I had the phrase "not a unicorn" in my Tinder profile for years. It wasn't to indicate distaste for the mythical being because, hey, I change my hair color enough to be in solidarity with their rainbow aesthetic. Instead it was to cut down on messages from couples who were "unicorn-hunting."
For the uninitiated, the term unicorn-hunting typically describes the practice of an established couple searching for a third partner to engage in either threesomes or triads (relationships between three people). Often, though not always, the couple is made up of a straight cisgender man and a queer (usually bisexual, pansexual, or omnisexual—bi+ for short) or bicurious cisgender woman, and they’re looking for a bi+ cisgender woman who is equally attracted to both of them and interested in whatever arrangement they had in mind.
The joke is that the existence of such a woman is so elusive she may as well be a mythological creature.
If you’re a queer woman who uses dating apps, chances are that like me you’ve been hit up at least once by a couple looking for a unicorn. Obviously wanting to have a threesome between consenting adults is a common and totally healthy fantasy, and triads are one of many relationship models that can work for different people. The problem here isn’t in the desire. It’s in the harmful and objectifying ways some people go about finding someone to fulfill that desire.
As a pansexual cisgender woman who also happens to be polyamorous, I am frequently “hunted” as a unicorn. I find the verb apt for how I’m often treated on dating apps. When I had “not a unicorn” in my profile, it wasn’t because I was against threesomes or triads. It was because I was tired of the way couples objectified me as fantasy fodder in their search, calling the potential thirds they sought anything from “a wild night” to “a birthday gift” to the vague yet ubiquitous “fun.” And that’s only when the couples were actually upfront.
“I think people believe they have to lie or mislead us in order for things to work out how they'd like,” MJ R.*, 32, a bisexual woman who has participated in threesomes as a third, tells SELF. “A man and woman want a threesome, but first they'll send the woman to flirt one-on-one and only reveal later that her male partner is also hoping to be involved. Or they approach us as if they're looking to date a third, when really they're only looking for sex or ‘experimentation.’ ”
To put it lightly, this is Not Cool. Realizing potential thirds need to feel safe, seen, and have their boundaries respected should be nonnegotiable, Rachel Simon, L.C.S.W., a sex and gender therapist who specializes in queer issues, tells SELF.
I want you to find your third, and I want your third to feel safe and respected. So let’s talk about how to ensure that everyone’s desires and needs are fulfilled responsibly.
Before you begin your search, there are a few things you should do first.
Engaging in sexual relationships—whether with one, two, or 10 partners—involves navigating individual desires, setting boundaries, and communicating. If you want this search to be successful (and by that, I mean positive, safe, and respectful for everyone involved), you’ll have to put a little work into it.
Start by asking yourself, “What do I want?”
If you approach the topic of threesomes or triads as a couple, it can be easy to prioritize what feels best for the relationship without thinking about what you personally want. So check in with yourself first: What are you looking for? Is it a one-off sexual encounter? A three-way relationship? Something in between? Do you really even want your partner involved? How are you willing to compromise those desires and how aren’t you?
“It’s important that you want this,” Sarah L.*, 29, a queer woman who is open to thirds with her straight male partner, tells SELF. She suggests that you ask yourself, “Who is this really for? Whose pleasure is being prioritized?” Seriously, pretend you’re a potential third for a moment. You would want to have total confidence in the fact that both people you're getting involved with are super excited, on board, and sure of what they want. Otherwise you could be putting yourself in a situation that could be anything from awkward to dangerous. This is why it's important to really make sure you know where you stand before bringing this up with your partner and before the two of you look into finding a third.
Then try to be steadfast in asserting your boundaries, though that’s much easier said than done. If you need help defining your desires and boundaries, I highly recommend checking out the book The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton for an introduction on non-monogamy. And for a look at what navigating non-monogamy is like specifically for people of color, Kevin Patterson’s work specifically— Love’s Not Color Blind—is a good alternative or addition. You can also fill out a yes, no, and maybe list of what you’re okay with your partner doing with other people (and ask your partner to do the same).
Make sure you and your partner are on the same page.
When practicing non-monogamy, communicating in ways that are open, authentic, and not harmful becomes especially important. You can tell your partner something like, “I’m interested in trying x, and I imagine that looking like y. I’m wondering how you feel about that.” Give them space to consider how they feel about introducing another person into the relationship and what their desires look like. Then you can get into the nitty-gritty together.
This will most likely take several conversations. That’s okay! You want to be sure that your individual needs within the established relationship jibe and that you mutually agree upon (and are excited about!) any tweaks you make to find a middle ground.
