Polyamory and swinging

Dan Savage wrote a column last week arguing, forcefully, that polyamory isn’t a sexual orientation. This seems to me akin to “presenting both sides of the evolution debate,” granting some basic structural plausibility to a ridiculous assertion, the mere speaking aloud of which grants it more legitimacy than it ever should enjoy. Rather than add my voice to that silly discussion (what with how, as I understand it, polyamory is neither sexual nor an orientation, but rather, a self-serious proclamation made by a tiny band of folks), I thought I would just say a little bit about how I think of polyamory, swinging, and monogamish-ness.

I hate those words, “polyamory,” and “swinging.” As I’ve written before, I don’t think of myself as polyamorous – I love one woman, T. I like dating other women, getting to know them both sexually and otherwise. And yes, on at least one occasion, my feelings have deepened into something akin to the love I feel for various of my friends. But if you read even cursorily about polyamory, you’ll find a culture of folks who take themselves, and their desire to have plural relationships, very seriously. People who describe themselves in very earnest terms, who tend to believe they’ve found a more honest, more authentic way of living, of loving. These people often quote freely and often from The Ethical Slut, and are equally free with their judgment of those whose behavior falls short of the “ethics” put forth in that book. (I oncewent on a date with a woman who professed her disappointment that she couldn’t fuck me, because her husband’s and her agreement didn’t permit her to fuck someone who wasn’t fully honest with his wife. At the time, T and I had – together – elected to pursue a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. In my mind, I was being honest; but in my date’s, this wasn’t good enough. But as I wrote, long ago, she was ok with kissing me.)

And I don’t think of myself as a “swinger,” although I am a fairly frequent attendee of “swingers’ clubs,” such as Le Trapeze, and sex parties, such as those held by Chemistry, OneLegUp, Behind Closed Doors, and Ddevious Delights. As I commented to a friend whom I fuck from time to time earlier today, even in the far-off-the-beaten-track world of swingers, I manage to feel alienated by my preferences, which are, by the standards of swingers, very unusual. When T and I look to date other couples, we often find that we’re perceived as freaks because we want to do things like e-mail back and forth, meet for drinks or dinner, get to know the people we’re thinking about dating, and because we don’twant to do things like send our face pictures before we meet, or fuck within ten minutes of meeting. And when I’m at Le Trapeze, or at one of those parties, I’m much more interested in getting to know people – their names, the rudimentary facts of their lives – than I am in seeing their genitals. Even though often the latter precedes, or even precludes, the former. And/but, I often find myself unable/unwilling to fuck women I meet in that context.

This is why I’m so grateful for Dan Savage’s coining of the term “monogamish.” It’s the only word that, in one fell swoop, not only communicates that I’m not, strictly speaking, monogamous (not because of something innate, or biological, about me, but by some combination of choice, weakness, mammalian tendencies, and fate), but that I’m also a lot likemost monogamous people – there’s one woman who’s indisputably my primary love and life partner. AND, I have a sense of humor. The ways in which I’m not monogamous are not in some way essential to my self-conception (as with the polyamorous, some of whom, apparently, want to be recognized as possessed of a basic characteristic akin to a sexual orientation that explains their dating and relationship habits).

And in fact, the ways in which I’m not monogamous are, for the most part, things that I laugh about. (I mean, all sorts of funny shit happens when you’re dating other couples or visiting sex clubs or parties.)


  1. I was very enthusiastic to read your comments on this topic when I saw the title and as always you didn’t dissapoint. I can understand your feelings that swingers think you are freaky because you want to get to know them as friends before jumping into bed with them. Swingers are often fanatical about keeping their encounters sexually oriented I think mainly because they are afraid of what might happen if they develop some attachment for the people that they fuck and this is perceived as a very bad thing.

    Personally I identify as a swinger mainly because it seems to the the term that most other people understand. Telling someone you have just met “my husband and I are committed and honest but we have this arrangement whereby we fuck other people mainly for fun. Sometimes we develop friendships and sometimes we don’t.We mostly date as a couple but sometimes we date separately” raises more questions than either of us can usually handle. Saying you are a swinger just seems easier.

    Having said all that I have a deep aversion to labels. I like to fuck both men and women but fall short of calling myself bisexual, my husband and I partner swap but I don’t really like calling myself a swinger, we sometimes date separately but he doesn’t like the term ‘open relationship’. It frustrates the hell out of me when other people insist on putting behaviour into categories. Really every person is different you cannot put all of us into tight little boxes. Nor should we judge people for not fitting willingily into said tight little boxes.

    1. I agree. Totally. With everything you write.

      I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming days, but I hate the fucking labels. Me? I like dating and I like sex (probably in that order, both in terms of level of preference and order of operations). And I like doing stuff with my wife. And I like doing it without her. But generally, it’s all in service of a greater relationship with her. And when it’s not, it’s less good.

      But you’re right about the whole fanatical swingers thing. For me? It just doesn’t work that way. Jealousy and envy are integral parts of the whole experience. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a thing. It’s part of the WHOLE thing….

      Thanks for your (thoughtful) comment.

  2. If I was to date outside of my relationship, I would get to know the other person. And I would hope he would too. I hate labels or others trying to squeeze you in a box. As long as you and yours is happy and honest who gives a shit what you or I do. Your post was very smart and well written!

  3. Since my late 20’s I’ve wanted to get to know the people I got into intimate relationships with, or considered as potentials. For me attraction grows over time as I get to know a person, or a couple, so your description of yourself as weird for wanting to know people as PEOPLE before considering sexual relationships, must describe me too. Some people consider me a swinger or polyamorous, but to me it depends on the relationship I’m in whether that is true. I like your term, it’s like flexible monogamy, it fits, lol.

  4. I don’t necessarily have an issue with labels because as Gemma pointed out using terms people understand can make it a hell of a lot easier to have a discussion without raising more questions than you want to deal with. That being said, I agree with all of you that having labels forced on you by other people is frustrating.

    For example, if Gemma boils the long conversation down to “swinger” in the interest of making it easier for her to give a rough idea of her situation in a single word, then I don’t really see a problem with using a label. However, if she tells me the long version without using the term and I subsequently insist on calling her a swinger because that’s the label I want her to have or associate with the things she’s told me despite her objections to being referred to as a swinger, then that is a problem.

    Labels can also make it easier to find like-minded people. If I’m into partner swapping and know that people who identify as swingers are also into partner swapping, then I’ll probably look for a swingers’ club, even though I don’t identify myself as a swinger.

    I too hate when people try to categorize me according to whatever criteria they have because the only person’s criteria that should be used to label me is, well mine. But I still think that labels can have their uses.

  5. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece. In recent months I have been questioning just where I\we fit into the swinger/poly world and neither completely made sense. (not that I need a label…just more of a curiosity) I can completely relate to monogomish in the ways you have described for your marriage.

  6. You’ve managed to corral everything I’ve had bouncing around and put it in order. This is so accurate. Perfect. Thankyou.

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