Swingers on the North Shore—More than Myth

We’ve all heard rumors about the famous swing or “key” parties that take place among married couples on the North Shore.

In Glencoe they say it’s happening in Wilmette. In Wilmette, they insist Winnetka’s the place. In Winnetka, they point to Highland Park.

Many readers have expressed curiosity about the subject, so I’ve been asking around (professionally, of course) and until recently, no has been willing to confirm swinging’s existence.

I had always imagined that swinging was something that took place spontaneously and mostly by accident – a decadent house party gone wild. I pictured a tight-knit group of sexy couples having one margarita too many in the hot tub and whoops! Things get out of hand.  The next morning the participants, hung over and remorseful, awkwardly salute their neighbors across their kids’ soccer field with Starbucks cups.

Then I spoke to Steve from Buffalo Grove, a 48 year-old dad who’s been married for over 20 years and involved in the “Lifestyle” for the last fifteen. My concept of swinging couldn’t have been more wrong. Hot tubs and reefer may have spurred the free love wife-swapping of the 70s, but modern swinging is highly organized, deliberate, and unrepentantly cheerful. And it’s happening on the North Shore and all over the place.

Steve says he and his wife represent typical swingers – middle-aged couples who have been married for years. “It takes that long for a couple to get comfortable with their sexuality and admit to wanting it,” he says. He regularly attends local swinging parties hosted many clubs in the area, some with permanent facilities devoted to the pursuit.

“Everyone knows it goes on, “ he says. “In the Chicago area there are 20 major clubs or groups, some with on-premises facilities. You pull up on a Saturday night and there are 200 cars parked outside.”

These private clubs (which are legal) have amenities like buffets, dance floors, volleyball courts, and swimming pools for couples to mingle and meet and before retiring to “play rooms.”  What happens in those rooms varies widely – from monogamous voyeurism to the downright kinky – but mostly, the woman controls the situation. Any type of coercion or unwanted pressure can get you kicked out of the club.

“Men respect their wives – the wives decide who their husbands can sleep with, what they’ll do – the women run the show. Very few couples part ways (at the party); there’s the feeling that it’s not cheating if you’re doing it together,” says Steve.

Steve’s wife wasn’t available for comment, but whether you call it cheating or not, this “Vanilla” (which is what people in the lifestyle call those of us who are not) has to wonder: how can a marriage withstand frequent intimacy with so many other people?

David Klow, an Evanston based marriage and family therapist, has worked with a number of couples who have practiced or considered the swinging lifestyle. He says an open marriage is fraught with complications.

“It opens emotions we typically don’t deal with in marriage – especially jealousy. Sex is at the root of our being. When we have sex, it’s a very personal exchange, so to have our partner doing it with someone else triggers something very deep.”

Also, Klow says, swinging is no cure for a marriage that’s in trouble.

“If an open or polygamous relationship is thought to solve the ways that things aren’t being satisfied, a couple is fooling themselves. The best way to fix the issues is with the person you’re with. Sex in a marriage can be endlessly new as long as we are willing to shake it up a bit.