Three’s company

No matter our age, the threesome remains the ultimate male fantasy. While delving into the full spectrum of desire, Russell Smith explores the whys, hows and how-not-tos

It will come as no surprise that 84 per cent of men, according to a recent study done at the Université de Montréal, fantasize about having sex with two women, nor that only 36.9 of women do. What should be done about this disparity? Nothing whatsoever. There are more important issues to get impatient with your spouse over. But it raises some important questions about fantasy generally and the value of acting on it.

An even less important but, to me, intriguing research question would be: “Do men dream of these things more over 50?”

Lots of people had threesomes in their 20s and 30s. I did. I had the more frequent kind – couple of women and a guy (what porn calls FFM, as if you didn’t know) – not the other way around, because … well, maybe because I’m egotistical or uptight or controlling or maybe because women are more sensual or accommodating or eager to please. Look, lots of women fantasize about having two men (exactly 30.9 per cent, according to that Canadian study, run by researcher Christian Joyal). Personally, I know two women who have acted on just such a fantasy successfully quite recently. (Both were single and both were under 50.) But MMF is not something that obsesses guys (either gay or straight) much: we’re afraid of it. What does that tell us?

I’ve never heard any women regretting the FFM threesomes of their youth: they even boast of them. They like to recall how wild they themselves were and how their sexuality has always been uninhibited. They roll their eyes a bit, though, when reminiscing about those club or college days or that summer in Malibu or Mexico, as if to say it was silly, it was drunken silliness. It was a lot of fun though, they say, looking at their watches and yawning. (They have an early meeting tomorrow.)

Men of my age remember these things rather differently. We remember them very vaguely, actually, because we were rather drunk. But we wish we had clearer memories of a tangle of female bodies around us: it’s the abundance that excites, the excess of it. And, of course, the massive ego rush, the king-of-the-world mad power of it. We would love to do it again, maybe not drunk this time, and with the sexual expertise and general confidence and calmness that we have slowly gathered since we were 24. The subject comes up again, for some reason, over 50 – maybe because we’ve just been divorced and see a window opening on all those things we have seen only in porn for the past 20 years. (And we have seen a lot of porn – I mean an astounding, immeasurable amount of porn – in 20 years.)  Maybe because we’ve been diagnosed with slow-growing prostate cancer and know suddenly that our years of potency are not going to be finite. Maybe we have an inkling that of all the twisted carnal fantasies that occupy about 45 per cent of our conscious time, this one, this particular one, is kind of vanilla, kind of maybe even possible. Maybe even something to be suggested.

Hence the recurring men’s magazine article: “How to get her to agree to a threesome.” And its women’s magazine counterpart: “Why does he want a threesome? (And how to get him to rake the yard instead.)”

Women’s fantasies differ profoundly from men’s in one significant way: men, by and large, want to act on theirs; women don’t. (Joyal’s study confirms this.) For women, the fantasy is a sexual experience in itself; for men, it is a blueprint. (This is why our fantasies often involve significant practical detail: we have to have figured out, before peak masturbation begins, the logistical details of how exactly we find ourselves with the neighbour in the laundry room at a time when no one else will possibly be there. Women say they can masturbate about the colour peach.) There is one obvious practical reason for this difference: women’s actual sex lives are so much more dangerous. Men don’t risk injury by having a threesome. The reality of a gangbang is just too scary to attempt, for most women.

Still, being male, I can’t really comprehend fantasizing about something you don’t actually want to happen. That’s oxymoronic to me. My fantasy is genuine desire. And although I’m not personally obsessed with threesomes (honestly; it’s just an example), I am interested in why these fun experiments have to stop at a certain age.

And they do, you know it, they do stop once you’re in a relationship longer than five years or have kids or turn 50, whichever happens first. No, there’s no science there: no one has done a global statistical study on how many dozens of 50-year-old couples around the world have jumped into bed with the babysitter and, yes, we all know that one wrinkly swinger couple that goes to mysterious parties in bars in Mississauga.

But if we men are honest with ourselves, we know that trying to act on these reveries is almost always going to be a very bad idea. Don’t we realize that such an experience is going to be stressful for us, too? The mechanics of threesomes are not codified. What exactly are we supposed to do and in what order? And isn’t a little anxiety-inducing, now that one no longer has a 25-year-old body, be called on to please not one but two rare examples of actual female nudity? Talk about pressure. Why aren’t we content to just wait until you’re out and watch as many free videos of it as we want on Xtube? (Oh, one note here to women whose husbands “don’t watch porn”: um, no, forget it, never mind.)

Even Vice magazine, the global leader in the promotion of drunken sex, ran an article in 2013 called “Threesomes Blow,” about how a dude should never risk one. If Vice says something is risky, you’d better believe it. The writer, James Sewall, himself an expert on the experience, listed four main objections: (1) It’s too hard to set up; (2) Women are stupid (what he means, translated from Vice style, is that he finds most of them too sexually inexperienced to know what to do); (3) Men are morons (no explanation necessary); (4) It’s not natural (“Men are bad at it because they’re too macho to deal.”).

