In defense of "labels"

people_labelsThe usage of labels in our various lifestyles is something that I have been mulling over for quite a while.  Lately we have heard multiple podcasters talk about them in various ways, so when the infamous (but always quite lovely)  Swap Fu team wrote about "My problem with the term Progressive Swinging," I felt inclined to add my own sentiments.

Before I reply to the specific critiques of the blog post, lets look at the bigger pictures.   What do we really mean with the word "label?"

la·bel

/ˈlābəl/
Noun
1. a piece of paper, card, or other material attached to an object to identify it or give instructions or details concerning its ownership, use, nature, destination, etc.; tag
2. a brief descriptive phrase or term given to a person, group, school of thought, etc. the label "Romantic'' is applied to many different kinds of poetry
3. a word or phrase heading a piece of text to indicate or summarize its contents

Dictionary.com

Of course, neither Wikipedia or the old dictionary are the boss of us, but this does reflect our intrinsic feeling on these.  They are tools to help communicate a certain set of attributes, not definitions by themselves.   If somebody calls something a "car," we won't know if that thing is a Mini Cooper or a Hummer,  hybrid or diesel-powered, but we will know that it is not a lawnmower or a pony.

In that same way, we have created a rough mental association with certain labels, and we accept (sometimes begrudgingly) that a certain amount of vagueness is built-in.  It's not a bug, it's a feature.

My challenge is a quick experiment.   Look at these labels (each of which is used often by people on themselves) and write down what you think the exact definition is:

newbie. open. slut. BBW. soft-swap. bisexual, bi-curious, bi-friendly. kink. HWP. non-vanilla. drama-free. queer. dominant.

Done?  Now try to find somebody else to do the same.  Start with your significant other.  I'm willing to bet more often than not, your definition will be in the same ballpark, but not really on the same base.  I challenge you to find anybody which understands these terms in exactly the same way as you more than half the time.

We don't get to tear off the labels that people put on their clothes or persona, and we don't get to put ours on them

We can choose to disagree with a person's self-assessment if we feel that the usage of a label directly contradicts its colloquial definition.  In that case, we try to educate the person about the confusion it might cause, and how that can negatively effect them.

When the "Swingset team" publicly claimed the "progressive swingers" label, I was sitting less than 30 feet away from them and paid close attention. After hearing their side of the story, I feel slightly confused by the negative reactions. Let me try to find the disconnect by examining the critique in detail.

The perceived need for this term has arisen, I believe, out of criticisms by other members of the non-monogamous community and from the public at large that swingers are promiscuous. I believe the Swingset panel is trying to mitigate this criticism by saying that progressive swingers are not promiscuous.
SwapFu's Post

I don't believe that, and  I've never seen this claim made elsewhere.  Personally, I would find the concept of "non-promiscuous swinger" very hard to grasp, if not a contradiction-in-terms.

 It infers that those who are progressive swingers are engaging in a behavior which is inside mainstream social ideal, or moral. And those who are not progressive swingers are outside the mainstream social ideal, or immoral.

In the words of Wikipedia: "Citation needed".  It is particularly hard to imagine any sort swinging to fall "inside mainstream."  I'm not even going to touch the "moral" issue here, since that will lead down a long rabbit hole. Let's just say  that morals are relative.   What does surprise me here is the assumption that applying a label to oneself somehow ends up being a negative judgement of those outside that group.

What are the rest of us swingers to be called? Non-progressive swingers? Regressive swingers? Or we could just be “immoral swingers” and cut to the chase.

May I suggest as a term of that group: "swingers."

We never used negative labels in the past, so why would be start now?  Has anybody ever used "non-bisexual," "non-queer," "non-kinky," or "non-poly" to describe themselves or others, let alone indicate that these people would be any less worthy then others?

I would like to know whether people calling themselves progressive swingers are comfortable taking a moral stand against those of us who do not have a problem with being promiscuous?

They aren't comfortable because they aren't taking a stand. They don't have a problem either because they are promiscuous too.  There is no "us versus them" going on here.

On the swinger dating websites you see the term “friends first” a lot. This means the swinging couple wants to become friends with their potential sex partners before they have sex. I think this is a much more accurate and judgment-free manner of describing what the swinging members of the Swingset panel do: friends first swinging. The progressive swinging label is therefore largely unnecessary or least ill chosen.

In summary, the claims here are:
  1. "friends first swinging" is functionally the same as "progressive swinging."
  2. Because of this, the second term is redundant and should not be used.

