This article was written by Social Psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller.
Having a threesome is the single most popular sexual fantasy.
I surveyed more than 4,000 American adults about their most intimate thoughts for my book “Tell Me What You Want“ and one of the key things I discovered when I looked at people’s biggest sexual fantasy of all time was that threesomes were mentioned more often than anything else.
Also, when I asked people whether they had ever fantasized about having a threesome before, 89% reported having done so. This included the vast majority of men, women, and non-binary persons.
Despite the fact that threesomes are an enormously popular fantasy theme, surprisingly few people have ever had one in real life. According to the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, about 1 in 5 men and 1 in 10 women say they’ve had a threesome.
This big gap between fantasy and reality isn’t surprising because a lot of people don’t really know how to go about having multi-partner sex. I mean, how does one get a whole group together in the first place? And how do you figure out who’s supposed to do what with whom and when? Many just don’t have a script for how these encounters are supposed to go, so they may find the idea of acting on these fantasies to be a bit intimidating.
I should also mention that some people who act out their group sex fantasies report less than satisfying experiences. In my own research, I have found that despite threesomes being the most popular sexual fantasy, they were also the fantasy that was least likely to turn out well.
Part of the reason for this is due to all of that uncertainty I mentioned—but it’s also because people sometimes find themselves feeling jealous or insecure in these situations, especially if they go in with a romantic partner. Then there’s also the fact that most people fantasize about being the center of attention in a threesome. If everyone is vying to be the focal point, that can potentially create some tension.
At the same time, however, many people find that threesomes are rewarding and pleasurable experiences. So how do you increase the odds of a positive outcome? Here are three tips for successfully navigating sexual activities that involve three or more people.
1. Communicate before, during, and after the act
If you want to partake in any kind of group sex, solid sexual communication skills are a must. And it’s important to communicate at all stages of the act—and especially if you’re going into one of these situations with a romantic partner.
Start by communicating about your boundaries and expectations. For example, are there certain types of activities that are off limits? Do you want rules for follow-up contact with the third person in order to manage jealousy or perceived threats to the relationship?
Talk through your concerns and come up with a rule set—and be sure to stick to them to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety.
You might also consider establishing a “safeword,” which is a word or phrase you can invoke any time things move past your comfort zone. People aren’t always good at predicting how they’ll feel in future situations, so it can be useful to have an exit strategy in place just in case things don’t go according to plan or if someone crosses a line.
During the act itself, it’s important that you feel comfortable expressing what you want—and also that you pay attention to what other people are communicating. Remember that a lot of sexual communication is non-verbal, so be attentive to your partners’ body language, and if anyone seems uncomfortable, slow down and check in with them.
Afterwards, it can also be useful to talk about how it went. What did you like and dislike? What might you want to do differently next time that could potentially improve the experience?
Acting on a sexual fantasy sometimes takes a few attempts before you figure out how to perfect it and ensure everyone is getting what they want out of it.
2. Adjust your expectations
People usually have pretty high expectations when it comes to acting out their sexual fantasies, whether they’re about threesomes or something else. This makes sense, especially if we’re talking about a fantasy that you’ve had for a very long time or something that is your go-to fantasy during sex or masturbation.
However, if you walk in with extraordinarily high expectations and anticipate that everything is going to unfold just like it does in your fantasies, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Bring those expectations down to reality. Recognize that there’s going to be a learning curve, that unexpected things might happen, and that you might feel things you don’t anticipate feeling.
It’s not uncommon for threesomes and group encounters to produce mixed emotions. High levels of arousal and excitement, for example, might be coupled with feelings of jealousy or insecurity when you see your partner getting attention from someone else. Even if you don’t think of yourself as the jealous type, you might not really know how you’ll feel until you’re actually in the situation.
So, temper your expectations and go in with an understanding that the reality of a threesome might not match up exactly with your fantasy.
3. Do some research, and plan ahead
Uncertainty is one of the biggest things that holds us back from acting on our fantasies, so it’s important to do some research and planning in advance so that we can feel more confident and prepared when the time comes.
To that end, you may find it worthwhile to do some background reading. One book I often recommend for people interested in exploring group sex is “The Ethical Slut“. This is a very useful guidebook for people who are thinking about opening up their relationships and/or exploring any kind of group sexual activity. It will give you lots of things to think about, tips for improving your sexual communication skills, and strategies for resolving conflicts or problems that might emerge.
Another guidebook you might consider is “The Jealousy Workbook“, which is full of exercises for managing the feelings of jealousy that sometimes emerge when couples open up their relationships.
In addition to preparing mentally, think about how you’re going to prepare physically, too. Specifically, consider steps for protecting your sexual health if you’re going to be interacting with multiple sexual partners.
This includes considering usage of contraceptives if unintended pregnancy is a concern, as well as usage of safer-sex tools to reduce risk of sexually transmitted infections. For example, you may want to consider some combination of condoms, dental dams, vaccinations against HPV and hepatitis, as well as medications like PrEP to protect against HIV.
In short, think about your unique sexual health needs and how you can most effectively manage them.
Threesomes might not always turn out exactly the way you want them to, but they can also be incredibly pleasurable and fulfilling experiences that can potentially enrich both your sexual and romantic life.
Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take in order to increase the odds of reality living up to your fantasy.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He is an award-winning educator, having been honored three times with the Certificate of Teaching Excellence from Harvard University, where he taught for several years. Dr. Lehmiller has published more than 50 academic works, including a textbook titled “The Psychology of Human Sexuality” that is used in college classrooms around the world. He helps people maintain healthy intimate lives through science-based, sex-positive education via his Sex and Psychology blog, workshops, and frequent media appearances.