This week at TSR, we’re focusing on ménage romances, mainly because Holly and Erin both read a bunch back to back sort of by accident. What can we say? We’re having a Very Sexy January! To kick things off, we had a discussion about ménage romances – the good, the bad, and the sexy.
Bottom line: Do you like the ménage à trois trope?
Holly: I do. I mean, it’s not my #1 go-to, but I think that ménage romances open up all kinds of possibilities – and not just for different bedroom configurations. There is double the possibility for misunderstanding and drama and angst, but also double the possibility for showing what different kinds of love and joy and compatibility can look like.
Erin: Yep! I started reading them periodically because they’re hot, but as I’ve read more I really appreciate when I find the nuanced approach of three protagonists figuring out their feelings as they figure out the relationship dynamic. These stories really demonstrate trust in a partner, which is beautiful.
Ingrid: It’s definitely not my first choice. I love a good dose of messy in my characters, and I have no logical explanation for why this trope stresses me out, but it really does! Maybe because it feels like the potential for complications and heartbreak increases exponentially? Obviously, it’s romance, so I’m proven wrong every time…but the journey from start to HEA is still a nail-biter for me every time.
What do you think is fun about the trope?
Erin: I think it’s hot. Like, “Ooo, think about what two mouths and four hands could do!” So it safely taps into that fantasy for readers who probably are not going to engage in their own ménage. (Though that makes me wonder… Statistically how many people DO have threesomes?) But I also really love to read poly throuples finding a HEA – they have to deal with a lot more than an average couple – when monogamy still is widely considered the ultimate relationship goal. I think reading the trope in that context opens doors outside one’s own experience. Or, maybe more importantly, provides representation to people who don’t always see themselves represented on page.
Ingrid: I love that it’s yet another example of how humans just seem to have an endless capacity to create their own way of love and happiness–and of course, the erotic component can be very fun. I have been seeing more and more examples that really unpack what it means to fairly negotiate a relationship between three people and although I find that it’s not for me generally-speaking, it brings up a lot of interesting clarity about romantic relationships, period. How much happier would some monogamous people be if they were forced to negotiate and discuss the terms of their arrangement the way a ménage does? Because for a true HEA, that’s what’s required in these cases. And I find that incredibly refreshing.
Holly: I 100% agree with Ingrid here (except for the bit about it not being for me, because, as we’ve established, I really enjoy reading ménage romances).
What do you find problematic about the trope?
Erin: It’s a super sexy fantasy, so it’s fun to read the sexy rumpus versions of ménage, but at the same time, if that’s a person’s only expectation of how a ménage works, it ends up sort of perpetuating ideas that polyamory isn’t…I don’t know. Isn’t a real, meaningful, emotionally engaged relationship that the characters really choose to work at.
I also don’t love it when one of the closed triad is reduced to a secondary status in the relationship. Like, if there’s an ending with marriage and everyone agrees that the legal marriage will be one way but there’s clearly an agreement among everyone that they’re all equally married, that’s fine, but a couple having a permanent plaything is…not my jam.
Ingrid: The early examples I read definitely seemed more stereotyped. Somewhat shallow, almost exclusively sexually-based encounters. It seems like this is one trope that has historically tended to either represent the relationship in either its dysfunction or its ideal–but as I said before, I would anticipate more thoughtful and romantic examples of this trope emerging in the future.
Holly: I think this is really about expectations. If you’re reading ménages because you want to see thoughtful portrayals of poly relationships, well, you need to choose wisely. But is the idea of two best friends deciding they want to share a woman inherently problematic? No.
What does the story need to accomplish in order for you to believe in the HEA/HFN?
Holly: Here’s the thing. I would categorize ménage romances into two broad categories: “let’s work out how our polyamorous relationship is going to work” and “sexy rumpus, double the fun”. If I’m reading a sexy rumpus book, then I just need to buy that these guys are compatible in the sack.
