I was lucky enough to attend a lecture at the Kinsey Institute recently, titled “The Tyranny of Two: Are Love and Non-Monogamy Incompatible?” by Curtis R. Bergstrand. What follows is a summary of my hastily-penned notes, which I think are interesting regardless of one’s engagement in swinging, and which are also mostly a plug for Bergstrand’s book Swinging in America: Love, Sex, and Marriage in the 21st Century (because we only really skimmed the surface of Bergstrand’s research in the presentation, and I definitely wanted to know more by the end!).
First, a note about orientations: Bergstrand was approaching issues of marriage and family from the perspective of a sociologist, which he explained as an orientation toward institutions and structures. Sociologists look at institutions in order to figure out the relationships of the parts to the whole, and to examine what happens when the institution no longer works or functions poorly. As a sociologist of the family, Bergstrand is particularly interested in what the component pieces of the family as institution are, and if a part of broken, how to fix it. Since I, coming from the folklore/anthropology corner of the social sciences, approach culture a little differently, it was helpful for me to hear Bergstrand establish his orientational framework from the start.
So… is the modern American family broken and in need of fixing? Bergstrand’s sociological data indicates yes. Infidelity (both in-person and cyber) is on the rise, as are divorce rates; serial monogamy is the most common relationship structure, it seems; and stepfamilies and multiple parenting are growing in frequency (here, Bergstrand referred to studies about how children of stepfamilies, compared to children of first marriages, do poorer in school and on achievement tests, and apparently have a host of social problems relating to drug use and early sexual activities, but I’m skeptical about this kind of information without seeing more evidence from interdisciplinary studies. After all, many children from divorced parents do exceptionally well in life, so parental divorces and break-ups and remarriages aren’t the only things that affect child well-being).
One of the key elements of Bergstrand’s talk was what he termed “the ideology of romantic love.” According to this pervasive belief system, the perfect mate for everyone exists out there, and your task is to find and woo this person, who shall forever fulfill your every need sexually, romantically, and so on. Yeah, it sounds a little corny when summarized in such explicit language, but these ideas are present in contemporary American ways of interacting with romantic partners.
The ideology of romantic love feeds into the issues surrounding how marital monogamy is practiced today, because there are certain expectations that inform how marriage is practiced. These are that marriage partners will be:
- Sexually monogamous, meaning that they only are sexually intimate with one another
- Emotionally monogamous, meaning that they rely on each other for support and other important emotional aspects of a relationship
- Practically monogamous, meaning that they share everyday and lifelong tasks, ranging from dividing up chores to raising children
These combined aspects of marital monogamy are in many ways unique to contemporary Americans; in other societies and in other time periods, living within extended kinship groups (intergenerational dwelling, or sharing home-spaces with community members) can relieve some of the strain of a monogamous couple that is supposed to be entirely self-sufficient for all of their needs. The monogamous aspects of these interactions implicate the partners in a lifelong commitment. These are strains that are internal to the structure of contemporary American marriage, as well as problems of sexual habituation (growing accustomed to having the same partner over time, hence less excited by/about them).
External strains on marriage include the secularization and modernization of marriage, including the emphasis on fulfilling sex as an index of happiness in marriage. Other external strains can be traced to the increasing roles of institutions in everyday life: prior functions of the family, such as teaching and maintaining connections to education and spirituality, have been superseded by other institutions, like schools and churches. The family, deprived of these functions, becomes judged on whether its members are happy and fulfilled. These are vague criteria, which, coupled with the consumer ethic that urges good capitalist American to trade up whenever possible, can decrease perceived happiness in marriages. Additionally, life spans have increased, so many marriages are now under pressure to be fulfilling for longer–decades longer–than they used to be.
How did we come to inhabit such a monocentrist culture? Bergstrand gave a few tantalizing hints, suggesting that Judeo-Christian religions have for millennia attempted to cage and contain sexuality as part of their civilizing plan. Other institutions have hopped on board, such that political and economic entities privilege those who are monogamously, heterosexually married. The romantic love complex supposedly stabilizes marriages, but there’s no evidence for this.
