Who Wants a Threesome? No, Really.

Psychologists ask young adults whether they would be up for a spot of multi-partner sex. Let’s see what they found out…

“That was a very bad idea…” Patrick Weishempel/Blankeye

There was a time when sex was only acceptable if it occurred between husband and wife, missionary position, in the pitch-black dark. Perhaps with a Barry White LP on the hi-fi for those who felt especially racy.

Nowadays, with more and more young people identifying with a fluid sexual orientation, and with short-term relationships increasingly acceptable, such vanilla fantasies are presumably a thing of the past. Or are they?

Everyone and their Pilates teacher seems to be into threesomes, and polyamory is more popular than Kombucha and voting for right-wing demagogues. 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 important issue, we’re going to 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 volunteered for the job. 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; no distinction between attitudes, interest, and behaviors) and recruited 300 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 for a new study.

These men and women completed the MGTS: the Mixed-Gender Threesomes Scale, a questionnaire developed by Thompson and Byers because nobody had previously bothered to construct a survey specifically about threesomes (an unforgivable oversight). 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 a bed with two other people, and if they would be interested in a threesome if the opportunity arose.

Attitudes to threesomes were highly variable, with respondents expressing many positive but also many negative opinions. Perhaps as expected, men appraised threesomes more favorably than women did: men’s average score on the attitude part of the scale was 4.3 out of 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% of the men but only 31% of the women said they would be up for a spot of three-in-the-bed if they got the chance. Which raises a question: if so many more men than women are OK with the idea of threeway sex, surely all women who want a threesome can and will have had one?

‘Can’ is clearly not the same as ‘have’: only 13% of Thompson and Byers’ respondents had actually engaged in a mixed-sex threesome, and more of this 13% were male than female. Of those who had experienced a threesome, 17% had been part of a two-male-one-female group, 51% had been part of a two-female-one-male group, and 26% said they had enjoyed both types of threesome (show offs).

Clearly, some people are interested in threesomes, but 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 (bear with me). Theoretically interesting. But, given the choice, we’d rather whack on the Barry White.


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

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

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