monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #130

Sex Work for Couples: Three is Not Always a Crowd

There was a time when pornography was exclusively, or almost exclusively, for men. It was men who bought the magazines, who watched the movies. Women, it was thought, weren't interested in that kind of sexual stimulation, at least not interested enough to actually go out and pay for it.

Over the past ten or fifteen years, as women began to claim and celebrate their sexual desires more openly, the nature of the pornography market has changed. Couples, as well as single men, now rent and buy porn frequently, and not just a few couples out there on the fringe. Porn producers know that they have a significant "couples market," and many produce films with a couples audience in mind. Candida Royalle's Femme Productions has been quite successful producing films intended to appeal primarily to women. Magazines like On Our Backs and Girlfriends have demonstrated that there is significant interest in lesbian porn as well.

The shift from "men only" to "men and couples" now seems to be occurring in the world of sex work as well. Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of couples who are ready to take the step of actually going out and hiring a sex worker. Sometimes it's the woman who has the fantasy of being with another woman, or seeing her partner with another woman. More often, it's the man who wants to see his partner with a woman, or wants to be with two women at the same time. Sometimes it's both the man and the woman who are drawn to the idea of a threesome. Wherever the initiative lies, more and more couples are taking the leap of turning the "other woman" fantasy into reality by actually picking up the phone and arranging a paid rendezvous.

Trinity is a 30-year-old sex worker in San Francisco. She advertises for customers online, and specifically notes that she is available to work with couples. She charges $350 for the first hour, $250 per hour after that. Per person. She prefers to work with clients, both couples and individuals, for several hours at a time, so a couple that wants to get together with her has to be ready to back up their fantasy with a real financial investment. Nevertheless she says that "lately most of the people who contact me are looking for couples work."

Veronica Monet, also from San Francisco, is an experienced sex worker, lecturer, and prostitute rights activist. She, too, gets calls regularly from couples. "I've worked with couples in their 50s and 60s; I've worked with a couple who were 19," she says. Most of her couple clients are in their 30s or 40s.

"I get all these loving couples," she beams appreciatively. "The degree of devotion they have for each other, and the honesty between them is enough to bring tears to your eyes."

Both Trinity and Veronica say that there has been a dramatic increase in demand for sex work from couples over the last few years. "A year or two ago," says Trinity, "there were only six or seven other people advertising for couples. Now most people realize there are couples who want sex workers."

Sex work with couples, says Trinity, is much more demanding than working with individual clients. "It takes a lot of time, a lot of work, to make sure that everything feels right. Couples may say, 'Oh, let's have a ménage-à-trois because it's cool,' but the reality of it isn't always that pleasurable if people haven't thought clearly about what they're doing."

Sex work or no sex work, three is a tricky number when sex is involved. In any threesome, it's easy for the energy between two people to take off, with the third person feeling excluded and left behind. Maintaining emotional balance, maintaining some kind of sexual balance, dealing with underlying feelings of jealousy and competition -- all these take a good deal of sensitivity and awareness in a sexually charged situation. In fantasy, of course, everything proceeds blissfully. But reality is much more difficult to manage. What does it take for a paid encounter between a couple and a sex worker to be a positive experience?

For both Trinity and Veronica, the first step is making sure that it's both the woman and the man who want this experience. "I talk to both the man and the woman on the phone before we meet," Trinity explains. "I definitely want to talk to the woman, to make sure there's a connection, that she's really involved and not just being dragged along. I want to know that she's an active participant, that it's not a forced situation. If possible I try to meet the couple over drinks or a snack first so that we can become familiar with each other and each other's energies. I give couples the opportunity to say this is not what they want to do, even though that's a financial risk for me. I wouldn't want to be involved in something with people who are not attracted to me or not clear that they really want to do this. After we meet, I ask if they want to go forward, and I have to have a yes from both of them."

Veronica, likewise, screens couples for what she calls the "coercion factor." "The woman who's really on board with this," she notes, "needs to have a high level of confidence in herself, otherwise there's going to be a lot of jealousy and competition. Typically, the women I work with are more attractive and more confident than the men."

Aside from clear consent, a second element essential for a successful threesome is that everyone's clear about their needs and their limits.

"I tell couples up front that they need to know what their boundaries are," says Trinity. "Am I allowed to fuck your husband? Are you allowed to go down on me? Am I allowed to go down on you? What are your safe sex concerns? I need to know what's allowed before I walk into a situation with two people I've never met before. Most couples haven't thought about any of that beforehand."

Most commonly, it's the man who's most excited about the threesome, and the woman who needs to be drawn out, to be made comfortable, at least the first time around. Maybe she's never been sexual with a woman before. Almost certainly, she's never hired a sex worker before. It's easy for a woman in this situation to feel intimidated or nervous.

