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How Many People Have Actually Been Part of a Threesome?

New research gives us a sense of how common they are and who is having them.

123RF/ufabizphoto
Source: 123RF/ufabizphoto

Threesomes are one of the most popular sexual fantasies. But how many people have ever made the leap from fantasy to reality? And who’s most likely to have had a threesome before?

Despite the enormous popularity of this fantasy, there’s surprisingly little research out there on the subject—and almost all of it has focused on college students. As a result, some of my colleagues and I tried to get a better understanding of threesomes in a broader segment of the population and our findings were recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

For this study, we collected two different samples—one consisting of 249 college students (average age of 21), and the other consisting of 1,342 adults recruited online (average age of 31). We did this because we wanted to compare how college students might be similar or different in their views on threesomes to a more diverse group of people. A majority of participants in both samples identified as White and heterosexual, with most saying they were currently in a sexually exclusive relationship.

Although the proportion of racial minorities was similar in each sample (about one-quarter), the online sample was older and participants were more likely to identify as sexual minorities and to be in relationships. Participants in the online sample had also been in their relationships longer and were more likely to be in non-exclusive relationships.

Our study focused specifically on interest in mixed-gender threesomes (MGTs), or sexual activities involving participants of more than one gender. We focused on this type of threesome because it is the most common variation, but also because we were aiming to replicate and extend a previous study on MGTs conducted by one of my collaborators (which you can learn more about here).

Across the two samples, 30% reported that they had been in at least one MGT before. The numbers were similar for men and women—32% compared to 29%, respectively. However, participants in the online sample were substantially more likely to have had an MGT than those in the student sample: 34% vs. 10%, respectively. In other words, compared to college students, online participants were more than three times as likely to have been in an MGT.

Why were the online participants more likely to have had a threesome experience? In part, it may be due to the fact that they tended to be older.

Participants in the online sample reported more interest in MGTs on average than the student sample, and we found statistical evidence that age partially accounted for this effect. This makes sense in light of my previous research on sexual fantasies (published in my book Tell Me What You Want), which found that fantasies about threesomes and other forms of group sex (and sexual adventure more broadly) tend to increase with age, perhaps reflecting a heightened need for sexual novelty. Sex in general is a novel activity for young adults, who haven’t been doing it very long—but it’s less of a novelty for older adults, which may lead them to seek more variety in their sexual experiences.

However, another part of the reason for the higher levels of MGT experience in the online sample is due to the higher proportion of sexual minorities. In fact, across samples, sexual minorities were more than twice as likely to have been in an MGT than were heterosexually-identified participants: 43% vs. 21%, respectively.

In interpreting these findings, it's worth noting that bisexuals were, by far, the largest sexual minority group in both of our samples (5% of the student sample, 13% of the online sample). The number identifying as gay/lesbian or reporting other minority identities was much smaller, so the sexual minority results would seem to speak more to MGT experiences among bisexuals than anything.

The fact that the online sample was more experienced with MGTs might also be a reflection of the fact that they were more likely to be in sexually non-exclusive relationships (although it's important to point out that the vast majority, nearly 4 in 5, were exclusive). It stands to reason that being in a consensually non-monogamous relationship might open the door to more threesome opportunities.

The results also tell us that people were more likely to report having certain types of MGTs than others. Of those who reported having at least one MGT, people were much more likely to have been in one that involved two females and one male (FFM) than they were to have been in one that involved two males and one female (MMF): 39% vs. 24%, respectively. In addition, 32% of those who reported having had an MGT said they had engaged in both the FFM and MMF variants.

It’s important to note that neither of our samples was representative of the population, which means that caution is warranted in generalizing the findings broadly. Also, they don’t tell us how many people have ever had a threesome in which all participants are of the same gender. That said, there are a few important takeaways here.

First, if we want to understand attitudes toward and experiences with threesomes, we can’t just look at what college students are doing. Young adults are less interested in and experienced with threesomes, so if we want to understand who’s engaging in this behavior, why, and what their experiences are like, it is important to recruit samples that are more diverse with respect to age.

Second, attitudes toward and experiences with MGTs appear to vary substantially according to sexual identity, with bisexual-identified persons appearing most likely to have had an MGT before.

Finally, these findings also suggest that MGTs are not a rare or uncommon sexual practice and that sex scientists would do well to devote more attention to this understudied topic.

Facebook image: altafulla/Shutterstock

References

Thompson, A. E., Cipriano, A. E., Kirkeby, K. M., Wilder, D., & Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Exploring Variations in North American Adults’ Attitudes, Interest, Experience, and Outcomes Related to Mixed-Gender Threesomes: A Replication and Extension. Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Hachette Go.

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