Sociologists like Bergstrand investigate the relationship of the components of contemporary American marriage, asking whether there are alternatives that might help salvage the institution. This approach is what led Bergstrand to examine the phenomenon of swinging.
Bergstrand defines swinging as recreational sexual activities by a married or committed couple with one or more others (often with another married couple but can involve singles). Swinging is always consensual and done with the full knowledge and/or participation of the other partner(s). Sexual activity with others is considered “play”; its purpose is to enhance the bond of the primary partners.
The questions that most interest Bergstrand are:
- Is swinging simply a fad or a potentially important new institution for stabilizing families in the U.S.?
- Are swingers different from the U.S. population psychologically, or can anyone swing?
In order to find out, Bergstrand administered an online survey in 1999, with just over 1,000 participants, including questions from the General Social Survey such that many of the swingers’ answers could be compared to those of the general population.
During the course of the lecture, Bergstrand only had time to give us a partial glimpse of his data, but we learned that the swingers in his study are:
- Around 40 years old on average (respondents ranged from 22-82 years old)
- A wide range of occupations (some doctors and lawyers, but the bulk are miscellaneous blue collar workers)
- 90% white
- Primarily Democrat (but on a liberal-conservative spectrum, tended toward the center)
- Psychologically normal (lacking pathological traits, as has sometimes been assumed of people who veer outside monogamous normalcy)
- Happier and more excited in their marriages than non-swingers
- At least as devoted to their families are non-swingers
Bergstrand concluded that swinging seems to enhance strong marriages, but has negative effects on weak ones (this trend is anecdotally corroborated by people in the swinging and polyamory communities). Most swingers are white and middle-class and deviate from the norm only in terms of sexuality; many of them are also concerned with “passing” as normal, for good reason due to risks of not only social stigma but also concrete consequences (for instance, some states have infidelity laws, regardless of whether it’s consensual infidelity). The emotional honesty required by swinging, since couples must be open and communicative with each other, grappling frankly with issues such as jealousy, can enhance a relationship, offering benefits to couples willing to try it.
Those were the high points of the lecture; the ensuing discussion covered differences between swingers and polyamorous folks, and also brought up questions of heterosexual privilege. It seems that more women in the swinging scene identify as bisexual, and it’s more acceptable for women to explore with female partners at play parties. Both the poly and the swinging scenes have large amounts of female participation, with women doing much of the organizing and leading in some local communities.
The lecture concluded with the assertion that monogamy surrounds itself with a lot of norms of interaction, which are not necessarily beneficial to all. The mere existence of monogamy is not in itself harmful, though the way contemporary Americans practice it is somewhat broken. Hence there should be more (legal, viable) options in this narrow-mindedly monocentrist society.
My own thoughts on this lecture are varied. As a folklorist, I’m curious if anyone’s done an ethnography on swingers or other non-monogamous folks (though I’m amused at the thought of what that sort of research might constitute… participant observation, anyone?). Apparently a lot of work on non-monogamy has been from developmental psychology and evolutionary perspectives, so I want to see more interdisciplinary research. And as a cultural relativist, I believe that romantic love, marriage, and monogamy are just social constructs–by “just” I don’t mean that they lack real power to affect people’s lives, but rather that they’re not inherently natural or essential institutions; they’re the products of humans and societies, not eternal or perfect ideals.
One thing that surprised me was that swingers are ostensibly so apolitical, falling to the center of the political spectrum. Do they not realize that there are people who would police their activities in the bedroom using political means? I understand the desire to blend in and pass when possible, but in my mind there’s a difference between passing when convenient, and claiming no political interest in the issues that will impact one’s sexual (or otherwise) identity.
Everyone has a stake in how marriage works in a society; swingers, who are pioneering a way to deal with some of the strains of monogamy, perhaps moreso.