Just How Preposterous Is the Fantasy of No-Strings Threesomes?

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Photo: Thomas Marent/Getty Images

On a recent night out in Brooklyn, Helen, a single 27-year-old, was consulting her girlfriends about an exchange on OkCupid. “He said, ‘We’re looking forward to meeting you,’ ” she said. We? “Does that mean he’s in a couple, and they’re looking for a third?” Immediately, the table erupted with stories of attempted three-way-sex recruitment on online dating portals. “I get accosted constantly on Tinder,” a lesbian named Jordan complained. “Straight couples. One in every five offers. Which is, I guess, flattering and insulting at the same time.” Lesbians, at least, have the nerve to ask in person. “That always starts as a joke and then gets weirdly serious.”

Shortly after Helen’s mystery invitation, an app called 3nder made its debut. Known informally as the Tinder of three-ways, 3nder divides sexual actors into one of two groups: single people, who act alone, and couples, who act as two-person units. All genders and orientations are welcome. The app is small by commercial online-dating standards. (Tinder has an estimated 10 million active daily users; 3nder has 200,000 total.) But its organizing principle fits a certain contemporary mood. Open relationships are discussed frequently enough to warrant features in Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, and MTV’s True Life series. Though only about 4 percent of Americans identify their relationships as “consensually non-monogamous,” mainstream depictions of mutually agreed-upon straying barely raise an eyebrow. “She asked me what I wished for on my wish list / Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?” raps Kanye West in his dopily romantic paean to Kim Kardashian “Bound 2.” Fidelity, in these cases, is not about sexual exclusivity but mutuality and consent. The modern relationship is defined not by what each partner lacks (“other bitches”) but what they share: rigorously negotiated boundaries and, perhaps, a girl named Helen. The result can be an almost perverse level of commitment: Sure, you can sleep with someone else, but only if I witness every single grunt, rub, and hump.

Three-way sex may have a reputation as libertinish, profligate, ­promiscuous. But in just about every way the three-way defies and distorts the no-strings plus-one fantasy — instead reflecting and refracting our understanding of commitment. Beginning with what it means to couples, who often see it as a way of branching out. But the more I talked to couples about their threesomes, the more it seemed a third person forces the other two to realize exactly how much — or little — they have in common. At a time when the most universal sexual imperatives seem to be communication and shared pleasure, three-ways have shifted toward the cult of romance — sexual fantasy sublimated into intense coupling. They’re for the couple who share everything, including mistresses. Assuming, of course, they can find a willing mistress. “They should call this app Unicorn Hunter,” a straight 31-year-old grumbled to me on 3nder.

Though 3nder founder Dimo Trifonov says his friends call him “Trimo” and “Threesome-ov,”  he’s never had a threesome either. The 24-year-old invented the app when his girlfriend, Ana Kirova, told him she’d been fantasizing about having sex with him and another woman. The notion was, however, mostly theoretical. “We decided whenever an opportunity comes up, we might do it,” Ana blogged shortly after 3nder’s debut. “I am not even sure I will do it, in my head it sounds more like a ‘I really want to live in New Zealand’ kind of thing.” Her boyfriend built an entire social network to enable this whim, anyway. But don’t pity Dimo; he says his sense of sexual urgency was “already fading away” at the time of the app’s launch. Those who can’t do, teach. Those who would rather profit than do, build apps.

But even among those more likely to visit New Zealand, three-ways remain a common form of monogamist escapist fantasy. My friend Maya (her name and some others have been changed) considers three-way flirtation the ultimate win-win “sexual white lie”: “Just hot enough to make you sound kinky, without being kinky enough to scare off more conservative men. And the logistics involved are so intricate that it’s rarely going to come to fruition anyway.” Normally, she considers herself “too insecure and afraid of getting left out to actually do it,” articulating a common three-way fear: jealousy and rivalry breaking the couple apart.

In reality, it’s not just the couple whose issues come out to play. Once, after hooking up with an acquaintance who was on the rebound, my friends Peter and Ivan found themselves unable to shake their bedmate. “He kept talking about how much he liked our relationship and how open we were,” Peter said. “We’re not that open, he just thought we were because we did it with him a few times.” When Ivan rebuffed or ignored the man’s texts, he’d switch to Facebook-messaging Peter. One night, when the couple were preparing for house­guests, the third man called. They told him they were busy. Moments later, buzzing their guests into their apartment, they discovered their partner had somehow managed to embed himself in the group. (Which included a couple who celebrated same-sex marriage by inviting Ivan to join them for a three-way. Both couples plan to marry and attend each other’s weddings.) Peter and Ivan fought over how to deal with the interloper, who eventually fell asleep in their bed. Ivan slept next to him; Peter slept separately in protest. Though this would seem to be a worst-case scenario, Peter and Ivan laughed recounting it. “He just wanted what he wanted,” Ivan said. “Of course he wanted it,” Peter exclaimed. “It’s two people sucking his dick!”

Not that every “guest star” wants merely to double his pleasure. Some are in it, strangely enough, for the romance. “It started as an easier, low-pressure way to hook up with girls, but it’s come to be more than that,” said Tessa, a bisexual Astoria resident who serially hooks up with hetero couples. Her favorite three-ways are inspirational: “It’s really amazing seeing strong couples who invite others into the bedroom, the lack of jealousy.” She has a stable relationship with one newly wedded couple; the week before the wedding, she spent hours at their house with a glue gun, assembling décor. “Sometimes you can tell one person in the couple gets more attention,” a male shoe designer explained over white-wine spritzers in Williamsburg. “I never start with that one. Make out with the one who usually gets less attention.” Better for morale, he reasoned, and it’s not like you won’t get a chance with the hot one later. He tries to keep one hand on each person at all times.

A group dynamic can also test individual boundaries, goading participants into experimentation. A straight man confessed to having a three-way with another straight male and an older woman they met at a bar. (As the SNL sketch goes, “It’s not gay when it’s in a three-way.”) Both men were cheating on significant others; one was married with two children. The “shared complicity,” the childless one said, “seemed to soften the crime,” though he noted that his performance suffered until after the friend “went home to his family” at 4 a.m.

For all the excitement of novel sexual permutations, the person who feels left out at a three-way is perhaps the loneliest person of all. My friend Alex once went home with two women — one of whom he so thoroughly ignored she fell asleep while he and the other hooked up right next to her in bed. That he ended up dating the preferred woman for two months is either a relief (at least the exclusion served a purpose) or infinitely worse (no question No. 3 was being sidelined). When I asked Peter about three-way FOMO, he shrugged. “When you do group things enough, you realize that it evens out. Sometimes everyone wants you, sometimes no one does.” As group sex goes, so does life. Then again, there was the 36-year-old woman who spoke positively to me of the time she brought another woman home with a long-standing hookup, then found herself sidelined. She was so far out of the action in bed that she migrated to a chair and watched, enthralled, as her friend-with-benefits serviced someone else. “It was beautiful,” she reflected. “Much better than porn. I loved it. It helped that I was on ecstasy.”    

*This article appears in the October 6, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.