This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer! In some ways, polyamory is very different from swinging. In other ways, they’re pretty similar. The short answer is that they are not actually the same thing. The long answer? Well...
Let’s start with the definitions. Polyamory is defined as the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time. Swinging is defined as the exchange of partners, particularly spouses, for sex. At face value, the difference between the two is that polyamory is about love or romantic involvement whereas swinging is about sex. Yet, it’s a little trickier than that because every relationship has differences, regardless of what type of relationship it is.
Both polyamory and swinging fall under the umbrella of “open relationships” or “ethical non-monogamy.” Both rely on openness and honesty about what’s going on and who is involved (which makes both of them different from monogamy or cheating). There are all kinds of open relationships; poly and swinging are just two examples of what open relationships can be.
Franklin Veaux put together this great infographic that shows multiple types of open relationships and how they overlap. You’ll notice that poly and swinging aren’t always mutually exclusive. Sometimes poly people like to have a “friends with benefits” arrangement or “no strings attached” (NSA) sex just like monogamous people. Sometimes, swingers have loving or romantic relationships with someone who isn’t their primary partner or spouse. It’s just not the driving force behind what they do.
There are so many variables to each relationship. Labels like “poly” and “swinger” make it easier to start conversations about who we are and what we do. As an example, Jill is poly and so is Kevin. Jill’s poly relationship is a polyfidelitous triad. She and her partners don’t have romantic relationships outside of their closed group; it’s basically a domestic partnership between three people. Kevin practices network poly. He’s in relationships with two other people and his partners have other relationships that Kevin isn’t a part of. Jill and Kevin are both poly, but their definitions are very different. Swingers experience similar variations in how they practice their form of ethical non-monogamy. Even relationships that are monogamous have infinite variety based on individual needs, wants, boundaries, and mutually defined relationship agreements. Labels are often chosen because they are the best fit, not because they are a perfect fit.
In a way, putting a label on a relationship dynamic is like putting pork on the menu for dinner. We all know that pork comes from a pig, but are we having bacon, chops, loin, belly, chitlins, cracklins, ribs, roast, a hotdog…? How is the pork going to be prepared? How long is it going to take to cook? Information beyond “pork” is required in order to figure out what would compliment the dish, if it’s a familiar staple or a dietary adventure, or if it’s even something we’re interested in. Maybe dietary restrictions need to be discussed and pork needs to substituted with beef or fish or tempeh. The conversation doesn’t stop at “pork”. Neither should our conversations about relationships.