A History of Swinging in Western Culture

It may not be possible to trace a precise history of swinging since the modern concept is so closely related to basic human sexuality and relationships, and they vary significantly across time and cultures. The modern concept of “swinging” is a recent Western phenomenon with no counterpart or meaning in many other cultures and civilizations in history in which monogamous relationships was the norm or which had religious or social prohibitions against such sexual practices.

16th century
A formal arrangement was signed by John Dee, his wife Lynae, his scryer, Edward Kelley and Kelley’s wife Joanna on 22 April 1587, whereby conjugal relations would be shared between the men and their spouses. This arrangement arose following seances which apparently resulted in spirits guiding Dee and Kelley towards this course of action. The arrangement ended badly and destroyed Dee’s working relationship with Kelley.

18th century
It has been claimed that two related 18th-century messianic Jewish sects—the Frankists, followers of Jacob Frank, and the Dönmeh, followers of Shabbetai Zvi—held an annual springtime Lamb Festival, which consisted of a celebratory dinner that included a ritualized exchange of spouses. Such reports should be considered very cautiously, as they may simply be propaganda of the time intended to defame groups the ruling elite considered to be heretical, particularly since the groups involved were secretive about their beliefs, aims, and practices.

19th century
One of the criticisms of communism was the allegation that communists practice and propagandize the “community of women”. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels suggest that this allegation is an example of hypocrisy and psychological projection by “bourgeois” critics of communism, who “not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives.”

20th century
According to Terry Gould’s The Lifestyle: a look at the erotic rites of swingers, swinging began among American Air Force pilots and their wives in the 1940s during World War II. The mortality rate of pilots was so high, as Gould reports, that a close bond arose between pilot families that implied that pilot husbands would care for all the wives as their own—emotionally and sexually—if the husbands were lost. This origin story fails to take into account that during WWII military families did not deploy overseas in the UK or elsewhere along with the service member. Though the origins of swinging are contested, it is assumed American swinging was practiced in some American military communities in the 1950s. By the time the Korean War ended, swinging had spread from the military to the suburbs. The media dubbed the phenomenon wife-swapping.

Later in the 1960s in the heyday of the Free Love movement, the activities associated with swinging became more widespread in a variety of social classes and age levels. In the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the “The Swinging 70’s”, swinging activities became more prevalent, but were still considered “alternative” or “fringe” because of their association with non-mainstream groups such as communes.

Swinging activities had another surge in interest and participation in the late 1990s due to the rise of the Internet.

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