Swingers (not the voting kind) need to leave the closet
For a subculture obsessed with “absolute discretion”, Australia’s swingers haven’t had much luck in flying under the radar recently.
In January, the alleged murder of prominent businessman and clandestine group-sex enthusiast Herman Rockefeller resulted in a tabloid feeding frenzy. Police will allege the 52-year-old millionaire property developer was dismembered and buried after a planned hook-up went horribly wrong.
A month later, the telemovie Wicked Love: The Maria Korp Story was nationally broadcast, recounting the sorry tale of the 50-year-old Melbourne mother of two, and her husband Joe, 47, who posted pictures of themselves on a swingers’ website in 2005. They attracted the attention of Tania Herman, 38. Herman became Joe Korp’s mistress and ended up choking his wife with a bag strap and leaving her to die in the boot of a car. She was convicted of attempted murder.
Even in today’s hypersexualised raunch culture where reality TV contestants fail to comprehend there’s anything out of order about turkey slapping someone on live TV and B-list celebs leak their home sex tapes in the hope of drumming up publicity, swingers retain an exotic mystique.
After Herman Rockefeller’s death, fearless GQ Australia correspondent David Smiedt stripped down to his boxers and plunged into the world of suburban orgies to investigate what kind of people are drawn to The Lifestyle. The full results of Smiedt’s field research are published in the edition of the magazine out this week, but his most startling discovery was that — leaving aside the whole recreational gang banging thing — swingers are a representative sample of mainstream Australia.
Or to put it another way, that nearly everything non-swingers believe about swingers is wrong. Let’s run through the major misconceptions one by one:
1. Swingers are desperados and deviants too ugly and/or perverted to organise meaningless sex with a stranger in the time-honoured way - i.e. getting smashed and picking up at the pub. It’s true that most swingers are past their physical peak – the predominant age group for swinging is 35-45 – but the swingers Smiedt encountered were no less or more attractive than the kind of people you see walking around your local shopping centre. Far from being creepy, Smiedt was amazed at how friendly and respectful of his boundaries the swingers he encountered were.
2. Swingers are trashy bogans. Academic research into swinging, admittedly chiefly conducted in the US, has shown that swingers are disproportionately well-educated, white-collar types. For reasons yet to be fully explained, American swingers appear to be more likely to belong to religious organisations than non-swingers and slightly more politically conservative than average.
Regrettably, nobody’s done any research into whether Australia’s wife-swappers are enthusiastic supporters of Tony Abbott or given to heading off to Hillsong services the morning after a night of orgiastic excess, but the culture Smiedt encountered at Sydney’s swinging clubs was respectably bourgeois. Drug use was expressly forbidden and while social drinking was common, drunkenness was frowned upon. An enormous emphasis was placed on good manners. Far from being frenzied free-for-alls, the sexual encounters Smiedt witnessed resembled a bunch of painfully PC uni students getting it on, with constant permission-seeking of the ‘may I now lick/fondle/penetrate your [insert body part here]’ variety. Safe sex was a given and there was a big emphasis on cleanliness with swingers expected to show up to events in a well-groomed state and shower between erotic interludes.
3. Swingers are dangerous libertines with no respect for family values or the institution of marriage. Academic research suggests most swingers are in stable long-term relationships.
Most presumably have children. Counterintuitive as it may seem to outsiders, those involved in swinging typically report it strengthens their marriage and improves the sex they have with their partner.
Of course, as swingers themselves are the first to point out, swinging isn’t for everyone, nor is it a magic bullet solution to the stresses and conflicts that inevitably arise in any long-term relationship. But given that four in 10 marriages end in divorce, and that around half of all men and a third of all women will cheat on a partner at some point, it’s worth considering whether non-swingers are in much of a position to judge those couples who’ve chosen to discuss their desire for sexual variety with each other honestly and act on it in a way that’s designed to maintain their relationship and minimise the emotional trauma that typically results from infidelity.
But if most Australians have no idea what swingers are really like and are to a greater or lesser extent prejudiced against them, that’s in no small part due to the swinging subculture’s aforementioned obsession with keeping everything on the down-low.
There was another subset of Australian citizens who, up until relatively recently, also believed what they got up to behind closed doors had to remain their shameful little secret, lest their careers and reputation be ruined. Members of this group were much misunderstood by non-members, and frequently treated with fear, suspicion and contempt. If sexually assaulted or physically attacked, they were often reluctant to report the incident to a police force they assumed would be unsympathetic or outright hostile to their kind.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, many of these people decided that leading a double life wasn’t worth the psychic cost exacted. It very soon became apparent to everyone that, apart from what they got up to in bed, the members of this group were not significantly different to anyone else and, indeed, many were making a valuable contribution to the wider society. Over time discrimination and ridiculous stereotypes largely disappeared and eventually prominent legal, political, business and even religious figures began openly declaring that they too were members of this group.
So, if only for their own safety, isn’t it time the nation’s swingers follow the lead of the gay and lesbian community and come out of the closet? And might it also be time for those of us leading more conventional sex lives to stop feeling so smugly superior?
David Smiedt’s piece on swingers is published in the April / May edition of GQ Australia which is available in newsagents from Wednesday March 31.
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