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How many Americans participate in group sex? Bartell puts the total at about 1,000,000. Most of his subjects, like the couples in the movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, were middleclass, "respectable" white suburbanites. They ranged in age from 18 to 70 and earned $10,000 or more a year. Of the men, 42% were salesmen, but some were dentists, professors, lawyers, engineers and chemists. Of the women, a few were teachers, but 78% were housewives who stayed home and looked after the children. Most of the parents sent the youngsters to Sunday school, frowned on drugs and hippies, had few outside interests of their own, and kept their swinging secret.
Scientists disagree on swingers' motives. Chicago Psychoanalyst Ner Littner feels that couples who swing are incapable of intimate relationships even with each other and use wife swapping "as a safety valve that keeps intimacy at a level each can tolerate." Bartell likens the suburban wasteland to the sterile Arctic habitat of the wife-swapping Eskimo. The sterile environment, he concludes, leads some people to try group sex simply to relieve boredom. Others hope it will make them feel young, avant-garde and sexually desirable. Moreover, swinging "is in keeping with American cultural patterns: to be popular, to have friends, to be busy."
Antithesis. The trouble is that swingers often find themselves too busy; the rule is to swing only once with the same couple (so that no intimate, marriage-destroying relationships develop). Thus the search for "beautiful" or "great" (contrasted with "moldy") partners is never ending. Eventually hours of the swingers' waking day are spent on the phone or writing letters to make new contactsor driving hundreds of miles to meet them. Sheer exhaustion causes many to drop out of swinging after two years or so of frantic activity. More important is disillusionment. Finally able to act out adolescent fantasies, many swingers find that the fantasies were better than reality. Besides, there is generally a loss of self-esteem and identity, and an absence of commitment to partners whom they may well never see again. "This total noninvolvement represents the antithesis of sexual pleasure."
Behavioral scientists are divided about the effect that swinging can have on a couple. Los Angeles Psychiatrist L. James Grold says that it can become a troublesome addiction, but that for some people it is "a pleasurable sharing experience." Bartell doubts that swinging really benefits anyone much. Surprisingly, he found little evidence that it was responsible for marital discord or breakup among the couples he studied. In fact, some swingers insist that the opposite is true. Their claim: "The couple that swings together stays together."