After you’ve concluded that you’re both on the same page, make sure you’re both on the right page. If you haven’t considered the potential third as a person with their own needs and not just an extension of your own sex life, it might be time to pause. “Couples lose themselves in a fantasy and forget that it involves another human being with their own complex feelings, desires, and boundaries,” Ivy Q.*, 30, a sexually fluid woman, tells SELF.
Talk through how you’ll handle things if someone gets jealous or hurt.
A common misconception is that those who practice non-monogamy don’t get jealous. Which, no. “It’s okay to have insecurities and feelings of jealousy,” Lucius K.,* 29, a straight man who looks for thirds with his sexually fluid partner, tells SELF. But you have to be open to discussing them.
This can be as simple as talking through what you’ll do if feelings like jealousy arise. For example, if you’re in the middle of a sexual situation and you find yourself feeling insecure, will you pause and discuss your feelings?
“If couples aren't ready to talk about all the possibilities, they're not ready to have a threesome,” Sarah says. That could be even more true for triads, since a prolonged relationship between the three of you can provide even more jealousy fodder.
This is also a good opportunity to assess how you communicate in general. If the communication between the two of you isn’t regularly free-flowing and direct, it’s not time to bring in a third, says MJ. No one wants to get caught up in your drama, so clean up your (emotional) house before you have a guest over!
Now it’s time to actually search for your third.
Just like solo-dating on apps, it may take a hot sec to find someone you want to meet up with, but there are ways to up your chances. It comes down to honesty, respect, and communication. Noticing some common themes?
Make it obvious that you’re a couple.
Many apps have settings you can use to indicate that you’re a couple or practicing non-monogamy. On Tinder, for example, you can set your gender to “couple” (which, OK, whatever) and on OKCupid, you can signal your relationship status and the type of relationship it is, including non-monogamous. Utilizing that can help more of the right people swipe right and the wrong people swipe left.
Some apps, like OKCupid or Feeld, allow you to link two separate profiles, which is a good option if you and your partner are using apps to find partners both separately and together. But when you’re just starting to look for a third, setting up a joint profile tends to be better because you can more easily communicate what the two of you are after.
Next up: If you’re sharing pictures (which I would recommend), use pictures of both of you. Setting the first five pictures to be of a woman and then—surprise!—introducing a dude at the end doesn’t count. Both of you should be prominent on the profile so potential thirds can decide if they’re attracted to the two of you.
Craft a bio that’s respectful and accurate.
Writing a bio as a couple is pretty similar to what you’d do if you were solo dating: You want to be engaging, cute, witty, or whatever represents you. You might find it helpful to use even more detail as a couple than you would on your own, though. In the best unicorn-hunting profiles I’ve seen, one-third describes one person, one-third describes the other, and then the final third goes into what they’re searching for.
That last part is so, so important. Please be honest about your needs. “Whatever you're looking for—whether it's sex, romance, or something casual—you should own it and be able to communicate it,” MJ says. “If a couple is dishonest with me, themselves, or each other, that's a red flag for me.”
You might have a mental image of your ideal third. It’s okay to want what you want, but being super specific gets real tricky real fast. It’s generally considered uncool within non-monogamy to create checkboxes that a potential third has to tick off. This is because of what we call couple privilege, which means your needs are (even subconsciously) placed higher than the third’s. It can be dehumanizing to ask someone to scrunch themselves into a box for your benefit, so don’t.
Remember: There’s someone else on the other side of that screen! You're not building someone made to order; you’re dealing with fully-formed human beings.
Finally, be mindful of your language. It’s often pretty clear when someone sees a potential third as a means to a sexual end rather than as a whole person. Most of us don’t want to be referred to as a birthday gift or a wild night. “Many couples approach us like we're some exciting new sex toy or an object that exists solely to spice up their relationship,” MJ explains.
When messaging with potential thirds, be up front.
I recommend striking up a conversation in a way that feels natural, such as by showing interest in something you’ve learned from this person’s profile. Once rapport is established, you can ask something like, “What are you looking for on this app?” This shows that you’re interested in their needs, desires, and boundaries.
After they respond, if it seems to line up with your own desires, you can say something like, “My partner and I are interested in x. What are your thoughts on that?” Then hear them out. You can’t get close to a truly mutually beneficial arrangement unless you’re all honest with each other.
Remember that the goal is a satisfying experience for all three of you.
In the end, each of these strategies is getting at one overarching idea: When you want to bring a third person into your relationship, you have to consider all three people. You and your partner may be an established couple, but the three of you are individuals. The potential third has sexual and emotional needs they’re hoping to have met too.
“There are so many ways of making people feel secondary, unseen, and worthless,” Simon explains. “The easiest way to validate everyone’s experience is to have each person be able to be clear about what they do and do not want and what they expect, and also for each person to feel respected and humanized by each other person in the experience.”
*Names have been changed to grant anonymity upon request.
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Originally Appeared on Self