So this has nothing to do with class or my blog beat, but I wanted some place to publish my final piece. I made a few very slight edits to the one I handed in but I only have that on paper, but this is close enough to what I handed in. Read and enjoy!
On a cold Thursday night in mid-November, Joel and Ester sit side by side at a table under the dim lighting of the Mission Hill Bar and Grill. Joel is a bald, 35-year-old, Caucasian male. His wife, Ester, is a tan-skinned 29-year-old Brazilian woman with dark hair. Tonight, on their weekly date night, he drinks beer while she sips red wine.
Ever since their first child, a girl, was born three months ago, Joel and Ester don’t get out or have sex as much as they used to, like most couples who become parents. Unlike most couples, however, they aren’t just missing sex with each other; they also miss engaging in threesomes. Inviting a third partner into their bed isn’t easy when there’s a baby and the baby’s aunt at home.
Joel had always been sexually adventurous, and in 2006 he suggested to Ester, his wife since 2003, that they experiment with multi-partner sex. Ester, who prides herself on having an open mind, was willing to, so they explored the swinging scene.
“We went to a couple [swinging events] and knew right away… this is not our scene,” says Joel. Both partners realized that they wanted a threesome rather than swapping and/or orgies, and that they didn’t want another man involved.
“If you involve a man it gets too complicated… it involves too much; you have to worry about okay, it’s strange, it’s not comfortable,” says Ester.
“You can’t have too many penises in one room, they start fighting,” jokes Joel, delighted that Ester prefers having a woman as the third partner.
But a single female interested in a threesome with a married couple isn’t easy to find. When Joel spoke to people at swingers events, they said he was looking for the ‘golden unicorn.’
Despite the supposed rarity of the single female seeking a couple, Joel and Ester have engaged in threesomes with six different women.
The couple, who asked their last name be withheld for anonymity, represent the iconic image of a threesome– two females and one male. However, threesomes are nearly impossible to generalize. For one thing, there are several types of threesomes– from the ‘typical’ female-male-female, to three males, and all other combinations.
“There’s so much diversity in the reasons why people are engaging in them and what their experience is,” said Vanessa Schick, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist in the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University- Bloomington. “There are sometimes male-female partners inviting a woman into the partnership… sometimes all three people are in a relationship together, sometimes it’s just sex… threesomes differ with each encounter as much as any sexual experience.”
Over time, American societal views on sex have gone through phases. For example, in the 1920s conservative society was upended by the explosion of “flappers”– women expressing their sexuality by dressing in more revealing attire, smoking, dancing and drinking in public. The trend faded and with it, the presence of sex in the public sphere. In the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, people began re-exploring sexuality, and clubs for wife-swapping and group sex sprouted up everywhere. Like the flapper era, the “Swinging 60s” eventually ended, but both had sent a message: People can choose to change or defy social rules regarding sex and sexuality.
Today, it seems that mass media portrays sex with few limitations. There are several reality shows where the basic premise is alcohol-induced, sex-fueled romances. However, it begs the question: is the mass media encouraging or simply portraying ‘atypical’ sexualities and behaviors? Barbara Kanal, a licensed clinical social worker with a Ph.D. who specializes in family therapy, believes it’s primarily the latter.
“It’s not normalizing [‘abnormal’ sexual behavior] but it exposes it, we’re smarter now to know that people do what we don’t think they do, and are what we don’t think they are,” said Kanal, who’s based in Huntington, NY. “I don’t think [mass media] encourages [kinky sex] but… they’re making people aware.”
While the mass media may act as just a window into the world of kinky sex, the Internet acts as both a window and door. Hundreds of websites exist that are geared towards various kink. On Craigslist, there are about 30 daily posts by couples seeking a woman for a three-way. In addition, there is a plethora of sites like AdultFriendFinder.com and Swappernet.com where people can find ‘dates,’ and blogs, websites, and forums devoted to discussing kink.
Ester and Joel have in fact, created their own online space for facilitating threesomes; they formed a meet-up group on Meetup.com, a website designed to help people find groups of like-minded individuals anywhere in the world. Joel felt it could be a solution to the ‘golden unicorn’ problem– that single women weren’t going to swingers events because they were afraid of what would be expected of them.
“I said let’s create a group where there’s not as much pressure…we’ll get everyone hanging out, being friends… and what happens, happens,” said Joel.
There are currently about 30 people in Joel and Ester’s meet-up group, and about 100 more applicants waiting to be approved. But to Joel’s dismay, it’s a large majority of couples and the ‘golden unicorn’ remains a rarity.
Threesomes, in any form, are not a novelty activity of today. The idea of non-monogamous relationships, sexual and/or marital, dates back centuries ago. Ancient vases and artwork often contain orgiastic images. In a research paper published in 2008, entitled “Monogamy and Polygyny (having more than one wife or female mate at the same time) in Greece, Rome, and World History,” Walter Scheidel of Stanford University, wrote: “We find that most societies condoned social and genetic polygamy – almost always in the form of polygynous polygamy… Of 1,154 societies described in the Human Relations Area Files, 93% recognize some degree of socially sanctioned polygyny…”
Generally, American society has looked down on sex beyond the traditional image– between a man and a woman, monogamous, within the confines of marriage. But that image has at times, been publicly challenged– such as during the 1920s and Swinging 60s. There is discourse over how influential mass media can be, with its recent increased portrayal of ‘atypical’ sexual behavior and sexualities like homosexuality and kink.