I personally disagree with the first claim, and I believe you do too, but haven't noticed yet.  Otherwise, you would have already been equally offended by being an implied "non-friends-first swinger."

As for the second claim:  Would you ever tell somebody, "Don't call yourself bi-curious, just use bisexual!" ?  If not, then you also respect people's choice in determining what more accurately describes their persona.

I'm not trying to pick a fight here.  I'm trying to prevent one.   In our community, communication is valued highly, so I felt the need to point out the "transmissions error."

In my opinion, the basic premise of "progressive swingers claim they  are not promiscuous" is faulty. I've seen and/or heard all public discussions of the subject and quite a few private ones, and found nothing that indicates this.  But I'm willing to be proven wrong or have a discussion about it.

Drop a comment here, or hit me up at jon@blissbringers.com.

9 thoughts on “In defense of "labels"

  1. I haven't had a chance to actually listen to the podcast yet, however I've seen a similar explanation given on my site by someone who does listen regularly and therefore "gets" where the SwingSet team was coming from. I'm not saying the term "progressive swingers" is right or wrong, all I am saying is I'm kinda tired of a new label popping up every day. The increase in labels lead to a lot of confusion, especially for those who are new to swinging. You are right that there are already so many terms that when "defined" by multiple people will bring a similar yet slightly different definition each time. As it is, we already have to provide definitions instead of terms on a regular basis when it comes to explaining who we are and what we are looking for. I understand why people would want to shrink the definitions down so they are easier to convey... the only problem is that the only way the terms make things easier is if EVERYONE agrees on the definitions.

    • Thanks for your insight.

      I agree that we have a a flood of labels, and that some are so vague that they are useless, and that plenty are misused. People, relationships and feelings are messy and inaccurate, this to be expected. I will regularly rant against confusing terms ("open" and "queer" are my favorite ones to complain about).

      My main argument here, is against the ideas that :
      - we can rule on the validity of how other people label themselves
      - those labels cast judgement on other people

      As for the standardization of the meaning of labels: the only way to make that happen is by creating a central authority to "bless" each term and control its usage. I will make that one of the campaign items when running for "swinger president". Vote for me! 😉

      • LOL. That's why I try to stick to the basics when it comes to terms. Even in my book, I stuck with the basics, defined "swinging" the way I've always defined it (non-monogamous consensual sex involving a couple - more or less) and went from there. I agree with you on "open" being one fo the most confused terms of late. I read a book recently that used the term "open" to describe pretty much exactly what swingset was describing (from what I understand) with "progressive swinging".

        • Great point. I hadn't noticed the "open"-"progressive" association. On the other hand, we will probably get a horde of people disagreeing with that comparison as well.

          Maybe the root cause of the label-infestation is:
          1- people see the existing labels, judge them to be too diluted or misunderstood
          2- They create their own
          3- Others like it and jump on the bandwagon
          4- The crows get diluted, people apply it inappropriately
          5- A new person comes along, skips back to step 1

          Your book is a great resource for us all. I'll make sure to make it part of the "swinger standards body" when I'm president.

          • I don't really agree with the idea that "open" would be the same as "progressive" at least not in the way that "open relationship' has long been used. I would see it as almost the opposite. Typically "open" is a couple where each is open to do what they want (with varying degrees of approval from their partner). Granted this same book (it was a novel that was labeled as pro-swinging by the author, btw) labeled swinging as a negative word "with connotations of promiscuity and sex with strangers" in the same paragraph that it described the closed group swinging as "open relationship'.

          • In my opinion:
            The "open" term is broken and a total loss.
            - When somebody uses it to describe themselves, what information did you receive?
            - I've never known anybody to call themselves "open but not swinger".

            But if people want to use it, I won't judge them for it. Curious to see how it would impact my first opinion of them, but that is another story altogether.

          • While I agree with you about the term being broken (I'd say that about many terms), I actually have known a couple of people to define themselves as being in open relationships but denied the idea of being swingers... due to that whole "dirty" "swingers have sex with strangers" attitude that many have towards the term.

  2. I think the real problem was they picked a very bad word to use, "Progressive". Its bad because its a loaded word, it has political connotations which many find objectionable as well. The reaction is to the word choice more than the actual method of swinging.

    The word is used in politics to mask the real politics behind it, and that baggage is hard to shake. My initial reaction just hearing "progressive swingers" was it must be some sort of smug we are better than you label, simply due to the word.

    • Indeed. The "political" overlap is a deterrent of the term.

      OTOH: Anything related to sex these days seems political/partisan: Education, birth control, gender-identification, women's rights...

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