This essay on Poly vs. Swinging was written by Stef Jones in April of 1995 and still seems very appropriate. It is reprinted here with her permission and can be viewed in it's original context here.
Topics covered in this essay are:
How Is Polyamory Different From Swinging?
Most people who embrace the label 'polyamory' support the idea that one can have multiple sexual and/or romantic relationships openly (without keeping the existence of any of those relationships secret from the people with whom one is involved).
I'm not sure about this one because I have not met many people who consider themselves swingers, but as far as I can tell, most people who embrace the label 'swinging' support the idea that marriage or primary partnership does not need to be sexually monogamous and that having sex in groups of three or more is a fun social activity. Many swingers participate in swinging as couples.
Using these definitions, swinging is a kind of polyamory (multiple open sexual relationships). But many people think that swinging and polyamory are very different. So what's the difference? Well, as far as I can tell, there is a difference of emphasis rather than anything else.
For more information regarding polyamory vs. swinging, feel free to read the following other resources we offer:
People who do polyamory tend to focus more on the romantic love aspects of their relationships than on the sex aspects. Swingers tend to focus more on the sex aspects than the romantic love aspects. Of course, many polyamorists have sex with their partners, and some percentage of swingers have romantic love feelings and/or relationships with people they swing with. So the reality itself may not be so different. Sometimes polyamorists will downplay the sex aspects of their relationships and sometimes swingers will downplay the love aspects.
But are these so different? One of my lovers expresses affection best through sexual intercourse. Many people have been brought up with the understanding that very little physical affection is permitted outside of a sexual relationship; thus they inextricably connect affection and sex. If a relationship consists primarily of sex, does that mean it is therefore devoid of love? Or is it rather one form of love relationship? We already know that romantic love relationships usually include some desire for physical closeness and often it is difficult to draw a line between what's sex and what's non-sexual physical affection.
For more information regarding love and sex, feel free to read the following other resources we offer:
Top Long-Term Broad Scope / Short-Term Limited Scope Relationships
Many people who do practice polyamory believe they want to develop several long-term relationships that touch many parts of their lives. This does not always work out, and it's not a universal preference, but it's often held up as an ideal. Some swingers seem to prefer situations that are limited in time or scope, perhaps because limited relationships are less likely to bring up the problem of love. (Some polyamorists have arrangements like this as well.) But there are undoubtedly a lot of situations where swingers do develop long-term or broad-scope relationships with people they met through swinging. So again, there is a difference in focus but probably not so much in practice, especially if one can get one's mind around the idea of sex as an expression of affection.
Top How Are Polyamory and Swinging the Same?
Both polyamory and swinging challenge standard societal beliefs, but in different ways. Polyamory challenges the belief that people can love openly only one person at a time, but it does not challenge the belief that sex and love should be connected. Swinging challenges the idea that sex is private between two people, but it does not challenge the belief that commitment to one person of the opposite sex is the best form of relationship.Both polyamory and swinging are subcultures with their own sets of rules. The people who consider themselves part of those subcultures, like people everywhere, have different relationships to the rules -- some embrace them, some disdain them, some are in between. Some of the rules of polyamory: communication among partners is valued very highly; acceptance of non-heterosexual orientations and sexual interests is valued; casual or time-limited relationships are not valued (note, I am not saying that all polyamorists believe or practice these rules, but there is a general tendency for people who identify as polyamorists to espouse these beliefs). Some of the rules of swinging: playing as couples is encouraged; male heterosexuality is encouraged; there is a focus on physical attractiveness. (Again, not all swingers believe or practice these.)
And of course, both polyamory and swinging are misunderstood by the public at large, those who believe that bringing sex or love outside of a long-term coupled relationship is exploitative and abusive.