Doctor Howard Glazer, a clinical sexologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, agrees with Kanal’s sentiment that mass media has made society more aware of kinky sex but hasn’t actually increased the frequency of it.
“Incidence of occurrence has not changed, but awareness has,” said Glazer. “I think people are more aware of these non-traditional forms of relationships; anything we’re exposed to more, we become less shocked by it.”
But some would argue that just by raising awareness of kink, the mass media is in fact encouraging experimentation.
“In the past when people didn’t hear about things, they thought ‘I don’t want to do that, it’d be wrong…,’ ” said Dr. Katherine Ellin, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Cambridge. “What’s happened in the media is it’s allowed people to feel more okay with doing sexual things that they are interested in.”
If Ellin’s theory is correct, this could mean a change in how society defines ‘normal’ sex. Because one thing that is hardly disputable is how much more of a variety of sexual behavior has appeared across the entertainment industry.
One of the earliest shows known for having its character engage in a threesome is the ever-scandalous Sex and the City (1998). In an unofficial survey of college students, respondents mentioned a number of other shows where they have seen threesomes, such as Two and a Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, Gossip Girl, Friends, and The L Word. Threesomes also appear often in reality shows like the Jersey Shore, and nearly every HBO show– i.e., True Blood and Entourage.
In addition, several full-length films over the past decade or so have had three-way sex scenes, such as the 2012 film, On the Road, the 2009 film Watchmen, and the 2000 film American Psycho.
Songs are another branch of popular culture teeming with threesome references. One such song is Britney Spears’ pop number called “3”. It goes: “Countin’ 1,2,3/ Peter, Paul, and Mary/ Gettin’ down with 3P/ … Merrier the more/ triple fun that way/ Twister on the floor/ what do you say?”
Austin Brown, an R &B artist, has a song “Ménage a Trois” which goes: “Caught in between/ Who can be mean? / I`ve got just one, / But with two there`s more fun./ Why miss ménage a trois?”
The long list of other songs referencing threesomes includes “Bounce” by Timbaland, “I U She” by Peaches, and “Love With the 3 of Us” by Stereo Total.
Due to the lack of statistics on how many people engaged in threesomes at any given time period, it’s hard to say how much more frequently threesomes occur today. But although there’s room for debate about whether it acts more as a door or window into that world, it’s basically indisputable that the prevalence of threesomes/kink in mass media today is unprecedented.
There are various motivations why groups, and the individuals within them, engage in a threesome.
In the case of one college senior– call her Linda, as she requested anonymity– the reason she engaged in a threesome in her junior year with a male and female friend was different than that of her friend’s. “I had been thinking about it for a while and the time and the guy was right… the one thing that pushed me over the edge was that I didn’t want to look lame, I wanted to be that person who was down for whatever,” said Linda. For her [girl] friend, Linda said it was about getting back at her ex-boyfriend.
Many people engaging in threesomes are young and single like Linda and her friends. But a good number are couples who do it for their relationship. A woman who would not reveal her name but calls herself BoredHouseWifey on the forum-based site Experienceproject.com, arranged a threesome, in part because of personal curiosity, but primarily as a birthday gift for her husband. This concept of gift-giving is a frequent theme in threesomes. In 1998, the late Dr. Arno Karlen, a psychoanalyst, conducted extensive research on threesomes, and published his work in the form of a book called Threesomes: Studies of Sex Power and Intimacy. In Chapter 7, Karlen wrote: “Accounts of threesomes as sexual gifts popped up regularly in this study. Usually it was a woman bringing another woman… to a man she liked…”
Couples also engage in threesomes for other reasons. “Some couples I’ve worked with, they’ve looked at bringing in a third person in feeling like they need to spice up the relationship, bring a different energy or perspective,” said Monica Levine, a clinical social worker and sex therapist. “It’s a sense of experimentation, adventure, they felt they’ve exhausted the physicalities, dimensions of their relationship.”
Often there are more psychological reasons/motivations going on behind the scenes, such as a search for self-assurance or, as BarbaraKanal mentioned, the tactic of triangling a relationship– adding a third person to “diffuse the intensity” between oneself and their primary partner as a way of ensuring their attachment to them.
The only clear indication that someone might be willing/interested to engage in threesomes is their level of open-mindedness and libido. “People with very strong libidos need more adventure so tend to have threesomes, go to nude bars, be simulated by hardcore porn,” said Kanal.
In his study, Arno Karlen did find parallels in how his subjects were raised, what and when their first exposure to sexual intimacy was like, family dynamics, etc. He found that many people who’d engaged in threesomes or triads– longer term relations– had had troubled childhoods, on some level.
