A therapist’s office (similar to a physician’s or lawyer’s office) is a place to talk about things that would be difficult to talk about almost anywhere else except behind closed doors at home. This is why psychotherapy has a long tradition of strict confidentiality: what’s said in therapy, stays in therapy, with the exception of legal situations such as severe homicidality, suicidality, statutory rape issues, child/elder abuse issues, certain domestic violence issues, and some crimes involving child pornography. The laws on this can vary from state to state, and they should be discussed with your written consent at the start of therapy. But other sensitive issues, including all things about adult consensual sex, are fair game to be discussed confidentially. This includes the type and frequency of sex that a couple is having, and their activities. This is why I am frequently sought-after as a gay men’s specialist therapist, because my gay male clients (individuals and couples) just feel more comfortable talking to a fellow gay man, who won’t judge them, and yet can help them with many challenges about their sex life – not only from the perspective of a trained and licensed psychotherapist, but also as a peer in the gay community: I work in the same community in which I live, 24/7/365, and I’ve been doing this for over 22 years.
So when my clients need to talk about their sex lives, we do. Some of the common complaints that I hear from gay male couples seeking help is that they are concerned about the frequency (or, rather, infrequency) of sex, or, after being together for a long time, they are bored or restless in their sex lives, and want to “spice things up” – seeking novel stimulation. Novel stimulation sexually is something that men (gay and straight) seem to crave, and this probably has roots into primal, hard-wired behavior. While some men, gay or straight, mate monogamously for life (although this is hotly debated), men, in general, tend to like the novel stimulation of a variety of sex partners and sensual experiences. They find this exciting, fulfilling, and just fun.
While I have written before here and here about how a gay male couple might discuss their options in terms of opening their relationship for individual sex outside the relationship, with a careful consideration of thoughts, values, priorities, and feelings, another option is to consider the “special guest star for the evening” – the trick, the “anniversary present”, the visitor, the Third.
By talking to many gay male couples over time, I’ve come to realize that while the rules for having a three-way will likely vary from couple to couple, there are some repeated rewards and risks that I see over and over. In essence, there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to approach three-ways. Here are some of those observations:
1. Talk about it beforehand – This kind of experience should only be undertaken once both partners have had a chance to talk about the idea. If you wanted to do try something like this, your relationship should be a safe place to talk about it. Let each partner discuss why – or why not – they would be interested in the idea. Talk about the potential benefits, for each partner, and the potential risks. Discuss what you know about reasonable HIV and sexually-transmitted disease risk. Discuss options regarding condoms, PrEP (also PrEP here), and TASP. Discuss what kind of activities would be ok, and which wouldn’t, on the sexual menu of oral, anal, bondage, toys, etc. Discuss your fantasies and your fears. Try to imagine what it would be like for you to see your partner making out, fellating, fucking, or getting fucked by someone else. Try to determine what would be uncomfortable, and what would be hot. Let each partner have a turn discussing these. Talk about who the third person could/must be, and who it must NOT be. For example, some couples like to play with a third party only if it someone they know and like. For others, it would be only someone they did NOT know, such as being in a new city or location, such as on vacation.
2. Talk about how to find the third person — Discuss what kind of third partner would be hot/fun — age, build, race, nationality, type. Maybe it’s visiting a bar or club in a new city. Maybe it’s using a website like Adam4Adam, Manhunt, or Craigslist. Maybe it's on a gay Atlantis cruise. Maybe it’s using a smartphone app like Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, Tindr, etc. Talk about how you might go about asking the third party what they’re into, and what to propose – such as his place, or yours.
3. Be secure — If you have a trick in your home, consider things like whether you hide your wallet, phone, or valuables, just in case your trick is ultimately untrustworthy. Tricks can sometimes steal things out of your medicine chest in the bathroom, especially if you have medications that are valuable, so be sure to do some “preparations” in your home first.
4. Discuss safer sex issues — Maybe you and your partner do anal sex, but for a third, you only do oral sex. Talk about your preferences of who, does what, to whom. Make sure both of you are clear on what’s OK and what’s not before you have your guest.
5. Have an “out” — Agree that either partner can end the session with your guest at any time, for any reason. Sometimes things you think would be “hot” to see your partner do with someone else don’t feel right in the actual moment. Feelings of jealousy, or even emotional or physical safety issues can arise suddenly. Agree on a secret hand signal or secret “keyword” that you can use with your partner that signals, “OK, let’s finish this, I'm done, get this guy out of here.”
6. Sleep — Decide before whether you want to cuddle/sleep with your third party, or if you want him out after you play. Be careful of falling asleep with a stranger in your home; you might both wake up to find him – and your wallets – gone. This is unlikely, but stories like this are known.
7. Substance Boundaries — Decide where you draw the line with any chemical enhancements. Maybe you relax with your guest with cocktails, a bong, or something else. But be sure you know where your boundaries are with this, and if you’re going to use any form of drugs recreationally, know your Harm Reduction tips for safer use. I always say that while all drugs can be dangerous, using crystal methamphetamine is the ultimate in dangerous and destructive drugs in the gay community, so even if you might do others, that one is ALWAYS bad news. Many guys would argue that the novel stimulation of your third party is sensation enough: his body, face, hair, scent, voice, cock, ass, humor, jokes, and personality should be more than enough stimulation for both of you.
