Swinging, Polyamory, and Beyond:
An Intro to Consensual Non-Monogamy
This isn’t a sales pitch. We aren’t here to sell you on swinging, polyamory, or consensual non-monogamy (CNM). We're also not here to convince you that it’s the answer to all of life’s problems, nor are we here to tell you how to do it. This is a short, fact-based overview of the different relationship dynamics you can expect to learn about if you dive deeper into our website, podcast, and blog about consensually non-monogamous relationships.
If you feel your brain starting to explode as you read, we’re going to help you put the pieces back together. Then we’re going to give you some more resources to go deeper if you’d like.
On the flip side, if you find yourself saying: “What?! I thought I was the only one…” Surprise! You’re not! Not even a little bit. We’ve got you covered with hundreds of hours of podcast interviews with people sharing their stories from all over the world and all across the spectrums of sexuality, gender, and non-monogamy. We also cover details on safety and ideas on getting started if you’re interested.
What is CNM?
People exploring consensual non-monogamy are open to having multiple romantic, sexual, or even platonic partners. The focus here is on consensual... Translation: Everyone involved in the relationship knows that it isn’t a closed ecosystem. We’re not promoting or endorsing cheating, lying, exploitation, or deception.
What About Cheating and Infidelity?
If you found your way here due to an infidelity, you’re not alone. Many of our listeners email us to let us know that our show has helped them navigate through an infidelity, even if they don’t ultimately want to have a consensually non-monogamous relationship. More than a few of our guests have shared stories of how they have turned the experience of a cheating partner into the most fulfilling and rewarding relationship they have ever had by opening the relationship. One couple even had their first threesome with the person she cheated with.
We aren’t proposing that you should cheat on your partner as a way to open the relationship and we aren’t saying that CNM is the cure to infidelity. Rather, we want to offer the possibility that there may be options besides ending the relationship and provide some resources on how others have navigated similar situations. Additionally, it may be useful to watch Esther Perel's wonderful TED talk on "Rethinking Infidelity...a talk for anyone who has ever loved".
The Non-Monogamy Spectrum
There are about as many different variations of CNM as there are relationships. Everyone does it a little differently and labels get tossed around freely. In our experience, labels are a good starting point for a discussion. We believe that everyone can label themselves as they please and that others should be open to learning more about what the labels mean to those who are using them.
Again, there are many different forms of non-monogamy. Some consensual, some not. Some ethical, some not. Some consensual but not ethical. And dare we say, in some rare cases, ethical but not consensual. And around we go.
Polyamory vs. Swinging
The most common division people make in the world of CNM is between polyamory and swinging. Over the course of 100+ interviews it has become apparent that the dividing line between swinging and polyamory is very blurry. So much so that we hesitate to
even dive into it.
Understanding the difference in a broad context can be helpful and make navigating conversations with others easier. It’s important to remember that these terms mean something different to everyone and that what follows is a sweeping generalization. As we said before, the best way to understand someone’s dynamic is to have a meaningful conversation with them.
In simplest terms, polyamory can be broken down into two root words:
Poly - Greek prefix meaning “many”
Amory - Latin root “amor” meaning “love”
Generally speaking, people practicing polyamory are looking for relationships that go beyond sex, or have the potential to. They are open to having multiple committed partners or dating multiple people at once. The intricacies of how these multiple relationships work vary widely. Some people have a primary partner and a single or multiple secondary partners. Some opt for a non-hierarchical model in which the primary-secondary dynamic doesn’t exist at all. Again, everyone adds their own twist and no two relationships look exactly the same.
If the polyamorous folks are out there looking for meaningful relationships, you’re probably guessing that the swingers are out there just looking for sex, no strings attached. It’s not quite that simple.
Generally speaking, swingers are typically seeking out dynamics where the focus is less on finding love prospects, and more on finding sexual connections. Much like with polyamory, everyone does it a bit differently and adds their own secret ingredients to the formula. A great example of this would be the ever-popular “friends with benefits” model. Translation: “Yeah we have sex together sometimes if the mood strikes but our kids also play together at the park and we’ve been over to their family BBQ after church on Sunday.”