But if I’m reading a ménage book that takes poly seriously then I want to see the characters actually talk about the logistics of how their relationship will work. Some of the questions I might want them to talk about include: Who, if anyone, will be legally married? Where will they live? Are all three on the same footing, or is one couple dominant and the third person is secondary to the relationship?
Note: this is not to say that some sexy rumpus books don’t also address questions like this – just that I don’t necessarily need them to to be satisfied with the ending.
Erin: So, I don’t need all of what Holly is expecting from a poly romance, because I feel like all of the ones I read involve a throuple exploring poly for the first time, and it’s not like this book takes place over the course of a year or multiple years. So what I expect is that the characters are roughly equally represented and equally well-rounded so that I can believe that they love each other in some equivalency that makes it reasonable that trust and respect and love is all present and accounted for. And then for their HEA what I’d be looking for is honestly what I’m looking for in a lot of contemporary romance, because most of the ones I read end not with an epilogue with marriage and kids but with the protagonists overcoming whatever the problem was and agreeing that they want to work on being together because that’s what’s important to them now.
Ingrid: I actually agree with Holly here–I need to understand what the desired outcome is for all parties involved or it’s very difficult for me to buy in and relax enough to enjoy the story.
Erin and Holly looked at their ménage romance reading and Erin whipped out the handy-chart-o-matic! Also known as Excel. So let’s look at some trends we’ve noticed.
Here’s the distribution of the 15 books we included from our tracked reading:
And from these, we found the following breakdown of things that felt like trends while we were reading:
Holly: First, some points of clarification. The question, “is it polyamory?” refers to the dichotomy I mentioned earlier, about whether a book grapples with polyamory or is just about having a sexy rumpus. Also, the N/A in that category is a book where the protagonists are grappling with what polyamory might mean, but the book ends with a monogamous dyad because one of the triad suuuuuuucks and gets dumped. (My full review is here. I talk about penises a lot. Sorry for the spoiler.)
Now, obviously 15 books is not a huge sample, but a couple of things strike me. The biggest is that there seems to be a dearth of FFM menage (at least in our reading lists), so I would appreciate some recommendations of good ones, please and thank you. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, though, given how much more popular M/M romance than F/F romance seems to be. The other thing that is striking to me is how many books we’ve actually read where the protagonists actually do grapple with what polyamory would mean for them as a throuple – and I am all about this trend.
Erin: So, I could have sworn that in the vast majority of the throuple books I’ve read, one of the three is dominant, at least in bed and possibly also in the throuple. Like the other two maybe just kind of needed a leader? Some glue? But actually the data doesn’t describe that at all, so those books must simply have been memorable.
Holly: Just to butt in, Erin asked me about whether the ménages I’d read featured this dynamic and I was like…no. Never. So it is entirely possible that this IS the dynamic in all the throuple books that Erin’s reading.
Erin: All the books that don’t have sword crossing are, as expected, sexy sex rather than polyamorous. And, for the record, that is significantly less fun to read than the sword-crossing variety of throuple.
Ingrid: Not to push Erin down the data rabbit hole, but I would be SO CURIOUS to take this information and track trends by pub date…I want to see how things have shifted and trended over time.
What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?
Holly: I will take every opportunity to recommend She Whom I Love by Tess Bowery, partially because I never see anyone else talking about it. It’s a FFM regency romance featuring a tradesman, a maid, and an actress, and Bowery is able to explore all kinds of stuff about gender and class and power because of her choice of protagonists. Plus it’s sexy as hell.
Erin: Three-Way Split by Elia Winters is AH-MAZE-ING. I was seriously (figuratively) concerned that I was going to combust while I was reading the sex scenes, because HOLY WOW. But while Winters can write some sexy sex, she also does a totally exceptional job of treating polyamory with sensitivity and positivity. So if you’re looking for sex-positive poly erotic romance with a satisfying ending, just start here.
Ingrid: I have to be honest, I can’t say that I’ve read one yet that I’d gush over–but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking!!