One person who falls into this category is Kimberly Harrington, an 18-year-old with a very promiscuous past. Her family moved to New York City from a small town in Kansas and she began ninth grade as a 13-year-old. She soon became friends with people much older than herself, becoming exposed to the world of sex, drugs, and alcohol. She lost her virginity at age 14, and entered a negative cycle; she would sneak out to have sex and party, her parents would get furious with her, she would have sex to cope with their anger, and they would get mad that she was a ‘slut’. She ran away often, and many of these nights away from home led to things like threesomes and sex with strangers who were usually much older than herself. She’s gone to therapy for her apparent sex addiction and has stabilized her life; she and her boyfriend are currently scouring Craigslist for a woman to join them in bed– which would be her first threesome with another female.
Kimberly is an extreme case; her issues led her down a promiscuous path that unsurprisingly included threesomes. But there are plenty of people more like Derick, a 33-year-old Pennsylvania native who withheld his last name. Derick, who never drinks (beyond wine with dinner) or has done drugs, and has a good relationship with his family, has had two male-female-male threesomes (one while in college and one in his 20s with a married couple) and two threesomes with himself and two women (college).
Ester and Joel are two other people with very different stories. Both were raised in middle class, religious families– hers Catholic, his Seventh Day Adventist. But her parents were restrictive. She’d sneak out and lie to go to parties or clubs. She lost her virginity at age 18 with her boyfriend, and she has only had three sexual partners in her lifetime. Ester’s still-married parents were always intimate and she has a very warm relationship with them and her siblings.
Joel was a “latch-key” kid– his parents weren’t home after school and so he experimented with alcohol and drugs at an early age. He lost his virginity at age 15 with his then-girlfriend, and he’s had about 45 sexual partners in his lifetime. His parents were divorced and his relationship with them is and has been very damaged.
Joel revealed that in some way, his parent’s divorce is one reason he wanted to explore threesomes. “Traditional marriage just doesn’t work, it gets kind of boring after a while,” said Joel. “What were our parents doing? They were probably just cheating. I know my father was cheating… Marriage just didn’t work and sex is a big part of that.”
This idea of extradyadic relations “beating divorce/cheating” tends to come up in explanations of open relationships or threesomes. “Basically he has a desire to sleep with other people, have other sex experience and rather than going about them behind the partner’s back and risking putting a rift in the relationship, he’s trying to be open and honest…” said Dr. Carita Anderson, a psychologist and sex therapist based out of Arlington, of Joel’s attitude.
But according to experts, that’s not a fool-proof plan. People can’t always separate sex from emotions, even though they convince themselves otherwise. “Most people going into [a threesome] aren’t prepared for how they’re going to feel and how their partner’s going to feel,” said Anderson.
Jealousy and competitiveness, for example, are strong human emotions that are hard to keep out of any kind of relationship, though some manage them better than others.
“Jealousy is an emotion and like any emotion it can be extreme and dangerous…,” said family therapist and clinical social worker Barbara Kanal. “It can be stimulating and exciting… but can turn into something different and become problematic.”
Things get messy when people aren’t actually as prepared, emotionally mature, or into it as they think they are. For example, sex therapist and clinical social worker, Monica Levine, dealt with a couple in which the husband wanted to invite another man in, thinking he’d be turned on by watching his wife have sex with the man, but it turned into jealousy on the husband’s part, and he held it against his wife.
BoredHouseWifey, on Experienceproject.com, said her husband became jealous when she continued spending time with the other woman. Another site user, who would not reveal his name but goes by Wufpackj, also had a negative reaction after his threesome. “It makes for an awkward morning after,” he wrote. “It’s never as hot as anyone thought and someone always gets left out. I think it’s better left as a fantasy.”
Like sex between two people, the during is often great, but the aftermath is not always what people expected or hoped.
Swingers, interviewed by Arno Karlen for his book, who experienced both threesomes and group sex say there is something about triadic sex that makes it so unique, so appealing to people.
“It was extremely passionate in all of [my threesomes], they were very intense, relatively long sessions… I mean it was a very intense, passionate, a very physically enjoyable time,” said Derick.
Experts suggest the appeal for kink is in the excitement of doing the forbidden. Doctor Katherine Ellin offered an explanation of why threesomes are so especially stimulating to people.
“For some people there’s enormous comfort in being held by two people, having more than one person to love and be connected with,” said Ellin. “With four there’s too much going on, with two it’s reciprocal but its’ not two people taking care of you.”
Ester worries about her and her husband’s sexual health and admits fear of becoming jealous or abandoned, but the worry doesn’t outweigh the reward that threesomes bring.
Of her favorite part about threesomes, Ester said: “I think it’s the after, it feels more close… the sex is better between the two of us afterwards because we’re already so stimulated.”
Even though it’s no easy task to find the single female– or golden unicorn– and they are short on free time with a baby in the mix, Joel hopes to continue engaging in three-way sex, as he feels acting out fantasies like threesomes is important.
“You can’t just have sex in bed all the time,” said Joel. “It gets old after a while, you gotta keep it interesting.”