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Reinventing the ménage à trois for the feminist age

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Essay | 16 minute read
Threesomes have a rich literary history but have often revolved around one 'great man', and served his libido with double helpings. Can we reconceive the ménage à trois to satisfy women's desires equally?

It’s hard to think clearly, and without judgment, when we hear the phrase ‘ménage à trois’. All sorts of ideas spring to mind. Threesomes, households, three in a sex act. Three in love. A dwindling marriage kept alive by a third. A sanctioned, outside sexual partner. We imagine happiness and unhappiness; three in a bed. Anima, animus and then, what? Mostly, we wonder about the mechanics, how does it work? How is jealousy managed?

The phrase is thrilling and enigmatic, maybe because most of us have never even tried living outside a twosome or personally known a successful triad of adults, loving and sexing in an organised and ongoing way. I haven’t, though in my sex positive social circles it’s not uncommon to hear of triads that work well for all sorts of reasons. The ‘ménage à trois’ is, to me, specifically an ongoing group of three, as opposed to polyamory, which can involve a sprawl of numerous primary and secondary lovers and can be a much more complex arrangement. Thanks to a new era of ‘conscious’ sex workshops, parties and communities which have sprung up in the last decade, mostly due to social media, polyamory is quite active, even trendy these days, certainly in sex positive London. But I’m not really talking about poly. I’m talking about a kind of precursor to twenty-first century polyamory, the good old-fashioned triangle, a ‘threesome’.

Historically, the ménage à trois, has existed well outside of the mainstream. It has a long lineage in Western culture in the realms of uber-liberals: artists, writers, libertines, swingers, political outsiders, sex positive circles, in queer culture and active poly circles. Amongst the Bloomsbury set, for example, the ménage was almost normal. The ménage à trois was also common in the highest echelons of society, in the courts of Kings and Queens and the aristocracies of Europe. In the mid-sixteenth century, Henry II of France, Catherine de’ Medici, his queen, and Diane de Poitiers were a complex but working arrangement of three. Diane was decades older than the king; she was his mentor and consort, much approved by the court. She wasn’t his mistress, she was ‘out’ and so much more than his lover. This ménage was unique; while the younger King of France had all the power, the real lynchpin was an older woman.

 

Mostly, not exclusively, the ménage à trois has been a male centred structure: one man, his socially constrained wife, and his mistress; one king and his favourite companion of the day. Triads, in other words, were often two women centred around one ‘great man’. This was true in the case of wealthy mill owner Friedrich Engels and Mary and Lizzie Burns, both working class, both in love with him; there was Victor and Adèle Hugo and the fallen actress Juliette Drouet, who Hugo both financed and subjugated; and Francois and Danielle Mitterrand and Anne Pingeot, who gave him a second family; Henry and June Miller and the superb writer Anaïs Nin (did Nin love June more? Both writers certainly ‘used’ June a lot in their writing and yet she died broken and deteriorated, and after much electro-shock treatment, after she left Miller, a sad story); Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre’s various lovers (though de Beauvoir saw herself as a libertine too). One man and a composite love-sex arrangement. This was very common.


So how can we talk of a woman’s active participation in a ménage à trois, pre-feminism? It’s an important question to ask. And just who was free to indulge in these liaisons? Certainly not the average middle-class wife. While famous courtesans have existed throughout the ages, even they are rare. The likes of Aspasia and Phryne, famous Greek hetaerae, again sound glamorous but they also set women apart and against each other: the wife, boring and confined to the home, the mistress who was the object of sex and let into the life of politics, and all the machinations of the life outside the home. Famously, the hetaerae of Greece were educated and allowed in on the symposium.

The ‘ménage’ aspect of the phrase ménage a trois means ‘household’ and household means property, house, home and roof. It’s a very modern freedom for we women to own and run our own homes. So, let’s suspend all the giddy notions of girl-on-girl action for a moment, because the ménage of yore was a triad which presupposed that this love-trio operated out of a man’s home. Freedom, consent and ‘three-way’ active participation, pre-twentieth century and even during the first half of it, wasn’t commonly realistic. Rule One, of triad examination, in my opinion, is to shake the sexy threesome fantasy firmly by its neck and look at it through a feminist lens. Were women really ‘free’ to indulge in threesomes? We must look at motivation and consent. Was Emma Jung thrilled by her husband’s lover, Toni Wolff, being brought into the household? Nope. In fact she barely tolerated the brilliant Wolff, who was also her husband’s assistant and fellow analyst, so much so Emma Jung banned Wolff from the family Sunday lunches.

