Always on the lookout for fun new podcasts, I recently came across Sounds Like a Cult. In this hilarious girlfriend’s-dishing podcast, hosts Amanda Montell & Isabela Medina-Maté discuss the cult-mentality that creeps into many everyday businesses and institutions, like SoulCycle and Trader Joes (…that one hit a little close to home). The show made me reflect on how many aspects of ethical non-monogamy (“ENM”) and swinger culture are somewhat cult-ish…and I have definitely drunk the Kool-Aid.
Yes, you could easily confuse swinging with a cult, but, most of the time, you would be wrong. By the end of this article, you should be able to tell the difference between creepy cult recruiters and your friendly neighborhood swinger.
Why would I write an article comparing swinging to cults when many people outside the ENM community already view swinging with a high degree of “ick”? Well, I’m a little bit obsessed with the idea of cults, especially the ones involving sex. There is something truly appealing about the idea of a community who lives their shared values 24/7.
One thing I learned from binge watching every cult documentary that I could find during the pandemic: many cults start with the best of intentions. These groups are generally filled with young, bright, idealistic people who just want to make the world a better place. They build schools and community centers. They love and support their fellow members as if they were family. Yes, it’s all Kumbaya until somebody pulls out the branding iron or starts stockpiling weapons.
In any event, Kat and I often joke on the show that swinging is a bit of a cult and, in fairness, there are many ways in which the ENM community acts like a cult. Hell, we call it “the lifestyle”! Sounds like a cult to me!
What is a cult anyway?
Let’s level set on what constitutes a cult. According to Wikipedia (the source of all crowd-sourced truth), “a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.”
Ok, by that bare bones definition, ENM’s “unusual” philosophy might actually be considered a cult. Most of us share a philosophical belief that adults should be able to engage in sex and/or romance with more than one partner, so long as there is full knowledge and consent from everyone involved. This view is in contrast to the mainstream philosophy on sex: that it should be limited to one, monogamous partner. By mainstream standards, the ENM philosophy is quite unusual.
That being said, participating in ethical non-monogamy is not all that unusual. According to recent data, as many as 22% of the US population has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in their lives and at any given time, 4-5% are currently in ENM relationships. That means that one in five of your neighbors has probably had a threesome and at least one couple attending your local block party swings on a regular basis (hint: it’s probably the cute couple who brought the pineapple margaritas).
But the broader, more pejorative definition of a cult tends to include: shady recruitment tactics, secrecy and exploitation.
Are swingers secretly recruiting vanillas?
One common cult tactic for recruiting is love-bombing. Within the cult, new members are often subjected to love-bombing, a practice where new initiates are showered with love and praise to bring them deeper into the cult and foster a sense of belonging.
So are swingers secretly recruiting vanillas by love-bombing? I’ll admit, swingers are weirdly friendly. I’ve spent hours out of my very busy life to mentor “newbies” who are curious about ethical non-monogamy. Moreover, I’ve had lifestyle friends bail me out of difficult situations, such as babysitting our kids at the last minute or cleaning our house for a party. Once, lifestyle friends who we had met only twice (over a year prior) lent us a car for a week when we got stuck out of state! To an outsider, that level of over-the-top friendliness can seem disingenuous. You might think: “Why is that couple so nice? What do they want from me?” And certainly, the friendly vibe might be in part because swingers hope to one day sleep with you, but there is also a feeling of community and kinship that develops when people are happy and fulfilled. Swingers aren’t love-bombing; they are genuinely happy people!
Another reason most swingers are friendly is that they have overcome the scarcity mentality: they have learned that affection, respect, even love, are not finite resources that need to be reserved for our nearest and dearest. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice, to really listen and to compliment the wonderful things that you see in other people.
Are swingers trying to isolate new “members” with secret societies and code words?
Another classic cult maneuver is isolation: it is common for people in cults to be encouraged to cut contact with outsiders, including close family members.
