Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My boyfriend wants to have a threesome with another girl, but I want to have one with another guy. What would Plato say? [Ask a philosopher]

 
Recently, PQED got this email as part of our Ask a philosopher invitation. Thank you anonymous email writer. It made me feel like a real advice columnist!

Dear PQED:
My boyfriend and I have been dating for six months and we talked about having a threesome. He wants a threesome with another girl and I want one with another guy. I think he's homophobic and he says I'm no fun. We are both philosophy majors (he's a junior and I'm a senior), and I told him that Plato would be on my side. Do you think I'm right? And who should we have a threesome with?
Signed,
Get my boyfriend out of the cave!

It is often difficult to talk philosophically about sex because doing so can be intimate, revealing, and arousing. In other words, talking about sex can itself be sex. It can feel like an invitation to others, whether we intend it to be or not, and discussion is easily interpreted as foreplay. Despite this, there is a rich literature on the philosophy of sex that is worth exploring. Asking how we should analyze sex intellectually, and investigating whether being turned on by the conversation is appropriate are just two of the many interesting philosophical questions I could ask in this post. Instead, for efficiency’s sake, I will go directly to the letter. My goal here is not to be prurient, but to show, yet again, that there is a philosophy of everything, even sex. I also ignore that possibility that threesomes are inherently immoral. That too would be a whole different conversation.


It seems to me that there are two entirely different themes present in this email. The first is about the motivation for the threesome and the second is a condemnation of your boyfriend’s lack of desire to be with other men. The first one informs the second.

Letter writer, if I could ask you any question, it would be why you want to have a threesome in the first place. Do you each have someone specific in mind—is your boyfriend using this as an excuse to have sex with your roommate and are you lusting after his best friend? If so, the debate ceases to be about a threesome per se and is really about creating an open relationship.

Instead, maybe you are simply aroused by the idea of watching your boyfriend with someone else. Would it turn you on more to see him with another man, while he likes to imagine you with another woman? These fantasies may be about pornography, the imagery that has such a strong influence over modern sexual relationships, but it may also be about your insecurities. Since you both appear to be heterosexual, maybe seeing him with another man feels safer. You know that he isn’t going to walk away with his new sexual partner and he feels the same safety in seeing you with another woman. If this is the case, I would advise against the threesome in general. Unstable relationships rarely survive this kind of sexual experimentation.

There are other options. Maybe the threesome is motivated by the idea of intensity, or the desire to be cool, or simply a sexual selfishness—maybe each of you just wants two people to pay attention to you at once. However you identify the purpose of the threesome will change my answer. If the threesome is about watching same-sex behavior, then neither of you is going to be satisfied seeing the other person with a different sex. If it’s about selfishness and intensity and you truly are as heterosexual as implied, then having two same-sex partners will fit the bill for you, but will leave your boyfriend unfulfilled (and vice versa). Regardless, you ought to have a frank conversation about the best way to realize the telos or the goal of the threesome. Communication is as much a prerequisite for good sex as it is for a good relationship.

Frankly, as described, neither of you are likely to be happy. You do not appear to be attracted to other women and he does not appear to be attracted to other men. But this is okay. Not being attracted to someone of the same sex is not homophobia, it’s just preference, and each person is entitled to their own sexual interest. It would be homophobia if either of you disapproved of the other’s same-sex attraction, or if one of you were lying to yourself about latent desires that scare you. Perhaps this fear is what the threesome is actually about. Maybe you or he are secretly bisexual and the other is trying to push the envelope to free you from your own repression. Since I don’t know either of you, I can’t speculate on this possibility.

But just as he is not (necessarily) being homophobic, you are not being “no fun.” These days, there appears to be a cultural assumption that a woman must be interested in other women, and that she should perform this lust for the pleasure of men. This is unfair and misogynist, and made more so by the fact that he wants to have a threesome with another "girl," but you want one with a guy. (I shall assume everyone involved is an adult). No one has to be attracted to anyone and no one should be obligated to put on a show for someone else if they don’t want to. Refusing to have sex with someone you are not attracted to is not refusing to go to a party, it is simply a healthy understanding of your own boundaries.

This is where Plato comes in. As Plato describes his world, the terms homosexual and heterosexual don't really apply. Many Greek men had wives but slept with men for pleasure. Many Greek women had husbands, but enjoyed sex with other women. In Symposium, Plato’s dialogue on love, he assumes this flexibility and regards it as natural. Plato’s favorite character Socrates is married, but is famously attracted to young, beautiful boys, although he never actually acts on his lust in the dialogues. For Plato, philosophy and eros—desire—are intimately related, and Socrates appears to get more satisfaction from philosophical discussion than sexual activity. It is, in his mind, the most virtuous activity. In this sense, you are right that Plato would agree with you, but only in the notion that strict heterosexuality is not a given. Men and women are more sexually complex than your letter implies. But this doesn’t mean that Plato necessarily wants everyone to have threesomes. He’s not Caligula. On your specific case, he remains silent.

Regarding your quandary, it may be useful not to think of the threesome in modern “heterosexual vs. bisexual vs. homosexual” terms, but rather how flexible and experimental each of you is willing to be. Dan Savage’s term GGG comes to mind. Partners are “good, giving, and game” when they are willing to try new things for the pleasure of their partner and the joy of their own sexual exploration. Assuming that both you and your boyfriend are not strongly opposed to physical contact with a person of the same sex, you may want to try both kinds of threesomes. And keep in mind, people can have group sex with minimal contact, clear boundaries, and preconditions. (Dan Savage smartly recommends laying this all out in advance.) Everyone in the bed doesn’t have to engage in every activity with everyone else. It’s not an all or nothing affair.

If either of you are firmly against same-sex contact (or even a same sex audience), then no threesome should be had. Consent is the first rule of moral sexual activity. But if both are GGG enough to give it a go, I might alter the scenario and suggest a foursome with another heterosexual couple instead. This way, each of you gets what you want and whichever couple slips out of bed in the morning doesn’t have to leave alone. There would  be no walk of shame, just two people holding hands and sharing the satisfaction of a job well done.

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2 comments:

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  2. I am willing to do it with a girl

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