8. Future Contact — Have some ground rules with your partner about future contact. One risk if you really share information, such as business cards or even full (last) names, is that your third party might “relate” to one of you more than the other (just based on type) and send a Facebook friend request to one of you, and not the other. Discuss with your partner whether this is OK. Many gay male couples will have an agreement that neither party can communicate with the third party after they leave after playtime: one to a customer. This can prevent the third party from becoming a wedge between you in your relationship, creating a “love triangle” that can be messy, dangerous, and destructive to your relationship. It’s OK to keep your relationship with your partner foremost, and it’s OK to, well, treat your trick like a trick. He will understand, and even if he doesn’t, your commitment is to your partner first, not to even the most charming and well-meaning of tricks.
9. Sexual Safety and Trauma Triggers — Be mindful of your and your partner’s boundaries. For example, if one of you is a sexual abuse or sexual assault survivor, you might have an aversion to certain kinds of sexual play, but your guest might not know about this. Have your partner’s best interests in mind; if your guest pressures your partner into doing something your partner finds uncomfortable or triggering, help steer your guest into some other kind of activity, or end the playtime. If one of you is feeling "left out", have some kind of signal or code-word for this, too. If it's invoked, your partner has a duty to involve you more, or end the situation. As one client once told me, "there is a difference between having a three-way and just cheating with your partner in the room."
10. De-brief — After the playtime, de-brief with your partner. Share what you think was fun, and what wasn’t so great. This time to de-brief about the time that you had together with your guest can be a bonding experience over what you just did. It reinforces that this was something you did together, and your guest was just someone to enhance the shared experience of the primary partners. I always say, shared experience builds intimacy in a relationship, over time. This could be good or bad experiences: that great vacation last summer, the holiday traditions, the household projects, caring for a pet, enjoying each other’s families, or facing a medical crisis, dealing with household disasters, or being stuck in an elevator. Over time, you are building a lifetime of memories with your partner. By a certain age, you might not have the opportunity to do sexual three-ways together, unless you find a guest who is open to and enjoys playing with older men. It’s easier to do this kind of thing when everyone is relatively young, flexible, virile, and playful. It’s not that older gay male couples can’t do this, but in general, it’s easier to do these kinds of things on the younger side. But at the same time, don’t rush into this kind of play. If you’re still solidifying your relationship, especially in the first months or even first years, I would wait and just bond with each other profoundly before you feel comfortable inviting a third party in. I would even say get to the point in your relationship where you are living together, building a home, before doing this.
And, of course, for some gay male couples, this whole idea would be anathema. It’s not right for everyone. But at the same time, don’t feel that you have to defend yourselves to criticism from others, either. As a colleague once said when someone criticized his “monogamish” relationship severely, “It doesn’t have to work for YOU; it only has to work for US." There are as many gay male relationship agreements as there are gay male relationships, and even then, these can evolve and change over time.
Perhaps most importantly, these kinds of experiences should be approached with a sense of mutual respect and emotional safety for all concerned. While it’s possible negative feelings can arise which need to be discussed (and maybe that’s “notes for next time”, if any), these experiences can foster a sense of trust, fraternity, brotherhood, playfulness, intimacy, and exciting eroticism that create memorable experiences for years to come: "Hey! Remember the time that we met that guy who…"
If you and/or your partner need help with this or other gay men’s sexual issues, consider couples counseling. Lots of good things happen when you talk things out in a relationship, and couples counseling can help you identify options and solutions that you didn’t even know you had, or help you see things from a different point of view, or in a different context. At this point in my career, there are very few issues in your relationship that you could have that I haven’t already seen – and helped couples with – in my practice. I can’t give details that would compromise their confidentiality, but you do get the benefit of my observational experience to give you examples of how other couples have solved problems that are similar to yours.
In general, most people, when they are older, regret the experiences they didn’t have, rather than the ones they did. With a mindful, sensitive, and generous approach, experiences such as the menage a trois can create a bonding experience that is fun for all.
Ken Howard, LCSW, is a gay and poz (24 years) therapist who has specialized in working with gay men, as individuals and couples, for over 22 years. He helps many gay men resolve the issues that undermine the quality of relationships.
For help with this, or other challenges, consider sessions with Ken for counseling, coaching, or therapy sessions, at the office in LA (near Beverly Center), or via phone, or via Skype, anywhere in the world. Call 310-726-4357 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more information.
Ken is also available for expert witness work on gay issues, HIV issues, and issues concerning psychiatric illness or disability, as well as consulting for non-profit organizations, corporations, college campuses, and speaking at conferences.
To get your copy of his 2013 self-help book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, click here. It's your "portable therapist" for the challenges you face today in your mental health, health, career, finances, family, spirituality, and community.