Swinging Vs. Polyamory

Brush up on your lingo, monogamists. We’re talking two very different things.

Swinging vs Polyamory

by Astrid Daley-Douglas and Claire De Haven

photo courtesy of Peyton Weikert

filed under Sex


Monogamists often confuse swinging and polyamory, thinking the terms are synonymous. But as swingers who’ve had experience with polyamory, we know the differences. There’s even a saying among non-monogamists: “Swinging kills polyamory and polyamory kills swinging.” Both groups share a consensual non-monogamous lifestyle that involves intimate relationships with more than one person, but that’s where the similarities end.


In swinging, the default dynamic is a primary relationship of one couple. As opposed to cheating, the partners are honest and open with each other about their sexual relationships with others. Sex with other people is typically an activity couples engage in together. This means that they go to online swinger dating sites or to swinger parties or clubs, where they meet potential partners together. There are various approaches to swinging and most couples make their preferences public on dating sites, to make sure they only attract other like-minded people. Couples will define, in advance, the level of sexual intimacy with which they are comfortable.

Male swingers are typically heterosexual (at least outwardly), while bisexuality among women is common. Some couples get into swinging because the woman wants girl-on-girl experience or they may be looking for the mythical “unicorn.” The unicorn, described as such because of her rareness and desirability, is a single female who will play with couples. Swingers often use the word “play” to describe sexual interaction.

There are several ways to classify a couple’s swinger status:

  • Soft swap refers to couples who limit sexual intimacy with others to oral sex.
  • Full swap couples permit full penetration as well as oral sex.
  • Reciprocal swapping means that each partner in the original couple plays with the corresponding partner in the other couple. This is typically heterosexual — female from Couple A plays with male from Couple B and vice versa.
  • Full open couples permit each other to seek out separate partners, who are not necessarily partnered themselves. This also means one person’s play does not depend on their partner playing.

Swinger couples also define their preferences in other ways. For example, there are distinctions for same-room-only couples, as opposed to couples who are comfortable with separate rooms. If this sounds “transactional,” that’s because the set-up is very structured, as opposed to the more organic flirting and hooking up that occurs in the outside world, which swingers refer to as the “vanilla” world. These rules make it easier for relative strangers to negotiate physical intimacy. 

With the exception of their extracurricular hobby, swinger couples tend to look a lot like traditional couples. Often, swinging is the only non-conventional aspect of swingers’ behavior. In general, swingers are very focused on their primary relationship and tend to be wary of anything they perceive threatening to it. They often have traditional relationships, families and jobs. Many  people go into swinging with the intention that they will not develop feelings for others. The easiest way to do this is to limit sex with the same people to a one-time or few-times basis. These are the proverbial “hit it and quit it” or “one and done” couples, also known as bed-notchers.

Swingers tend to focus on compartmentalizing sex and feelings; they often believe that it is not possible to have feelings of attachment to more than one person at the same time.


If you read books geared to the polyamory community such as The Ethical Slut, or spend time on polyamory discussion boards, you’ll observe the polyamorous belief that loving multiple people is like loving your various children. Your love for one child does not diminish your love for the other. The prejudice against loving more than one person, stems in part from our conception of romantic love and the paradigm that there is only one person who is meant to complete us. The authors of The Ethical Slut call this prejudice against loving more than one person at the same time a “starvation economy” approach: the belief that there is a limited amount of love to go around and that you cannot give love to one person without taking from the other. 

Polyamorous people have a broader conception of love and relationships. They feel that multiple relationships can complement each other and take the burden off a primary relationship for meeting all of the individual’s emotional needs. As opposed to swingers, whose relationship is based on one primary couple, polyamorists tend to view relationships with greater fluidity when it comes to gender identity, number of lovers, and the overlapping relationships that may evolve among the various lovers.

Swingers occasionally find themselves unexpectedly in polyamorous relationships, when unexpected feelings develop across two couples. How well they navigate this transition depends on whether all four people are on the same page regarding expectations for the new relationship, and how committed they are to making it work. It is challenging enough to make a two-person relationship work. Making a four-person relationship work requires some very sophisticated communication tools.

Polyamory is more likely to work when all participating couples start out with very stable relationships to begin with, and when all the participants can overcome their jealousy regarding a partner’s emotional commitment to—not just sexual interaction with—another person. All partners must be on the same page regarding the time commitment (both in person and online) given to their new lovers. All members of the group must relate well to and respect each other (not just their lover, but their lover’s partner). And finally, all members must learn how to communicate effectively with each other when inevitable conflicts arise, and commit to resolving those conflicts.

Astrid Daley-Douglas is a small business owner and author living in Atlanta. Claire De Haven is a retired entrepreneur, writer and mother, living in Atlanta. Both are active participants, organizers and bloggers in the local swinger community. They can be found at http://theswingerdiaries.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter @swingerdiary.

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