This is the edited text of a workshop I gave in as part of Pink Therapies Non-Monogamy November strand. The title of the presentation was “What’s love got to do with it” and looked at forms of consensual non-monogamy which to the outside world may not involve love – at least not in the way polyamory is perceived too. I use the word perceived quite deliberately there, as I hope by the end of this I will have challenged some common and perhaps dare I say, false binaries. At times it is notes rather than a full article, and I have included some slides.
There are over 1 million members of the largest swinging site in the UK. This is a community, it has munches, holidays, festivals, camping trips and charity fundraisers, and yet its an often misunderstood, and heavily judged one. It’s a community and/ or behaviour that its easy to other since its largely invisible and breaks many of the rules around mononormative behaviour, particularly rules of who gets to initiate and control sexual encounters, sex occurring without a romantic bond (although that’s more complex as we can go onto explore) and the taboo of women/afab people having sex often with multiple partners. It’s also probably worth mentioning the existence of aromantic people, who I feel are often excluded from discussions on consensual non monogamy, when we set up a binary of sex versus love, aromantic people are erased and ignored. I do not want to go more deeply into that right now, simply to ask that we all be aware that for some people relationships, sexual or not, do not center on romantic love,
One of the things which always intrigues me about swinging discussions within the GSRD community is the speed at which someone will say swinging is for heterosexual couples – as if the same were not true of poly, or the world in general. There feels to be always an us and them desire to label as “not us”. We do also need to consider the rise of bi events on the swinging scene, which can very often be very male dominated. There may be an element of men who have sex with men here, as occurs in saunas and with cottaging. There will be men and women who identify as straight, but who have sexual contact with the same gender, because behaviour does not confer identity. So whilst the the majority of swingers may be heterosexual couples they are behaving in a very non heteronormative way, and,all genders and none can, and do swing
Perhaps part of the issue here is the taboo nature of sex without romantic love as a primary driver, and we tend to recoil from looking at the taboo, even whilst we are secretly attracted to it. Let’s move past that dance and consider some terms, which may or may not be familiar.
I originally intended to avoid this kind of slide, but when I googled discovered some quite didactic and out of date glossary’s, which are probably where some of the myths come from – for example Swingfields, a huge swinging festival each year, says that bisexual men are “discouraged” which might come as a surprise to the hundreds who attend specifically bi parties each week – I will say this a number of times today, the lack of research into swinging in the UK is a huge issue, and means we are often left with memes being perpetuated which bare little relationship to the current reality.
Wife swapping is a term many may be familiar with, not even aware of its misogynistic framing of this form of consensual non monogamy – one of the challenges of swinging to heteronormativity is the visible way in which afab people exercise sexual agency, it therefore has to be contained, women/afab people reduced to passive participants who are swapped rather than active participants. It is as if, even within GSRD communities the hegemony of heteronormativity has to be reinforced by language
Again in the hot wife dynamic – the desirability to other men, and the sexual agency of the woman, is not seem as humiliating but instead celebrated and perhaps feeds the ego drive of the male partner in a way which challenges cis het norms. I say male/female in the definition but of course this is a behaviour/relationship style any gender could enact. It’s also worth pointing out that clients may use a term differently, there is no theory test before they embark on the practical, you may think their relationship looks more like cuckolding for example, but we have to always be aware of meeting clients where they are at with this not where we think they are, or should be.
