Adrian Bingham: Swinging - only pampas grass is quite as suburban - and as British

Reading between the lines of the red-tops, coded messages and prurient myths

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Amid the relentlessly grim news of austerity, unemployment and eurozone wrangling, it's cheering to see swinging back in the headlines. We learnt last week that Mariella Frostrup, the television and radio presenter, had received unwanted attention by placing a pair of pampas grass plants on the balcony of her Notting Hill flat. "Who knew," she wrote on Twitter afterwards, "that pampas grass plants are a signal to fellow swingers?" Fellow broadcaster Esther Rantzen received similar publicity last year when she revealed how she removed the plant from her own garden after discovering the supposed connection with swinging. "There's an awful lot of pampas grass in Luton," she observed of the town which had recently failed to elect her as MP. Urban myth or not, it doesn't take much to get swinging into the gossip columns. We seem to have an endless fascination with the mysterious and secretive world of suburban sexual exchange.

This fascination is nothing new. Indeed the history of swinging stories has much to tell us about the peculiar combination of prurience and moralising that characterises British popular culture. The early press revelations about swinging, some 50 years ago, were entwined with the emergence of modern celebrity and the development of more intrusive styles of journalism. They formed part of the redrawing of the boundary between public and private that we associate with "permissiveness".

Swinging was propelled into the popular imagination in the early 1960s by newspapers fearful of the competition posed by television and desperate to find ways of appealing to a young generation seeking a more explicit and more entertaining treatment of sex. One of the men responsible was the boisterous Devonian journalist Stafford Somerfield, who in 1959 became editor of the News of the World. The paper was selling what seems now an astonishing figure of 6,000,000 copies per week, but this was still some 2,000,000 copies down on the peak circulation of the early 1950s. Somerfield was very conscious that the News of the World's traditional formula of lurid court reporting and sensational crime stories – a formula that had changed little in 100 years – appeared increasingly dated in an increasingly affluent and consumerist Britain. On his first day in 1959, he demanded a series of articles that would make readers' "hair curl" and announced that his paper was changing. He wanted a sexier, lighter and more celebrity-focused publication. The result was the investment of a then huge £36,000 in serialising the autobiography of British sex bomb Diana Dors.

Aptly titled "Swinging Dors", this was the actress's "frank and full account of the men she loved and the wild life she has lived". For two months from January 1960, readers were enticed into a celebrity world of free sexuality. "There were no half measures at my parties," she revealed. "Off came the sweaters, bras and panties. In fact it was a case of off with everything – except the lights... Every night was party night." Her house was the venue for parties in which her husband Dennis Hamilton and his friends had sex with young women while guests looked on through a two-way mirror. "Blue movies" were shown starring stars "well known in the West End".

Befitting the News of the World's claim to be a "family newspaper", there was a thin veneer of morality coating the articles. Dors claimed that her wild life was behind her, and that she hoped to become a happy wife and mother. Desperate not to be left behind in the new market for celebrity confessions, the Sunday Pictorial ran a series on Dors's (now former) husband Hamilton.

This sudden preoccupation with the extravagant sex lives of celebrities dismayed the Press Council, the feeble predecessor of the equally feeble Press Complaints Commission. It criticised the News of the World and the Pictorial for printing "material that was grossly lewd and salacious", but had no punitive sanctions. Somerfield ignored the criticisms.

It was one thing for film stars to behave in such ways – they were almost expected to live "wild lives" – quite another for politicians and high society. The Profumo scandal of 1963, which produced endless rumours of orgies at country houses and expensive Belgravia flats, consolidated the fascination with swinging in elevated circles. Rumours abounded of a world of debauchery and sado-masochism involving cabinet members and aristocrats. Somerfield's News of the World was at the forefront again, buying and serialising the memoirs of Profumo's lover, Christine Keeler. The cycle of Press Council condemnation and tabloid non-cooperation was repeated. The unravelling of the Profumo scandal in 1963 demonstrated the spectacular results that could be achieved by easing the self-restraint that had previously discouraged journalists from intruding into the private lives of public figures.

But for the swinging story to have longevity, evidence was needed that it was happening in rather more humble surroundings. Sure enough, in March 1966, the People claimed that "decadent moral behaviour" was "touching every corner of this once so-respectable land". This "decadence" among ordinary citizens included "orgy parties, home-made blue-films, a mania for pornography, indulgence in pep-up sex drugs"; most shocking of all, though, was the practice of "wife-swapping" on a "scale that will startle and revolt all decent-minded people". The paper quoted figures from the Institute of Sex Research in Indiana estimating that 5,000,000 married couples in the United States had exchanged partners at least once, and suggested that similar proportions could be expected in Britain. The News of the World entered the fray with its "Sex in the Suburbs" series in 1968, and soon undercover reporters Trevor Kempson and Tina Dalgleish were travelling around the country posing as husband and wife to infiltrate wife-swapping circles.

As the historians of the News of the World note, there was a "constant stream" of these stories in the 1970s and '80s: "It was the new staple diet and the readers loved it." But there could be a darker side to this reporting. A Welsh teacher took his own life when he learnt that his swinging was about to be exposed. At the subsequent inquest, Dalgleish was forced to read his suicide note to the court, but she remained unrepentant.

It is doubtful that swinging was ever as widespread as the tabloids suggested. Although small-scale magazines to connect swingers emerged in Britain in the 1960s, the US scene was always far more organised. The swinging that did occur, moreover, probably didn't live up to the exotic fantasies inspired by Dors and Profumo. A US study from the late 1960s found that the average male swinger was podgy and balding; the women were relatively flat-chested but "over-endowed" in the "thighs and stomach". The arrival of the internet, the ubiquity of pornography and the erosion of older codes of sexual restraint means that swinging is probably more common than ever. But the vicarious thrills and the sense of mystery inspired by pampas grass and secret codes still obscure a far more mundane reality.

Dr Adrian Bingham teaches history at the University of Sheffield and is the author of 'Family Newspapers: Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press 1918-1978'

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