And yet this is a famous ménage à trois, the classic one ‘great man’ and two women structure. So is Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and the seventeen-year-old Olga Bost, who nearly destroyed them. Even though De Beauvoir had affairs too, and saw herself as an active player in an open relationship, there was obviously much pain in the sharing of Sartre, otherwise she wouldn’t have written She Came to Stay, which some say was an act of revenge. Before we celebrate bohemia and the outsider aspect of a triad, we must spank the shit out of its patriarchal history and tendencies.

For a ménage à trois to feel relevant today, we must reimagine and reinvent the notion of the threesome from many other perspectives: feminist, queer, non-binary, race, class, everything. Today, triads do exist in a post-feminist society in the West. However, today consent and freedom is crucial to defining the ménage à trois, and so is transparency. All players need to be on board and active, in my view. But it’s still an ideal. What really makes half of us –women – suspicious of the very words ‘ménage à trois’ is that it feels a little old-fashioned. Today, when we see one man with two women, it’s just too deeply complimentary to patriarchal systems at large, world over. It’s hard to believe in it, no matter how much the women might protest. And I’m saying this even with a good friend in mind, female, who has been a happy member of a triad for some time, with a couple; both women wanted to explore their bi-sexuality. While I applaud their feminine agency and the triad’s consciousness and clarity in managing their relationship, their example is still very rare.

Exactly how do we define ménage à trois, anyway? Given its literal meaning – it is French for a ‘household of three’ – it seems to me vague, and not sexy at all. It implies domesticity. A sensible and alternative living arrangement, even. An extended family arrangement, maybe. Where is sex mentioned? It could be a household of three men or three women, of three celibates, of three friends. When did it come to be a coded phrase, to mean a household of three lovers, explicitly? A trawl of the Internet gives thirteen different but same-ish dictionary definitions, all implicating sex, and two dates for the origin of the phrase, 1690s, and 1856, but there’s no single person, or famous set of circumstances known to have coined the phrase. The definition I like best is written in a book called Three in Love, actually co-written by a ménage à trois, Barbara Foster, Michael Foster and Letha Hadady, published in 1997. Like me, they too are frustrated by stale and flat definitions; they come to this: ‘the best definition of a ménage à trois can’t be found in a dictionary, because it is a charged way of looking at love that demands sharing and imagination.’

‘Demands sharing and imagination’, I like this. Imagination. More of this later. In many dictionary definitions I came across, the love triangle is less than imaginative, the ménage is described as a couple, often restless or sexually dormant, who take on a third lover. This implies the ménage consists of two active and one passive participants, that one arm of the triangle is left out or inactive, as in the case of the Jungs. These ménages are patrician, in my view, no more than sexism at large, not a happy triad affair. The ménage has a dead third arm, a resentful female, and sometimes male.

Even so, I can see how some of these types of structures might be practical, if not happy, that setting up a ménage à trois might be a lot easier and cost effective than a divorce. The marital unit is saved. Children don’t get separated. Money, home, estate, it all stays in one place. A third member capitulates or bows out. If one member of a ménage has actually gone off sex, given up, wants to be celibate, or even wants a break, then inviting another lover into the house could be a simple solution. Who’s to judge a couple if this is what works? Is jealousy always an outcome, or can having a third party be a relief? Why wouldn’t a wife, post menopause, welcome a lover for her partner? ‘Here, you take him, I’m done.’ My libido disappeared after ‘the change’, it’s supposed to. No oestrogen, no sex drive. It was only bump started again by bio-identical hormone therapy, a very modern invention. Likewise, there can be male menopause, illness, or a decrease in sex drive, a man could easily bow out of intercourse and encourage his wife to lead a fuller sexual life. Or, a more sexually spirited female partner might take a lover too for the same reasons as any man, to keep the marriage together and herself sexually active. There are all kinds of reasons for a triangle that works. The ménage doesn’t always have to be under one roof, either. It can be looser than that. If everyone is in on it and it’s not a secret of any kind and there is three-way consent, then who is anyone outside to judge? Without consent of three, it’s not a true ménage, it’s an affair, just cheating, or ‘horning’, the colloquial and yet Shakespearian word for it in Trinidad, where I come from.

