Threesomes & Couple Privilege

Sex educator Lola Jean takes a look at the concept of Couple Privilege. What does this mean, and how can we deal with it? Read on to find out!

Image credit: Marc Parroquin (@marcparroquin) 

From language at sex parties to dating apps geared for threesomes, you may have noticed a lot of the communication about three-person sexual endeavours is centred around the couple. This isn’t just relegated to threesomes either. Society caters to couple priorities over single priorities, enacting the assumption that those in a relationship are more worthy or deserving of respect than their single counterparts. This is present in relationship advice, “date night” specific activities, and the majority of sexual advice and content.⁠⁠ 

Even sex parties can unknowingly fall victim to prioritising the couple. Language often caters to couples at parties, and couples pricing often incorporates a discount. That discount can act as a barrier to single folk as they would have to shoulder a proportionally greater cost. It also visually implies that couples are more welcome or valued than singles, even if it is not the intention of the organisation. When it comes to safety, coupled individuals are often given more consideration than single people. It can make a third feel like a damned accessory when all is said and done!

The solution to couple privilege involves all parties – the couple and anyone joining them – as well as being something that ought to be considered more broadly, by companies running events and people giving sex advice. In most threesome scenarios, it is the couple who is the more privileged party. There are many power dynamics at play and a couple literally outnumbers the third. Correspondingly, a good majority of the responsibility for mitigating couple privilege falls into the lap(s) of the two-person unit.

What Is Couple Privilege?

In regards to threesomes, couple privilege refers to the inherent power imbalance. This is not only due to the numbers, (two versus one) but also due to the frequency that the needs and boundaries of the couple are centred as a default priority over those of the single person. Very often the language around engaging in threesomes is from a coupled perspective. There’s a commonly occurring sense that this is a fun extra you can add into your coupled sex life, almost as though a third is equivalent to some kind of exciting sex toy. When it comes to advice around communication, much of this centres on the couple as well – speak to each other about what you want, about your boundaries – without any suggestion that this communication is necessarily extended to a third. 

A couple’s wants/needs/desires do not take precedence over those of the third party.⁠⁠ The third party’s needs are not any less important, nor do they have to “go along” with whatever the couple wants (unless they want to, of course!)⁠⁠ 

Any type of power dynamic takes more than an encouragement that “you can say no whenever you want” to level the playing field.

A couple cannot make decisions for all parties without consulting the third and have it remain consensual. Remember: they are a person too, and their consent and boundaries need to be established to try to ensure that they also have an enjoyable experience. 

How to account for couple privilege as a couple

As a couple, you are surely entitled to have your own boundaries, discussions, and agreements outside of those with the third. However, it is your responsibility to communicate information or decisions to your third. Make this a conversation with them. It can’t be “we’ve decided this is what we want”. It needs to be “we’ve been talking and we would love to explore X. How do you feel about being part of that?” While being transparent and getting to the point is important, it is best to give open-ended questions to the third party – or any party, really – as this doesn’t pressure a yes or no answer, but gives room for the other party to voice their own autonomy.

Think about how your boundaries and agreements affect the third and their needs. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to amend anything, but you do need to take them into consideration. ⁠⁠It never hurts to be overly cautious of the third’s experience due to the inherent hierarchy.⁠⁠

How to advocate for yourself in the presence of couple privilege

As an outsider to a relationship, it can often feel like you are a guest in their proverbial home, and therefore wanting to be on your best behaviour. Another couple’s relationship and the viability of that relationship is not your responsibility as the third. While you can be attuned to everyone’s needs, boundaries, and desires, think about drawing a line or noting a flag when anyone requests you diminish yourself to protect their relationship. Again, that is not your responsibility.

Find a couple on the same page as you. Whatever your needs are, they are out there! You can start by expressing any worries or fears, as well as what you hope to gain from the experience, to discover what common ground you may all wish to cover. It is understandable to perhaps feel afraid to express your boundaries or your concerns but it is important and completely acceptable to do so. If a couple is not willing to make space for you in the experience then perhaps they aren’t the kind of people you want to be playing with. Remember this is just as much about you and your pleasure as it is about them and theirs. 

As a couple, how can we accommodate for the third and recognise couple privilege?

Any type of power dynamic takes more than an encouragement that “you can say no whenever you want” to level the playing field. At the end of the day, a present power dynamic that is unaccounted for can affect other parties’ abilities to advocate for themselves. The only way to create a consent-conducive environment with a power dynamic like this is to create space for each person to advocate for themselves without consequence. They need to be allowed to exercise their no without any retaliation or judgment. This will encourage them to feel safer to express themselves.⁠⁠

1. Make sure the third doesn’t feel responsible for the viability of your relationship. This includes challenging your thinking of the third as an accessory, a threat, or a vehicle to salvage something within your partnership. If you use the phrase “spice things up” in regards to revamping your relationship, the words you’re probably really looking for are “changing up our routine.”⁠⁠ Adding a third person to your established sex lives is leaps and bounds away from changing a routine. ⁠⁠As many unicorns and thirds have lamented: don’t expect adding a third person will fix your relationship issues.⁠⁠ If there are things you’d like to work on in your relationship, work on that outside of a threesome. It’s a threesome, not therapy.

2. Neutralise, don’t avoid! If jealousy or any other unwanted emotion between the two of you comes up in this process, it is the responsibility of the coupled unit to address this outside of the threesome. This burden should not fall onto the shoulders of the third. Jealousy is often an indicator of an insecure area that needs attending to, rather than being an emotion in and of itself. Instead of finding ways to avoid this feeling (which will inevitably cause it to resurface at some point) see what you can do to neutralise that feeling so you can continue to enjoy yourselves. I.E. maybe you add verbal affirmations, a ritual, or create new roles to neutralise the insecurity that bubbled up. 

3. Have an idea of the roles people would like to play. Instead of assuming the third will always speak up for themselves, encourage them to vocalise what type of role or feelings they enjoy versus those they don’t and cater to this. Many times a third can feel too intimidated to advocate for themselves and may default to making sure the couples’ needs are met before they attend to their own.

4. Prioritise the comfort and safety of the third. This includes taking their aftercare needs into account with your own, including them in any boundary and safety conversations. Inquire about their barrier method preference and any verbal or nonverbal cues indicating their comfort before you get into bed.

5. If your needs are not aligned with the third, it’s okay to not continue. Not every two people are destined for sex even if they’re attracted to one another and the same goes for groups of three. If you have a “no kissing others” agreement with your partner, but the third really enjoys kissing or this is their primary form of establishing intimacy, then this may not be the best threesome for all of you!

Does addressing couple privilege always lead to hot threesomes?

Even if you account for all the couple privilege in the world, none of this guarantees a great threesome. That’s up to your chemistry, needs, and individual experiences! Not every threesome is built to last, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having. Like two-person sex and relationships, there might be some trial and error before you find what best works for you!

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