From Oneida to the Oscars

In my mind, there is a desert. And in that desert, meandering through the saguaro cactus and arid rubble, a greasy-looking middle-management type named Glen has just offered up his wife, Dot, to an ex-con named H.I. In return, Glen would like to know H.I.’s wife. Biblically.

H.I.: What are you talkin’ about, Glen?
Glen: I’m talkin’ about sex, boy. What the hell’re you talkin’ about? You know, l’amour? I’m talkin’ me’n Dot are swingers. As in “to swing.” Wife swappin’. What they call nowadays “open marriage”!

At which point, H.I. delivers a crushing uppercut to Glen’s jaw.

This scene from Raising Arizona is lodged in my brain. It’s the icky filter through which all of my thoughts about swinging are siphoned: slithery characters in flower-print shirts and gold chains, with hairy chests and a collection of Barry White albums. You know, l’amour?

Truth is, during the late 1960s and ’70s that cliché fit swingers like a pair of pleather bell-bottoms. Back then, when sexual mores were being broken with abandon, wife-swapping and key parties made such a splash in the mainstream that in 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a movie about swingers, was nominated for four Academy Awards. Such silver screen normalization was a boon to promiscuity, so much so that by 1983 the North American Swing Club Association had formed, eventually spawning outlets in 42 states. These were erotic times in the randy-go-lucky U.S. of A., and monogamy seemed headed the way of the maypole.

Then the other shoe dropped: STDs. AIDS. Freewheeling sex was forced underground. But with relatively little fanfare, another offshoot of swinging, one based on ideals of polyfidelity (a kind of group marriage), was slowly gaining acceptance. This particular model of open marriage can be traced all the way back to the mid-1800s, when the Oneida Community in New York committed itself to a sort of communal love—one in which every man was, in essence, informally married to every woman. (To varying degrees, the communes and “intentional communities” that sprang up in the 1970s often embraced a similar philosophy.) But as far as anyone can figure, it wasn’t until 1990 that someone put a name to this web of relationships. That was when the pagan-inspired Green Egg magazine, published by an organization called the Church of All Worlds, printed an article titled “A Bouquet of Lovers.” In it, writer Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart (yep, you guessed it, a self-described “neo-pagan poet”), explained how and why she and her partner, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, decided to take many sexual partners. She defined the principles of their particular arrangement (openness, honesty) and dubbed the practice “polyamory.”

Today, while poly couples might never replace the Ward and June Cleaver modus operandi, they’ve certainly made inroads into the mainstream. Take, for instance, the red carpet. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) divides her time between the father of her two children, John Byrne, and 29-year-old German-born artist Sandro Kopp. (It was Kopp who sat with her at this year’s awards ceremony.) Even more surprising, perhaps, is the agreement between Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. “If it came down to it, then one can say to the other, ‘Look, I need to have sex with somebody [else],’” Smith told Britain’s Daily Mail in 2005. “Our marriage vows didn’t say ‘forsaking all others.’ The vow that we made was that you will never hear that I did something after the fact.” When someone as wholesome as the Fresh Prince embraces a heretofore far-out lifestyle, you know it’s reached the tipping point.