Keeping House

by | April 26, 2013 | General | 10 comments

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( 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 ( 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.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Kathleen Bradean

    "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.)" Heh. Yes.

    "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." By facing that complexity and other people's feelings, you create a much richer story. Not many readers have been in a ménage, but everyone has been jealous. Everyone has been insecure. And a lot of us would love to be pirates.

  2. Rachel Green

    You have everything right, as far as I can see. I've been in a committed three-way for thirteen years and while we have our issues, we are mostly together. The hardest part is managing the jealousy.

  3. Rachel Green

    mostly happy, I mean. I don't know why I typed 'together'.

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thank you, Kathleen. And Rachel! I was thinking of you! You are in the longest three-way relationship I know of, so all of you must be doing something right. "Together" makes sense. The division of labour might be easier to work out among three than two. (Or it might be harder – I have no experience, and a 3-way pileup doesn't compare, heh.) Thank you for reading.

  5. billierosie

    This is excellent Jean. I have often wondered how folk in these kinds of relationships manage to hold it all say nothing about having the energy — but that's youth for you!

    I'll put up some tweets about this linking your essay to my followers on Twitter.

  6. Jean Roberta

    Billierosie, that's kind of you. I'm glad I know people who are more efficient in using social media than I am. 🙂

  7. Lady Flo

    Simone de Beauvoir had a "ménage à trois" with Jean-Paul Sartre and Olga Kosakievicz. She telling their ménage in "L'invitée".
    A beautiful novel… at the end of novel Françoise (Simone) killed Xavière (Olga).
    In "La force de l'âge" De Beauvoir explain that she had to killed her to get rid of jealousy she felt in the real relashionship between her, Sartre and Olga.

    I think it's hard to have quiet ménage a trois.

    Lady Flo

    Lady Flo

  8. Fiona McGier

    Thanks for this interesting exploration of an over-used yet little-understood arrangement. By over-used I mean everyone and their grandmother is writing about it today, despite most of us not only never experiencing a menage, but not knowing anyone else who has either…or who will admit to it!

    I think jealousy is underestimated in romance, though primarily the cause of crimes of passion in real life. There's something so primal about the feelings we ascribe to the one we're sharing our bodies with, that the urge to scream "mine!" becomes overwhelming.

    I've read some menage books that dance around the jealousy, as if everyone is content to be just one big pile of bodies, aiming into any hole nearby that's available. In reality, I don't think that's very likely a way to create a committed relationship. I guess I prefer more reality in my romance than others. Thanks for putting into words my thoughts about menage.

  9. Lisabet Sarai

    Hi, Jean!

    A two-way relationship is complex. A three-way relationship requires a PhD in quantum physics to figure out…

    I do get annoyed by romance-y threesomes where no one feels jealous or insecure. I suspect it works best when each of the individuals involved is relatively mature and self-confident in his or her own right. Also, respect and consideration are key components. Even if person A is not sexually attracted to person B (e.g. two heterosexual guys in a M/F/M threesome), A needs to value B as a person – perhaps because C (the pivot of the triangle) loves B.

    I've written a couple of difficult threesomes, including TRUCE OF TRUST, where a woman shares her life with her BDSM master and her husband. The two men spend all their time sniping at one another in a way that (to me) feels realistic, and ultimately she leaves them both.

    The most believable three way relationship I've encountered lately, though, is in Remittance Girl's wonderful book BEAUTIFUL LOSERS. In contrast to the ideal I cited above, each member of the triangle is needy and somehow broken. You know as soon as the book begins that it can't end well.

  10. J.L. Forrest

    Great post. Thank you.

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