CULTURE & ARTS
08/20/2018 05:45 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2018

It’s Time To Talk About All Those MMF Threesomes On TV

How television's ménage à trois got a double dose of d**k.
Isabella Carapella / HuffPost

One bed. One set of rumpled sheets. Six bare legs, tangled in a languid heap.  

It’s episode 11 of SyFy’s fantasy series “The Magicians,” and Quentin (Jason Ralph), Eliot (Hale Appleman) and Margo (Summer Bishil) are waking up together in bed after a torrid ménage-à-trois. In flashbacks, we see Quentin, the protagonist, passionately kissing Margo, then Eliot. In the bleak light of morning, he lies naked in bed with them, wrapping his mind around the fact that he’s cheated on his girlfriend with a man and a woman.

The episode first aired in March 2016, when such a scene was still something of an anomaly. Until recently, threesomes on TV were mostly confined to the female-female-male variety, save for those that only exist for the sake of homophobic jokes. For years, sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “How I Met Your Mother” jeered about the ick factor of two men touching each other’s junk.

But the erotic male-male-female, commonly referred to as MMF, threesome has been slowly making inroads over the past five years. It’s appeared in steamy episodes of “High Maintenance,” “The Crown,” “Hemlock Grove,” “House of Cards,” and “The Young Pope.” These are the scenes given to us by an era of peak TV: un-self-conscious, sensual, stripped of the shrill heteronormative masculine status anxiety that was once inescapable. It’s emblematic of a TV landscape that’s never been closer to reflecting its diverse viewership, or more in tune with its audience’s non-heteronormative desires ― desires long relegated to the shadow realm of fan art. 

Even in the first heyday of edgy cable, MMF interludes were few and far between. “Until very, very recently, there really were no representations in mainstream media of threesomes between a woman and two men,” Mimi Schippers, professor and chair of the department of sociology at Tulane University, told HuffPost in a phone conversation. (Schippers prefers to use MMW in order “to avoid biological labels for gender identities.”)

When shows did include MMW threesomes, Schippers said, “it was usually in the context of violence ― the men are taking turns ― or as a way to render a character particularly slutty.” It was a severe norm violation, usually indicative of some toxicity or moral perversion. Most early cable depictions were alternately brutal or drenched in homophobic unease.

For example, in Season 2 of “Nip/Tuck” (2004), central characters Sean and Christian have a threesome with a sex worker who resembles the woman they both love. The two men take turns fucking her, her body merely the medium through which they wordlessly convey their fraught feelings for each other. (Some might refer to this specific formation as an MFM or MWM threesome to indicate that the men did not interact, but the experts I spoke to do not use this distinction.)

“Sex and the City,” despite airing seven seasons between 1998 and 2004 thematically built on female-centered sexual adventures, depicted multiple FFM threesomes but only one MMF. A gay couple asks sexually adventurous Samantha to join them in bed. She’s game, but the men bail after a few caresses. “It’s very pretty, but… no,” says one, nodding at her nether regions.

The erotic potential of MMF was long obscured by the calcified power structures of commercial TV, notably the whiteness, maleness and straightness of most executives and creators. A threesome with two men always risked same-sex touching, and for straight men, that meant risking the suspicion of being gay and the loss of their top-of-the-heap identity.

In a 2005 episode of “Entourage,” an MMF threesome takes a sour turn when Drama and Turtle accidentally brush penises. Later, their post-coitus banter reeks of hetero-male terror. Drama lashes out angrily when Turtle gives him a friendly clap on the side. Turtle explains, embarrassed, that they “accidentally crossed swords.” “Ew,” responds one of the bros. “Were there any women there, at least?” mocks Vince, the group’s leader. The presence of a woman is mitigating, but the penis-touching is a threat to their straightness.  

