Variations of Ethical Non-Monogamy

Hi! Welcome to my new advice column/blog Tea Time with Tomato. I am Tomato and this will be my first entry where I hope to set some groundwork for discussing non-monogamy at large. In this post, I will define what each of the larger classifications of non-monogamy and what distinguishes each subgroups from another. So grab yourself some tea and let’s talk about non-monogamy.

Photo by Pixabay on

According to this study from 2016, at least one in five individuals have engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point in there lives. Also four to five percent are currently in consensual non-monogamous relationships according to another study from 2018. With so many people practicing non-monogamy, there are also wildly different forms and options of non-monogamy available.

There are three major subgroups that fall under the larger ethical non-monogamy umbrella.

  • Swinging
  • Open Relationships
  • Polyamory

I’ll start by talking about swinging.


“Not that kind of swing…”
Photo by Pixabay on

Swinging is largely defined as partnered or non-partnered casual sex encounters. It is often referred to in the context of partner swapping as well as non-partnered folks joining a pre-established couple in a more casual scenario. Swinging can also be defined by low emotional entanglement among its participants. Main assumption in swinging is that it is a purely sexual engagement. Swinging as a culture and lifestyle originated in WWII according to Terry Gould in his book A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers. But the culture didn’t really gain much traction until the 1970s. Movies like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) paved the way for this casual style of non-monogamy to thrive.

Swinging in specific varies between hard & soft swap. Soft swap would encompass making out, mutual masturbation, and sometimes oral sex. Hard swap would include all above in addition to intercourse.

Swinging mostly happens in swing clubs (such as Le Boudoir in London or the Lux in Chicago) where there is a dungeon master who keeps the place under wraps and organized. Most swingers clubs (like some kink clubs) have separate rooms where participants can leave the curtains open for others to watch. In most swinger’s clubs, only single ladies and couples are approved for membership.

One of the major drawbacks to swinging is in that it mostly implies partner swapping. It is also often plagued with heteronormativity and contentious gender dynamics.

Open Relationships

Open relationships are a more generalized version of swinging. They are often accompanied by a strong presence of a long-term committed primary relationship. Similar to swinging, open relationships often have an implicit understanding that the sexual component will be the focus.

One major difference between open relationships and swinging is that while swinging happens in specific environments (i.e. clubs) with the couples specifically seeking to swap partners together, folks in open relationships tend to be more open to meeting others outside of those specific exchange as individual people.

One popular iteration of open relationship structures is monogamish. A term coined by a popular advice columnist Dan Savage, monogamish is loosely described as a committed but sexually nonexclusive long-term relationship. In essence, it is a mostly monogamous relationship with couple exceptions to the rule.


“This is my boyfriend, Derek. And this is Derek’s boyfriend, Ben.” – April Ludgate, Parks & Recreation S02E01, NBC.

Polyamory is defined as a practice of seeking ethical and consensual committed relationship with more than one partner. Polyamory can both be a preferred relationship structure (i.e. I prefer to do polyamorous relationships) and an identity (i.e. I am polyamorous). In a future post, we will do a deep dive into all the wildly different variations of polyamorous relationships and the current trends in modern dating.

Polyamory is different from open relationships and swinging in that the focus of polyamorous relationships is in developing emotional connection rather than a sexual one. For example, I have encountered many lovely asexual folks who all had incredible practices of their own polyamorous relationships that did not include sex in their own relationships.

Polyamory is also different from swinging and open relationship in that participants don’t necessarily have to be partnered. Single folks on their own polyamorous journey would be classified solo poly. In the above captioned image, we get to see a traditional V hinge polyamorous relationship where Derek is the hinge partner between April and Ben, where April and Ben are not romantically involved.

Exclusive? Inclusive.

One of the most fascinating learnings I have personally experienced in my own journey through polyamory is that so many different people love in different ways. Swinging is just as valid as open relationships. Different variations of polyamory are all just as valid as another. In addition, you can absolutely have an open relationship-like approach while being more polyamorous. And you can absolutely attend swingers clubs to swing while you are in a traditional open relationship.

The one certain thing about life is that life is always changing. And relationship structures and preferences can change overnight. Some swingers often have to establish firm boundaries regarding emotional attachment. Some monofolks often discover that they are open to exploring polyamorous relationships after an infidelitous experience. And a lot of folks roll back to exclusive relationships or take pauses after particularly bad swinging or open experiences.

6 thoughts on “Variations of Ethical Non-Monogamy

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