Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Considering Group Sex and Conflict

Folks often talk about non monogamy as more advanced sex, or more advanced relationships. As if its extra work, takes more from you, is harder to do. It has that reputation in all its permutations, from group sex to open relationships to closed triads to non-hierarchical polyamory. I think this is because the risks are perceived to be higher, and because folks are conceiving of a monogamous couple as the norm. Many people assume that if you are doing menage or group sex, that you start with a previously monogamous couple, and add on from there. And for some people, that is how it works. But that’s not all that exists in the world.

Not everyone starts as a couple, and opens up their monogamous relationship. I have done many different kinds of non-monogamy in my life, and have never done it that way. A monogamous couple doesn’t need to be the center of group sex, or an open relationship, or menage, or a polyamorous network, or a triad. That is not the beginning from which all of these things spring.

So, why am I talking about this on an erotica-focused website?

Because these assumptions are often built into our erotica in ways that we may not even be aware. Let’s hone in on a particular form of non-monogamy that’s quite common in erotica: group sex. (For my purposes here, let’s loosely define group sex as three or more people involved in fucking and/or BDSM together. No, this is not an official definition, just the one we are trying on for the moment.)

A couple focused story is often framed by some kind of interpersonal conflict that either needs to be managed or is fueling the situation: jealousy, cuckholding, competition, perception of the other players or the group sex itself as threat or potential threat to the coupledom that needs to be neutralized. Common ways such a threat is neutralized in these stories include: temporariness or casualness of the encounter, a deep trust with the other parties, certain acts or body parts being off the table outside the couple, only doing it with other couples, or a facilitated experience that one partner creates for the other, as a gift, a lesson, a punishment, or a way to cement a D/s dynamic.  Do these sound familiar? I sure have read a ton of stories that use these things as the framework for group sex. In fact, the majority of the group sex I’ve read in erotica and erotic romance involves scenarios like this.

Let’s unpack this for a moment. This kind of framework assumes that if a couple engages in sex with other people, there will automatically be interpersonal conflict of some sort. For cuckolding stories, this conflict is the main driver for the sex in the first place, the thing that turns some (or all) of the parties on. For other stories, this conflict is assumed to be inevitable, as if everyone would naturally feel jealous, or competitive. As if having sex or BDSM play with others would obviously of course be a potential threat to the couple.

In this sort of story, tension and action is created by external conflict, between the people involved. This is based on a framework that having sex with other people takes something away from the couple,  is emotionally painful for some of the people involved, or sets people up to compete against each other for a limited amount of love, sex, security or attention. This foundation of pain, scarcity, and threat is what drives the action of the story, the thing that needs to be resolved in the story, usually by some action that cements or reinforces the couple.

It can be difficult to break out of this framework, to imagine other things, partly because it is so very common and societally reinforced. In polyamory communities, folks are often still struggling to think outside of this box, to come up with language for describing our lives that does not operate from this framework of competition, threat and jealousy. One concept I find particularly useful is compersion. Compersion is often conceived of as the idea that you might feel happy that your partner is happy with their other partner, basically that their joy is catching. It’s related to empathy, the idea that you might feel joy with your partner, the same way you might get excited when a friend is excited about something they achieved, or feel sad for a loved one who experiences loss. This is basically an extension of that kind of shared emotion, applied to non-monogamy, in a neutral way. It doesn’t assume that jealousy and competition are a natural result of your partner having other partners. It holds space for folks who feel joy and other positive emotions with other people, including their partner’s happiness with other partners.

So that’s compersion, as a big concept, with regards to relationships. Erotic compersion is the idea that you might get turned on by hearing about or imagining or witnessing your partner have sex with another person. Erotic compersion makes room for folks who experience erotic compassion, folks who get off on the sex their partners have with other people. This isn’t a cuckolding scenario, where the idea is that someone might feel shame, pain, humiliation, failure, or feel threatened at the sex their partner has with others, alongside maybe also getting off on it. This is the erotic charge and pleasure without the assumption of competition, threat, pain or jealousy. A different animal, one that isn’t built on conflict.

