I’d rather date a stable, happy couple than a series of Tinder f*ckboys. And I’m not alone.
Search “unicorn hunters” on Google, and you’ll find pages and pages of disdain and rage. The stereotype is clear: An attractive, white, upper-middle-class couple, usually with their own beautifully decorated home and perhaps a family. The kind of couple with a precious, self-satisfied wedding announcement in The New York Times. Below the surface, there’s trouble in paradise. The handsome husband is bored by marriage, and has come to take his beautiful, high-achieving wife for granted. Commence autopilot and eye roving. Out of desperation, perhaps a desire to have a baby, the wife—a consummate “cool girl”—has brought up alternative models of marriage. They have decided to spice things up by inviting an “open-minded young woman” into their bed. Enter the unicorn—so named because she is supposedly so rare.
The rest of the cliché plays out like a modern cautionary tale. The unicorn—younger, hotter, and more flexible than the wife—is overwhelmed by the couple’s wealth, status, and attention. Everything she agrees to (which is everything), she later comes to regret. The wife buries her insecurity: If he’s going to transgress, at least he’s doing it at home. The husband shelves his marital frustration: He gets to be the alpha gorilla, the supreme conquerer, auteur of scenes for the spankbank. No one is truly addressing their core emotional needs. No one is really getting off—well, except for maybe the husband. Commence therapy and an expensive divorce.
That’s the worst-case scenario with unicorning. And when most people think of unicorn situations, the worst is what they assume. After all, monogamy has won out over 6,000 years of human history as the relationship model of choice, at least on paper. Anything else is judged as doomed, perverted, abusive, sinful.
My first unicorn experience happened in November 2012, six months after my marriage ended. I was 27, and shocked to have checked every socially acceptable relationship box, but still end up with my claim denied. Reeling from romantic PTSD, I had no desire to be in a relationship; clearly there was something wrong with my gut and my heart for getting me into this mess. But I did want to get laid. And though divorce was the right decision, I desperately missed the comfort, security, and intimacy of a committed relationship.
Few decisions in life are as important as whom you chose to spend it with. I spent most of my early 20s obsessed with the alpha female trifecta of marriage, family, and career at the expense of getting to know myself. This put a lot of pressure on every dalliance. If I’m the kind of girl he brings back home to mom, can I really ask him to stick a finger in my ass? If we’re having brunch tomorrow with his childhood friends, then dropping molly and dancing all night at the House of Yes is out of the question. Or so I thought.
Regardless, what I needed was not to get married fast, but to fuck around and make a few mistakes. How else can you learn who you are, what you’re capable of, and what you want? All young women need this if they are going to be—as Obama so beautifully said—adventurous instead of demure.
And since experimentation is important, I propose unicorning with a stable, healthy couple is the ideal way to do it. Think about it: You get the example of a solid relationship to learn from. You get two people dedicated to finding and mining your pleasure. You get a group dynamic, which allows for mutual vetting and greater trust, as well as the airing of stigmatized private fetishes. You get access to the greater resources that an established couple (as opposed to young, hungry singles) enjoy. What’s not to love?
If you think unicorning is fucked up, consider the alternatives available to young women seeking to explore their sexuality: drunken hook-ups, fuck boys, machiavellian Tinder date, and creepy older guys leveraging their money for pseudo-escort situations.
Detractors of unicorning turn their nose up at “unhealthy couple privilege” (this according to the blog Conscious Polyamory). They suggest that any single female would be taken advantage of by the peer pressure of two against one. But with a healthy base relationship, unicorning can actually feel much safer than a hook-up, especially one with a stranger. AC, a married marketing executive based in New York, was tentative about unicorning at first, but quickly set at ease when she met the couple. “They came to Manhattan from Connecticut for a brunch date. It was supposed to be an hour, but it ended up being all day.” The relationship developed quickly due to AC’s comfort. “It was just an awesome three months. We had a lot in common, and a deep relationship. We’ll be lifelong friends.” AC had always known she was bi, kinky, and curious, but had suppressed her sexual preferences after an abusive relationship. Dating the couple was her first insight into a non-monogamous relationship that was “comfortable, safe, and happy.” It made her believe her other needs could be safely met.