In the heady days of the aughts, all a sitcom needed to do was mention a “devil’s threeway” with a knowing eyebrow waggle, and the joke would be written. In a 2008 episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” pick-up artist and self-proclaimed bro Barney Stinson cites a “Bro Code” rule against two bros making eye contact while having a threesome with a woman. In 2011, the British comedy “Threesome” premiered with an episode about a woman initiating a three-way with her boyfriend and their gay roommate. “No eye contact, no cock-touching,” the boyfriend frantically tells his friend as they prepare to join her in the bedroom.  

Seven years ago, this was a fairly standard line. Watching it in 2018, I found myself wondering, with irritation, what the gay bestie was supposed to get out of the whole deal. The “no crossing swords” dictum seemed uptight, not humorous.

Then again, my threesome interests were never met by commercial art ― a set of industries dominated by straight, cisgender, white men and shaped by the sexual fantasies they find appealing and acceptable. HBO was pushing envelopes back in the 1990s and aughts, but mostly just the envelopes that the men in charge had in their supply cabinet: Abundant boobs; bevies of nameless hot girls having orgies; gorgeous women touching themselves for men, touching each other for men, touching men. Women and queer people, conversely, rarely saw their desires explored on screen.

Ryan Scoats, a researcher at Birmingham City University, has been researching threesomes from a sociological perspective since 2009. He found that ― bad luck for the “Entourage” lads ― women he spoke to who were interested in participating in an MMF threesome generally wanted the two men to touch each other. “It tended to ease worries about the women being objectified, or being in danger,” he said. And then, he added, there’s the “erotic element,” that “the women found seeing two men get it on together was something they wanted to see.”

They weren’t looking for double-teaming, but a true group experience ― and while that might happen in the real world, it wasn’t something being shown on TV.

But that doesn’t mean the history of pop culture sexuality holds no female-driven MMF precedent. Because for a long time ― decades ― fans have been telling their own stories about iconic fictional characters, and in those unlicensed, not-for-profit yarns, nothing was off-limits. As someone who came of age reading erotic fanfiction, in which MMF is hardly remarkable and slash romances between male characters are de rigueur, I was not shocked by the new wave of anxiety-free threeways on TV ― or the concept that two men and a woman rubbing up on each other could be, uh, incredibly hot.

“I think it’s an indication of the difference between the corporate media and on the ground fan fiction media,” said Schippers. “Mainstream corporate media still is predominantly owned by straight men,” but fan-created erotic stories online reveal the “mismatch of hetero masculinity” with the desires of much of the audience. 

When women and LGBTQ people are writing and publishing the stories, women get to be empowered sexual actors and men get to be objects of desire. In fanfic, MMF hook-ups are taken seriously. The sexual zeitgeist can collide with the Marvel universe or “Sherlock,” even as the commercial, canon versions remain coy about the existence of gay sex.

Threesomes in fanfic are common, but “less likely to be one-off things,” Vox reporter Aja Romano, who has read, written and covered fanfiction for years, told me. “Usually the whole point of the fic is drawing these people together in a three-way relationship,” Romano said, “so it goes beyond just porn.”

Still more common are male-male, or slash, fics, which have popularized the eroticism of gay sex among the majority female fanfic readership. The phenomenon, now relatively mainstream, has decades-old roots in fanzines. All the way back in 2000, The Guardian published a slash-fic explainer that prompted readers, rather quaintly: “Think Starsky loves Hutch.”

For other fans in the community, all that slash ― and other non-heteronormative romances ― can be a revelation. Romano, who got into slash shipping after fandom friends suggested she check out Harry/Draco fics, says she often hears that other readers got into slash after “stumbling on to some sort of random pairing and having this moment of, ‘oh I think I’m kind of into this,’” she told HuffPost.

Scoats found that women he interviewed who were into MMF experiences tended to be interested in watching gay porn, as well. “If you go back 10, 20 years,” he pointed out, “these are things you’d have to actively seek out. Now you have it in your pocket.”

With the rise of fanfiction, and easily accessible online porn, including gay porn, it’s never been easier for women and men alike to explore whether they’re turned on by watching men have sex.

