Sunday, August 12, 2007

Polyamorists, Swingers and Swollies

A respectful discussion of the very common question about the differences between polyamory and swinging is happening at present on my local CPN e-mail list. Here are my thoughts on the question.

Swinging is an entirely valid choice in terms of lifestyle, and for some years now I've been asking polys who denigrate swinging to be more tolerant and accepting. I also say that polyamory and swinging are a continuum. But as practiced by considerable numbers on both ends of the spectrum, there are fairly considerable differences in the two in my observation. This is intentionally NOT to say that one is better than the other, only that there are significant differences between enjoying occasional recreational sex and returning to a day-to-day mainstream monogamous existence - which many swing club regulars and swing convention regulars do, and their numbers are considerable - and committing to a heart-based long-term relationship model like polyamory where we share more of our day-to-day lives.

The observed overlap between the two is when polyfolk also engage in recreational sex. To my mind this makes them both swinger and poly, or "swollies" as my poly activist friend, Ken Haslam, refers to them. Likewise, some folks who identify as swinger and enjoy recreational sex do indeed develop long-term bonds with their swing partners. If it isn't against their personal relationship rules to fall in love, sometimes they do, and IMO it is at this point that swingers become swollies.

What I am not comfortable with is the erasing of the definitional lines entirely, as some wish to do by labeling all of the above as polyamory. The problem with that is that making distinctions is useful when describing clearly existing differences in behavior, especially for we activists who are called upon to explain them. For many polyfolk and many swingerfolk, the differences are considerable. As to how they identify, for those who engage in both the lines are clearly blurred. (How's that for an oxymoron?)

We don't have specific numbers, but my observation after spending many years in the poly community and a considerable amount of time getting to know the swing community is that the majority of swingers are interested in recreational sex for fun and friendship but otherwise live dyadic monogamous day-to-day lives. The majority of polyfolk, OTOH, approach their non-monogamy with the intention to connect emotionally and interact with their SOs more seamlessly, whether they begin the relationship with sex or wait a while. Both work. Both are valid. But in terms of the behavior of the majority, they are different.

One person participating in the discussion on the CPN list talked about the pejorative risks of defining oneself by what one is not. That's an important issue, especially in light of the historical tendency of some in the poly community to hastily assure people they are not swingers in very judgmental tones, as if recreational sex with those with whom they are not otherwise partnered is a bad thing. Yet I disagree that saying that I am not a swinger is in and of itself inappropriate. I believe that it is valid to define myself by who I am not so long as I demonstrate respect for those who are what I am not. This is because I rarely engage in recreational sex with people who are not already my relationship partners. When I do, it is with someone I already know and feel affection for. It is exceedingly rare that I do it with someone I've just met. When that has happened, it has been because there was a rather instantaneous chemistry between us that held great promise for something much deeper. So it's not that I judge lighter forms of sexual connection as improper or inappropriate, only that I personally don't find them very gratifying, so I don't do them. That makes me different - not better, just different.

Though for the majority of participants polyamory and swinging are apples and oranges, both are fabulous, juicy fruit and absolutely valid choices that deserve to be respected, both community to community and by those who do not practice either one. Some of us choose one or the other, and some of us choose both. I see no need to call them both "polyamory" and consider doing so an exercise in creating more confusion rather than eliminating it. What would be especially useful is an overarching term that encompasses both swinging and polyamory, but nothing of that sort exists to my knowledge.


Great Blistering Barnacles said...

Great post and I especially liked your point that we do need an overarching term to encompass them both.

Personally, I like to understand the difference between the two as follows:

Swinging = recreation.
Polyamory = lifestyle.

When we see swinging as a recreational activity like cycling (or whatever) it becomes very easy to place them in their proper places. I can be both mono or poly and partake in cycling just as I can enjoy swinging and be mono or poly.

However, there are so many gray areas in the poly vs swinging comparison that I doubt we would ever be able to find the definitive answer to make everyone 100% happy. It is fun to try though.

Cardozo said...

Very thorough post!

I'm new to your blog and am looking forward to digging through the archives. Especially liked the following:

"I believe that it is valid to define myself by who I am not so long as I demonstrate respect for those who are what I am not."

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your post. I stumbled across it via Google. Glad i did! My wife and I are swingers. Two of our best friends are committed polyamorists. They occasionally swing, but not with us. They recently met and entered into a relationship with a much sought-after SO. My wife and I have the honor to host them for dinner and meet her for the first time this weekend. We are all very excited, and am grateful for the happiness that she has brought them in recent weeks.

My wife and I have well-established rulesets forbidding emotional attachment with others beyond friendship and physical intimacy. For us, it's more about our desire to be constantly in each other's company. Romantic involvement with a third (or more) just isn't our desire.

But, I would respectfully disagree with Great BB's swinging=recreation equation. For us, swinging is one more way that my wife and I can experience each other's existence. Our rules require transparency in thought, deed and intention. With that level of honesty, I feel like I know my wife as well as any person can know another. That commitment to embracing the honest wants, lusts, desires, and attractions to others in what ever form they take is a lifestyle choice.

We care for and enjoy the company of our swing partners. And, we respect that they have their own objectives and boundaries around their experiences. We are appreciative of the trust that they put in us by inviting us to participate in their intimacy. But for both of us, romantic love with another would obligate us morally to consider the desires of the third with the same level of commitment as to each other. If a conflict arouse, it would create a moral conflict. For us, it is simply to big a risk to take. Hence the rule. Our risk is limited to potentially loosing good friends, not our union.

Bless those of you, who like our poly friends, can accept the risk and realize the reward of a loving union of several beautiful souls, and appreciate the hardships that sometimes befall the unions that crumble. Lucky for all of us, love and intimacy can happen in many different gratifying forms.

Anita Wagner said...

Anonymous, thanks for the feedback and for sharing your perspective. And it's good to know that these posts are standing up over time. :)