by Jean Roberta
“Menage,” a French word meaning household, is the current term for sex scenes and erotic romances featuring more than two people. In some cases, this term seems parallel to “bisexual,” since ménage scenes or polyamorous relationships are never strictly heterosexual. Either one (or more) person has sex with one (or more) person of the same gender, loosely speaking, at least some of the time, or the whole group is gay-male or lesbian.
I haven’t tried living in an actual ménage that features multiple, simultaneous sexual relationships. In my reckless youth, I took part in a few sex scenes that involved multiple bodies. Just the logistics of such a scene make it harder to write about than a traditional coupling between a female and a male. (For one thing, as several other writers of queer sex have pointed out, pronouns can get confusing when there is more than one “he” or “she.”)
What intrigues me most about the subject of ménage, however, is the emotional complexity of a group relationship which is meant to be more committed and long-term than a casual hookup. While I have never assumed that an erotic writer has to live the lifestyle that she or he is writing about, approaching the chosen category with respect (whether it is BDSM, fetish, male/male, female/female, transgender, cross-dressing, or polyamorous) seems absolutely necessary to produce a story that doesn’t seem like a dirty joke told by an idiot, signifying nothing. (Apologies to Shakespeare.)
I haven’t written much about actual households that include multiple sexual relationships because, for a long time, I was skeptical about whether such arrangements ever actually work. A female friend told me about a failed threesome involving herself, her husband, and the woman who wanted a sexual relationship with her. The Other Woman would have liked Friend to ditch the husband, but instead, Friend told the Other Woman that she had to have a sexual relationship with him too, and then they would be a happy family with Friend in the centre. The Other Woman apparently said a few things that Friend didn’t choose to repeat, and raised a cloud of dust leaving them both behind. No surprise there.
At about the same time, I went to a women’s dance where I flirted with another lesbian who flirted back. Xena (as I’ll call her) was there without her long-term partner Gabrielle. Xena and I went as far as possible in a parked car before her guilt kicked in when she remembered her girlfriend at home. Xena suggested that we should have a threesome some time.
The next time I saw Gabrielle, she didn’t seem happy to see me. I realized that the loving threesome would only happen after the Apocalypse, and possibly not even then.
A young gay-male friend told me his plan to move to another part of Canada to live with a man he knew and liked. Friend told me that the other man (I’ll call him Joe) showed clear signs of being sexually attracted to him, but he was “in the closet.” This actually meant that Joe was married to a woman, Josephine. When I asked my friend if he thought he could also seduce Josephine so that both spouses would get equal time with their co-tenant, he seemed horrified. Friend made it clear that he was not at all attracted to any woman, let alone Josephine, but he couldn’t understand why she didn’t want him to move in. He assumed she was homophobic. Yoy.
Several months later, I heard that my friend was back in town. His ménage experiment had not worked, and the husband had chosen to stay with his wife. How shocking.
In Canada, government signs and notices must be in both official languages: English and French. A sign in the local post office reads: “Demenagez-vous?” which translates roughly into “Are you moving?” The notice goes on to advise those who plan to move to send out change-of-address cards. It always makes me wonder how many people who have tried to live in a ménage have left quickly, with hard feelings on all sides.
Jealousy is not an emotion that can simply be banished by means of a conscious decision, and it is not necessarily an expression of paranoia. Human beings need to feel liked, valued, admired and trusted, and no one wants to be ignored or left behind by a lover who prefers someone else. The challenge, both for those who want to be in a ménage and for those who want to write about the development of one, is to acknowledge the jealousy and cope with it realistically.
Since I began writing erotica, reviewing the work of other erotic writers, and exchanging information with them, I have read some persuasive stories about real and fictional ménages. Writing Skin by Adriana Kraft(www.amazon.com/Writing-Skin-ebook/dp/B003XRF5HU) tells the story of a ménage involving a bisexual wife, a heterosexual husband and a single, bisexual woman who is chosen by the couple because they like her erotic writing. Alternate chapters describe the development of the relationship of the writer with the wife (at first), then the writer’s growing bond with the husband, with some backstory about how the married couple fell in love with each other. There is some honest talk about feelings and expectations. It all works out because each of the three lovers has good intentions toward the other two and is genuinely turned on by both of them.
A few details in this plot stretched my ability to believe. (All three characters seem almost impossibly glamorous, and the husband is never a sexist jerk.) However, the ménage itself worked for me. I could imagine the three of them hosting a dinner party, and laughing together in the kitchen as they help each other cook and serve each course with a suitable wine.
My recent novella, The Flight of the Black Swan (www.amazon.com/Flight-Black-Swan-Jean-Roberta/dp/159021417X) deals with a “front marriage” in the 1860s, a necessary social illusion to protect both the man-loving husband and the woman-loving wife from the drastic penalties for “alternative” sexuality in the Victorian Age. (Women who were even suspected of losing their virginity outside of marriage were excluded from guest lists. Men found “guilty” of sex with other men were executed.)
When I began writing, I thought of this story as essentially queer, to use a broad term. The narrator is a lesbian, and the man she protects from the gallows by marrying him already has a devoted male lover when he proposes to her. As I got to know them better, however, the characters told me things I needed to know. (If you are a writer, you know how this works.) What begins in the story as a strictly legal arrangement develops into a kind of friendship with benefits. When the husband and the wife each have lovers, these Significant Others need to be reassured that they are important members of the ménage, not to be used and thrown away.
Making this kind of arrangement work requires courage and generosity. It requires thinking outside whatever “box” is offered to the participants as normal and inevitable. Writing a ménage story with a happy ending was an interesting challenge. I recommend it.