3nder and the Threesome Imaginary

—Mimi Schippers

unnamedThere is a new app for hooking up, and it is marketed as a tool for finding “…kinky, curious and openminded singles and couples around you.” It’s called 3nder (pronounced thrinder), and according to a recent New York Post article, it is “built for threesomes.”

Riffing on of the wildly successful Grindr and Tinder, CEO Dimo Trifonov said that he came up with the idea because his girlfriend “confessed an attraction to women.” Here is how the app is described in a press release:

Our perception of love is evolving beyond social norms. 3nder helps singles and couples open up to their sexualities, elevated away from social pressure. It is a place where humans do not have to abide by the artificial rules of an ageing morality. It gives curious couples and singles a beautiful space to show their true selves, explore their sexualities, and discover like-minded humans.

It is true that in a mononormative world—one in which the monogamous couple is the only legitimate way to do emotional and sexual intimacy, sex is supposed to involve a twosome, not a threesome—that is two and only two people. Three in the bed (or on the floor or in the park) is outside of mainstream ideas of “normal” sex. In this way, threesomes do push against social norms.

However, if we look closer at what I call “the threesome imaginary,” or the fantasy of threesomes presented to us through on-line discussions of 3nder, those pesky social norms and social pressures are not so easily expunged.

For instance, reports about 3nder provide a consistent picture of what we mean by threesomes. According to Gabe Stutman, the app is perfect for “those seeking out novel sexual experiences.” As described on the iTunes website, 3nder is “about feeling comfortable with your curiosity about sexuality.”

Presented as a “novel experience,” or a “curiosity,” threesomes are constructed as a temporary suspension of normalcy.

What is this implied “normal?”

The Couple. Rather than challenge our perception of love as promised in the press release, threesomes are presented as something couples do to take a temporary walk on the wild side together. Couples, and the singles they invite in, are what define a threesome.

Moreover, according to representations of 3nder threesomes, the couple is heterosexual and the person invited into their bed is a woman. Trifonov, remember, came up with the idea for the app because his girlfriend wanted to have sex with a woman. The photo accompanying the New York Post article depicts a young, conventionally attractive man flanked on both sides by two young women. An article about the app on Salon.com includes a photo of a man and two women as does the one on Cosmopolitan’s website.

An article posted on Vice Channel’s Motherboard begins with an anecdote about two 27-year old women who used the app to search for a single guy with whom they could have a threesome. The photo features–you guessed it–a man between two women. The only article about 3nder that I could find that did not include an image of two women and a man is on the Huffington Post website. That image shows three men.

Where are the threesomes that include two men and one woman? If the couple using 3nder is heterosexual, according to media representations of threesomes, inviting another man into the mix is not a part of 3nder’s new world of love “beyond social norms.”

The reasons for this omission are many and, as I argue in Beyond Monogamy, most of them revolve around protecting hetero-masculinity from any queer threats that might come from the poly margins. There is no scenario in the mainstream threesome imaginary where a woman in a heterosexual couple gets to watch some boy-on-boy action between her husband or boyfriend and another guy, and there certainly is no room in hetero-masculinity for getting it on with another man while a wife or girlfriend watches. In other words, the implicit message conveyed by these articles (but not by 3nder) is that 3nder is there to fulfill every straight guy’s fantasy—a threesome with two women.

Also missing are black or brown people, for only images of white bodies accompany discussions of 3nder. According to these representations, there are no black or brown, let alone interracial 3nder threesomes. In other words, not only does the threesome imaginary preserve the couple and hetero-masculinity, it also conflates whiteness with sexiness, sexual subjectivity, and erotic adventure as harmless fun.

Despite the implicit messages about gender and race conveyed through internet reporting about 3nder, I’m enthusiastic about the potentialities of 3nder. I think there is potential for threesomes and other forms of poly sex and relationships to shake up social norms about love and relationships. My enthusiasm, however, is cautious. Unless we re-write our narratives about what a threesome looks like, we’re bound to follow the same race and gender “rules of an old morality” that 3nder promises to help us all overcome.

Mimi Schippers is Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is author of Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities (NYU Press, forthcoming 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock.