Is a “panda three-way”—when an established heterosexual couple is joined by an inexperienced male in the bedroom—an appropriate right of passage into an informed, healthy sex life? Lynn Beisner ponders its true value after her son shared his first, incredible experience with her.
Last Friday, I went to go pick up my college-age son to bring him home for the weekend. On the two-hour drive home, he broke the news to me that he had lost his virginity. That was hardly surprising since he is almost 19 and has had an active dating life since he was in middle school. What was stunning was how he lost it: in what he calls a “panda three-way”—a young, inexperienced man having sex with a slightly older established heterosexual couple. I was glad that I was driving and that the car was dark. I would have hated for him to have seen the shock and horror that must have registered on my face.
I was literally speechless. Thankfully, I was able to make a sound that conveyed to my son support and a desire for more information. So he went on to tell me about the concept behind a panda three-way. It seems that there is a popular video from a nature show that talks about how young male pandas are introduced to sex: in a three-way with an older established couple. My son told me that it was not just good, it was wonderful, the best “first time” that he can imagine any guy having. He says it was great to have a guided tour of a woman’s body from someone who knew it well and loved the woman in it. Knowing that there was another person there who could see to his partner’s pleasure should he fail left him free to explore, ask questions, and bask in the joy of the experience.
As soon as I recovered my power of speech, I was able to express my pressing concern about whether the woman involved was able to give meaningful consent since the men had her outnumbered two to one. Even if she gave consent, I wondered, was it truly enthusiastic or was she emotionally coerced? My son responded by telling me that panda three-ways were “sort of her thing.” Some time before, she had seen the video about the panda three-way, remembered how awkward and awful it had been for the inexperienced guys she had been with, and decided that she wanted to help younger guys become confident, giving sexual partners. My son was the fourth guy to join her and her man in a panda three-way.
My son told me that as much as he enjoyed it, he did not plan to do multiple partner sex again. He thought it was great as an introduction, but now he wanted to go back to a single heterosexual partner. As I audibly sighed with relief, he reminded me gently, “Mom, poly is the new gay.” If I wanted to keep my cred as a liberal parent I would need to accept it. This set me back for a second. I thought about how quick I was to judge other parents who refused to accept their adult children’s homosexual relationships. Poly is the outpost on the sex positive frontier that my children’s generation has reached.
I am glad to say that I passed that test of parenting. I told him that I was happy that the experience was a good one for him and that if he decided to go poly or gay or anything else, I would love and respect him. I also told him that I was proud that I obviously raised a guy who is not homophobic and “not inclined to succumb to the pressure of hegemonic masculinity.” (He was raised by a feminist, so he knew what that meant.)
I assumed that my son would want to keep it a secret from the rest of the family. But when we arrived home, I discovered that my daughter (two years older than my son) already knew. She approved of what her brother had experienced, and told me that when she was a younger, a slightly older couple had offered her the same thing. She declined—and regretted it. She says that her first time kind of sucked because she was horribly anxious and their chemistry was so intense that it became a fumble-fest that ended with her in discomfort and emotional distress. She thinks it would have been much better had she consummated her relationship with her boyfriend after she had “gotten the first time out of the way” with a couple—“a guy who knew what he was doing, with a woman there to help me figure out what I want to be doing.”
If my daughter’s frank discussion didn’t have my chin bouncing off of the floor, it was after my son told my husband about the panda three-way. My very British 50-year-old husband got a little misty-eyed. His voice broke as he told my son that he thought that might well be one of the best ways for a guy to learn how to please a woman. He ended by saying: “I wish that had been available to me.”
My son’s joyful first experience seems to be making helping him define what it means to be a man. His emerging definition of masculinity is obviously one not rooted in homophobia or in conforming to the traditional standards of masculinity created by our society. He has defined for himself what it means to be a man: Men can enjoy sex and make sex enjoyable for others. In his definition, men are fundamentally curious about women, not just about their bodies, but interested in their feelings, thoughts and experiences. Having defined what it means to be a man, he now feels competent to fulfill the obligations and enjoy the pleasures of that role, remaining teachable all the while.
My son’s experience has my husband rethinking what our society’s norm should be for the rite of passage that is “first sex.” He wonders what it would be like if most young people had the option of entering sexual maturity under the guidance of a stable, slightly older couple. He looked me in the eye yesterday and softly said, “I can’t imagine how much better that would have been for me.” He added, his voice cracking just a bit, “and especially for you.”
I grinned and asked, “Are you asking us to be one of these guidance couples?” He looked at me in horror and said, “God no! I wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility. No way, those people will need training and vetting and supervision…and…and all sorts of stuff.” I hadn’t thought about that part: How would we get people to volunteer?
As humorous as I find my husband’s grand idea, I think he is onto an important notion. Perhaps we should change how we construct virginity-loss in our culture. Perhaps we should treat it as an individual rite of passage, not as the first encounter of a person’s first committed relationship. What if a person coming of age truly did have a number of choices? What if they could choose to have their first experience in a celebratory group sexual encounter, or in the panda three-way, or in an assisted encounter with their beloved? I am not saying that we should make all of these things available to young people, I am just asking what would happen if we did. What would it mean to transform our rituals for virginity loss? Would we be a happier society? Judging by what I’ve learned from my son, my daughter, and my own experience, I can’t help but think the answer to that last question might well be yes.
Lynn Biesner is the pseudonym for a mother, a writer, a feminist, and an academic living somewhere East of the Mississippi.