For now, even in the early twenty-first century, even in the West, in mainstream culture, a triad is still taboo. So ingrained in us, societally, that sex, and love making, love breeding, child making, family development, a safe society, is a thing done in twos, that we judge three as ‘other’, as shadowy, not the norm, something deviant, practiced by the few. It is outsider behaviour. Three signifies a triangle, an odd person out. Three is an odd not an even number. It implies left not right. It implies the possibility of weakness, mostly manifest as jealousy, and also, it implies excess, that someone is getting more. Two is enough, three implies too many. The phrase ménage à trois still, even in the early twenty-first century, triggers a run of ideas and negative judgments in the mainstream. While it fits with bohemia, it also, conversely, feels a little twee. Does the ménage à trois, in our imagination, simply add up to a sanctioned infidelity? Is a ménage simply an arrangement which splits women into mothers and whores?

Psychotherapist Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, one of the most fluent and articulate experts on sexual desire says, ‘A crisis of desire is a crisis of imagination,’ in a TED talk. ‘A passionate marriage,’ she claims, ‘is a contradiction in terms.’ Way back, she reminds us, marriage was an economic contract in which it was easy for men to roam. Historically, men had a licence to cheat with little consequence. Marriage wasn’t expected to be happy, romantically or sexually. Many were arranged. Today, in the developed and liberal-minded, post-feminist West, not so. Currently, our expectation of marriage is that it contains everything. Our partner is supposed to be our best friend, confident, bedmate, fellow parent, caregiver and lover, all the things which were once supplied by an entire village. We now expect sexual desire to be part of marriage over a long period of time, as we are living so much longer. ‘Adultery has existed since marriage was invented and so too the taboo against it,’ says Perel. Today there are nine countries in the world where a woman can be killed for straying. In the Bible, she points out, there are actually two commandments which ban straying, sexually, outside marriage. So, the taboo against seeking sex outside a conventional marriage of two people is strong, doubly codified in Biblical law and very ancient in our societal mindset.


When did a ‘household of two’ become the new rule, the established Western norm? The ancient Jews weren’t exactly living strictly in households of two. The Old Testament is full of threesomes and more. Solomon had a thousand wives, for example. Male polygamy was a rule amongst the ancients. In Plato’s Athens, the ménage was also typical, but also mostly at the benefit of men. In the book of Genesis, we certainly see Adam and Eve as the prototype couple and creation myth of how to be, but then there was the serpent.

What we know is that pre-industrialisation in Europe, there were both simple and extended family systems. It wasn’t until post the industrial age that we began to see the nuclear family become the dominant norm. A unit of two was sanctioned by church and state; it was seen as a safe, viable economic unit. It upheld a status quo, kept society well-ordered and balanced. Even though God is a Trinity and Mary was a Virgin taken in by an older man, Joseph, who very likely already had a tribe of children (implying other wives), over time, long before the Middle Ages, the Christian patriarchs had ironed out any kinks in the Christian story. The new rules became one man, one wife, one home. One cock and one hen. Several chicks. But then again, if we look to the animal kingdom, the noble horse, for example, or the lion, we see one stud, several spouses. Yes, whales mate for life, with one other whale, however monkeys are ridiculously horny creatures, and we descend from monkeys, not whales.

In Three in Love, there’s real commitment to the celebration of households of three; it’s clear that their ménage was a good thing and had been a source of joy for them. The authors have even invented a term for the study of the ménage à trois, triography. And we must, of course, examine ménages where there’s no restless primary couple as the kind of ‘starter pack’ for this charged kind of love, or maybe threesome centred around one woman. The clever and beautiful Lou Andreas-Salomé, for example, was a famous femme fatale, and agent of her own desires, active and independent and often juggling two men, both older mentors. She found her independence in loving two men who loved her equally; at one point these two men were the philosophers Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. The triangle was her idea. The three called it their ‘holy trinity’ and it was more of a metaphysical ménage, for Lou didn’t actually fancy either of these men passionately.

