Beyond Unicorn Hunting
Beyond Unicorn Hunting
One of the most common ideas have when deciding to open up an existing relationship is that if they can just find a hot bisexual female to add on to their existing relationship everything will be perfect. It’s a cliche in polyamory groups on the internet that people will come in looking for a hot bi babe - and that the old, seasoned people are going to mock these couples until they are driven away from the space.
To these new couples, the mockery feels unfair and mean-spirited. While there’s an argument that any mockery can be unkind, there’s also a significant paradox of tolerance component in the rejection of unicorn hunters. The paradox of tolerance says that it’s not, in fact, intolerant to reject any worldview that dehumanizes a whole group of people. Klan members do not have a place in a tolerant society, because their core belief rejects the humanity of black people.
It’s a stretch to compare unicorn hunters to klansmen - but it’s a problem of magnitude and not of type. Stick with me while I explain, if you would.
How Did I Get Here?
This might well be the right place to mention that when I started my journey into nonmonogamy I spent some time as a unicorn hunter myself. I did not understand then all of the ways that this philosophy was dehumanizing. I'm not mad at people who don't understand where this plan is really problematic… But i do want to see if there's a way to help shorten this particular learning curve for people.
When I was unicorn hunting, my (now ex-) husband and I thought it might be a great strategy to just add a woman into our relationship. This seemed like a solid logical plan because:
While I didn’t mind my partner sleeping with girls, he did mind the thought of me sleeping with boys. It seemed eminently reasonable to only interact in ways we were both comfortable with.
We were both employed, and it would have made both of our lives better if we had a wife to share. We wouldn’t even ask her to work outside of the home, we would simply let her live with us in exchange for doing the wifely things that needed doing around the house. Seemed like a great deal to us.
We didn’t want to disrupt our relationship, and just sleeping with another girl didn’t seem like it would disrupt anything.
All of these things seemed very logical, and even though I might have noticed a couple of places things seemed a little off, those were easily and quickly ignored because this path seemed so easy. Which it is - these ideas are very well supported by the cultural assumptions that surrounded us. There is powerful cultural conditioning behind all of these ideas, which means shaking them s going to be deeply uncomfortable. While I see the temptation to stick with what’s comfortable, some level of sitting with and discarding inappropriate discomfort is necessary to making this journey.
So let’s dive into this discomfort by exploring the ways and reasons my “logical plan” was lined up to dehumanize anybody who decided to engage in it.
The One Penis Policy
When my partner would say that it just made sense that we should be able to sleep with other women and not men, I saw the logic in it. Experienced poly people call this the “one penis policy,” or OPP, and tend to look askance at people who practice it.
The one penis policy assumes that only sex that involves a penis can be threatening to a primary relationship. In other words, the connection between two women could never be as significant as the connection between a man and a woman. It assumes that connections between women are less valid than connections between men and women.
Another reason my ex thought it was okay for me to sleep with women was that he thought it was hot. The assumption that my sexual interaction was ultimately to be judged by what it did for him made me a second class citizen in the relationship. I’m ashamed to admit that during this period of my life, when we had conversations with men or other couples about playing in groups, my ex would ask the question “what is he bringing to the table for me?” In his mind, I was a thing he was bringing to the table, and unless the other man involved had a thing of equal or higher value, the exchange wasn’t acceptable. If being objectified is your kink, that’s kind of hot. But it’s not a kink for me, it was just the way I’d learned to think of myself and my sexuality growing up. Looking back, it feels really icky that I was a willing participant in this sort of thinking for so long.
The traditional OPP comes with a pretty strong side dish of homophobia, too. As my ex would explain it, two men together was wrong because men were hard and women were soft. Two hard things together was less acceptable or pleasing than two soft things together.
Ultimately, the one penis policy is so prevalent, “logical”, and dangerous because it’s rooted in the idea that women’s rightful place is as the property of men, and men exercise their claim on that property through their penis.
Having A Wife
Every professional woman I know has, at some point in her life, wished out loud that she could have a wife. “Wife” in this context is someone who trades her labor for security - who happily does the dishes and laundry and cooking and other domestic chores in exchange for having her material needs taken care of. When I was in my double-income-no-kids marriage, we talked a lot about how nice it would be to have that sort of domestic help.
We even paid money to have some of that. We had a cleaning guy come in regularly, and when work was really busy we ate out a lot, or even paid someone to cook us healthy meals. But the sort of personalized attention that a wife can pay to you, knowing your preferences, being invested in your success such that she’ll have the information to make your life easier, is not something you can really hire out.