“I’ve noticed in my students,” said Schippers, “when I would talk about this five, six, seven years ago, they’d be like, ‘oh, the eroticization of MMF is not on my radar at all.’” Now, she observed, that’s changed.

Women know what they want now, as do the increasingly vocal LGBTQ audiences ― and they’re pretty clear that the cis straight male dick-swinging of traditional TV sex is pretty thin gruel with which to sate their spicy sexual palates. They’re rewarding shows that explore other sexual identities and female perspectives with loyal fandom, and they’re asking for more.

Increasingly, they’re getting it.

Baby steps at first. In 2011, “True Blood,” a sexy vampire series based on novels by Charlaine Harris, featured a dream sequence in which heroine Sookie (Anna Paquin) makes a seductive proposal to her dueling love interests, Bill and Eric. “I don’t have to be yours, or yours,” she says. “I’m proposing that the two of you be mine.” The men protest ― they don’t share! ― and she snaps back, “This is such a double standard! When it’s two women and one guy, everyone’s hunky dory with it, even if they barely know each other.”

Finally, she strips to her bra and underwear and joins the two men on the couch, where they take her in their arms. It’s not just a sexy scene, it’s a self-consciously sexy one, with an edge of feminist insistence: You don’t think this can be just as hot as a threesome with two women? Well, why the hell not? 

“Transgression was a big theme of ‘True Blood,’ so it seems almost natural,” Alexander Woo, a TV writer who worked in the “True Blood” writers room, told HuffPost, referencing the 2011 dream threeway. The sexually adventurous tone of the series, which frequently depicted gay, lesbian and bisexual encounters, had been established from Harris’s racy novels, he said. “The weirder choice would have been to not have done that scene, given Sookie’s emotional state at that point in the series.” 

The speech still betrayed an awareness of transgression, however. More recent TV threeways haven’t been preempted with political manifestos or cloaked in defensiveness. It’s just sex. 

In the recent threesome on “The Crown,” Princess Margaret’s future husband, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, is shown in both erotic and cozily domestic scenes with both his close friend Jeremy Fry and Fry’s wife Camilla. In the most sensual scene, in which Armstrong-Jones engages in a friendly post-coital cuddle with both Frys, there are no threads of sublimated macho aggression. It’s just three people who like to hang out and bang each other.

The threeway “renders him as queer and outside the norm,” Schippers observed. “But I didn’t see ‘The Crown’ doing anything in the narrative that made it seem like he was less of a man.” If anything, Armstrong-Jones, who is elsewhere depicted engaging in creative sex marathons with beautiful women, otherwise fits the conventionally masculine mold of a studly lady-killer.

The sexy MMF musk floats through the cultural ether now. In the spate of recent menages in TV dramas, the tone has grown warmly smutty; these scenes revel in a communal sensuality, rather than tiptoeing awkwardly around the junk-touching question or turning it into a dick-measuring contest between rivals. Even on the comedy “High Maintenance,” the threeway is pretty erotic; it’s the revelation that the two men are brothers ― like, blood-related ― that provides the punchline.

These pop culture MMF threesomes are “not being played for laughs,” Scoats told HuffPost. “Society is recognizing all different ways of being.”

The relative newness of this MMF development is striking ― because sex sells, if you can sell it. HBO, among other cable channels, has long profited off its ability to show more explicit sex and nudity than network shows are permitted to do. They just rarely chose threeways with two men to titillate their viewers.

But in the age of peak TV, hoary shibboleths like the MMF allergy could not stand. The rapid expansion of new platforms ― and the demand for fresh, bingeable content for ravenous audiences ― has prompted an explosion of new TV. With Hulu and Netflix available to pick up and order pilots, shows that might once have died on the vine, labeled too niche or edgy, have instead been given a chance to connect with viewers.

The flip side, of course, is that it’s harder than ever for a new show to stand out from the pack. Netflix, eager to beat out cable channels for audiences’ precious viewing time, and vice versa, have been one-upping each other with ass-eating, power-fingering, and beyond. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” kicked off in 2013 with incest ― a taboo next to which MMF seems positively polite.

