Is Anyone Actually Having Threesomes?

Scientists ask young adults if they lust after multi-partner sex.

Posted May 22, 2017

mauro_grigollo/Shutterstock
Source: mauro_grigollo/Shutterstock

There was a time when sex was only acceptable if it occurred between husband and wife, in the missionary position, and in the dark. Perhaps with a Barry White LP on the hi-fi for those who felt especially racy. Today, with more young people identifying with a fluid sexual orientation, and with short-term relationships increasingly acceptable, such standards are presumably a thing of the past.

Or are they?

Everyone and their Pilates teacher seem to be into threesomes, and polyamory is more popular than Kombucha. But we all know that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. (FYI: It’s anecdotes.) If we’re going to get to the bottom of this question, we have to do the science and count the numbers.

Three’s a Crowd

Ashley Thompson of the University of Wisconsin and Sandra Byers of the University of New Brunswick took on the challenge. They identified a number of problems with earlier research on threesomes — methods that assumed respondents would be more negative than positive about multi-partner sex, and made no distinction between attitudes, interest, and behaviors. Then they recruited 300 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 for a fresh study.

These men and women completed the Mixed-Gender Threesomes Scale (MGTS), a questionnaire developed by Thompson and Byers because no one had previously bothered to construct a survey specifically about threesomes. First, the scale tested participants’ attitudes about threesomes: Did they think people who partook in threesomes were pure or dirty, desperate or fulfilled? Participants were also asked if they had ever hopped into bed with two other people, and if they would be interested in a threesome if the opportunity arose.

Attitudes to threesomes were highly variable among participants, with individuals expressing many positive but also many negative opinions. Perhaps as expected, men appraised threesomes more favorably than women: Men’s average score on the attitude part of the scale was 4.3 out of a possible 7 compared to women’s 3.2.

A much larger sex difference emerged when it came to interest in engaging in threesomes. As many as 82 percent of the men, but only 31 percent of the women, said they would be up for a threesome if they got the chance. This raises a question: If so many more men than women are OK with the idea of three-way sex, surely any woman who wants a threesome can and will have had one, right?

But can is clearly not the same as have: Only 13 percent of Thompson and Byers’ respondents had actually engaged in a mixed-sex threesome, and more of this group were male than female. Of those reporting that they had experienced a threesome, 17 percent had been part of a two-male-one-female group, 51 percent had been part of a two-female-one-male group, and 26 percent said they had enjoyed both types of threesome. (Show-offs.)

Clearly, some people are interested in threesomes, but still, only a minority makes the effort to go through with them. As Thompson and Byers point out:

     "These results suggest that young people are not judgmental about others engaging in [mixed-sex threesomes] but are also not highly motivated to do so themselves."

So the threesome may be the sexual equivalent of classical music: Theoretically interesting, but, given the choice, we’d rather turn on the Barry White.

For an audio version of this story, see the 9 May 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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References

Thompson, A. E., & Byers, E. S. (2017). Heterosexual young adults’ interest, attitudes, and experiences related to mixed-gender, multi-person sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(3), 813–822. View summary