In the Bible, assuming that men could support more than one wife, they were free to be polygamous. Tradition says that King Solomon had 1,000 wives. However, for the past 2,000 years, most Western cultures have embraced monogamy… with exceptions.
After long winters came spring—and “spring fever.” As the days lengthened and agrarian cultures planted crops, many developed religious rituals to petition their deities for good harvests and livestock fecundity. These rituals often included relaxation of sexual restraints, and some involved raucous, drunken, public and group sex, i.e. orgies.
Spring-fever sex parties definitely had rough edges. Many included alcohol, which fueled sexual assaults of both women and men. But it would be a mistake to call springtime sex festivals rape-athons. During the 1990s, University of Chicago researchers surveyed 1,749 adult American women and found that 5 percent—one in twenty—reported partner sex four or more times a week. Some of today’s women are highly sexual, and there’s every reason to believe that this has always been the case. In addition, throughout history, some teens have also welcomed erotic excitement. Historians agree that in spring-fever group sex rituals, women were often enthusiastic participants.
From the Nile to Greece
The earliest known springtime public sex rituals took place in ancient Egypt. Early Egyptian mythology includes a tale similar to the story of Noah. The sun god, Ra, recoiled from humanity’s wickedness and killed almost everyone along the Nile. Then he relented and rewarded the few survivors by flooding the fields with beer. They got drunk and beseeched Ra for bountiful harvests. They also engaged in public free-for-all sex that repopulated Egypt. In commemoration, every spring as the Nile flooded, the Egyptians held fertility festivals involving public drunkenness, dancing, and group sex. It’s not clear what proportion of the population participated, but according to ancient historians, many did.
Egypt’s fertility festival influenced ancient Greece, where Dionysus was the god of wine, pleasure, fertility, and religious ecstasy. In ancient art, Dionysus rides a chariot followed by dancers—the women naked, the men with huge erections. The god’s acolytes were not particularly numerous, but they celebrated him during festivals called orgia, orgies. Participants were required to abstain from sex for nine days before orgia, so they were eager to party.
In early Rome, the fertility god was Liber. Springtime parades honoring him featured huge carved wooden phalluses that were carted around the city and through the fields. Liber’s springtime festivals culminated in a sacred ritual involving a married noblewoman and a priest doing the deed in public with the community watching.
Around 200 B.C., the Romans adopted Dionysus, changing his name to Bacchus. The Roman historian Livy reported that early celebrations in the god’s honor, Bacchanalia, were held three times a year and restricted to women who abstained from sex for ten days beforehand. But eventually, Bacchanalia included men, and for years took place monthly featuring public drunkenness and communal lasciviousness. Bacchanalia became scandalous, not for their wild, public sex, but because the sex crossed social class lines.
Ultimately, Bacchanalia devolved into mass rape of both women and men, with murmurs of rebellion against the state. The Roman Senate had no objections to public intoxication or sex, but could not abide sedition. In 186 B.C. when Rome had almost 1 million inhabitants, Livy reported the arrest of 7,000 Bacchanalians, around 1 percent of the population, most of whom were executed.
Despite this slaughter, around the Roman Mediterranean, springtime fertility rituals continued. In some, priests petitioned the gods for good harvests during ceremonial public sex with temple prostitutes. In others, some revelers repaired to newly planted fields for drunken orgies.
Mardis Gras and Carnaval
As Christianity supplanted paganism, its solemn springtime holiday, Easter, followed forty days of quiet reflection beginning on Ash Wednesday. But the day before was a big party, Fat Tuesday—in French, Mardi Gras, in Spanish, Carnaval. Ever since Mardi Gras and Carnival have been celebrated with copious alcohol and relaxation of sexual constraints.
Several Renaissance Popes celebrated Carnival year-round. In 1501, the Italian nobleman and Catholic Cardinal Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, organized a party at the Papal Palace featuring the Pope, high-ranking clergy and fifty courtesans, who dined together, then stripped naked, and cavorted.
Renaissance Italian nobility also enjoyed masked balls, masquerades. Many of the masks featured exaggerated noses resembling erections. With participants’ faces and identities obscured, masquerades often included communal sex that sometimes devolved into rape and even murder.
In medieval England, the springtime fertility ritual, Beltane, took place in late April and eventually on May 1, May Day. Celebrants danced around a huge phallic symbol, the May Pole, and then repaired to the fields where they drank and did the deed. In 1644, the Puritans banned May Day cavorting.
In seventeenth century England and Europe, brothels were commonplace and stratified by social class. Upper-class men also joined fraternal organizations, gentlemen’s clubs. Many clubs regularly contracted with madams to send dozens of sex workers to country estates for unrestrained group romps.
This tradition continued into the twentieth century. In 1961 at a pool party at an English country estate, Secretary of War John Profumo played with alleged sex worker Christine Keeler, who was also involved with a Russian naval attaché and suspected spy. The ensuing scandal almost brought down the government.
American colonists were surprised that many Native American tribes had no qualms about non-monogamy, which clouded paternity. The Indians replied, “You love only your own children. We love all our children.”
From the American Revolution through the Civil War, a small minority of Americans joined frontier utopian communities, each with its own relationship rules. The Shakers insisted on celibacy. The Mormons embraced polygamy. And in 1848 in Oneida, New York, John Humphrey Noyes established a “communist” community. All property was held by the group and traditional marriage was abolished in favor of “complex marriage.” Any man could invite any member woman to bed. Women could accept or decline, but the community opposed exclusivity and encouraged multiple partners. Most Oneidans maintained several simultaneous relationships. At its height, the Oneida commune numbered 300. It lasted thirty-one years, until 1879.
During the 1870s in New York, Victoria Woodhull was a sex worker who became the nation’s first woman stockbroker. She became famous and notorious for promoting “free love”—not unconstrained promiscuity, but arrangements we’d call swinging. Woodhull condemned traditional marriage for enslaving women. She encouraged women to pursue their attractions by choosing as many lovers as they wanted, even if the men were married.
The Roots of Swinging
Modern American swinging developed during World War II at air bases. American fighter pilots suffered substantial casualties. Pilots and their wives understood that many flyers would not return. Before the men flew off, pilot couples intermingled sexually—then called “wife swapping”—in tribal bonding rituals that cemented a tacit commitment by surviving flyers and their wives to look after the widows. The couples held “key parties.” The men tossed their house keys into a hat. The women picked keys and spent the night with the man whose door they opened. After the War, swapping spread throughout the military, and then to surrounding communities.
Today the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) includes more than 350 clubs around the U.S and Canada. Annual Lifestyle conventions have taken over large resort hotels, drawing thousands of couples. There are also swinger resorts and cruises, and travel agents who specialize in swing destinations worldwide. Meanwhile, only a small fraction of swinging takes place in clubs. Most occurs in private homes with two or more couples and occasionally a few singles. Thousands of informal swing groups play in all fifty states. If you’re interested, search “swinging” or “swing clubs” and any locale.
You may also be interested in reading The Curious Couple’s Guide to Occasional Non-Monogamy
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D’Emilio, J. and E.B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Gould, T. The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. Vintage Canada 1999.
Laumann, E.O. et al. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. University of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 88.
Partridge, B. A History of Orgies. Prion Books, London, 2002.
Ryan, C. and C. Jetha. Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. HarperCollins, 2010.
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