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From experimenting with different sex positions to bringing accessories into the bedroom, there are a plethora of steamy ways to take your sex life to the next level. But more and more couples are flirting with the idea of non-monogamy as a way to find fulfillment. In fact, in a 2020 YouGov poll of more than 1,300 U.S. adults, about one-third (32%) said that their ideal relationship is non-monogamous to some degree.
"Some form of a non-monogamous relationship dynamic might be for you if the idea of being intimate with more than one partner excites you," says Amy Baldwin, sex educator, sex and relationship coach, and co-host of the Shameless Sex Podcast. "Some folks choose it to spice up their current partnership with newness and aliveness while others may do so to remedy sexual or emotional needs that are not being met in their current relationship."
It bears noting that ethical non-monogamy can take a variety of forms — one of which is swinging, also referred to as being in "the lifestyle," a sexual practice that involves engaging in sexual activities with another couple and single people. Here, how this particular type of consensual non-monogamy works and best practices for getting started.
The Basics on Being in "The Lifestyle"
Baldwin explains that a swinger, or someone in "the lifestyle," is typically:
Married and/or heterosexual.
In a committed relationship.
Open to engaging in sexual activity with other people.
Aiming to have a shared experience with their partner.
That said, people in the lifestyle can be solo as well, says intimacy expert Susan Bratton. And they often gather at public or private parties (which used to be called "key parties") that are hosted in rental homes, resorts, or even cruise ships (most of which were put on hold over the past year due to COVID).
"Most parties allow couples and single women — known fondly as 'unicorns' — but severely throttle the number of single men who can attend because otherwise the ratio would fall too much toward a bunch of horny guys," she notes.
You can usually find lifestyle parties with a simple Google search, but the most important aspect of involvement is being invited in, showing up, and getting invited back over time to establish yourself as a trustworthy and valuable addition to the group, explains Bratton.
What Swinging Involves In Practice
While swinging, partners might engage in "same room" sex, which refers to all activities taking place in the same room, so partners can see each other enjoying themselves, explains Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist and sexuality and relationships expert for SexToyCollective.com, who adds that this may also provide a sense of security for some. But sharing the experience doesn't necessarily mean sharing the same space. Swingers might also participate in "separate room" sex, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Although partners might go their separate ways, says Baldwin, the underlying intention is generally a feeling of shared turn-on or aliveness that somehow fuels more fire into the partnership.
There are also several levels of partner swapping that swingers will engage in, according to Melancon:
A "soft swap": Involves sexual activities up to and including oral sex.
A "full swap" or "hard swap": Involves most sexual activities, including intercourse (vaginal or anal, depending on preferences).
"Some couples like to start with soft swaps to get their feet wet, so to speak, while for others they simply prefer to reserve intercourse for their romantic relationship," explains Melancon, who adds that the level at which a couple is willing to swap could be related to either preference or health concerns, like STI transmission and pregnancy risk.
The Difference Between Swinging vs. an Open Relationship vs. Polyamory
While it might sound counterintuitive, couples who engage in swinging don't necessarily define their relationship as "open." Think of "open relationship" as a bit of an umbrella term, suggests Baldwin. "It can encompass everything from purely sexual no-strings-attached experiences with multiple people to dating and/or deeper connections," she notes. And open relationships are more about satisfying each person's unique needs, while swinging is a "team effort."
A third form of consensual non-monogamy: Polyamory, which is different from swinging and open relationships in that it focuses on the building of relationships with other people outside of your primary partnership, says Baldwin. "It is less casual and more about love or connection, often resulting in multiple loving relationships, and even multiple committed partners," she says.
How to Know if Swinging Is Right for You
If you're unclear on which type of non-monogamy appeals the most, reflect on whether you're craving a shared experience with your partner, you might want to try swinging.
But if you want to exercise your own sexual freedom or autonomy outside of your current relationship, you might be more interested in an open relationship. And if you want to connect with and even love multiple people, polyamory could be your best bet, says Baldwin.
How to Start Swinging
Consider taking the following steps to dip your toe into the lifestyle.
1. Talk to your partner.
Once you've concluded that swinging is the form of non-monogamy that would work best for you, broach the conversation with your partner. "If they are a 'maybe' or a 'yes,' be sure to spend plenty of time learning more about how to navigate non-monogamy, as well as having plenty of clear conversations about feelings, boundaries, and needs," suggests Baldwin.
And note that getting a "yes" from your partner is crucial. "Both partners should have a similar interest level before trying swinging," says Melancon. "If one partner is unsure or is doing it just to make their partner happy, it is more likely to cause emotional pain and possible breakup than sexual excitement and pleasure." Feeling pressured by your partner to engage in swinging is also a "big red flag," she points out.
2. The more communication, the better.
Prepare yourself for communicating more than you did when you were monogamous. "Things become a bit more complex when we allow more people into our intimate, energetic space," says Baldwin.
For example, you'll want to discuss rules of the road. Talk about the level — soft, full, or hard — you're OK with. "It is essential to be comfortable discussing boundaries (i.e., 'I am comfortable with you performing oral sex but not having intercourse') and preferences (i.e., 'I would find it really hot to watch you have sex with another woman') with your partner," says Melancon.
And make sure to go over safe sex practices (condoms, dental dams, and birth control) related to STI and pregnancy risk, says Melancon, who adds that regular STI testing is recommended for anyone engaging in sex with multiple partners.
3. Take small steps.
Baldwin suggests starting out with "smaller, more tame experiences" — perhaps a soft swap involving just foreplay or making out, to start — and then check in after each to tend to any challenging emotions that come up. Through each experience, you'll get a better sense of what feels the most satisfying and enlivening for both you and your partner(s).