When Allison Weaver* was six months pregnant with her second child, she and her husband went to an orgy. It was an unusual night—not because of the orgy, but because for the first time she declined to participate. “I was just so, so tired,” recalls the 38-year-old non-profit worker (who is currently on maternity leave with her third baby). “Everyone was partying, and I tried to get into it, but I just couldn’t. So I was like, ‘Hey guys, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to lie down for a minute over here and shut my eyes—you carry on, though, really, don’t mind me.”
Such are the trials and tribulations of being in a non-monogamous relationship while producing—and parenting—young children. No longer defined by the cheesy ’70s wife-swapping stereotype, couples in sexually open relationships today are part of an increasingly sophisticated and organized community. While no comprehensive data exists (people don’t tend to shout these things from the rooftops), researchers estimate that anywhere from three to eight percent of North Americans engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy with their spouse. Not only are there now swingers clubs and events in every major North American city, Internet forums have brought the sexually adventurous of the world together, making it much easier for like-minded people to find each other discreetly.
Combine this with a generation (those born in the ’70s and ’80s) who grew up increasingly comfortable with notions of sexual difference, including bisexuality, transsexuality and polyamory (the choice to be with multiple partners openly), and you have a growing sexual subculture of people who are coming of age. And what do people do when they come of age? Many of us couple up and have babies. This, you might be surprised to know, applies equally to swingers.
While children—the fruit of our collective sexual unions—can be surprisingly delightful, caring for them isn’t much of a turn-on. In fact, potty training a toddler might actually qualify as the least sexy experience on earth. It’s for this reason, among others, that many non-monogamous parents choose to keep their family and sex lives separate.
Read more: The sex lives of Canadian parents >
“It can be confusing and unnerving for young children to know too much about their parents’ sex lives,” says Elisabeth Sheff, a former sociology professor at Georgia State University, who is now a legal and educational consultant for sexual minorities. She compares it to a single-parent scenario, in which Mom or Dad might be dating multiple people but maintaining a stable home life. “If it’s just for play, the kids don’t need to know about it.”
“We keep it outside the home,” agrees Miko Yanagawa,* a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother of two who likes to attend swingers parties with her husband on weekends. “We feel sexier when we go somewhere else. It never feels right to bring other partners home, because at home I’m Mom.”
While there’s no getting down and dirty on the kitchen floor, she and some of her non-monogamous parent friends do socialize together as families. They’ll invite each other to game nights and family barbecues and sometimes even share a babysitter when heading out to a sex event. Yanagawa has found that it’s easier to hook up with “kinky people” who are also parents, since they understand the logistical complications of having a family. She only has one regular lover who is open about his polyamorous activities with his son, now eight. “I spent the weekend with them recently and it was really inspiring to be able to kiss and hug without having to hide it,” she says of his open poly family.
But Yanagawa and her husband, like most of the non-monogamous parents I spoke to, are not “out” about their sexual life in the wider community. Her children (seven and 11) know little to nothing about Mommy and Daddy’s recreational activities—nor, says Yanagawa, do they need to. As Weaver puts it, “My children have no interest in the minutiae of my sex life now, and I think the same will be true when they’re older. Who wants to know how their mom has sex?”
While Weaver and her husband aren’t planning to tell their kids about their multiple partners anytime soon, she does believe non-monogamy informs the way they choose to parent. “Our non-patriarchal lifestyle informs our entire family life. For instance, my four-year-old knows that boys can marry boys and girls can marry girls—it’s about embracing a holistic idea of how gender and sexuality work.”
Kendra Holliday organizes sex parties in her community and also works as a counsellor for couples wanting to try the open lifestyle. Her first word of advice is that couples should take it slow. “Sitting around talking about things for half the night might not seem like the sexiest thing, but it’s important to carefully monitor feelings when you’re considering non-monogamy,” she says.