So are swingers trying to isolate new members through secret dating apps, underground parties, and lots of code words? It’s true that most swingers are not open about being open, including Kat and myself, who use pseudonyms for the podcast. And most people in the lifestyle meet through websites, apps and events that are exclusively for people seeking unconventional sexual and romantic relationships. Swingers also have an extensive vocabulary list, including terms like unicorn, compersion and full swap. Never heard of these terms? You are probably a vanilla.
But the point of secret groups and events is so that people in ENM can meet and connect with like-minded people and avoid the censure and judgment of mainstream dating. Traditional dating sites and events aren’t designed to accommodate the interests of people in open marriages. There is no easy way to describe what a lifestyle person or couple is seeking using the profile features of a standard dating app. Plus, as common as ethical non-monogamy has become, it still represents a small portion of the population. And, just like dating sites that connect people with similar religious beliefs, ages or interests, “lifestyle” dating sites and event groups are designed to connect lifestyle couples. It’s not secretive, it’s practical and efficient.
And the terminology used by lifestyle folks was created in part because standard English words to describe lifestyle culture don’t exist. What’s the opposite of jealousy? The closest antonym you can find on the Merriam-Webster site is unenvious. Unenvious doesn’t capture that feeling of joy that a person experiences when they see their spouse experiencing joy (or sexual pleasure) with someone else. If you have ever felt pure happiness watching a loved one open the perfect present that you picked out, then you have experienced compersion. You may have had the right word to describe it but now you do. Thanks, Swingers!
Swingers and Vanillas: is it “us” versus “them”?
Cult members are often encouraged to see the cult as superior to how others live their lives and to feel that those outside the cult lack understanding or insight.
I’ll be the first to admit that many people in open marriages, myself included, think that the way we live is more “evolved”. Talk to any successful swinger and they will tell you how amazing their marriage is, how sex with other people has made sex with each other so much better, that many scientists, psychologists and anthropologists support the theory that humankind is hardwired to be promiscuous, etc. We feel like we have figured something out that is elusive to sexually unenlightened people.
But ENM isn’t the only non-cult group who has a superiority complex: have you ever gone to a Crossfit gym or had a conversation with a vegan? Lots of groups form with the idea of supporting each other in their shared and lofty values. Why? Because living your best, most evolved self takes a shit-ton of work and it helps to be surrounded by friends who share those values and can provide support and accountability.
Isn’t swinging all about sexual exploitation?
Yes, every good cult story involves sexual exploitation: mandatory sex with the charismatic leader, involuntary drugging of members before sex, exploitation of children and young adults, sexual blackmail, etc. Swinging is all about weird, casual sex, so it must be a cult, right?
First, ENM isn’t about exploitative sex. Yes, swingers like to spend time together and sometimes that involves sex. But enthusiastic consent is a tenet of the lifestyle community. In fact, many swingers describe the lifestyle as consensual non-monogamy, meaning everybody (including participating and non-participating partners) must be informed and consenting to any type of play…otherwise, it’s just adultery.
It’s true that I’ve seen members of the ENM community behaving badly on the issue of consensual sex. Drinking/drug use is quite common in the ENM community which can significantly impact whether consent can be given in the moment. There can also be too much reliance on non-verbal consent cues, especially at large group events. Finally, most of us have “taken one for the team” once or twice. This happens when our spouse finds a potential partner really attractive and we are only “meh” on that person’s spouse. Still, these are the exceptions to enthusiastic consent, not the rule.
Second, many folks don’t realize how much time ENM people spend on non-sexual activities: talking issues through with our partners (although sometimes that’s a sexy recap of past experiences), getting to know the partners of potential playmates, meeting and chatting with no expectation of play, not to mention public events and activities with friends where things never move past a sexy conversation.
Finally, yes, swingers probably have more sex than your average “vanilla” and we almost certainly have more play partners, but for many of us, ENM is truly a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world, where great sex is an important part of an adult’s life, but so is honesty, authenticity and pleasure. Sex isn’t the goal…but it’s a lovely little byproduct of living the Lifestyle.
Have I convinced you that swinging isn’t a cult? If not, tell me why in the comments.