When we look at definitions, and identities, most studies ignore solo swinging and swinging as a pastime,rather than an identity. Sprott, R. A., & Williams, D. J. (2019). Is BDSM a Sexual Orientation or Serious Leisure? Current Sexual Health Reports. shows a similar identity/hobby challenge (another false binary perhaps) for some people in whatever relationship style they are in this is not an identity, for others it is, and there is a whole spectrum in between. In understanding who claims the label for behaviour, or lifestyle identity however the position of swinging as breaking cultural conventions can play a huge part, either negatively or positively (remember some people want to consider themselves to be rebels and rule breakers, just look at the anti mask sentiment positioning group think as individuated self expression)
Rubin’s charmed circle
Rubin uses the visualization of a circle divided into inner and outer portions to describe how different social groups with different social values applied those values to sexual behaviors, placing certain behaviors in the inner-most “good and natural” portion (e.g., heterosexual, monogamous, coupled, unpaid sex in private between two people who are married to each other) and certain other behaviors in the circle’s outskirts due to being “bad and unnatural” (e.g., queer, polyamorous, sex in exchange for money in public between five people who just met).As society changes, which behaviors are or are not “charmed” changes with it. That is, what behaviors are perceived as “good and normal,” as well as what behaviors are not, shift over time in different ways and in different places. For example, unmarried recreational sex is considered normal and even healthy in many more parts of contemporary society than it was several decades ago. Or as I have said before about the relationship escalator, its not a fixed path, the date, kiss, fuck, move into together get engaged norm of 2020 is very different from the norms of my grandmothers generation, and hows how these behvaiours are not universally condemned or lauded, but instead move in a state of flux between different segments of the circle.
On Rewriting the rules MJ Barker produced an updated version of the charmed circle, which incorprates some of the nuance around romantic love being more acceptable than sex without romantic love, and its very much worth checking out
So, who is in the middle of the circle and who is cast into the outer darkness?
Klesse (2006) found that individuals in polyamorous relationships held negative attitudes towards swingers. Specifically, individuals engaged in polyamory explained their negative views of swinging stem from the notion that swingers
engage in casual, recreational sex rather than meaningful, emotional and sexual relationships (more frequently found in polyamorous relationshipKlesse 2006
It seems that some of those in polyam relationships perceive themselves to be within the charmed circle – and swingers to be outside it.
Matsick, J. L., Conley, T. D., Ziegler, A., Moors, A. C., & Rubin, J. D. (2014). Love and sex: Polyamorous relationships are perceived more favourably than swinging and open relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 5(4), 339–348. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2013.832934 found similar negative attitudes
“Participants perceived people in polyamorous relationships as significantly more moral, more motivated by duty (rather than motivated by pleasure) and less self-oriented(i.e. more family-oriented) than both people in swinging and open relationships.
Further, people in polyamorous relationships were found to be more able to express emotions than people in open relationships and were perceived as more mature, conventional and comforting than swingers. Swingers were rated as more ‘kinky’ and less responsible than people in polyamorous and open relationships. Moreover, swingers, compared to people in polyamorous relationships, were perceived as dirtier, more adventurous, more radical and more open to experiences”
Some of thee descriptors may appear positive to you, although of course that depends on your own self concept, however the attitudes perceiving swingers to be dirtier, less moral, less mature, and less able to communicate (and more in need of counselling) may well inform your clinical work. It has been demonstrated by the National Coalition for Sexual freedom that swingers in the US are likely to be facing the same risks around social service involvement as kinksters, and perhaps more of judgemental attitude than those whose cnm centers on the acceptable form of romantic love.
How do swingers identify themselves – on a popular forum of a website I asked “why do you swing” I made clear all quotes would be anonymous and used today – its not qualitative research but its a snapshot
I love the community, the open attitudes and lack of hypocrisy about sex
It brings us closer together as a couple
Its a great way of making friends, and sometimes that brings sex, sometimes it doesnt
I don’t know, no one ever wants to meet single guys
It lets us be different people for an evening, not fake, just apart from ourselves and adventurous, I love the fact no one would suspect to look at us.
As you can see there are as many reasons as there are for anyone to have sex – much wider than the “wife swapping” idea, and community and friendship – emotional ties do come up. Some people want to meet those they play with and build a bond, others don’t even ask their names
Words like monogamy and non monogamy become complex when the “hobby” a couple share cements the emotional monogamy by seemingly being nonmonogamous. Post play sex, as in the pair bonded sex after swinging, was a feature of many of the answers from couples, they see one of the important reasons to swing as being the closeness it brings to their relationship – and monogamy and non monogamy becomes a less concrete binary perhaps?