I really think it’s worth exploring group sex stories that don’t have this built-in assumption of competition, jealousy, threat, and interpersonal conflict. When I read stories that are rooted in these things, they frequently feel boring, depressing, stuck, and flat. I am not rooting for the couple or finding the group sex hot, I’m mostly just sad for everyone involved. I vastly prefer stories that center openness, abundance of possibilities, collaboration, exploration of internal struggle. I experience those stories as full of hope and possibility, and infinitely hotter. I encourage you to consider possibilities outside this box that our genre is so often in, even just as an experiment in pushing your own thinking and practice as an erotica writer.

What could that look like? I’m going to discuss a few examples from my own work to give you a feel for what I mean.

As someone who primarily experiences compersion, both emotional and erotic, I got very excited at having this new language, and wrote a story about it, that I titled “Compersion”. The story is told from the point of view of a dominant queer man who watches his boy bottom to two tops. It hones in on the erotic experience of compersion, and attempts to make it concrete for the reader, to show what it’s like to get turned on when your boy is “showing off for Daddy”.

(As a heads up, the excerpt below includes descriptions of service oriented sex.)

“He is so hot when his cock is being used. It brings him into himself, straightens his shoulders, stirs his pride. He knows he is skilled at this. 

My boy is focused. It’s not about his pleasure—it’s about you—and he is so focused on you that you feel larger, immense, like you fill the entire room. Abe only wants to give you what you need, to create the kinds of sensations you most enjoy, and he pays such close attention. His gaze and focus are mighty things, and as I watched him turn them to Marcus, watched him serve in this particular way, I filled with pride that he was mine. It made my dick throb. Watching him steadily piston Marcus was intensely hot, but it also lit me up to watch him take such pride in his service. That’s my boy, I kept thinking. That’s my boy.”

In this story, the tension doesn’t come from the characters competing with each other or being jealous of each other or any other sort of external conflict. Instead, the conflict is all internal. The tension builds as Abe pushes himself as a submissive, and his Daddy witnesses that internal struggle, riding it along with him, using what he knows about his boy to connect deeply with him and his experience of internal conflict.

When you embrace the possibility that there doesn’t need to be external conflict between characters, that characters can collaborate or be connected or have compersion or dance together through pleasure, it opens up other areas of exploration in your story. You can imagine a community where a bunch of friends and leather family might hold space for an intense scene, and be part of how two people push edges together safely. You can imagine a queer trans guy learning how to do anal fisting with a group of gay cis men coaching him along, especially a very active power bottom. You can imagine a dominant offering his former mentor and lover a menage scene with his new submissive as a way to explore getting back together, perhaps as a threesome this time. You can imagine a group sexual initiation into a werewolf pack or rugby team or queer leather family. You can imagine someone scheming to find enough fisting tops to give his best friend the scene she always wished for. You can imagine three friends finally falling in bed together after years of sexual tension. You can imagine a kink community where birthday parties regularly culminate in group birthday spankings. You can imagine someone being hot to serve a dominant couple.

Once you let go of basing the tension in your group sex story on interpersonal conflict between the characters, you can explore other sources of tension. Not all tension and build in a story must be based on conflict. That is a deeply Western conceptualization of storytelling. That said, if you are a fan of writing conflict and find it to be a needed element in your story, I suggest considering internal conflict. Most of my erotica stories center at least one POV character who is grappling with some sort of internal conflict, often alongside characters that are collaborating in some way.