And, more broadly, MMF just isn’t the taboo it used to be.

“Our demographic skews young,” “The Magicians,” showrunner Sera Gamble told HuffPost in an email. “If we tried to portray this stuff like it’s edgy and ground-breaking, our audience would just roll their eyes.”

Schippers sees these positive, inclusive portrayals as “a really great way to make men’s bisexuality visible.” While female bisexuality has long been assumed to be temporary or immaterial ― an erotic performance for men, male bisexuality has traditionally been viewed as suspicious ― “a layover on the way to Gay Town,” as Carrie put it on “Sex and the City.” These bisexual male threesomes betoken a shift toward accepting that men can have sex with men and with women, that their bisexuality is valid and need not be read as undermining their masculinity.

This cultural shift isn’t just taking place among the audience or in the realms of fan art. The outsiders, bit by bit, have been invited into the inner sanctum of commercial storytelling today: TV writers rooms. 

Woo, who has also worked on shows including “Sleeper Cell” and “Manhattan,” said he has observed a rapid shift in the broader industry’s commitment to diversity in the past few years, as individual studios have responded to public pressure to build more inclusive creative teams. “That’s a pretty significant change that’s happened quickly,” he said. In a recent Twitter thread, veteran TV critic Mo Ryan pointed out that both HBO and FX have rapidly diversified writers rooms in the past couple of years.

And even those who haven’t been invited in have made a place for themselves in the dialogue. Through social media, petitions and blogs, fans have made known that they want more perspectives shown ― that they want Elsa from “Frozen” to have a girlfriend, or for Sherlock and Watson to get it on, or for there to be shows centered around non-white and LGBTQ characters. These fan pleas are usually ignored, sometimes even derided. But creators and studios are hearing, in far more granular detail than in ratings and occasional fan letters, what their viewers want. How could they not, on balance, respond?

In the age of peak TV, the gap has narrowed between the norms of mainstream commercial art and those of the outsider world where fanfiction has long flourished. But there’s still a gulf, and toe-quivering MMF scenes won’t take us all the way there. If two men frolicking together with a woman is rare on television, polyamorous relationships are mythical at best. Fans, said Romano, want to see more identities represented in their pop culture, and to see other perspectives given center stage.

In short, we’re ready to see Quentin come out as asexual. Or Eleanor shack up with Tahani and Chidi. (“The Good Place” has laid all the groundwork!) There’s a long way to go ― but the lines of conversation have been opened.

For some, speaking directly to fans’ desires has already been a strength. The fan bases for “True Blood” and “The Magicians” predated the TV shows, as both series were based on popular fantasy books by Charlaine Harris and Lev Grossman, respectively. The shows didn’t lean away from the sexual edginess that helped the books win followers ― they leaned in. And viewers loved it.

The scant fanfic published on the fan-created site Archive Of Our Own (or AO3) before the TV series began suggests that Quentin and Eliot were always the most popular ship in the fandom. (The hook-up between Quentin, Eliot and Janet/Margo occurs in the book, though it’s hazier ― Janet and Quentin tuck their drunk friend into bed, then Quentin strips off Janet’s dress, then they all wake up naked together.) Predictably, the fandom began to ramp up when the show premiered, featuring two boyishly handsome actors as Eliot and Quentin. The first seven TV fics published on AO3, in February 2016, are Queliot fics.

When the on-screen threesome made a sexual connection between the two men explicitly canon, fans were rapturous. “Queliot is real!” gushed more than one.  “Never thought they would show on screen,” tweeted another.

But the show wouldn’t have let their fans down like that. The night the episode aired, one of the episode’s writers, Leah Fong, tweeted simply, “#QUELIOT #TheMagicians #welcome.” 

CORRECTIONA previous version of this story incorrectly stated Mimi Schippers’s position. She is professor and chair of the department of sociology at Tulane University, not associate professor. The story also incorrectly stated Ryan Scoats’s employer. He is employed at Birmingham City University.

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