From the Librarian – The Swinging 70s

I am currently cataloging the research library of the Center for Sexual Expression and Education. As I do, I have been asked to write a few articles on some of the more interesting things I find.

The 1970s were a decade in which a lot of the previous censorship about sex went away. You could write far more explicitly about sex than ever before, and major alternative sexuality movements were beginning to grow very rapidly. One book that sums up these many sexual changes is The Whole Sex Catalog, edited by Bernhardt J. Hurwood and published in 1975.

Inspired by the popular Whole Earth Catalog, this large format paperback covers sex in a similarly expansive way. It is not particularly collectible, so you can find a copy for two or three dollars.

The book is basically a series of articles about sexuality. A number of them cover historical subjects, but most of the book reflects what was going on in the 1970s. There are articles on contraception, aphrodisiacs and erotic cookbooks, sex therapists, prostitution- pretty much everything you can think of.

There are several articles on gay rights and list of the organizations of the time. It also includes lists of homosexual magazines and newspapers, gay films and recordings, gay directories, published pamphlets, and suggested reading.

There are articles on group sex, how to answer a sex ad, lists of swinging newspapers and magazines, organizations and clubs, swinger’s hangouts, and much more.

There are lots and lots of lists, and they are detailed. For example, they list groups and organizations that taught and promoted more progressive sexuality, and include descriptions of each. The CenterSEE library is first and foremost a research library, and this book is a sex historian’s dream. There is so much that is difficult to find here. If you need to do research on sex in the 1970s, this book is very useful.

Swinging was moving into the public consciousness, and many books on the subject were published in the 70s. We have many of them in our collection. For the most part, these books presented a very distorted picture of swinging at the time. Some exceptions are found in Professor James R. Smith’s Beyond Monogamy, and Roger W. Libby and Roberta N. Whitehurst’s Marriage and Alternatives: Exploring Intimate Relationships, both of which provide dated but accurate views of the state of swinging in the 1970’s.

One of the best views inside swinging in the 70s came from Gay Talese, in his Thy Neighbor’s Wife, published in 1980. It includes a lot of information from his first hand experiences at famed swing resort Sandstone, and nudist resort Elysium at which some swinging also took place. CenterSEE founder Jeff Booth was very active with Elysium, although years after s b winging was phased out. It was reissued in an updated paperback edition in 2009, and there is also a Kindle edition.

We also have a copy of Sandstone Experience, written by a Sandstone insider, manager Tom Hatfield. It was the probably the most important swingers club of them all. It provides a different perspective, and also writes about Gay Talese’s many visits.

You have probably heard about the 1972 book Open Marriage written by Nena O’Neill and George O’Neill. There is a Kindle edition. While it was revolutionary, the title does not mean what you think it does. At the time, the term open marriage meant individual freedom in choosing marriage partners. A closed marriage was one in which you had to marry someone based on social conventions and proscriptions. The book changed the definition to mean that both partners could pursue personal growth and can develop outside friendships. The chapter on jealousy did say that it was possible to have outside sexual relationships in an open marriage, but it was not something they recommended. In fact, in her 1977 book The Marriage Premise, Nena O’Neill specifically promoted sexual fidelity within marriage. Over time, open marriage has come to mean what they dd not intend with their title- sexually open relationships. In a 1977 People magazine profile, George O’Neil stated he was actually more for closed sex in a marriage, and the article revealed their very conventional conservative background. In reality, it appears they actually knew nothing about what we think about today as open marriage, and would most likely have been opposed to it. They may have opened the door, but it was others who would actually go through it and pursue new ideas about sexuality in marriage.

One of the best known studies was by anthropologist Dr. Gilbert D. Bartell, who published his findings in Group Sex. It has many flaws, including his title, which despite his arguments is a misleading rather than clearer term for the activity. Much of what he concluded seems reasonable, but as you read it, assuming his subjects were representative, it shows how dramatically different swinging was at the time from the way it is today. Or, it may be that his sampling was not that representative. He also made the same mistake that anthropologists and others who study swinging still make to this day- the assumption that they can fully understand an experience through observation without experiencing it.

Dr. Albert Ellis, in his book The Civilized Couples Guide to Extramarital Adventure, is much more open minded. He has some skepticism about Bartell’s conclusions, finding them a bit of a stereotype. He then describes swingers that he knows who do not follow Bartell’s rule that swingers only have sex once with another couple and that they do not tend to make friends with the couples they have sex with.

Most of the books from the 1970s on swinging in our collection tend to perpetuate old myths and misinformation. In Patrick M. McGrudy Jr.’s The Love Doctors (1972), he states that swinging leads to divorce, and referring to a divorced couple, states: “For awhile, it seemed like swinging would alleviate their sex problems”. Swingers know that swinging does not solve problems in a marriage, and in fact can act as a catalyst, making a good marriage better or a bad marriage worse. A bad marriage will dissolve anyway, whether they get involved in swinging or not.

In Sexual Scripts, by Judith Long Laws and Pepper Schwartz (1977), the authors make a lot of claims that were not true then, and are not true today. They claim that men initiate swinging and barter their wives. They claim that men make all of the arrangements, including bisexual liaisons between their wives and other women. Swinging events are not for the women’s enjoyment; they just go along with it. At parties, women do not initiate sexual interludes. They argue that in swinging women follow traditional sex role scripts. They state emphatically that women would have a hard time managing open sexuality. Talk about projecting one’s own prejudices!

They cite the questionable Denfield dropout study. The Denfield study on swinging dropouts in the early 70’s used questionnaire’s from 966 marriage and family counselors, but the data was compiled from people for whom swinging did not work, rather than from those where swinging was a positive part of their lives. Without any real knowledge of swinging and a wealth of societal attitudes against it, these counselors tended to project their own prejudices and misconceptions about swinging onto the problems their clients are facing. The results from these types of studies can not help but be inaccurate.