On a recent evening, I was having drinks with a male friend — a single and actively-looking-for-a-long-term-relationship friend — when he asked me why there seemed to be so many married women on Tinder. According to him, they appeared on the app, boldly describing themselves as “married” or “in an open marriage.” Were they actively looking for sex, he wondered? Did they just want to flirt? He didn’t know many married women, and he thought of me as an emissary of the tribe, which is a reasonable way to think of me. I’ve been married for almost 15 years; I am ignorant of the swipe-romance, the point-and-click marriage. My husband and I met at a party on a quiet street in a college town. In the years since, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking and writing about marriage, and I’d begun to notice more and more women subverting, reimagining, or challenging received notions surrounding the institution, specifically when it came to monogamy. More women were beginning to see opening their marriages as a legitimate and in many ways appealing option. I wondered if Tinder, which brought the world of dating within finger-tap distance, was accelerating the shift? It seemed common knowledge that apps like Tinder had transformed single life and dating. Were they transforming marriage as well? I was curious.
A few days later, I asked my husband if he’d mind if the two of us set up profiles and tried out the app. “No sex,” I told him. “Just texting and chatting.” After a decade and a half together, we weren’t in any acute crisis. We weren’t fighting constantly or sleeping in separate bedrooms. We shared a house, political viewpoints, the responsibility of raising two small kids. For our birthdays, we bought each other things like electric blankets and warm wool socks and a Vitamix blender for making soup. So maybe there wasn’t much in the way of romance. Maybe there wasn’t much in the way of excitement, novelty, or fun. Maybe we didn’t pine for each other or take off our pajamas for sex, but we still loved each other. I wouldn’t have called myself unhappy, exactly.
“Nothing like this existed when we were single,” I said to Pete. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the world beyond marriage had changed?” He looked at me the same way he’d looked at me when I suggested we move in together, or marry, or breed, an expression equal parts terror and love. Okay, he said. Why not? And so we did.
The first step in the process was to set up our profiles, which we decided to do together. Unlike most of the activities we shared (laundry, taxes, attending birthday parties at inflatable bounce house venues), this turned out to be a lot of fun. We picked each other’s profile pictures, bounced off the other’s possible bios. We both agreed that the most appealing descriptors seemed to be the shortest. Pete went with Writer. Married. Terrible at introductions. Let’s get a beer and talk about books. I settled on, simply, Married woman.
Within a few hours of beginning the experiment, my matches accumulated. I received one message after another, plenty from creeps but plenty from seemingly respectable suitors. For the first time in 16 years, men who were not my husband looked at me (or at least at pictures of me), and told me they liked what they saw. As a single woman, I might have rolled my eyes at their ogling. Now I blushed. It reminded me of how tipsy I got from the first beer I drank after nine months of pregnancy abstention. Monogamy had made me capable of getting drunk on the male-attention equivalent of Miller Lite.
I had suspected that when I told these Tinder men I was happily married and just experimenting, many would lose interest. Instead, their responses were effusively and unanimously positive. That’s awesome! one swiper responded. Right on. Good for you, wrote another. I find that appealing and intriguing. Fabulous. Courageous. That’s amazing. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. It sounds perfect. You sound perfect. I can’t wait to meet you. When can we meet? Goddess, Kim, one wrote. May I call you a goddess? May I belong to you? Tell me how I can please and serve you?
In just a few days, men I’d never met had offered to date me, to degrade me, to make me come a dozen times, to take me to dinner, to take me to Paris, to make me couscous. I’ve always felt like an average-looking woman, a solid 6 or maybe a 7 if I bother to wear mascara, but swiping through my matches and messages, I felt like a special species. I felt coveted and appreciated and valued and desired. Why isn’t every married woman in the world on Tinder, I began to wonder. It all felt the way romance was supposed to feel —playful and exciting and unserious. At the same time, I could feel how exhausting the very same experience would be were I a single person looking for a committed life partner, a person with whom I wanted to live and own property and raise children. Perhaps, I thought, the less one needed from men, the more one could enjoy them.
