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October 17, 2006

Probing ‘the Lifestyle’ - Conference at Bellarmine shines an academic light on a sexual taboo: swinging

Dr. Curtis R. Bergstrand: Photo by Claudia OleaThis weekend, Bellarmine University plays host to an academic conference that may raise a few eyebrows. The topic is swinging, and while it may elicit a giggle from the average person, organizers believe the topic is important because research into this particular activity has historically been lacking. The Saturday afternoon conference is called “Swinging in America: Sociological and Clinical Implications of Recreational Sex within Marriage,” and it’s sponsored by the Kentucky Psychoanalytic Institute, which is located in Old Louisville. Dr. Curtis R. Bergstrand, a sociologist and professor at Bellarmine, and Dr. Robert McGinley, a counseling psychologist and active “swinger” from California, are among several presenters Saturday. The list also includes a number of people who work in marital counseling, and the overall goal, Bergstrand says, is to address theoretical questions of sexuality, jealousy and monogamy. The intended audience is professionals, but anyone is welcome to attend. “Swinging” is the contemporary term for what was known in the ’50s as “wife-swapping.” It’s a lifestyle based on sexual non-monogamy coupled with emotional monogamy within a marriage. In other words, it means having consensual affairs, together, while abiding by certain rules. Etiquette can range from not becoming emotionally involved with anyone outside the marriage — falling in love with another swinger — to the type of behavior that’s acceptable in a sexual encounter, including the level of intimacy. “It is,” Bergstrand explains, “supposed to be strictly a recreational sexual activity.” Because it is difficult to locate subjects and get them to be candid, scant research has been conducted into swinging. Bergstrand and co-researcher Jennifer Williams-Sinski conducted the most recent and largest study on swingers; their 2000 research article, “Today’s Alternative Marriage Styles: The Case of Swingers,” was published in the third volume of the “Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality” (www.ejhs.org). They conducted the survey on-line and received 1,092 anonymous responses, through which they tried to identify demographic patterns. The North American Swing Club Association approved the questions and endorsed the survey, helping to distribute it to swing club Web sites that in turn posted links to the site with the survey. According to a 1995 NASCA study, 15 percent of Americans call themselves “swingers.” Bergstrand found the demographic of the average swinger surprising, and he became interested in conducting more research after Williams-Sinski, who was one of his students at the time, wrote a literature review about the characteristics of swingers. Dr. B. Thomas Thacker: Photo by Claudia Olea “She was coming with these characteristics, like swingers are these middle-aged, pot-bellied, middle-class people who have been married for 20 years, and they are Republicans, and they are church-goers,” Bergstrand says, “and it was just so astounding to me that these otherwise pillars of society were engaging in this ‘deviant’ behavior.” In their survey, the mean age of a swinger is 39.1, but Bergstrand has found that people in the new generation — couples in their 20s —  are now participating in the lifestyle as well. “We know very little about how they may be different,” Bergstrand says. “The differences were minor, but the younger group tended to be more diverse ethnically and more “liberal” politically.” About 30 percent of the survey participants were female and 70 percent were male. The mean age was 35.6 for women, and 40.5 for males. Respondents were mostly white (90 percent), they attend church (most listed “other” as their denomination), and, compared to a General Social Survey Sample, they are balanced politically between liberal and conservative. (Government and academic researchers, as a way of assessing representational American attitudes, commonly use the General Social Survey, and Bergstrand and Williams-Sinski modeled some questions on their swingers survey on questions asked in the University of Michigan’s 1983-1991 General Social Survey.) One question on the GSS was meant to reveal how many Americans have been physically or sexually abused, and Bergstrand wanted to determine whether swingers have a higher incidence of such abuse. But he also wanted to take care not to portray swingers as pathological or marginal, and so he wanted avoid asking directly. Instead, borrowing technique from the GSS, respondents were asked to rate their view of human nature, from good to evil, with the thinking, supported by other research, that those who rated human nature as more evil are more likely to have suffered abuse. Based on answers to that question in the on-line survey, Bergstrand says, swingers don’t seem to be exhibit pathological behavior. “There’s no evidence that swingers are psychologically mal-adjusted people,” he says. In fact, Dr. B. Thomas Thacker, executive director of the Kentucky Psychoanalytic Institute, speculates that people who engage in the lifestyle but can’t adapt show more tendency to be pathological — that is, people with psychological problems who may have unresolved sexual issues. So why are 15 percent of Americans participating in such controversial behavior? Serial marriages/monogamy and extramarital affairs are common issues within contemporary marriages, Bergstrand and Thacker point out. They believe these marital issues lead couples to seek alternatives beyond divorce — such as swinging. Serial monogamy is a sociological term that describes a pattern of jumping from one committed marriage/relationship to another, and another, and so on, most likely because the “flame” dies out. On average, swingers who took Bergstrand and Williams-Sinski’s anonymous survey have been married 1.5 times. Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University believes human beings have a four-year itch instead of the seven-year itch, as detailed in her book “Anatomy of Love.” Bergstrand has studied Fisher’s research on human behavior and believes she may be on to something — another reason he believes more research is needed on swinging before it can be labeled as an amoral anomaly. “My research shows that Dr. B. Thomas Thacker: Photo by Claudia Olea rated their marriages as happier than non-swinging married couples, and that’s a pattern,” Bergstrand says. Neither he, Williams-Sinski or Thacker are swingers themselves. Does that mean a socially marginalized activity could help sexually dissatisfied marriages? “I would not recommend Dr. B. Thomas Thacker: Photo by Claudia Olea because it has a lot of dangers to it,” Thacker warns, such as possible collapse of a marriage leading to divorce or sexual predators lurking in swinging circles, although the latter may present less of a threat. Bergstrand says swinging circles are adamant about “no” meaning “no,” and swingers will bar anyone who does not abide by the rules of their circle. Dr. Robert McGinley As a psychoanalyst who has seen many couples, Thacker believes people in the swinging lifestyle have personalities and value systems that allow them to engage in swinging without negative effects. Usually, he says, a person who adapts to the lifestyle holds more socially liberal views about sex. Bergstrand’s survey indicates that most swingers engaged in sexual activity at an early age. Thacker and Bergstrand both stress that swinging isn’t likely to help a weak marriage, but it can enhance a strong one. They note that many people who leave the lifestyle have weak marriages, and swinging is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Rules range from the particular to the general — such as whether a spouse watches or couples separate into separate bedrooms, and the etiquette of approaching someone to engage in sexual activity. Like society, new trends emerge within swinging circles as well. For example, single females tend to get invited to parties or clubs, but not single males. Bergstrand’s research revealed that swinging may be more physically and emotionally satisfying for females. Although the husband might introduce the couple to swinging, swingers now tend to say swinging is really a female thing. The reasons, Bergstrand speculates, are that a female’s confidence may increase because she feels desired, and she may be able to fulfill any sexual fantasies she may have. One interesting revelation is that women in swinging circles tend to support each other because swinging is supposed to erase jealousy and deceit. Bergstrand notes that some people love the lifestyle so much that they will divorce a spouse who wants to quit. Bisexuality is rising among female swingers who may try it to fulfill a husband’s fantasy and end up liking it, Bergstrand says. And while homosexual activity is increasing among men, he adds, most likely because of the liberal nature of swinging, it is still mostly taboo for men to have sexual encounters with each other, which seems like a contradiction since swingers are already participating in a supposed taboo activity. That may suggest that swingers deal with stereotypes that reflect society, although Bergstrand’s survey showed that swingers, who largely work in professional fields, tend to be more accepting toward other races and intermarriage than people in the GSS Sample. Although there’s at least one well-known swinging club in Louisville, and perhaps as many as four, Bergstrand could not find any Louisville-area swingers to participate in this weekend’s conference. He thinks the reasons are simple enough: Many swingers work in professional fields, and they don’t want to lose jobs or tarnish their public images. Because of such concerns, much of the thinking about swinging seems based more on speculation than fact. Bergstrand is working on a sociological book about American society focusing on the swinger lifestyle. He has not taken it to a publisher yet, but he’s confident he can find one. “I’m pretty sure it will be published because it’s a pretty fresh topic,” he says. This weekend’s conference is important, he says, because the keynote speaker, McGinley, is a noted authority on the topic. McGinley has been a swinger for more than 30 years and founded The Lifestyles Organization in 1973 after he lost his job as an aeronautical engineer. He answered an ad for a swinging couple, but the husband was in the Air Force and his mail was intercepted by the military. Since then, McGinley has worked to end discrimination against swingers. Bergstrand hopes to build a working relationship with McGinley and research the subject more thoroughly, and he believes swinging might become more acceptable in the mainstream because of society’s increasing emphasis on sexual happiness. Both Thacker and Bergstrand applaud KPI for taking on a controversial topic, and they say any such research on human nature is viable because it increases understanding of what it means to be human. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com