This past week we learned about 500 people, some 250 couples, who took over the rooms of the Grand Island Holiday Inn for a “swinging time” of trading partners in sexual activities. I saw an article commenting on this event by Donn Esmond in the Buffalo paper. What about these activities, which seem to be growing in our society? Would I approve these as legitimate activities for couples to consider? Maybe you have already considered them? When I was an active pastor, we once invited people to suggest topics for sermons and discussion groups. “Swinging” was one such topic. I don’t think I ever responded.
Over 25 years ago I read one of the early books on this subject by Gay Telese called “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He since has written others. In the book, he addressed the new sexual openness of our time, going beyond secrecy, repression, and the Puritanism of our culture. He wrote of the 18th century groups in our early history who challenged the normal sexual mores. The Oneida Community, created by a minister from New England named John Humphrey Noyes, existed in central New York State. Noyes’ first wife had left him for another man in his early years. Later he joined the Shakers and through diligent studies of the Bible, founded the Oneida group upon Christian communist ideals, including the sharing of all properties. This sharing included wives (but not husbands) which brought down the wrath of church and town leaders upon him and his community.
Normative sexual patterns were also challenged with the formation of the Mormon faith in New York State by Joseph Smith. He taught and encouraged the benefits of polygamy from a Godly, sacred viewpoint, and he too with his group suffered persecution for years until the teaching officially ended. But again, the multiplicity did not include husbands.
If one looks closely at the Hebrew and early Christian scriptures, we see polygamy as an acceptable practice. In what Christians call the Old Testament, not only could men take multiple wives (Solomon had hundreds) but maidens in their families called concubines. When King David got old, a young maiden was presented to give him comfort when going to bed. The only prohibition against polygamy in the Christian New Testament was for men serving as elders in the church (“…husband of one wife.”) Again, it never included wives having more than one husband. I have read the reason for the gradual decrease of polygamy in the early church was the raising of the status and dignity of women. Women gradually came to be recognized as equal creations with the same rights and privileges of men. The emphasis here is on the word “gradually.”
In the past century, the rise of equal rights for women accelerated in our country and throughout the world. This continues to grow in awareness and expression. Sexual freedom is one of these expressions. If men have the right to marry, divorce, and take partners as the occasion arises, then women ought to have the same rights. This openness and honesty of sexual expression has taken great equal strides in my life time. In my youth, sexuality was kept quite secret and sinful. Youth participated in petting and sexual activities, but never openly. If pregnancy occurred, the couple was often forced to marry in shame and repentance or quietly give the baby up for adoption. Today, this has dramatically changed.
One of the expressions of this new sexual freedom has been openness in having experimentation. Although prostitution and affairs have occurred and still do in very large numbers (including politicians and clergy), the honesty in desiring a multitude of sexual partners is increasingly shared, both by men and women. Often it results in what I’ve heard called “serial monogamy” with partners divorcing and remarrying several times. The initiation in these divorces is now about equal between husbands and wives.
As a student in Pittsburgh Seminary, (1969-71) a group of married students experimented in communal sexual sharing. When I came to Western New York in 1976, I heard of a group of married clergy in Buffalo participating in a similar experiment. (I did not participate in any of these!) Thus the growth of “swapping couples” such as this past week’s event on Grand Island continues to grow.
What are some of my conclusions? To begin, the our bodies are vessels with many strong appetites for satisfaction and survival. We constantly concern ourselves with food to feed it, and with ways to clean and make it presentable to ourselves and others. We concern ourselves with proper dress for the body, with endless ways to keep it healthy and working. We seek for the right chairs to sit upon and perfect mattresses for sleep, for the right home in which to live, in the best neighborhood, with the best education and other opportunities. One thing the body doesn’t tolerate well is boredom. It is always looking outside itself for something to entertain, soothe, enjoy, and please it. Sex is naturally one of its strongest desires for most of us. Food is first, we learned, then sex. Yet, anything sought and used for satisfaction can also become very addicting; alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, you-name-it. Even family, sports, cars, travel, and work can become very addicting and destructive to one’s personal sense of peace and fulfillment.
For myself, it helps immensely to realize my essence is not the body I name “myself” with all its appetites. The body is a diversion from my True, Higher Self. My Higher God Self is always complete, at home, never bored, and in constant peace. It is one with God, the Creator. When I am ignorant of this, or reject this understanding, and have no idea of why I am so constantly in need of something to fulfill me, I am like an animal on a constant search for satisfaction. The search is endless. As John Harris once said, “Whatever great and exciting venture we try, a part in us always asks, ‘Is this all there is?’” And so it goes; from cars, home, jobs, spouses, and sex.
There is nothing wrong with indulging in any of these bodily desires and ventures. What is “wrong” is when we forget or disregard the brevity of this time we journey through, and become identified totally with our bodies, as no doubt most of us do. We become “attached” and stuck in our expectations. We kill ourselves looking for completeness, yet as with the old song, we still “can’t get no satisfaction!” When one awakens to his or her True Self, and learns to allow it to guide us, we can become much less attached to the temporary satisfactions of this short life journey. We “abide in the Self” even as the body and all its appetites fade and die. Meanwhile, we exist as the observer, watching, and being aware. And in this abiding, we can experience a very deep freedom and peace even in sickness and loss.
I think of sexual swinging with partners, or multiple legal partners, as part of the continual search of the body for satisfaction, for the big buzz. Sexual activities are fine, and if people choose to live with multiple partners, and can work out agreements satisfactorily, then so be it. Studies and experience show two people alone have constant issues to address and work through. Add another, and another, and I don’t assume it gets any easier.
One of the characteristics of “swinging conventions” such as the one in our area, is that people travel from all over the area, the world, to join such a party. Talese pointed out in his work this is very important since swinging with known friends and associates tends to cause much more risk of break up and hurt than if swinging is done with someone unknown. In ancient or earlier times, women had no status in society; they could be treated and used for sexual satisfaction thinking they were subhuman. Although the struggle for equality is not over, for many the sense of awareness of another partner as a equal human being has grown. This can complicate relationships and family if intimacy is shared with known and trusted friends.
In John Updike’s series on Rabbit Angstrom, Rabbit is portrayed as a popular American of the late 20th Century. He works hard, makes money, and tries to keep a happy family going. To relieve some of his family stress and boredom of being successful, he and his wife once participated in a wife/husband sharing experience on vacation. It was much less than satisfying to him, as Updike writes, and one night, he discovers his partner is even having her “monthly period!” Later he and his wife divorce. Swinging with known friends and associates so often creates many residual issues.
Then there is the issue of giving or receiving sexual diseases. Sexually transmitted diseases have been around for centuries and continue so. I would feel less than fulfilled if after returning home after an exciting swinging time, I discovered I had a transmitted disease!
So think through your own questions and conclusions. Perhaps I have given some suggestions and ideas. Perhaps you could give me some of your own ideas and experience. The central thought which I seek to live by each day remains, “I am One with Spirit/God my Creator. I am not this temporal body, but I am eternal Spirit, fulfilled, at peace, and with joy forever.” I thus live in this world, partaking in its temporal delights, but staying hopefully awake, with a healthy detachment, remembering these delights are just temporal, as is everything with the body. In remembering, I can pull back when I realize enough is enough, and that satisfaction can only last when it comes from within.