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What's in a Word
By: Bob Hannaford
"Swing," "Swinger," what do these words mean to you. How about the word "lifestyle?" Funny how words mean so many different things to so many different people. My dictionary defines "Swinger" as: "One that swings: a good swinger of baseball bats." I always had a suspicion that Barry Bonds was a "swinger." My dictionary also says: "A member of a couple, especially a married couple, who exchanges sexual partners." Now we're getting somewhere, although I didn't know marital status had so much to do with "swinging." I'll have to call Webster and explain to him that non-married couples swing too. I'm sure he'll be glad to hear that.
The word "swing" dates back to the 20's when the black community discovered a new form of music called Jazz and called it "Swinging Jazz." The reference described the form of dance where a man would literally "swing" his partner through a series of dance moves. Like the Charleston and the Lindy Hop were born, and so was the term "swing." Most conservatives couldn't believe it when they saw people shaking their hips and frolicking to this new underground sensual music.
Eventually, in the 30's and 40's, band leaders like Cab Callaway, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller and Count Basie brought in the big band era and "Swing was King." The popularity of swing music faded after WWII until the late 50's when Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack redefined the word "swinger." The word's connotation reached beyond their music and started to represent their lifestyle. They were hip, fashionable, cool and sexy. They were swingers, man. Playboy magazine was first published and a new era of sexuality was born. "Swinger" had a positive connotation, everyone wanted to be called a "swinger." Of course the term was only relegated to men. Being considered a swinger would never be considered appropriate for a woman.
Of course the "shagedelic swinging sixties" followed and once again the term "swinger" took on a new, cartoon-type of character. Towards the end of the 60's, swinger clubs started to form. Publications were printed and different forms of alternative relationships like swinging, polyamory and communal living started to show up.
It wasn't long before the 70's and rumors of "key parties" and "wife swappers" became the common explanation of the "new swingers." Again, sexist overtones dominated the "swinger" scene, the very term "wife swapper" implies that the man owns his wife and can trade her at will for another partner.
The 80's saw a surge of new clubs forming until the AIDS scare forced many swingers underground and many clubs closed or dropped in membership. Eventually, swinging became a lot more open, clubs rebounded and national conventions like Lifestyles in California and Las Vegas gained in popularity and thousands of couples came to meet other open minded couples. "Recreational swinging" became a powerful economic factor, in fact it became an industry.
Today, you can find articles on "swinging" in Time magazine, the New York Times, Details, on HBO, MTV, Showtime, VH1 and most national and local newscasts, newspapers and magazines. Conventions and clubs have popped up in every state. Resorts and hotels now cater to "swing" groups like never before. Recently, in New Orleans, over 1,000 "swingers" paraded down Bourbon St. in the first ever "swinging parade" behind a jazz (swing) band with a police escort. Swinging has almost become mainstream.
It has become so mainstream that swing clubs and businesses finally have their own trade association. Imagine the effect of an organized effort to put forth positive images of this "swinging lifestyle." This is the first step in gaining acceptance and tolerance for a sexual minority that is steadily growing and we are being noticed.
By the way, I looked up the word "lifestyle" and my dictionary said: "A way of life or style of living that reflects the attitudes and values of a person or group." When the term "lifestyle" became popular over a generation ago, it had many critics that objected to it as trendy and superficial because it was mainly used to justify habits of consumption, recreation or fads to categories in a system of social classification. Many different forms of sexual minorities all consider themselves to be living a different "lifestyle" from the mainstream. Nonetheless, the term has been useful, in fact, because they help explain ourselves when referring to social values and behavior.
Why the history lesson? Most people I run into find the label "swinger" as a negative term with which they don't want to be labeled. While I understand their reasons, most do not understand that the terms "swing" and "swinger" have undergone many transformations over the last century and will continue to change over the next few years. My favorite dictionary definition defines "swinger" as: "A person who actively seeks excitement and moves with the latest trends." Now that is a term we can live with. Maybe we should print that definition on shirts, come out of the closet and show the world who we are. OK, maybe not this week... but soon?
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