According to Wikipedia,a key party is a:

a form of swinger party, in which male partners place their car and house keys into a common bowl or bag on arriving. At the end of the evening the female partners would randomly select keys from the bowl and leave with that key's owner

The Urban Dictionary provides a similar definition.

Based on what I know about the swinger scene, it sounds completely out of line with their modus operandi, just fit for a flashy Hollywood treatment of it. (The concept is used in several movies, including The Ice Storm).

The source mentioned in Wikipedia is Social deviance. A substantive analysis, by Robert Bell. I cannot access the book and check how it justifies its conclusions, but based on the name alone I cannot take this source as unbiased - or even accept it as any source at all.

There is also some Snopes discussion.

I don't question that, maybe, this happened once or on a few occasions - in particular after Hollywood popularized the term much later.

My question is: Were key parties, as claimed, a somewhat common part of 60s and early 70s "social deviance?" Are there any sources that provide evidence more than claiming they exist, or existed?

  • 4
    I don't understand why you are (quite literally) judging Bell's book by its cover. To the best of my knowledge, the phrase "social deviance" is used by sociologists as a neutral term to describe patterns of behavior that violate social norms. I don't see the title as suggesting any bias on the part of the author. Google suggests that Robert R. Bell was a professor of sociology at Temple University, which is at least some suggestion that he would be appropriately qualified to write on the subject. Jun 12 '16 at 4:43
  • 3
    I'm not sure this question can have a definitive answer. The OP conceeds that key parties happened, but wants to know if they were "almost endemic". The trouble is, nobody counts these parties, so estimates of their numbers are going to have huge error bars. You also have to determine what subgroup of the population you are talking about. What if there was a particular small set who held these parties regularly? It was endemic in that group, but not elsewhere. Jun 12 '16 at 9:35
  • The sources that I've found indicate that other than the WW2 story, key parties were so secretive that they never got in the press. For example, Mildred W. Weil, in Sex and sexuality: from repression to expression (1990) writes: ' "wife swapping" and "key clubs" were activities that came to light perhaps when one of the more unwilling participants filed for divorce or when mates were angry with each other.'
    – Avery
    Jun 12 '16 at 13:58
  • "Were key parties, as claimed, a noticeable and noteworthy part..." No-one you have quoted suggests they are noticeable/noteworthy.
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 12 '16 at 14:58
  • 1
    @Odd: I gave it another try - feel free to further edit. I think the intent is clear. Jun 12 '16 at 15:11

In 1970, two researchers specialising in the practices of Sexual Freedom movement expressed strong doubt that key parties were popular, describing it as a myth.

  • James R. Smith & Lynn G. Smith (1970) Co‐marital sex and the sexual freedom movement , The Journal of Sex Research, 6:2, 131-142, DOI: 10.1080/00224497009550656

Our data suggest a number of other false myths, but we cannot deal with them all. There is one, however, that bears mention at this time and that is the "key party" myth. Dr. Bartell encountered a high degree of structure and conformity among his sample, but we never came across a sex party structured in any approximation of that fashion. In fact, we were never even able to find an individual who had attended one until we met Dr. Bartell. Evidently they do occur, and we have unsubstantiated reports concerning them, but we suspect that the proliferation of the key-party concept has been supported for the most part as a result of fear and fantasy, and that such behavior is manifest primarily in certain styles of restricted socio-sexual interaction. Such predetermined structure, even though it has surface characteristics of spontaneity and anonymity, provides women with an excuse not to participate and is an extension of male insecurity in that such structured parties automatically provide the male with a partner thereby eliminating the necessity of pursuit and the possibility of an eventual rejection. It also eliminates the responsibility for concrete moral decisions by acquiescence to the structured situation, but such acquiescence makes the label "sexual freedom" something of a misnomer.

To show they have relevant authority (and can pronounce key parties a myth), we can look at the efforts they used to learn about the "swingers" scene.

We began our study early in 1967 with discussions with leaders and organizers of several sexual freedom groups. These groups were organized for a number of purposes but they were all flying the banner of sexual freedom and had in common a fundamental ideology. Most of the initial contact was with public or semi-public groups where access was relatively easy. A total of 16 organized groups are represented in our data. The leaders were generally enthusiastic and cooperative, interested themselves in knowing more about their own membership as well as about other groups. Through contact with these groups and attendance at their social functions we were able to reach others in more private or esoteric settings, and we estimate we were in contact with 15 to 20 such identifiable cliques.

We attended a wide variety of such parties through 1967 and 1968, in all a total of 100 to 125 gatherings, sometimes making an appearance at as many as three per evening. In May 1967 we began sending out questionnaires through both the public organizations and the private groups. [...] We also attended panel discussions, open houses, nude beaches, and other meeting places for persons seeking sexual contacts.

  • A missing bit that you might want to mention is that key parties are meant to have been popular in the 50's. I don't know if the research is meant to disprove they existed then.
    – Sklivvz
    Jun 12 '16 at 15:29
  • 2
    @Sklivvz: I agree this isn't terribly convincing evidence about the 50s. The main reference (by Robert Bell) was published in 1971, and (less importantly) the OP asked about the 60s and 70s, so I thought a reference published in 1970 about the late 1960s would be suitable. Where did you find that they were meant to be popular in the 50s?
    – Oddthinking
    Jun 13 '16 at 4:41

This is not meant as a complete answer but rather as a supplement to Oddthinking's answer with the opinions of a few more sexologists and historians.

As explained in the question Did WW2 pilots lead a swinger's lifestyle to ensure that their friends would take care of their family if they died?, there is a WW2-era founding myth for such parties which is discussed in Gay Talese, Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980), and in Terry Gould, The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers Paperback (1999), neither of which I have access to. Apparently Gould's book contains two experts' testimony that the myth is based in some reality.

I also found an additional writer who suggests that the whole thing was an urban legend, cultural anthropologist Katherine Frank in Plays Well in Groups (2013):

I have never been to an actual key party, been invited to a key party, or interviewed someone who has personally attended a key party, whether in the 1960s or in the decades that followed. I haven't found reliable scholarly accounts of key parties, though they are sporadically mentioned. Such a lack of evidence screams "urban legend"...

I also found an audio talk by Albert Ellis which describes key parties as "probably the rarest kind" of swinging, around 11:00.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .