Who’s on Top? Power Dynamics in a Threesome

Sex is simple. That’s what makes it so complicated.

In theory, sex is nothing more than the biological activity of transferring our DNA to a new generation. That’s really it. Everything we eat, the way our medula controls our heartbeat, the way we interact, it’s all pointed at that simple requirement: to produce facsimiles of ourselves.

But in practice, we seem to have made it as hard for ourselves as we possibly could, by developing stupidly complex sociopsychological behavior. A sea sponge, for example, doesn’t ever worry about the consequences of having sex with its ex’s best friend. Spongebob never has to concern himself with the power dynamics and sociosexual politics of a threesome.

But we do. Because of our big dumb intelligence.

We’re drawn to threes. There’s a universal kind of balance inside a three. Triangles, as the most stable physical shape, appear widely throughout science, nature, architecture, medicine, everything really. Three is the number of spatial dimensions humans can perceive, and the basic amount of colors our eyes can see. Every major religion contains some kind of intrinsic trinity, from Wiccan to Zoroastrianism.

threesome

But culturally, not sex. According to convention, sex is between a man and a woman and NO ONE ELSE, and if you so much as covet your neighbor’s ass, the whole town is burned down and you’re turned to a pillar of salt as a divine warning to all mankind. A trinity in the bedroom introduces an imbalance in the traditional order, and, instead of embodying stability, and like an atom with an extra neutron, a threesome means society is in a state of decay.

I’m being facetious, obviously. But only a little. So terrified at the possibility of instability caused by a threesome, the authoritarian Chinese government has a law against what translates beautifully to ‘group licentiousness.’ A recent case involved a man, who called himself ‘Roaring Virile Fire,’ and his girlfriend with the similarly brilliant name ‘Passionate Fiery Phoenix,’ who were given up to five years hard time for introducing a third into the bedroom. Personally, I think it’s worth having a criminal record just to have ‘group licentiousness’ on it. “Hi I’m Stu *flips out business card dramatically* if you like groups and licentiousness, then I got some haaaard time for you…” *shades on* *gunfingers*

Welcome To The Devil’s Triangle

Back in the West, though, we’ve become quite comfortable with the concept of the threesome. As traditional inhibitions revolving around sexuality and gender begin to relax and our culture becomes increasingly comfortable with the blurring boundaries of conventional binary roles, the threesome has become sort of a torch for sexual subversion. It’s now so much part of our culture that we have at least 42 euphemisms for it. One of our biggest stars is called ‘Minaj.’ Recent history even saw the definition of a ‘Devil’s Triangle’ discussed in the Supreme Court.

A threesome is freedom, a symbol of independence, a ticket into the club of the sexually liberated. We’ve come to see it as a bohemian icon of sexual progressivity and fluidity. But… is it really?

There’s not a huge amount of research out there about the dynamics of a threesome. There’s almost none at all regarding same-gender threesomes. So, I’m going to make a huge assumption, and then set it aside for later. The assumption is this: the power dynamics inside a same-gender threesome are more clearly defined and more progressive than they are in a mixed-gender threesome. In same-gender threesomes, there is a general understanding of the roles each participant will play before any sexual activity takes place, even if the encounter is spontaneous. That is to say, in general, gay or queer threesomes are generally undertaken by people with a deeper connection to their sexualities, and therefore the dynamics are understood up front, in one way or another, even if it’s non-verbal. Generally. Generally. If this assumption is correct, then what I’m about to say doesn’t apply to single-gender threesomes – I’ll come back to those at a later date. For what follows, I’m talking specifically about mixed-gender threesomes.

What little research there is about mixed-gender threesomes is pretty consistent. The three main findings are almost always these:

  • Threesomes represent our most common shared sexual fantasy
  • Men fantasize about threesomes more than women
  • Include two women with one man is more common than one woman and two men

It would be super useful if men fantasized about threesomes exactly twice as much as women, because then the math would add up 2:1. It’s a lot closer than that, but there’s still a major difference.

Two’s Company, Three’s Allowed

Another interesting fact emerges from the studies: the third partner in an MFF threesome is usually a friend of the woman, and the choice to invite someone else into the bedroom is usually based either on simple sexual curiosity, or to please their partner – and, by extension, themselves. But, to generalize again, when the threesome has an male-male-female dynamic, the second man is usually selected by the male in the couple, and rarely contain any bisexual interaction between the two men. (I got these stats from a reputable source.)

Statistically speaking, the average mixed-gender threesome is between one man and two women, and when it isn’t, it’s still orchestrated by the man. You have to look to the very fringes of our society to find examples of threesomes in which two men are submissive to one woman and sexually intimate with each other, for instance.

From the perspective of evolutionary biology, this makes sense. In fact, it’s predicted by our species’ reproductive history: sexual access to multiple women simultaneously increases the man’s chances of reproducing. It should be no surprise that more men fantasize about MFF threesomes than women.

If that sounds sexually regressive, it does to me too, and that’s my point. All of the normal circumstances of the most common types of threesome are structured in a way that reflects, maintains and strengthens existing sexual power dynamics, and permits the exercise of social privilege. When it’s two women with one man, the women generally derive their pleasure vicariously through his, since most women claim they introduce another woman ‘to please their partner.’ When it’s one woman and two men, the third partner has generally been invited by the man as an assertion of sexual power and ownership over the woman. ‘Come and have sex with my wife’ etc etc.

Now, I can hear you tripping over yourselves to provide exceptions. I know. I know what I just said might not be relatable to you, because you’re empowered and experienced and have agency over your sexual decisions. But I’m not talking about you. You’re in the minority here. I’m talking about the majority. Not you. You’ve read a thousand words of an article about the power dynamics in multi-gendered threesomes published on a luxury sex toy website. Your sense of sexual identity is probably not representative of the vast, vast majority of threesomes happening around the world right now. You’re more sexually literate than the 20-something girl making out with her bi friend because it turns her boyfriend on, and that’s the kind of threesome that’s by FAR the most common.

The E=MC² Of Kink

So, am I saying that threesomes are patriarchal constructs that need to be dismantled? No, not necessarily, but a little reflection, examination and introspection would be very welcome. There’s a weird clause when it comes to sexual progressivity, a kind of get-out-of-jail card. It’s a valid and incredibly important one. It has the improbable physics of two wrongs making a right. It goes something like this:

If you consensually do or fantasize about something sexually regressive BECAUSE it’s sexually regressive, it becomes sexually progressive.

Let me explain, because this is the E=MC² of kinkiness. This theory is particularly important to those who are powerful and confident in daily life but submissive sexually. Those submissives might know that the role they play is one that only cements existing gender and sexual expectations, but that’s exactly what they’re subverting by performing that role. It’s a fetishization of the sexual role itself.

Transposed to threesomes, if you enter willingly into an MFF threesome in the knowledge that you derive pleasure from performing sexual acts for the pleasure of your partner, than your threesome is a progressive one, and a kinky one too. If you enter into a MFF threesome because your partner has convinced you it’s for your own pleasure, then it’s regressive. It’s just good ol’ patriarchal exploitation.

In short, if you get off on the regression, it’s progressive. If you’re unaware of the regression, it’s regressive.

Sex is simple. That’s what makes it so god damn complicated.