The first time I broached the topic of “unconventional sexual activities” to my boyfriend, my voice was shaking. I was certain there were still things I wanted to try (or at least have the option to try), but I didn’t want to sabotage what looked to be a promising relationship.
“I kind of consider myself bisexual,” I told him hesitantly. “It’s something I’ve only slightly acted upon…. Would a threesome ever be something you’d consider?” He looked at me as if I were setting a trap. I assured him I was not. He had questions. Then I had questions. Ultimately, it created space for us to have an open dialogue about how we envisioned the future of our sexual relationship.
My initial comment may have caught him off guard, but it wasn’t necessarily out of the blue: We’d met on Feeld, a unique dating app designed for couples and singles. Formerly 3nder, Feeld’s purpose is to facilitate communication between people interested in kink, multiple partners, polyamory, and alternative sexual preferences. Since it launched in 2014, Feeld has steadily increased its users—in The New York Times’s coverage of it last March, the app was reportedly facilitating about 100,000 messages daily. Along with other apps in its category, like Fantasy and #Open, Feeld’s popularity illustrates one of the important ways mainstream sexual culture is evolving.
Of course, kink is as old as time, and “swinging” has been part of the Western cultural lexicon for decades. But swinging tends to conjure up an image of a 70s pool party outside the Kauffmann house rather two millennials heading to a couples’ date after a day at the office. And the scenery and technology aren’t the only things that have changes, the language has, too: Folks are now referring to recreational sex with multiple partners as being “in the lifestyle.”
“When we talk about ‘the lifestyle,’ we’re talking about people who are in healthy relationships and know what they’re doing,” says 28-year-old Bell, who has been in the lifestyle with her husband for three years. “They’re committed, comfortable, and [exploring] in a healthy and positive way.”
Swinging typically refers to couples switching sexual partners with other couples, but “the lifestyle” encompasses people looking to have recreational sex or sexual experiences with anyone outside of the relationship. This might include inviting in a third party for a threesome, as my boyfriend and I have discussed, or attending sex-positive clubs or parties, even if just to watch. The lifestyle is distinct from polyamory, where multiple partners are emotionally involved in the relationship—couples in the lifestyle are still emotionally exclusive to one another.
Before I met my boyfriend, I connected with Anna and Pat on Feeld, a committed Austin-based couple who love craft beers and traveling. Anna tells me that she and Pat started swapping (her chosen word) four years into their eight-year relationship.
”I was drunk when I brought it up,” Anna reminisces, laughing. “And then it took us a while to figure out what the dynamic would look like. We did research and had a lot of conversations about what we were looking for, and started getting excited about it.”
Like me, Anna considers herself bisexual and was interested in experimenting with other women. She’d grown up Catholic and met her boyfriend in college, so she’d never really examined her sexuality further than the heterosexual, monogamous norms, and joining the lifestyle seemed like a good way to redefine her comfort zone. She and Pat discussed it for a solid year before embarking on their first swapping experience, and they still check in with one another often to clarify boundaries and expectations.
“At first I was afraid people would judge me,” Anna adds. “Or think, Oh, she’s only doing it because her boyfriend convinced her. But it was definitely a joint decision.”
Communication is such an important aspect of the lifestyle that it comes with its own vernacular. I went down a rabbit hole trying to learn it all: “Soft Swap” refers to couples who limit intimacy with others to kissing, touching, and maybe oral sex. “Full Swap” couples allow for every sexual activity when switching, including intercourse. “Unicorn,” a term some love and some find derogatory, describes a woman looking to have threesomes with a committed couple. If all this sounds a little transactional, it’s because it is; clarifying expectations is a necessary part of the process.
“Our language is constantly catching up to adjust to the changing cultural landscape,” says Amanda Montell, a pop-linguist and author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. “Words can’t not have meaning, and many of us have attached the word ‘swinging’ to suggest scandal.”
In its heyday, the notion of swinging was associated with moustached men and cigarette-smoking women tossing their keys in a bowl after socially lubricating with a few Singapore Slings. Casual sex wasn’t as casual back then, Montell says. It was considered scandalous, and so we started to associate the corresponding language with scandal, and a stigma was created. This may be why new generations are ditching “swinging” for something more vague, and possibly expansive.
“It makes sense that a word like swinging has been replaced with something like ‘in the lifestyle,’” Montell adds. “The language we have to describe different phenomena evolves as we become more knowledgeable and accepting of them.”
In other words, swinging simply rebranded. And our language isn’t the only aspect of society adjusting to these shifting cultural norms. The internet has made it easier for curious couples to find one another, and dating apps have simplified it even further. In a way, these advancements have made swinging, well, more chill.
“We’ve met people from different countries, various nationalities,” says Anna. Swapping has enhanced her and her partner’s communication skills, too. “We don’t hold anything back. Before it was hard to tell one another exactly what we were thinking. But because we’ve been so open in this area of our relationship, we’ve been able to be more open in others.”
“We bond over bad dates,” says Bell. “If a date sucks, or someone is ghosting us, we have a partner to share that with, and we can laugh about it together.”
Swapping certainly isn’t for everyone. But those in the lifestyle have placed themselves in a situation where they have to talk openly and directly about sex—something that remains, for many, a 21st-century taboo. For those interested in sexual lives unbound by centuries-old traditions, the lifestyle creates an environment for us to be more comfortable with ourselves and our desires.
Since that first conversation, my boyfriend and I have discussed being part of the lifestyle with casual consideration, sort of like we would a trip to Fiji or adopting a dog. It’s not currently on our plates, but it’s also not off the table, either. Which is exactly the kind of dynamic I’m energized by: one defined by playfulness, openness, and the space to define for ourselves what we want life to be like.
Feature graphic by Dasha Faires.