One evening Pete and I sat side by side on the sofa while I conducted a conversation with a pleasant-enough-looking man from Berlin, who was in town only for a week and who would very, very, very much like to meet me. Also, he went on, “I’d like to please you orally. [Wink emoji]. That’s what I’d really like to do most of all. To perform oral sex on you. [Wink emoji.] I love pleasing a woman with my mouth. [Wink emoji.] [Wink emoji.]”
“Why does he keep winking?” I asked Pete. “Isn’t winking what you do when you’re not being explicit? He’s being explicit. So why is he winking??” Pete winked at me. Then we winked at each other for a few minutes, back and forth. I looked at my messages. Another guy had asked me what I was into. I’m not sure, I answered. My husband and I are experimenting with Tinder and I’d like to have some new experiences. What are you into? He responded: I like to use a lot of alcohol and hard drugs and then have sex. It really enhances the experience. Beyond that, I’m into basically whatever. Just not really hard-core stuff like coprophilia (pooping on each other). Oh, I said. I’m not into that, either. Great, he replied. Looks like we’re a match!
A few days into the experiment, I still wasn’t sure I’d actually connect with anyone who I’d want to meet in person, when I matched with a man who was British, erudite, and polite. He worked as some kind of consultant for an NGO and had been stationed for a year in a war-torn African country. We had a pleasant exchange of texts, a couple of warm conversations with decent rapport. After a day or two, he told me he was coming to Chicago for a friend’s wedding and asked if he could take me out for dinner. I was considering the proposal when he said that after dinner, he’d really like me to come with him to his hotel room. And also, he’d really like me to bring a beautiful married friend along. My immediate reaction was repulsion, followed by a kind of morbid curiosity. I’d only encountered this level of male entitlement in other people’s personal essays. Was there something to learn here? When I told him I didn’t think this would be possible, he grew angry and sullen, sent a stream of raging texts. He tried begging. He tried calling. In one aggrieved text he wrote, I work so hard at my job. All year I work day and night trying to help people who have nothing. When I come to the States for a holiday, all I want is to have fun and relax and enjoy a threesome with two beautiful, married women. Is that so much to ask, Kim? Is it?
I considered blocking him, but feeling suddenly and unexpectedly vulnerable, I decided to try deescalation. I understand, I texted back. I can’t even imagine how much stress you must be under. I really hope you get your married threesome. I just don’t think you and I are looking for the same thing.
I put down the phone and waited for him to reply. I understand, he wrote at last. Thank you for your honesty and good luck on your journey.
I closed the app and took a very long shower. Pete was sleeping by the time I got in bed. I kissed his forehead and his eyelids and felt grateful for him.
As for Pete, he was learning that married men on Tinder did not get quite the same level of positive feedback (or harassment) as married women. Matches were harder to come by, and when Pete reiterated to the women he matched with that he was in fact married, they did not think it was fabulous or awesome. Go fuck yourself, one wrote. Gross, wrote another. When he countered that experimenting with dating apps had been his wife’s idea, not his, they doubted and derided him. One woman with whom he had a pleasant text exchange for a day or two before fully revealing his status told him that he’d hurt her badly, that he was the first educated person she’d met on Tinder in months, and that he’d given her the push she needed to permanently swear off internet dating.
“They hate me,” he said.
I told him it wasn’t that they hated him, they just wanted things he didn’t have to offer — commitment of time, resources, and exclusivity.
They wanted the things I used to want, and I in turn wanted what they had — freedom, excitement, interesting conversations that didn’t center on styles of child-rearing or real estate, the experience of moving through the world not exclusively as a wife or mother but as a sexual being, a full and complicated and multifaceted person, the experience of being wooed, wanted, admired, acknowledged, and seen. Perhaps married women were simply beginning to want what married men have always wanted and come to expect: more.