As we pointed out, the divide between swinging and polyamory is a blurry one. The two definitely aren’t mutually exclusive. Some self-identified swingers have long term exclusive swinging relationships with another couple. Many seek out long term deep friendships that have a sexual aspect to them. Are polyamorous folks allergic to casual sex? Most definitely not. In fact, we’ve talked to at least one couple who is polyamorous and swings with their secondary partners.
One of the best parts of our podcast has been that we can highlight the fact that there is not a “right way” to approach consensual non-monogamy. We’ve interviewed over 200 people on the show and each one has a different perspective and approach.
Finding what works for you is one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of the journey. Keep an open mind and don’t worry too much about the labels.
Consent and Safety
One of our favorite conversations to have with our guests is how they keep themselves safe while exploring CNM, both sexually and physically. It’s not the sexiest topic but it is one of the most important.
We are not doctors (although we did interview Dr. Dacker and it’s an incredible discussion) and we are not here to tell you there isn’t any risk in sexual exploration with
We have found over the years that the people we talk to in the CNM community are highly educated and informed about their sexual health, the sexual health of their potential partners, and methods for protecting themselves and their loved ones. They also tend to be proactive about having discussions about consent, safety, and sexual health with their potential partners as well.
Everything we do in life carries some risk. It is up to each of us to determine our own risk tolerance and to be able to communicate it clearly and confidently. This isn’t always easy and it definitely takes practice. Here are a few resources to help you find your way:
Dr. Dacker’s TED Talk on the STARS approach to the safe sex conversation
Planned Parenthood’s FRIES approach to consent
If you’re new to all of this and still reading, you’re probably thinking: “All this sounds amazing, but how do people actually do this?!”
Great question! And by now you won’t be surprised to hear that there are about a thousand answers. It’s contrary to what we said earlier about the line being blurry between swinging and polyamory but for simplicity, we’re going to divide the answer into two parts.
On the swinging side of things there are a ton of websites dedicated to meeting other swingers. In the U.S. they are typically fairly regional in terms of which ones are most popular. However, sites like AltPlayGround and Doubledate Nation are a making a strong effort to be more accessible on the national level as well as setting new standards for inclusivity and diversity among websites to meet other swingers.
Meeting Other Swingers
There are a few apps swingers use to meet people as well. The primary ones we know of are #open and Feeld. However, we have been hearing that more people are starting to have success meeting people on more “traditional” dating apps.
Keep in mind, just because an app or website is popular in your region, doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for you. Try a few out and see what works best for you.
If meeting people online isn’t your thing, you’re not alone. There are sex clubs located all over the world and they are typically very welcoming of new people. Going to a sex club if you’re brand new can be a bit overwhelming but they often have meet and greet nights as well that are a bit milder. Typically, you can find these types of places by doing a quick Google search. Alternatively, most of the dating websites for swingers have a section for clubs and events. This is also a great place to find “meet and greet” events which are typically held at a bar or restaurant and are an opportunity to meet new people and learn about the swinging lifestyle in a more social environment with less pressure.
Meeting Other Polyamorous People
On the polyamory side of things the story is much the same but the specific resources are slightly different.
In terms of websites, we have heard that okcupid is one of the more poly-friendly dating sites. Recently, AltPlayGround has recently broadened its reach to include all people in non-monogamous dynamics and we expect it to become a popular choice as well. It is also becoming much more common for people on the traditional dating apps like Tinder and Bumble to list in their profile that they are polyamorous and be seeking the same. For apps specifically dedicated to polyamorous and consensually non-monogamous people, take a look at #open and Polyfinda.
If you’re looking to meet people in person rather than virtually, you’re in luck! In the polyamorous community, in-person meetups are typically referred to as “munches” and they are hosted all over the world. The best way to find them is to search on Google for your city name plus “polyamory munch.” These are typically groups of people who get together regularly for discussion groups, potlucks, etc and are very welcoming to newcomers. They are very rarely, if ever, sexual events and tend to have
a stronger emphasis on community building and education.
Our Two Cents
At the very beginning of this article we said we weren’t here to tell you how to do things. We like to keep our
promises and so we will leave it there.
If you would like to read our personal top five tips for starting to explore consensual non-monogamy, whether it’s polyamory or swinging, we put together a short list that we will email you if you sign up below.
Emma + Fin