Would you ever swing?
September 15th, 2011
09:49 AM ET

Would you ever swing?

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him on his website, GoodInBed.

No, I’m not talking about ballroom dancing. This is a sex column, after all.

With buzz-terms like “monogamish” and “negotiated monogamy” making headlines, many couples are discovering that they have a shared appetite for sexual adventure, and that getting it on with another couple may be the golden ticket – not just to thrills, but also to staying together and surviving another day in the life of a relationship.

While the term “swinging” may be a throwback to the 70s and the days of Plato’s Retreat, more and more modern couples are hooking up with other couples, either informally or through networks or clubs.  And, of course, like all things online, the Internet has amplified these opportunities and made it easier to find couples and clubs in a neighborhood near you.

As with most sexual activities, there haven’t been many studies into the prevalence of swinging - and many people who do it don’t necessarily want to admit it - but some experts believe that there could be as many 15 million Americans swinging on a regular basis. Chances are you have a friend or neighbor who is swinging.

As I’ve written about previously in this column, I often run into two “sexual types” in my work as a sexuality counselor: “comfort creatures” and “thrill seekers.” The former takes a “less is more” approach to sexual novelty, while the latter often have a “more, more, more” attitude.  Usually this dichotomy isn’t an issue when two people find themselves at the same end the spectrum.

For two comfort creatures, for example, swinging isn’t probably high up on their sexual bucket list, although it might well be a fantasy.  Exhibitionism, voyeurism, watching a partner have sex with someone else - these are very common fantasies, and, in many cases, sharing a fantasy can lead to an actual exploration of fantasy, especially when one partner is hankering for a bit more sexual adventure.

“My husband and I had some confusion that we had to get straightened out,” a client whom I’ll call Kelly told me. “I feel very comfortable in our relationship, and I have a vivid fantasy life.  I think of myself as a very sexual person. But when I mentioned my fantasy of watching him get it on with another woman, he wanted to make it a reality. At least he thought he did. We perused some sites, which was fun, but in the end, neither of us decided to pursue it. It just looked too sleazy. Luckily, the subject was dropped.”

But for couples with a genuine appetite (and stomach) for sexual novelty, swinging might not be a big deal and might even be a counterintuitive way of strengthening their sense of fidelity and identity as a couple.  It’s monogamy on shared terms. In fact, many couples who swing together paradoxically have even stronger sexual boundaries than couples who do not.

But swinging can backfire, too.  I worked with one couple who liked to swing on a regular basis, but the reason they ended up in my office was because she had major problems with all of the stuff he kept to himself: flirty friendships, porn usage, his enjoyment of strippers.  She had no problem with swinging, but in every other way she demanded more exclusivity from the relationship than many far less sexually adventurous women would require.  From her perspective, swinging was just another way of sharing everything, including sex.

And for many couples, swinging is by no means a replacement for sex; it’s an augmentation, and very different than actual lovemaking with their partner.  Many couples use occasional swinging as an opportunity to jumpstart their sex life and break out of a rut. “Swinging strengthens us,” says Jenny, a mother of two.  “It’s something we do once or twice a year.  We enjoy the scoping out of another couple, the flirtation, the sex, but also the way we talk about it for weeks after and incorporate into our fantasy life.  We love having a secret life together – a whole different community than the ones we see at PTA meetings – although we’re just waiting for those worlds to collide.”

But swinging certainly doesn’t work for everyone, especially couples in which one partner is going along for the ride with another partner, like when a true comfort creature is paired with a thrill seeker.  Then it becomes a form of sexual pressure, and can lead to disastrous results.

And sometimes we think we know what we want, but the process of discovery has unintended results.  Ken, who had to convince his wife to give swinging a go, said, “I was prepared for everything, except seeing my wife kiss another man - out of the whole experience that’s the image I can’t get out of my head: her kissing another man.  The moral of the lesson for me: Swinging is something a couple should work towards in their relationship, not begin with.”

Ken’s wife wanted to give it another whirl, this time with the rule of no kissing.  Meanwhile, Ken wanted to drop the whole thing.

Monogamy: what a concept.

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