Of all the social phenomena of the 1970s, one of the least practiced but most discussed was swinging, sometimes called partner swapping or wife swapping. Though few couples actually indulged in this practice, there were enough who did, or who knew about someone who did, to give the phenomenon widespread awareness. When the trend lost its popular buzz, however, swinging returned to what it had always been—the casual avocation of a group of hardcore enthusiasts.
There have always been swingers throughout history. The Bible records enough incidents of men lying down with other men's handmaidens to fill the Penthouse letters page many times over. And informal "clubs" devoted to extramarital experimentation have been around from the early days of the Republic. But the emergence of "swinging" as a loosely organized lifestyle coincided with America's "sexual revolution" in the 1960s.
Generally conducted at poolside parties and potluck dinners, partner swapping claimed about one million adherents during its heyday in the 1970s. Sometimes swinging involved couples placing ads in adult publications or choosing other couples they might like to pair up with. At other times, the encounters were purposely made random. One popular forum for selecting partners was the "key party," in which the men tossed their car keys into a bowl and the women fished them out to determine with whom they would spend the night. The climate of sexual freedom espoused in such magazines as Playboy and Penthouse accelerated acceptance of the practice and eventually led to coverage in more mainstream publications as well.
Partner swapping even made it onto prime-time television. A 1971 episode of All in the Family traced the comic consequences of Edith Bunker's inadvertent reply to an ad from a pair of swingers. Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan played the bewildered couple, who met up with the old morality in the form of Archie Bunker, America's avatar of sexual counterrevolution. But such downbeat portrayals of the lifestyle were the exception rather than the rule, as more people briefly flirted with the idea that maybe this open-marriage thing had some advantages to it after all.
An even surer sign that partner swapping had hit the mainstream came in 1973, when two members of the New York Yankees pitching staff swapped wives for the long haul. Lefties Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced the spouse exchange in a bizarre press conference during spring training. The unique trade was completed with the addition, not of the customary "player to be named later," but of the rest of their families: children, pets, and, residences. For the record, Kekich broke up with Marilyn Peterson soon after the switch, while Fritz Peterson remained married to the former Susan Kekich more than 25 years later. The high-profile swap briefly captured national headlines, but the fact that it did not scandalize baseball indicated just how much American sexual mores were changing.
The novelty of swinging eventually wore off, however. During the 1980s, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases made all but its diehard believers reconsider the advantages of monogamy. With a conservative administration in Washington, promiscuity regained some of its negative stigma. Swinging once again became the private preserve of a little-publicized subculture. Still, during the 1990s, three million Americans were estimated to be swinging on a recreational basis. Facilitated by the Internet, and fueled by a reaction against the sexual moderation invoked during the AIDS era, sexual adventurousness was once again on the rise. House parties still provided a prominent medium for partner swapping, although a new wave of institutions, including affinity groups, travel agencies, and even bed and breakfasts, were catering to the burgeoning swinging lifestyle. In August of 1997, more than 4,000 people attended a convention of the North American Swing Club Association in Palm Springs, California, where seminars were offered on such topics as "Recipes for a Successful Orgy" and "Growing Up with Kinky Parents."
The prevailing ethos at swinging encounters continued to be freewheeling sexual experimentation. But there were some changes from the wild and lawless 1970s. The spread of AIDS sensitized many partner-swapping enthusiasts to the primacy of good hygiene and a more judicious choice of partners. And society's growing acceptance of homosexuality allowed more swingers to experiment with same-sex partners. There was even a mini-wave of nostalgia for the old ways subsumed in the larger national wistfulness about the 1970s, as evidenced in such films as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1998), based on Rick Moody's novel of the same name. The film, whose harrowing climax occurs during a "key party" attended by its suburban Connecticut protagonists, captured the emotional sterility that allowed swinging to spread beyond a small hedonistic cult to briefly capture the fancy of middle-class America.
—Robert E. Schnakenberg
D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2d edition. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Michael, Robert T., John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. New York, Warner Books, 1995.
Thomas, Patti. Recreational Sex: An Insider's Guide to the Swinging Lifestyle. Cleveland, Ohio, Peppermint Publishing Company, 1997.