Three’s Company: The Fantasy and Reality of Sexual Threesome

The word “triangle” commonly connotes both elegance (the three branches of government; the holy trinity) and stability (the pyramids; a tripod). We tend to like things in threes: three Olympic medalists; three musketeers; three blues chords; three strikes you’re out.

But that positive halo does not seem to extend to matters of love and sex. A “love triangle” connotes drama, trouble, even violence. In the news, a love triangle is not a story that ends well.

And then there’s the ‘threesome,’ a notion that seems to reside between excitement and trepidation, between problem and solution, adventurousness and carelessness. When threesomes make the news, the context is usually negative. For example, one type of threesome, involving two men and one woman (MMF), recently made a rather noxious appearance at a Supreme Court hearing.

File:Théodore Géricault Three Lovers

Source: Wikimedia Commons Théodore Géricault (French – Three Lovers

The mixed-gender sexual threesome (MGT) has not been widely researched (the single gender threesome, even less so). But what research does exist seems to point toward several conclusions.

First, as fantasy, threesomes are common, particularly for men. In a 2014 online survey of over 1,500 adults, Christian Joyal and colleagues at the University of Québec found that having sex with two women was one of five (out of a total of 31) fantasies deemed statistically typical and endorsed by over 84 percent of men in the study.

Likewise, a recent survey of 4,175 Americans (ages 18 to 87) from all 50 states about sexual fantasies, by researcher Justin Lehmiller of the Kinsey Institute, found that a threesome was the number one fantasy.

As actual eventualities, however, threesomes are not as popular. A 2017 study of sexual behaviors in a representative sample of over 2,000 adults, by Debby Herbenick and colleagues at the University of Indiana, found that engaging in a threesome was a less common sexual behavior (among 50+ such behaviors) endorsed by just 10 percent of women and 18 percent of men.

Hannah Morris of East Carolina University and colleagues, in a 2007 survey of 196 undergraduates at a large southeastern university, found that, “Fifteen percent of the sample reported having engaged in a threesome. Men evidenced more interest in having a threesome than women.”

Ashley Thompson of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and E. Sandra Byers of the University of New Brunswick, Canada, (2017) surveyed 274 heterosexual young adults regarding their attitudes toward and experience with mixed gender threesomes. They found that, “Overall, 13 percent of participants (24 percent of men and 8 percent of women) reported experience and 64 percent reported some interest in engaging in an MGT.”

Participation in sexual threesomes appears to be motivated, at least at the conscious level, mostly by curiosity, and the behavior is often a one-time experience. Morris and colleagues write, “The motivation for a threesome was primarily curiosity and the third person invited to join the couple in a threesome was most often a friend/acquaintance of the woman. The outcome of a threesome for the couple was primarily no effect with a about a fifth reporting negative outcomes and a similar percentage reporting positive outcomes. Finally, the event happened only once for 83 percent of the respondents who had a threesome.” Beside curiosity, other reasons identified by Morris et al., include pleasing one’s partner, exploring one’s sexuality, looking to spice things up, and seeking to live out a fantasy.

The mixed-gender threesome is by definition a gendered activity; not surprisingly, men and women differ in how they perceive and approach it. For one, men desire and initiate it more often. According to Thompson and Byers, “Compared to the women, the men reported significantly more positive attitudes and greater interest, and were more likely to report MGT experience.”

Men and women also differ in their consideration for acquaintances versus strangers as suitable threesome partners. Thompson and Byers write, “Men’s interest remained unaffected by third person status as long as the MGT involved familiar others (friends and acquaintances) rather than strangers, whereas women preferred familiar others only for MGTs with which they were the third person, not for those involving a romantic partner.”

Likewise, Susan Hughes and colleagues of SUNY Albany, investigating preferences for multiple concurrent sex partners in 448 college students, found that, “males were more willing than females to engage in sex with multiple concurrent partners. Under hypothetical conditions, males preferred having concurrent sex with two female partners, while females showed a more varied preference for the sexes of the other participants.“ The authors interpret these findings as “consistent with predictions derived from evolutionary theory,” since sexual access to multiple women increases the man’s chances at having offspring, hence maximizing his evolutionary fitness.

Not surprisingly, the sexual double standard seems to exist for threesome action as it does for sexual activity as a whole. For example, participants in a study by Peter Jonason and Michael Marks of New Mexico State University (2009) evaluated women who participated in threesomes more negatively than men who did. These authors also found that men rated positively other men who participated in a threesome with two women, but rated negatively those men who participated in a threesome with another man.

At first glance, threesomes may appear as subversive acts in defiance of monogamy, but research does not support this view. For example, Uri Wernik, (1990) in a qualitative study of married couples’ accounts of their MMF threesomes, rejected earlier speculations that the behavior was motivated by voyeurism/exhibitionism, latent homosexuality, or the Oedipal complex as “pseudo-scientific.” He proposed an alternative model integrating three factors: “Sexuality in the framework of marriage, the role of visuality in human sexuality, and coping with inhibitions in sexual functioning.” A man, in other words, invites another man to have sex with his wife as a means of asserting dominance (by orchestrating the encounter), increasing arousal (through observing the act), and overcoming sexual inhibitions and strict, stifling moral codes. These threesomes therefore constitute “a problem solving process in which a person finds a creative combined solution to these and other concerns.”

More recently, Ryan Scoats of Birmingham City University UK, who specializes in threesome research, noted that couples commonly work to protect the specialness of their monogamy during threesomes through intricate communication. Scoats also argues that the increasing acceptance of homosexuality has relaxed men’s fears around MMF threesomes.

Feminist and gender theorists have also provided insight. Some, like Breanne Fahs of Arizona State University, worry that “today’s notion of women’s sexual empowerment only signifies a repackaging of the same-old patriarchal norms.” Thus, “trying an unwanted threesome to make a husband happy… suggests… that coercive experiences sit at the core of many women’s sexual experiences and, more alarmingly, that coercive behavior underlies hetero men’s ‘normal’ sexual practices and feelings.”

The writer Monique Roffey argues that threesomes have often, “revolved around one ‘great man’, and served his libido with double helpings.” She asks that we “shake the sexy threesome fantasy firmly by its neck and look at it through a feminist lens. Were women really ‘free’ to indulge in threesomes?” She thinks not. “Before we celebrate bohemia and the outsider aspect of a triad,” advises Roffey, “we must spank the sh*t out of its patriarchal history and tendencies.” She proposes that “for a ménage à trois to feel relevant today, we must reimagine and reinvent the notion of the threesome from many other perspectives: feminist, queer, non-binary, race, class, everything.”

Mining a similar terrain, Mimi Schippers of Tulane University has argued that threesomes with two women and one man are acceptable in our (hetero-normative) society because they “reflect and maintain existing power relations and legitimize social privilege.” Threesomes with two men and one woman, on the other hands, are seen in this critique as genuinely subversive, since they may facilitate erotic intimacy among heterosexual men, thus negating rigid notions of straight masculinity.

Time will tell whether shifting gender consciousness and social mores will upend the old-fashioned ways of threesome-ing. For now, the threesome appears to be a sexual variant pursued by a minority of people mainly out of curiosity; it appeals more to men and more widely as fantasy than as actual behavior. When people go for it, their experiences vary, but they are rarely enduringly consequential, a threat to monogamy, or habitual. Whether one considers this state of affairs as good or bad will depend heavily on one’s sexual politics. But that’s a topic for another post.

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