How to Manage Threesomes & More-somes

In Epic Relationships, How Tos..., Polyamory, Unfenced Relationships by Louisa Leontiades

Threesome etiquette isn’t covered in Emily Post’s work which covers subjects as diverse as the intricacies of cotillion (debutante balls) to teaching men not to spit tobacco at ladies’ backs.

But for those of us who embrace sexual freedom and autonomy, threesomes (or more-somes) might be part of your social landscape and Emily Post (and her children’s children’s children who write for Good Housekeeping, among others) aren’t going to be much help. 

Successful threesomes might have many components, but I would boldly state that the best way to ensure satisfaction is through good communication. Yet sitting down to discuss boundaries and consent with long term partner(s) with whom you hopefully have an enviable level of honest communication, is the easier part. It is not so easy to communicate with that spontaneous person you meet at the club, who agrees to participate in fun and games with you and your partner(s) for a one-off encounter. And yet, as a friend of mine found out after a few unsatisfactory encounters, probably even more necessary. As a consequence of her encounters, she decided to devise a protocol, which she’s allowed me to share with you below. Yes, I work in Tech. I have cool friends.

Protocol for negotiating a 3 or more-some:

  • When conversation starts with one or more of us about negotiating a 3 or more some we include our other partner(s) who we wish to be involved. The objective is total involvement from the beginning.
  • Prior to play, in a level of detail adequate to facilitate understanding and potential agreement all of us will discuss what we want to do as a group. This includes boundaries, desires, expectations and acts we wish to perform upon each other. Desires, expectations and acts not discussed are not to be performed and are considered a violation of consent and boundaries. For example:

Person A says “I want to have oral sex from/with you”

Person B says “I do not want to give you oral”

Then Person B is not going to give oral to Person A.

Or Person A says “I want to give anal sex to someone”

Person B says “Not me, I don’t like anal”.

Person C adds “Ooh I like anal, you can do it to me”

Then if person A wants to have anal with Person C it is ok, provided there are no objections from Person B. If person B objects, then no anal sex is going to happen.

  • If boundaries or expectations change during the course of play with anyone playing they must be communicated to all involved.
  • When boundaries or expectations change, they are reported to all and all play stops so that those changes are discussed as a group. If the changes are agreed upon, play may resume. If the changes are not agreed upon play may resume if all agree that those changes will not happen.
  • Consent: Agreement for any expectation or act performed in the 3 or more some must have 100%/total agreement.
  • Yes + Yes + yes = Yes…. Any no from anyone + (anything else) = No

I was impressed by the sheer forethought. But I saw a snag.

Threesomes, unless regularly practised with the same participants are less likely to be between people who have developed a direct communication style or an intuitive ‘indirect’ communication style and in the spontaneous ‘club-meet’ alcohol-fueled scenario, even less likely to be with people who are in regular contact to be able to emotionally process it all together afterwards.

It looks good on paper, I saidBut it won’t stack up in practice unless you’re the type of person who is immediately comfortable with direct communication.

If they can’t communicate directly, she replied (directly), are they ready for group sex?

It was a good question. Yet, I thought, a highly unrealistic question. Ready or not, direct or not, you cannot stop people from indulging in sex of any kind. The catholics tried with their priests and look what happened.

Doing a protocol is great, and I would love to see more people devising their own. But I’d also like to extend it with a few personal reflections because I believe that all of us have a ton of different communication styles which fall at some point under the spectrum of polar opposites ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’. These communication styles change in different situations and with different personalities and people. I also believe they are highly culturally influenced. And in these multicultural times, your sexual encounters may well occur multiculturally ;)

Geert Hofstede developed a theory of cultural dimensions back in the 70s which has been used and refined by business managers ever since. Notwithstanding criticisms on his methodology, data and any inconsistencies, his work has nevertheless highlighted that cultural difference is often a great source of conflict, confusion and misunderstanding. He identified a spectrum of context. In countries which are more culturally heterogeneous and emphasize individualism, independence, and self-reliance, direct communication is more common. And in direct communication, the speaker is responsible for clear communication.

In her article ‘The Impact of Direct and Indirect Communication‘ Cynthia Joyce writes that”…’those who expect indirectness will be offended by talk in any other mode’… Direct communicators may be perceived as inappropriate and rude, which can lead to interpersonal tension, damaged reputations, perceptions of poor performance, and other problems.” Conversely “Direct communicators “expect and respect honesty and bluntness” and can experience indirect speakers as passive aggressive, manipulative, “weak, deceptive and vague”, “insincere and untrustworthy.”

Ouch. I don’t fancy that threesome.

My friend is from the USA which is a ‘low-context’ country; she’s forthright and functions brilliantly with direct communication. Subtlety not so much. Excepting individual idiosyncrasies, her threesomes might not work so well with more indirect communicators. People with my background from the UK–a higher context country–where all too often, direct communication is seen as uncouth, rude and worse cause for rejection. Or people like me whose indirect communication cannot be read in the dark (here’s tip Brits, turn the lights on).

I want to make it clear that I believe both strategies have their place (which is a departure from an earlier opinion I held). Both have pros and cons. Is one of the cons that indirect communicators such as I, should never participate in a spontaneous threesome?

I dislike the word never. I also believe that an indirect communication style can be as a result of formative–and not necessarily healthy–experience.

So I find it an unrealistic and unfair exclusion for that portion of the population who does not come from a low context country, or has been suppressed and otherwise systemically objectified to lose their ‘direct’ voice. But maybe that’s because I’m one of them. I dislike restrictions on my freedom of choice. Nevertheless I have a responsibility of due care to my prospective partner(s)… and to myself. In my case, I have found that getting to know myself is a very valuable exercise. So what do I know about myself?

Often I do not know, exactly what I am feeling at the time that I am feeling it, but only sometime later (usually around 24 hours). Often I cannot feel that my boundaries are approaching or even exist, unless they have been crossed and that this is neither my or my partner’s faults. Sometimes my boundaries change from one day to the next and I’ve discovered it is usually a function of my fluctuating self-esteem. When it’s low, I feel powerless but often I cannot know beforehand how my self-esteem is unless I’m feeling shitty about a crossed boundary. Shitty happens, even in my most permanent relationships. Then what I need is to be able to emotionally process it sometime after (usually with them, or failing that in a blog post).

Thus my most successful sexual encounters (with any amount of people) have been with those that either I have regular contact with and are close friends or partners, or those people who are similar in culture and/or personality to me and able to read the subtlest of cues. As it happens, not entirely coincidentally, these people have all been in centre of my venn diagram.

Threesome Venn Diagram

Without the ‘after care’ I need as a indirect communicator, I risk walking away from a sexual encounter–any sexual encounter where I have unwittingly allowed my boundaries to be crossed–feeling like I have been abused. To be clear, feeling abused simply because you have not been able to communicate your boundaries, is not abuse. But it feels rotten and can be traumatising.

For many reasons, but primarily this one, I agree with my friend’s perspective and I choose not to swing. Because I know myself, I also choose not to have sex with people I don’t know well, you know those who are not at the centre of my venn diagram. Yet on the occasions I unknowingly allow my boundaries to be crossed, and feel rotten about it, I have self-cared, forgiven myself, noted it for future reference and gladly owned my responsibility for it. Because if you cannot bring yourself to communicate even with other responsible and communicative folk, that’s still okay, you’re still okay, but the only solution left is to have the shoulders to deal with the aftermath that you are responsible for creating.

This has been a public service post from your friendly relationship educator saving the world, one awkward double penetration at a time.