News & Politics

Swingtown: Opening the American Marriage

It's nice to live in an era where sexual freedom means I don't have to feel that a night out with friends is incomplete without an orgy.
Last weekend, the Husband and I had two other couples out to visit us at our house. We had a smashing time. Good food, good wine, bottomless cocktail glasses, many laughs. I love my friends. Adore them, actually. Attractive, witty, successful, interesting people they are.

Nevertheless, I won't lie: I have no desire to have an orgy with them.

Not that they were asking, just to clarify.

But still, I've been watching CBS's Swingtown, and it's gotten me thinking about what it might have been like to have been a married suburbanite in the mid-1970's, when Swingtown is set.

Swingtown's central characters are Susan and Bruce Miller, who in the first episode, move from their modest ranch in a middle class suburban housing development to an elegant, traditional home (symbolism alert!) in an affluent neighborhood. Actually, it's just a few blocks away from their old house, but it might as well be on a different planet for reasons that go far beyond the quality of the architecture: their new across-the-street neighbors are Trina and Tom Decker, who within mere minutes of the Millers' arrival, welcome Susan and Bruce with a bottle of champagne and a boatload of innuendo (mustachioed Tom, played to sleazy perfection by former Melrose Place heartthrob, Grant Show, has never met a smarmy double entendre that he didn't adopt as his own, and Trina, looking like Donna Pescow's younger and sleaker sister, seems never to have met a married couple that she didn't feel compelled to seduce). The Deckers also present the Millers with an invitation to a party that very night at their open-plan, modern house (more symbolism!).

Like lambs to the slaughter, Susan and Bruce make their journey "across the street" (still more symbolism!), where Trina sings the praises of open marriage (if only that poor Gail Saxton would just open her marriage, then maybe she wouldn't have to be a disgusting old coke whore!) . She also offers Susan her very first quaalude, which Susan swallows obediently (without water!). Susan and Bruce, who have spent the past 16 years raising their two children and who have never had sex with anyone except each other, cap off their night, as well as Swingtown's pilot episode, with a romp in Trina and Tom's basement-level "playroom" (it should be noted here that Trina and Tom have no kids).

With Trina and Tom.

The next episode, there is absolutely zero awkwardness between the two couples. This, despite that they have seen each other naked. This, despite that they have seen each other seeing each other naked. Despite that neither Susan nor Bruce has had any prior experience with "the morning after" after casual sex, or for that matter, the morning after any sex with anyone other than each other.

Maybe I am a bit naive, but this scenario struck me as not just a bit implausible. But then, what do I know about it? I was but a child of 10 for most of 1976, and all I remember of the parties my parents threw back then was the rumaki and the Lipton's onion dip. Maybe the grownups back then were way more sophisticated than I ever could have realized? Maybe they were somehow, truly more "open" than I am even capable of imagining?

If that is true, then perhaps they were also less picky about their sexual partners? The Deckers' wild parties feature a never-ending carnival of hook-ups. You can always find an orgy going on in the "playroom", and regardless of who is participating, Trina and Tom are usually willing to join in the fun. Maybe this is because they only invite people with whom they would both be willing to have sex?

Or perhaps they are simply not as selective with regard to their sexual partners as, say, I would be.

Call me crazy, but I can't see myself having sex with someone to whom I was not attracted, even if I were IN an open marriage (which I am not). If I were at a party where keys were being swapped or "open-season" had been otherwise declared (not that I ever have been), I would probably be the girl hiding behind a piece of furniture, cringing, "Gee, I hope I don't have to sleep with that guy. Or that guy. Or that guy." And even if, somehow, there was someone at the party with whom I could even imagine myself getting intimate -- would I even be in the mood?

I remember seeing Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and wondering the same thing. In the film, set in 1973, some of the characters attend a "key party" (at which that evening's sex partners are assigned by lottery; the men throw their keys in a bowl, and the women close their eyes, pick out a key and go home with the key's owner, marital vows be damned). Unlike the Deckers and their friends, the party-goers in The Ice Storm seem, for the most part, genuinely frightened and/or disgusted by what they are doing.

Which led me to wonder: why do it?

Swingtown does not exactly beg that question. Instead, it depicts a slice of the world during a slice of the 20th Century in which, if we are to believe the hype, everyone looked like a potential sexual partner, and everyone was always in the mood.

Speaking of the hype, I checked with some folks who were right around the same age as the Deckers and the Millers back in 1976, and while there was unanimous confirmation as to the existence of key parties and mate-swapping back then, no one, and I mean no one, was willing to cop to having participated. As a wise philosopher once queried (and I paraphrase): If a swinger swung in the 70's, and no one was there to see it, did it make a sound?

Either way, I'm just really, really, really glad that I live in an era where sexual freedom means that I don't have to feel that a night out with my friends is incomplete without an orgy in the playroom. As attractive as my friends are, the Husband and I haven't even gotten around to finishing our basement. And besides, after a really good meal, a couple of cocktails and a whole lot of laughter, all I really want to do is pass out on the couch.

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