Veronica is very clear about how the scenario needs to proceed. "I tell the guy, look, the way you handle this is going to determine whether you ever get to do this again, so here's how we're going to do it: She's the queen; you're peripheral. I'm going to be into her. You're going to be into her. Everything else is secondary."

"I like to take charge," Veronica explains, "so the woman can be in a familiar, receptive role. "I might start with a hug, with some kisses on her neck. I might pick her up and lie her down on the bed. I might do some light finger stroking to eroticize her whole body. It starts out just between me and her, with the guy watching." Once the woman relaxes and starts to enjoy herself, then the man can be brought into the scene. Even then, it's important that no one feel pressured, and that everyone's limits be respected.

Trinity agrees. She talks about her favorite couple, a man and woman in their 40s, married for 22 years, with two kids. The man was much more interested in having sex outside the marriage than the woman. "The arrangement they had," Trinity explains, "was that he's allowed to have sex with other women, but only if he pays for it. She knows when he has sex with other women for money. He comes home and shares his experience with his wife, and they use that as erotic candy for their own sexual experiences. It's brilliant. It's honest. It's clear. They're both satisfied, and they're really in love after 22 years. I hold that as one of the highest relationships I've seen."

Trinity's connection with this couple was, she says, "one of the most positive threesomes I've ever experienced. The woman began by wearing a mask, but after twenty minutes, she felt comfortable enough to take it off. She kissed me on the mouth. Her husband was amazed." Later, the husband became involved, had "full-on sex" with both Trinity and with his wife. Trinity remembers both her and the man going down on the woman at the same time. "She was a little nervous, though, not fully into it, so we didn't push her. Mostly I did light brushing touches all over her body, her labia.

"They clearly had discussed what was allowed and what they each could handle. They knew their boundaries which made it easy for me to just be myself. There was a lot of honesty between them. The whole encounter felt whole, felt complete. Nobody was demanding. Everybody just let it flow. It was like a dance between all three of us."

"I still get emails from both of them," Trinity laughs, "saying that they're thinking of me." The man says that seeing Trinity brought him and his wife closer together. The woman says she still smiles whenever she thinks about their time together.

A session with an experienced sex worker can also be a chance to learn new sexual possibilities. Trinity tells how she showed one woman how to do anal sex with her husband. "We bent him over and were both playing that this is how we do anal sex on your husband. I was teaching her and she was fascinated. She was getting that I was a professional and was in awe. I showed her how to massage the area, to stimulate everything, to use lots of lube. How to enter, how to find the prostate. I showed her how to jack him off while being behind him, all that kind of stuff."

Not all of Trinity's experience with couples has been so idyllic, however. She tells the story of another couple that she saw several times before she decided to break off the connection.

"The man called initially. He had everything all lined up. He talked to me on the phone for an hour and a half, explaining everything they wanted to do, what he wanted me to do to his wife. He had every detail figured out, which should have been a red flag for me, but it wasn't.

"It was a fun time, but after I left I felt really exhausted. There was so much going on in the room that night. The man was very invested in his wife being with a woman and liking it. It felt like he was pushing me off on her, and pushing her off on me. She and I had a good time, but I also had the impression that she was acting a lot. The man was watching the whole time, but it was almost like he was the conductor. The husband was much more into it than his wife. Each time we got together, we would kind of perform for him. He would watch, and sometimes direct. Then I would do him and go home.

"I began to feel very uncomfortable with this couple. I felt there were a lot of secrets going on, desires the man had that his wife couldn't satisfy. After a while, I think I became a threatening presence in their relationship. He was trying to open up their sexual world, and she was trying to figure out how to deal with him, trying to find things to please him."

"Working with couples wears me out," Trinity says. She's decided to stop doing couples work, at least for the time being. "I make a lot of money, but not enough to have to deal with all the emotional material that can be flying around. If all my couples had their issues figured out it would be different. Often the outsider catches a lot of things that the people deep inside the relationship aren't seeing, and that can make it challenging to not interfere. You have to just be there, keep your mouth shut, and let people follow their own paths, unless they solicit your advice."

The gender imbalance, between the men's fantasies and the women's, also bothers Trinity. "A lot of couples work centers around the men getting off and getting their fantasies brought to life," Trinity notes. "I'd like to see women get more of their own fantasies acted out. The women are almost at the altar, worshipping their men's pleasure and not paying a lot of attention to their own."

As women feel increasingly entitled to have and to satisfy their own sexual fantasies and desires, threesomes with a female sex worker may be only the first of many steps toward wider possibilities. What about the woman in a couple who wants to be with two men, or the woman who fantasizes about watching her husband be sexual with another man? What about women hiring sex workers, male or female, on their own?

A growing women and couples market seems to exist for sex work, even as it does for pornography. The next step is for sex providers to take notice of that fact. There are, indeed, increasing numbers of male sex workers who advertise for women and couple clients. In the words of Chairman Mao, let a thousand flowers bloom.

This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.