My friend Holly*, a thirty-something Brooklynite who works in the wine and spirits industry, has been online dating for a few years now. Holly’s an open-minded, adventurous sort, interested in exploring all sorts of kinks and adventures, particularly with other people who are as queer as she is. But one thing she’s not interested in? Being the third in a random heterosexual couple’s threesome.
That doesn’t stop the onslaught of inquiries, however. Despite the fact that Holly explicitly notes that she’s very particular about her group sex experiences, she still gets message after message from couples who clearly haven’t read her dating profile, desperately hoping that they’ve finally found their unicorn.
If you’ve never heard of a “unicorn,” it is, at the most basic level, a bisexual woman who’s open to a threesome with a heterosexual couple (or, to be precise, a couple that includes a straight man and a bisexual woman). The term is a familiar one to bisexual women like myself—and it may soon become known to a wider audience thanks to a new web series called Unicornland, which offers a celebratory vision of what it’s like to be a woman seeking adventure in the arms of couples. The series stars a 28-year-old divorcee named Annie who decides to explore her sexuality and expand her relatively vanilla horizons by dating couples looking for a third—making her, in the eyes of the show, a proud and popular “unicorn.”
But missing from the show’s premise is a darker truth to the concept of the unicorn. Because a unicorn isn’t merely an adventurous woman who’s open to group sex. As any bisexual woman who’s spent time on a dating app knows, she’s a fantasy come to life, a person willing to show up for a night of excitement and quietly disappear immediately after, a third who’ll ignite a couple’s passions without complicating their emotions. A unicorn is a creature who’ll bring all the sexy fun without creating any drama, baggage, or need for emotional work—and the reason she’s called a unicorn is because, quite frankly, she doesn’t exist.
What does exist, however, are leagues of unicorn hunters: couples on the prowl for the girl of their dreams, the one who’ll bring their fantasies to life without asking anything in return. And though there’s nothing wrong with a couple experimenting with group sex, or using the internet to seek out someone to play with, so many of these couples end up reducing bisexual women to fetish objects, treating us as interchangeable playthings rather than actual human beings.
As I’ve learned from countless conversations with friends and colleagues, virtually every queer woman who’s looking for love (or sex) at some point deals with the expectation that she’s not just available for, but actively eager, to engage in a threesome. If you want a sense of how prevalent this behavior is, scroll through a few queer women’s profiles and note how many of them specifically note that they’re not interested in couples; unicorn hunters are so common, they’re almost a running joke among queer women.
But while it’s easy to laugh at misguided couples blanketing sites like OKCupid with poorly worded missives and requests for pix, there’s something deeply uncomfortable about the notion of the unicorn. All women are forced to deal with the assumption that their sexuality exists primarily to pleasure other people, but for bisexual women—who are routinely forced to defend their identities, “proving” the validity of their attractions—this kind of fetishization can cut extra deep.
In the wider dating world, being attracted to more than one gender is often held against us: Lesbians refuse to date women who might leave them for a man, and straight men don’t take our queer relationships seriously (or balk at the notion that our attraction to women isn’t solely about their pleasure). Indeed, our expansive capacity for attraction is treated as a flaw right up until it serves someone else’s sexual fantasy—until it can be put to use to spice up a hetero couple’s sex life (or, for the bisexual women included in these couples, until it can be used to get their partners more play).
And while fetishization and objectification are fairly common practices in online dating—who hasn’t felt like a piece of meat after a few days on Tinder?—it can be even more intense in this instance. Because queer women are being sought out to fulfill a specific fantasy, and play a certain role, they’re often approached more as sexual service providers than actual human beings. Kira, a “multisexual” New Orleans-based executive assistant who contacted me through Facebook, complained about being approached by “straight girls looking for ‘birthday’ presents for their boyfriends,” a phrasing that suggests that queer women are “objects to give as gifts. As if we should be excited by that opportunity.”
This assumption that being a couple’s third is some sort of special honor shapes the way many threesome seekers approach their would-be unicorns, mapping out elaborate criteria for consideration and often making demands for information and pictures without offering any in return. Those kinds of requests can be exhausting even if you’re into the person making them; if you’re on the fence, or not really interested, they can be downright insulting.
Kira recounted one experience she had with a couple on FetLife, an online community and dating site for BDSM and fetish aficionados, who attributed their picture-free profile to the fact that they were “internet personalities” who needed to protect their reputation. But that need to protect a reputation didn’t stop them from being forthcoming about what they were looking for. Specifically, a “clean” partner. Also, “thick is ok but not BBW. No full African Americans, will consider mix.” For Kira—who’s black but can pass as white—the couple’s approach was “beyond dehumanizing.” She told me, “I hated the idea that my perceived race was up for scrutiny … [That] despite my lack of interest, they'd only ‘consider’ me.”
Lost in all of this, of course, is what bisexual women need, or want, or desire. Because while being a tourist in someone else’s relationship can absolutely be a good time, it can also be exhausting, stressful, and emotionally trying. A couple that hasn’t fully prepared for the reality of bringing a third into the bedroom—one that expects effortless fun, with no possibility of discomfort or jealousy—is a magnet for drama and disaster, which can easily spill over into the life of an unwitting third. Even if you’re interested in joining a couple for a sexy night of fun, that couple needs to be able to treat you like a person, not a means to an end. Most unicorn hunters don’t seem to have thought enough about their threesome fantasy to realize that.
And even more importantly, a lot of bisexual women just don’t want threesomes, period. There’s a pervasive assumption that people whose attractions aren’t limited to just one gender are naturally drawn to having multiple partners; that bisexuals are inherently non-monogamous or into group sex. But it’s just not the case. Liking people of many different genders and liking having multiple partners are entirely different things. Being bisexual is no more likely to predispose you to an interest in threesomes than being attracted to both black people and white people is to predispose you to needing your bedroom activities to look like an X-rated Benetton ad.
By treating all queer women as unicorns just waiting to happen, couples reduce bisexuality to a party trick, and bisexual women to baubles that exist solely to entertain and excite them when their sex lives have grown tedious. But bisexual women aren’t mythical creatures or fetish objects or gifts: We are people with our own needs, desires, and interests—and we all deserve sex partners who respect us and see us as people.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a threesome, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring group sex. But trolling the internet in search of a unicorn, and treating any and all bisexual women as thirds just waiting to be plucked, is truly bad behavior. If what you want is a fantasy woman who’ll effortlessly make your threesome dreams come true then disappear into the ether until you summon her once more—hire an escort. Playing the role of the unicorn takes work: If a woman’s going to do it, she should at least be compensated for her labor.
* Holly requested I change her name to protect her privacy.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.