It’s a lesson Sarah Murphy,* 43, learned the hard way. She and her husband of 10 years, who live in a suburban community in Western Canada with their two daughters, ages seven and 12, have been going to fetish clubs for more than half a decade. At first they were curious and wanted to watch, but soon their voyeurism evolved into kissing and touching with strangers. After a couple years of testing the waters, Murphy and her husband took a weekend trip where they participated in an orgy. The result was a low point in their marriage. “Basically I couldn’t handle it,” says Murphy. “So now we go to the clubs and the rule is we just flirt, touch and kiss, but we take the sexiness home with us.”
Today, the Murphys’ non-monogamy is a boon to their marriage, but one that they’ve found works best with strict boundaries. In fact, it’s the “permission” aspect of the scene that Murphy likes best. “Fetish clubs actually feel safer than most regular bars to me,” she says. “They’re much cooler than places where men are perving all over you, and only after do you find out they’re actually married.”
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The notion of non-monogamous sex as a kind of marital balm came up again and again with the couples I spoke to. Trust is hugely important, they all said, and because of this many couples didn’t step outside their relationship until it was established and secure. Weaver and her husband, who have been together since their teens and married in their mid-twenties, waited until after their wedding to start seriously experimenting with non-monogamy. For her it was largely about exploring her emerging bisexuality. And for her husband it was about having some variety in partners. Before having children the couple engaged in polyamory quite broadly, even going so far as to get into a committed quad—an ongoing sexual and romantic relationship between themselves and another couple. But mostly, she says, it was just about recreational sex. “We’d go to sex parties and we had party friends—it was just light and fun.”
Weaver is well aware that she and her husband have chosen a highly unconventional path—one that might seem threatening or just downright wrong to many of her friends and co-workers. But for her it’s actually about keeping her marriage together, rather than tearing it apart. “There’s been a spate of divorces in my circle because people have gone out and had illicit affairs and shaken the trust in their relationship,” she said. “My husband and I understand that just because we’re married doesn’t mean we own each other. We’d rather the other person was happy and fulfilled.”
Read more: How to have a happy divorce >
Although Yanagawa believes fervently that there’s nothing morally wrong with their sex life, she is private about it. “A lot of our friends are highly Christian and conservative,” she says. “My husband and I avoid having negative experiences by only telling open-minded people.”
But she and her husband did dial down the shagathon during pregnancy and when there were tiny babies around to care for. (Many non-monogamous mothers I spoke to said that caring for a newborn simply tapped them out physically and emotionally—uh, no kidding). Now that her two children are a bit older and more independent, she and her husband have once again started attending parties where they have sex with other people.
While some non-monogamous couples tone down their sex play, or even “close” their marriage during pregnancy and infancy, others revel in it. When Murphy and her husband were pregnant with their first child, she continued going to fetish clubs. One night, heavily pregnant, she put on her smallest miniskirt and wrote the word “baby” across her bare midriff in marker. The result, she says, was one of the best nights of her life. “You feel like crap when you’re pregnant, but it was actually a real ego boost to be there. I felt sexy because everyone was wanting to touch my belly and kiss me. I’d honestly recommend it to any pregnant woman.”
Like many non-monogamous couples I spoke to, Murphy and her husband are extremely protective of their marriage. “It’s not about being deviant,” she explains. “It’s about relieving your sexual boredom in a way that doesn’t threaten your primary relationship.”
And a strong, stable home is, of course, the best scenario for raising kids.
Murphy’s daughters would probably agree, though they’re suitably oblivious to their parents’ extracurricular marital therapy. “Obviously they love it when I dress up to go out in a PVC miniskirt and a feather boa—they’re little girls!” she laughs. “But my seven-year-old came downstairs the other day in my platform thigh-high boots that came up to her crotch, and we had to have a little talk about respecting Mommy and Daddy’s tickle trunk.”
Some playthings are just for grown-ups.
*Names have been changed
A version of this article appeared in our February 2014 issue with the headline "The rites of swing", pp. 48-50.