Jeanne Moreau, in a scene from the 1962 French film, “Jules et Jim”

Or what if the ménage consists of three people living under one roof, or not, who’ve never been married, and, what if a ménage can be sexually charged, alive and vibrant three-way? Mind boggling. This is the kind of loving the authors of this book are talking about, and it demands imagination. Today’s ideal definition of the ménage, in my mind, would be the kind where sexual desire runs three-way, and hotly so. Everyone is having it off. No one is left out, there’s no third party invited in to ‘see to’ the needs of one member of the triad. It would be a successful trio, who live together, or maybe not, but who operate in vibrant and mutual sexual happiness. It takes some consciousness and some skill. ‘Threesomes work best and avoid most of the awkwardness if most of the attention is given to the female in the existing couple before anyone else,’ says sex worker Seani Love. ‘This will ensure she doesn’t feel neglected as can often be the case; but it also ensures the new person doesn’t get overwhelmed with lots of touch and attention put on them from the start. Once any awkwardness is gone, this structure can be ignored but it’s a beautiful starting point for most people. If there’s a different relationship or gender make-up of the threesome, adapt accordingly.’

What is true is that in the last thirty years the societal family unit of two adults and their clutch of children has changed dramatically. Today, the twenty-first century household looks very different. 20 percent of women (such as myself), born in the 60s, in the UK, are child free; that’s an enormous percentage. Women born in 1943, for example, had, on average, 2.24 children, says the Office for National Statistics. Half as many people are getting married than were in the 1950s, meaning marriage levels have dropped significantly. Divorce rates are one in three. Cohabiting levels have risen. Women, now educated and in charge of their fertility, are leaving childbearing until they establish a career, and then choosing to have fewer children. Children born out of wedlock are no longer a scandal. The amount of single parent families has also risen. Same sex marriage is legal. New statistics reported by the Office of National Statistics say one in fifty people identify as LGBTQ – that’s 2 percent of the population. All of these changes signify that societal norms have loosened, and in doing so reflect a much more diverse and sex positive society. Hooray. So many taboo issues are no longer a taboo and people, generally, are freer. The old family structure of the post-industrial age, the one advanced by church and state, is no longer such an aspiration. I, for one, never wanted to be married or have children. I have lived an outsider’s life and felt very happy to live in the margin, which, even in the last decade, is widening. We are heading towards an age where we need to rethink marriage completely, and reimagine cohabiting structures. Me and many of my friends are already planning our ‘old age communes’.

Currently the mainstream is shifting, and that’s a good thing, but is it ready for these new structures, such as a three-way, active and conscious twenty-first century ménage à trois? Same, but more woman centred? A kind of New Age sexual co-operative? I wonder if it’s still associated with more shadowy behaviour, with infidelity and with patriarchy. Here’s a list of things the ménage à trois isn’t: infidelity, an affair, bigamy, polyamory, cheating, swinging, a single sex act, a lifestyle involving many sexual partners.

What it can be, it seems to me, at best, is this ‘charged way of loving which demands sharing and imagination’. While I’ve never tried loving as a threesome myself, I admire those who have and can make it work. It has a long lineage, a history connected to bohemia and outsider living, and deserves to be part of our more mainstream futuresexing and futureloving, though more often celebrating free, thinking women or three same sex lovers, as well as a whole gamut of possibilities. In the last thirty years, we’ve seen liberalism go mainstream, and this bodes well for a more conscious reconfiguration and survival of the ménage à trois, and for polyamorous living. I once met a triad of younger people at a private members online community, After Pandora, who were discussing their ‘online dating diary’. How porous and mature is that? Thank you, Internet. These days, women and men have better choice, not just to have children or not, or have them later, but to love and sex differently, to share lovers and navigate their lover affairs with consciousness and dignity. This feels like a very good thing to me. Bring it on.

Monique Roffey’s Unbound choice is ‘Sex Drive’

Roffey’s latest book, ‘The Tryst’ is published by Dodo Ink