That is neither scientific fact nor coherent psychology, but it does have the ring of lived experience. Reading Vice actually reminds me more than anything of the main reason mature people don’t do this anymore: not so much a diminishing sex drive as a diminishing desire to consume a bottle of vodka and a gram of blow. A diminishing desire to throw up in the morning, if you will.

Furthermore, there’s the, well, psychopathology of it. What kind of egomaniac wants sexual dominion over two women at once? He knows he can’t really satisfy them both, so what is it he wants, a harem? The sense of being adored? Isn’t that more ego than sex drive? Isn’t it fundamentally hubris?

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Well, yes. But anyone who can clearly trace a line between ego and sex drive, in any gender, is a finer psychologist than I am.

Is this indiscriminate male greed offensive? Actually, science does have some things to say about offensive fantasies. Science, you will be surprised to hear, believes in the offensive. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of psychiatric disorders as compiled and recompiled every few years by the American Psychiatric Association, doesn’t come out and say that some fantasies are pathological, but they strongly imply it. They tend to say “anomalous” or “deviant” when they refer to the scariest of dark imaginings; no value judgment.

But psychiatric researchers do admit that there are certain fantasies that ring alarm bells: “Clinically, we know what pathological sexual fantasies are,” said Joyal. “They involve non-consenting partners, they induce pain or they are absolutely necessary in deriving satisfaction.” (The DSM says that in evaluating a patient’s propensity to commit rape, one of the three diagnostic criteria should be: “over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies or sexual urges focused on sexual coercion.”)

Now you’d think that might be obvious, but the implications for every sex-positive educator in the world have to be considered. Here you were all smug, for the past 30 years or so at least, in the post-sexual revolution knowledge that fantasy was perfectly normal and harmless and completely separable from real actions. You’ve been telling yourself you have nothing to worry about, even if your reveries are of frankly unhygienic or possibly unfriendly encounters or – worse, I suppose – if they are simply so silly, so embarrassing, so downright cheesy, you would be mortified if even your closest sexual partner were to know of them.

Now along come the doctors and tell you there is a chance you could be, oh boy, one seriously disturbed pervert. It’s a bit like learning that masturbation will actually make you go blind. You might start to think it’s best you shove those cosplay magazines deep under the bed and keep your thoughts of ravishing the burly trans bus driver to yourself. If imagining violence is a possible warning of pathology, then what is a daydream of spanking your wife? Or her fantasy of being raped by a roomful of large men (not an uncommon fantasy at all)? And what is the game you play with your husband all the time, when you pretend to be asleep and he has his way with you? Could that not be evidence of a deep sickness that should be addressed before he goes out and hits someone up with a roofie?

Threesomes are among the most common fantasies of all and clinically completely harmless – but still, it makes you wonder, if we want something very badly, should we do it or leave it pristine in the category of the oneiric pleasure – the purely dreaming? If we were to act on it – say, a horny and accommodating and maybe just curious wife gives in to her greedy husband’s frequent hints and announces to him, “Okay, you’re on. Barb is coming over on Saturday morning. You’ve got an hour with us both – sorry it can’t be more than an hour, but she’s got her Mindfulness all afternoon and Brad has the car – ready?” What then is the relieved husband to expect?

Well, probably not relief, for one thing. Excitement, yes, tinged by a paralyzing anxiety – anxiety about his capacities, about the probable emotions involved, about the jealousies that will be experienced by all parties – perhaps even his own jealousy – and generally about things “getting weird.”

The sex advice columnists will list a number of rules for you here. They are very confident about what works and what doesn’t: establish guidelines and boundaries in advance, talk through your emotions, consider using the services of a professional to start off with (so as to not cause any social awkwardness with Barb and Brad). They like to say that communication is everything. We now believe this the way we believe juice fasts cleanse toxins – because we read it in magazines.

Unfortunately, no actual scientific research on sexual arousal – and there is a half-century of it – has established any link between “communication” and erotic response. Watching bonobos mate has been seen to measurably arouse female humans as has fantasizing about rape by a stranger. Having your husband ask, “You okay, you want to take a break?”, while emotionally pleasing, has no measurable physiological benefit. It’s awfully nice to have him offer to vacuum the house, too, but not orgasmic.

See, here’s the thing about sex advice experts: anybody who declares himself a “certified sex therapist” is basically announcing that he didn’t take enough chemistry courses to get into med school. Not one of these well-intentioned, intuitive, widely accepted principles has any origin in psychological research of any kind. They are gut feelings.

But here’s what my own unscientific yet wildly oversexed intuition tells me: Guys, if your woman is over 50 and she has never expressed any bisexual tendencies in the many years you have known her, then she doesn’t have them. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel sorry for you. The only reason she will accede to your polyamorous request is to please you. The same way she might react if you told her your bucket list included bungee jumping and shark diving and seeing Bucharest: she might consider all of these things, before you die, just for you. Generosity is not harmful or pathological; it’s just nice. But do you want to put her in the position of having to say no?

Zoomer Magazine, April 2015