That’s not really true, of course. Wealthy people have access to this sort of care with full-time assistants, cooks, maids, and other hired help. It’s possible to do that for a living, and to hire someone to do it for you. But it isn’t cheap. What my ex and I were hoping for was that for the cost of room and board, we could find someone who would make it her job to act like domestic help. We even thought it would be a good deal for her because she wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job.
What we never thought about was the extremely unequal power position we would have been creating. He and I would, of course, have had our own disposable income to do with as we pleased, after all, we were the ones earning the money. I’m not sure we would have been willing to provide our unicorn with disposable income we saw as hers, though. We certainly never talked about doing so. After all, we wouldn’t have thought about what she was doing as working - we were looking at is as us providing for her. We would have expected her to be happy to care for us, and we would have thought of ourselves as returning in kind her labor even through we weren’t actually willing to pay the value of that labor.
Not Disrupting the Primary Relationship
By the time we opened up our marriage, we’d been in a mostly monogamous relationship for 16 years. We had a home and a life together. Of course we didn’t want to risk anything happening to that relationship.
That, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. The problem comes in the accompanying expectation that our unicorn would always come second in our lives *while expecting to come first in hers*. We never talked much about whether we hoped our unicorn was going to be faithful to us, but many couples who are hunting unicorns specifically want fidelity. They figure they are allowing their unicorn to love both a man and a woman in their triad, so what else could that unicorn want?
But good love is a balanced interaction? So this unicorn model where the primary couple has a deep and respected love, and the unicorn is basically an add-on to that relationship is, again, dismissive of the humanity of the unicorn in question. It assumes that her need for love and attention is less important than needs of the existing couple. We were assuming the would unicorn give us all of her love in exchange for only part of ours. It would have been a pretty great deal for us - and it would have required her to never expect us to treat her as a separate human being.
The Difference Between Triads and Unicorn Hunters
None of these problems mean that a triad between two bisexual women and a straight man is inherently bad or even inherently unbalanced. There are lots of people in triads that don’t dehumanize one member of the group. But to do so, you have to pay attention to power dynamics.
In a triad relationship, particularly one that forms by adding a bisexual woman into an existing heterosexual relationship, the existing heterosexual relationship has a lot of social support for their relationship that simply doesn’t exist for the third member of a triad. Think about the different ways we view and talk about wives vs. mistresses. We’re quick to support the wives and demonize the mistresses, and whether the wives agree or buy into those frames or not, they’re certainly there.
That’s what privilege looks like - some people receiving more social support for their existence than others. Wives get the benefit of the doubt in a way that mistresses do not. So if you are going to add a unicorn / mistress into an existing relationship in an ethical way, you need to pay a lot of attention to those power dynamics to make sure you aren’t taking advantage of them.
It’s common in any kind of privilege to dismiss that responsibility because you didn’t create the power differential, you simply benefit from it. And just like any other kind of privilege, the people who have it still have struggles - opening up a monogamous relationship has a lot of challenges associated with it for the people in that monogamous relationship, too. It can be hard to maintain perspective about someone else’s struggles when you’re struggling yourself - and it’s easy to feel one’s own struggles more strongly than the struggles of other people.
But relationships are supposed to be, in part, about making sure the people we’re in a relationship with feel seen and supported. That means listening to them about their experiences, and actively looking for ways to make their lives better.
To create that support effectively requires vulnerable, honest communication. It requires an understanding and admission that each relationship is going to take its own form. That openness to the unknown can be terrifying. This terror can absolutely be balanced against other priorities (for instance, a primary couple may be intertwined through kids or through intermingled finances in a way that the third member of the triad may not be.) But it’s the job of the people with more power - almost always the existing couple - to pay as much attention to the priorities of the unicorn as they expect her to pay to their priorities.
(Notice I don't say the primary couple needs to pay as much attention to the unicorn's priorities as they pay to their own priorities. The point of priorities is to pay more attention to your own that to anyone else's. The key here is to recognize that everyone else will also pay more attention to their own priorities than they do to yours. That's the balance you're looking to create.)
And all of this is incredibly difficult, and to some extent risky. There is no safe way to love - that’s part of the joy of it. Any authentic connection has the potential to upend your life in ways you don’t anticipate.
Worth The Risk
Why take the risk, then? The same reason that any love or connection is worth the risk. The danger comes with a potential upside of learning more about yourself and the world around you, and the pure unbridled joy of feeling a connection with another human being. Seeking that connection with human being, not with a walking sex toy or mythical being whose needs you don’t have to consider, goes a long way to taking you beyond Unicorn Hunting.