When Jessica found non-monogamy, she arrived there in a purely unintellectual way. “I didn’t read The Ethical Slut or Sex at Dawn or whatever manifestos people like to credit with opening their minds about the traditions of dating. I had a dry spell that was getting unbearable, and a cute married guy on Tinder messaged me at a weak moment.”
At 29, she felt sure enough of her own wants and needs to try something a little outside her comfort zone. Also, she was horny enough to make a few compromises. “We went out a couple times and he was great, and the sex was incredible and intense. I figured I could either keep seeing him and keep Tindering, or just keep Tindering. So at that point I was like, hey, I guess I’m nonmonogamous. At least for now. The dick is so bomb I gave up hundreds of years of entrenched social norms.”
The first time I considered sleeping with a married man, I was 26 years old. It was 2012 and I was still new to New York and its endless sexual variety, and I received an OkCupid message from a 30-year-old man named Matt. He seemed funny and kind, attractive and well-employed. The catch was that he was already married to an equally cool-seeming bisexual artist, with whom he had an open relationship. It felt too good to be true: I could date this guy, continue to date other people without having to hide anything, and I wouldn’t have to wonder where it was going. It was exactly the mix of stability and flexibility I craved in my mid-20s, and with Matt and the handful of paired-but-open men I dated in the years following, I got it. Somewhere around 30, though, I found myself at an unexpected tipping point: Dating apps had begun to feel so full of already-attached men that their presence became annoying, so much so that I added a disclaimer to my profiles asking poly men to direct their efforts elsewhere. And apparently, I wasn’t the only single woman starting to feel a little fed up.
Much of the cultural interrogation of the various flavors of non-monogamy revolves around how the burgeoning practice in straight relationships — it’s long been common in queer couplings, especially among gay men — affects the social bonds that traditionally structure families and adulthood. And while the changing natures of marriage and monogamy are interesting (and Zeitgeist-y), the proliferation of open relationships requires the participation of a group whose stake in the issue has gone largely unexamined: single people, and especially single women, whose place in society has changed most rapidly of anyone during the current generation. It’s easy to feel like everyone’s poly now, but does anyone want to date them?
“I’ve never gone on a date with one of those people. In fact, it pisses me off. You see a cute profile and read the bio, and then BAM. ‘I am so in love with my girlfriend.’ Fuck you, dude,” Elena, 29, told me. “It seems greedy. They’re already in relationships and there to drain our already small well.” Although many of the women I spoke with were open to non-monogamy in theory, the value proposition of dating a coupled man without an existing primary partner of their own felt uncompelling. “I would fuck them once or twice, but I wouldn’t date them. Dating is an issue of allocating resources, both temporal and emotional, and that just seems like a losing bet,” said Beth, 36. “You end up beholden to this weird cosmology in which everyone but you has a partner already.” It’s the sexual version of The Farmer in the Dell, and you’re the cheese that stands alone. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s perfect. But if part of you still wants to be the first person on someone else’s mind, things can go left quickly.
For single women, the trepidation isn’t just about sorting through men on dating apps: there’s the question of what happens in the long term, and whether navigating someone else’s existing relationship is even worth it if you don’t have one yourself to fall back on? Beth wasn’t so sure. “Like I’m gonna meet someone and they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh I don’t eat pussy because my wife won’t let me.’ What?” It’s not that she’s particularly invested in monogamy as a concept, but the potential power dynamic — of being a single woman with a boyfriend who already has a partner — seems untenable.
These frustrations aren’t new, of course; they’re just presenting themselves to a group of people who were largely able to avoid them in the past: women looking to date men. When I inquired with Jack, a single, gay 26-year-old, he confirmed that those exact competing interests are often points of contention in gay dating. “On Grindr, it doesn’t bother me, but on Bumble or whatever, it gets annoying. Like, let the alone people have something.” He estimated that about half the men he encounters are already in a relationship of some sort, and while the estimates were much lower for the women I surveyed, they all reported a big jump in the past few years.
On the other end of the equation, nonmonogamous men have begun to sense single women’s growing frustration. “I’ve specifically seen an increase in ‘if you are in an open relationship, swipe left’–type messaging,” says Jeremy, 38. “My general sense from the women I talk to is, ‘Great, now I don’t just have to deal with single dudes being awful at me, I also have to deal with partnered dudes being awful at me, treating me like a human sex toy to spice up their marriage, or feeling entitled to my time because they have permission to date outside their relationship.’” Dealing with male entitlement isn’t unique to women considering a nonmonogamous partner, but finding a new frontier of it is undoubtedly frustrating. He also thinks social perceptions play a role. “There’s a specific stigma around being a single person who is dating someone who has another, more primary relationship, and that’s deeply rooted in misogyny (‘side piece,’ ‘mistress,’ etc.).” When there have always been starkly negative social consequences for a woman dating a partnered man in the past, giving it a shot, even in an ethical and open way, can feel understably risky.
That doesn’t mean straight, single women are wholly uninterested in non-monogamy, though, and for those willing to experiment, there can be considerable upsides, both emotionally and sexually, in the right situation. Even though it’s no longer what I’m looking for, my past experiences with dating partnered men have been uniformly positive, especially when it comes to setting boundaries and being communicative about the thorny feelings that come along with any kind of romantic entanglement. Jenn, 41, who came to non-monogamy as a single woman after she ended a miserable monogamous relationship and then met a man in an open marriage, found something similar. “To be successful as a poly person, you have to be really open and honest with all of your partners, so it kind of forces you to discuss your feelings and thoughts more openly than monogamous relationships do. Not that you can’t be perfectly open in monogamous relationships, but I think you have to try harder.” For her, polyamory with non-primary partners has been a huge boon to her personal happiness. “Poly just makes so much sense for me, I’m kind of angry it took me this long to figure it out. I’ve been pretty consistently saying since I was 15 that I don’t want to get married or have kids. Now, you can do those things and be poly, but if you don’t want to do those things, I think being poly is a better fit than being monogamous. At least for me it is.”
Ultimately, poly people aren’t the problem, and neither is non-monogamy itself. Instead, the issue seems to be a matter of a perfect storm of changing norms: the surge in Tinder-style swipe apps as a default way to meet potential partners, coupled with the changing social expectations of both single womanhood and married monogamy. On top of that, everyone has the eternal problem of trying to determine what it is they actually want, alongside thousands of others trying to do the same, aided by widely varying levels of self-awareness and emotional responsibility.
“After I started dating my first poly partner I considered myself open to being poly as well, but it was a while before I did anything at all about it,” Jenn told me. About a year and a half into their relationship, she made plans to meet up with someone else she’d been talking to online. She wasn’t sure how her existing partner would feel about it, though, so she put off telling him until the week of the date. When she finally did, “he kind of freaked out. He wanted to know who was this guy, how did I know him, did I want to date other people too? I think he actually said something like ‘I didn’t know you were poly too’— what?” Even for open-minded single women and their experienced nonmonogamous partners, there can be some kinks to work out in the transition from a more traditional kind of dating. “It was the first time he fully realized I might have other partners too, and he didn’t react well,” she recalls. “However, he didn’t take long to apologize.”