many people identify as both swinger and polyamorist, or in other words, a “swolly”4. Allow us to explore the differences and similarities of these two concepts:
Some similarities between swinging and polyamory:
* Both are forms of non-monogamy, including more than two people (though swingers usually maintain more “monogamy” in their relationship than polyamorists).
* Both (typically) enjoy sex outside of their (primary) relationship, either with their partner(s) or without.
* Both are part of unique subcultures that challenge traditional relationship standards.
* Both are often misunderstood and even discriminated against sometimes5.
* Both require open and honest communication between partners to be successful.
Some distinct differences between swinging and polyamory:
* Swinging is usually about recreational sex6. The goal of swinging is to have sex with people outside of the (primary) relationship. Polyamory is, first and foremost, about love. The philosophical underpinnings of polyamory involve the ability to love multiple people simultaneously. The sex (when it’s present) is an awesome bonus.
* Swingers tend to seek out partners together, whereas many poly people seek out partners individually, outside of their (primary) relationship.
* Swingers tend to treat swinging as an engagement or (as mentioned above) a recreational activity; people who are polyamorous generally experience polyamory on a daily basis, as an integral part of their life or personal identity/philosophy.
* Although this is not always the case, many swingers prefer to have sexual relationships with others on a short-term basis, whereas poly folks lean toward seeking more lasting relationships.
As you can see, they are not the same thing at all; with polyamory, sex is usually not as strong a motivator as it is in swinging. Although the swing is a really fun part of the playground (more so for some than others), there are other structures to play with, structures that, perhaps, might be a better fit for one’s desires. Some people would rather spin around on a circular platform to the point of dizziness than rock back and forth on a swing, and some people would rather open their relationship up to mutual sex with other couples; to each their own. As long as you’re enjoying yourself and playing responsibly, who cares? Life is meant to be fun, so have fun.
1 Jenks, R. J. (1985). Swinging: A replication and test of a theory. The Journal of Sex Research, 21(2), 199-205.
4 Sheff, E., & Hammers, C. (2011). The privilege of perversities: Race, class and education among polyamorists and kinksters. Psychology & Sexuality, 2(3), 198-223.
5 Jenks, R. J. (1998). Swinging: A review of the literature. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 27(5), 507-521.
6 Barker, M., & Langdridge, D. (2010). Whatever happened to non-monogamies? Critical reflections on recent research and theory. Sexualities, 13(6), 748-772.