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a client coming to you –
Saz and Kai are mid 40s, experienced swingers, they enjoy going to clubs, munches and meeting other couples and single women. Saz is bi, and would like to meet women alone, she feels her bi side has never been fully explored and as she says to Kai – they aren’t monogamous, and she isn’t looking for a relationship – so he should be OK with it
Kai is devastated – he sees swinging a something they do together, and is coming to you to explore the feelings Saz’z solo swinging idea has brought up for him
In the workshop we had breakout rooms at this point, it might be worth spending a few minutes reflecting on how you might work with Kai if you are a therapist reading this.
This brings me to the issue of monoshaming, as you might have guessed by now, there is another false binary here. If we look at Kleese we can see that often polyam people are shaming swingers for not being monogamous in a way that is considered acceptable to them, by not fitting the societal norm of associating love and sex.(even when the consensual non monogamy may be reinforcing a romantic bond)As an aside it is worth considering where poly play parties fit in into this, Personally I believe there is something around class, age, and the attitudes identified by Matstick in which label people choose, and of course it is possible to be poly and a swinger – basically this is a hugely under researched area!
Let’s look at monoshaming, the process where one partner is told by another that their monogamous feelings are holding them back,
This process often gets described as “doing the work”. Apparently “no” is seen as something which of itself is not enough, people have instead to do the work to turn the no into a yes
NO IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE
I say this so many times working with clients in different contexts that I may make it my next tattoo
Within the context of consensual non monogamy however we can end up working with clients who are shamed by not wanting to open up their relationship. This can be especially complicated if they have already been non monogamous in some form, for example wanting to move from swinging to polyamory or vice versa.
This was mentioned last week, but it really does bear repeating . It is not more advanced, sophisticated, evolved, or anything else to be non- monogamous. It doesn’t indicate a deeper spirituality, self awareness or level of development. Like most things relationship styles exist on intersecting axes, and, it’s most likely that just like gender, sexuality and erotic orientation, relationship orientation is biopsychosocial – that is a mix of nature, nurture and cultural/societal factors.
If one person is mono because they are forced to be afraid of their desires, scared of slut shaming or rejection by friends and family, there is a lot they can do to be their authentic self. In fact if they do not “do the work” of discovering the relationship style which might work best for them, it is likely they will struggle to be content in their relationships. Counselling with a culturally competent and trained therapist can undoubtedly help unpick the beliefs and fears which are barriers to living their authentic life.
If one person is mono because that is the relationship style which works for them, which makes them happy and which they want to remain in, getting them to change is an act of abuse and asking them to change may be abusive, dependent on how the question is posed.
People have been told that their feelings are not valid/acceptable/or even that by being upset about the idea or practice of non monogamy they are trying to control their partner. Usually in these cases its the partner pushing non monogamy, who exhibits elements of coercive control, which can make it very difficult to work with – this was recently highlighted in the partners of Franklin Veux who co authored More than Two, and the game changer two of the classics of polyamory, coming out as victims of coercive control. I don’t have time here to explore this in full, and recommend the website I tripped on the (polyamory) stair. What will always remain with me as a surreal experience is working with people (of different genders) who were being gaslit and coercively controlled to agree to consensual non monogamy, quoting books written by someone who gaslit and coercively controlled their partners into agreeing to non monogamy. Now I am not saying that jealousy, insecurity, fear of abandonment are healthy, or positive emotions. I am saying that they are perfectly normal, and to blame, shame, or say that someone must deal with them in a “put up or shut up” manner can be abusive.
Given the popularity of non monogamy as a sexual fantasy lehmiller (2020) many of us will work with clients who are currently in monogamous relationships, and who fantasise about some form of ethical non monogamy. Lehmillers paper shows that fantasies we might group under swinging, threesomes, group sex, orgies, visting sex clubs, are common. Our role will often be to help the client explore what monogamy and non monogamy actually are to the client. For one person a partner watching porn feels like infidelity, for another a partner having sex with 13 men in a swinging club can be a pair bonding, and emotionally monogamous experience.
Only by understanding what the clients frame of reference is can we work with them to understand where their boundaries, needs, wants and hard limits lie. Doing that work might indeed mean stepping beyond current false binaries of monogamy and non monogamy an challenge some deep held beliefs about heteronormativity, and the acceptability of separating sex and love.