For example, my story, The Tender Sweet Young Thing, is told from the point of view of three trans characters. Dax, who has fantasized about a gender play scene based on a hir favorite childhood story, Dax’s boyfriend Mikey, who has been searching for a bottom to make such a scene happen for Dax, and Téo, who gets excited when hearing about the story and wants to be the bottom in the scene. Dax gathers a group of friends to be tops in the scene, and the bulk of the story depicts the scene itself. There are several elements of tension in the scene for different characters, but the central tension is the internal conflict of the bottom in the scene, who finds it more difficult to claim the gender he wanted than he thought it would be. 

(As a heads up, the following excerpt includes descriptions of gender play, blade play, and role play.)

“Téo knew his line. He’d been waiting for it, to claim this gender that fit so right, in front of queers who actually got it. He swallowed around the fear rising in his throat. “I am a tender…,” he whispered, then stopped. It turned out it was harder to say than he’d thought. 

Mikey met his gaze, gripped his face in her paw, and said, “What was that? Old tigers like me need it a bit louder.” 

Dax took the opportunity to spread his thighs with hir claws, and Lee bit down on his stomach. Damn. Rebecca came over to hold his hand. That helped. Jericho came over to their boy and laid their hand on his shoulder. Rusty still hadn’t let go of his curls, but that felt grounding now.

“Looks tender,” said Xóchi, who had pulled up on the other side of his stomach with her knife out, and was tracing it along his collarbone, up toward his face. 

Fuck, okay, he said to himself. You can’t talk when you aren’t breathing. You can do this. Let it out. It came out in a whimper, which only made Xóchi grin and press the knife deeper into his skin. Lee was nuzzling his stomach again, and Mikey held him captive in her gaze. Why couldn’t he look away? Why was it so damn hard to say? 

Mikey’s eyes were warm and firm all at the same time. Her gaze said, Take your time. We are here. We know it’s hard. We’ve got you.”

There is no conflict between the characters; instead, the story highlights the ways they work together to shape the scene. Although there is a couple, the story doesn’t center the couple or assume that their coupledom is under threat because they are doing sex and kink with a group of friends and lovers. Instead, the couple work together to create the scene, along with other friends and lovers of both theirs and Téo’s. The tension comes from Téo’s internal struggle, from the ways that BDSM can reach inside and create opportunities to be brave and honest about who you are.


I urge you to question the framework you are using to imagine your group sex stories. It may open you up to story possibilities that take you somewhere very new. And isn’t that part of the joy of writing, to push ourselves to go to new places and imagine possibilities?

4 comments:

  1. Interesting column, Xan. However, I've written--and read--many "group sex" stories that did not have this sort of interpersonal conflict driving them. So I'm not sure this is as universal in traditional erotica (if such a thing can be said to exist) as you suggest.

    And even a cuckolding scenario may not involve interpersonal conflict. There are men who find the experience of watching their female partner have sex with another man deeply arousing, even though that arousal may be mixed with humiliation. The scene is set up to satisfy everyone involved, including the cuckold.

    I liked this comment: "Not all tension and build in a story must be based on conflict. That is a deeply Western conceptualization of storytelling." Very true. This one reason why Japanese or Mayan or Native American stories can feel so alien.

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  2. I have to agree with Lisabet, conflict is not a part of our experiences in group sex and I'm guessing is completely different than you describe. Specifically if you talk about conflict that would seem to kill the whole thing right off the bat. We have sex with our friends sometimes in a group setting but normally one on one. We go to a party and if you are attracted to someone then you party if both are agreeable. Sometimes we party as a couple but often find that both of us are not attracted to both members of another couple.

    Our cuckold/hotwife friends don't have conflict, they enjoy watching their partner with other people and there is no jealousy involved.

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  4. Thank you Xan for your unique insights. As a writer, it is interesting to see behind the smoke screen of other authors. I tend to agree with Lisabet and Larry but also appreciate your characterization of conflict.

    I have heard compersion, but only in the poly community, so it is good to talk about it. One of the best ways to effect change is to increase awareness and understanding. Even as erotica authors, we have an ability to influence society by what we write, how we portray characters and scenes.

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