Three Is Not a Crowd

How Dustin Hoffman led me to understand that threesomes are the new hookup

"Threesome" (Photo: Michael Hensmann/ Flickr)

“Threesome” (Photo: Michael Hensmann/ Flickr)

Adultery is so last year.

But threesomes? They’re the new enhanced hookup. We know this because the professional trendspotters, who are tired of mere adultery and too snooty to go to the mattresses at orgies, are all over sexual triangles, web sites like OpenMinded.com and the couple-next-door ordinariness of the practitioners. I know this personally because Married Sex, my novel about a Manhattan couple and the female photographer who becomes their bedmate, is weeks away from publication, and enough people have seen the galleys or the propaganda to have asked me if… well, you know.

In fact, I don’t know. I’ve never been in a threesome. I know that two women are a favorite male fantasy, but it’s not mine. I had to make charts to figure out who does what and when and how.

The reason I fell into a plot built around a threesome is that twenty years ago Dustin Hoffman optioned a novel about a Manhattan divorce lawyer that was so wretched no A-list screenwriter would touch it. Eventually the offers drifted into the B-list, which is how I found myself in a Madison Avenue office, explaining to Dustin that the book wasn’t worth adapting but the character was interesting, and if you established that he and his wife viewed a threesome as marriage insurance, you’d have a situation worth exploring and an explanation that would fit easily on a poster or billboard: It’s not cheating if your wife’s there. Dustin thought so too—if the movie were made in France and shown here with subtitles. But that wasn’t something he could get a studio to finance.

I spent long days thinking about the mechanics of a threesome. Namely: how do you arrange a three-way that protects the couple’s marriage?

The narrator of Married Sex is a man who sounds like me, so it came to pass that some of my female friends who were early readers of the novel have told me “I can’t look you in the face.” That delights me; I wanted to write a book that feels real and reads like a screenplay. But my interest in delivering credible characters forced me to do more than serve up a salacious story.

I’m in my third marriage. I’ve learned a few things. One is the value of attentive days and loving nights and the way they accumulate into something quite beautiful—now that the years have become decades, I mist up every time I hear The Beatles sing “You and I have memories/ Longer than the road that stretches out ahead.” Another is what David, the divorce lawyer, and Blair, the Barnard dean who is his wife, learn at great expense: Only monogamy works. For them, anyway.

Let me emphasize: for Blair and David, and maybe only for them. I always saw Married Sex as a love story with sex, not a sex story that happens to involve a happily married couple. And because they love one another—because they’ve loved one another for twenty years—I spent long days thinking about the mechanics of a threesome. Namely: how do you arrange a three-way that protects the couple’s marriage?

In the novel, Blair and David discuss this:

Blair: “I’m thinking I’d be more comfortable if we hired someone. If we met at a hotel, made up names. In a few hours she’d be gone, and it would be like it never happened. A private experience guaranteed to remain private—why is this photographer woman better than that?”

David: “Hiring someone feels . . . cold. Clinical. However she responds . . . it’s fake.”

You chat her up, but she says she’s bi and asks what your wife’s like, and you think this is your lucky day, so you sell the idea to your wife and, a few nights later, break out the vaporizer and the champagne.

Blair: “Yeah, but with someone in the arts, there’s just enough in common that she could be a friend of a friend. Later, we might run into her.”

David: “I’ve thought of that too. But it comes down to this. There are couples who go to clubs and drink enough to take someone home. And couples who go online or read ads for escorts like they were shopping at Amazon. But we’re not those people. If we’re going to do this, it has to be with a . . . person.”

Why do they want a threesome at all? For the experience. Which seems to me to be the usual reason; from what people tell me, “just sex” is the usual answer. Nothing against that—I was young once—but the idea that drives my novel is a line from “Because the Night,” a song by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen: “Love is an angel disguised as lust.” Come for the sex, stay for the romance; it’s a bait-and-switch experience.

For a hundred pages, Married Sex is an innocent romp, a ride that many men and some women might want to take. Sex like Kleenex, disposable sex. Sex that ends with a hug and a journal entry. For all three of you.

But even a carefully arranged night of harmless fun has unanticipated consequences.

You see a beautiful woman in a summer dress and you think, “I’d hit that,” and you chat her up, but she says she’s bi and asks what your wife’s like, and you think this is your lucky day, so you sell the idea to your wife and, a few nights later, break out the vaporizer and the champagne.

Caution, lucky man. There’s more to sex than sex. And that, for my characters, is the biggest takeaway of a threesome: It doesn’t end when it ends. It reverberates.  And the sex turns out to be the least of the story.

Jesse Kornbluth is the author of several books, including Married Sex, which is due in stores in late August.

Three Is Not a Crowd