EP, an engineer based in New York, feels safer with couples than individual partners. Rather than taking a risk on a single person who may or may not practice safe sex, EP can form a more complete picture of her partners by observing them as individuals and as a couple: “I can relax knowing that these two people have vetted each other.” A transwoman, EP is attracted to both men and women, but often wary of engaging with single male partners due to traumatic past experiences: “The female partner provides the added benefit of emotional security.”
Even outside of this specific preference, EP finds the unicorn dynamic to be more emotionally secure: “You’re dating two people with an existing rapport. When the base relationship is healthy, you can feed off of their energy.” In this way, the unicorn has greater permission to trust and relate to her partners: “If something awkward happens (as often does in sex), you can step back for a moment, and check in with yourself. It takes the pressure off.”
Unicorning can be especially empowering for victims of abuse. “After my relationship, I was very low,” says KT, a clothing designer from Queens. “My ex had worn me down emotionally, physically, and psychologically.” Free from this relationship, KT yearned to get back into the scene, but didn’t have the confidence to do so alone. “I got a bunch of girlfriends together, and we’d go out as a unicorn pack. It was a way to feel sexy, in control, and powerful again.” Support and advice from her girlfriends kept KT grounded. “If there was no one we were interested in, we took each other home.”
Because past relationships had been rife with sexual insecurity and poor communication, I was most afraid of being judged by partners. Imagine my surprise, gratitude, and awe when early unicorning experiences were not interrogations of sexual ability, but purely and simply magical. I was invited to witness the most sacred expressions of love, intimacy and vulnerability. As a playwright, theater is my church. This was more powerful than any theater I’d ever seen. Through watching couples make love, and becoming the object of their seduction and affection, I uncovered deeply buried parts of myself. I didn’t just come. I also came alive.
This state of revelatory bliss is not always accessible with a single partner, where lovemaking requires response and interaction that often spins me into a spiral of self-consciousness. But it is more accessible one-on-one after having seen how real couples do it.
KH, an office manager living in Brooklyn, used unicorning to explore her sexuality. “I was 21 when I met my first couple. My life before that was cut and dry, very vanilla. They opened my eyes up to different ways to love and be.” The relationship awakened parts of KH she had dreamt of but never thought possible: “To have this very attractive couple seek me out … to take me out and show me off was very exciting.” Through the vehicle of her years-long “romantic friendship,” KH discovered the fetish world. “All my current NYC family I met because of them.”
AW, an artist and community organizer based in Lower Manhattan, loves to be “the freaky friend.” Being privy to another couple’s journey allows for a low-pressure way to try new things: “Being an involved third, you get to switch up the tone and set a new mood for something they do all the time. It’s invigorating for all of us.” This energy feeds her creative work as well as the sexuality she expresses in her primary relationships, by introducing new roles to play and test out. “It’s the difference between starting your own restaurant and walking into someone else’s and having a few meals first.”
Body image issues, a common hindrance to young women in early sexual encounters, can be uniquely healed through unicorning. “I’d never been comfortable in my own skin,” says KH, who is “not a skinny girl and never will be”. By dating a couple, seeing herself through their eyes, KH was able to shed the shame: “For the first time, I could walk around naked or in lingerie and feel totally cherished and beautiful.”
For EP, who wrestles with body and gender dysmorphia, the unicorn dynamic cancels out harmful fetishism: “In the realm of trans bodies, there’s a defetishization that happens with multiple people. A fetish is often a private thing. As soon as it’s shared, even with one other person, the fetish becomes incorporated into multiple psyches. It’s destigmatized by being out in the open.” In this way, playing the role of third wheel allows EP to avoid being forced into the role of the “other.”
For AC, developing confidence meant accepting her desire for more than cookie-cutter monogamy: “There was a point in my life where ignoring that need was no longer an option.” The epiphany struck while unicorning: “I was finding it very hard to be satisfied with anything up until then. I couldn’t find that thing I could come home to every day. When I dated the couple, I realized maybe it’s not one person, it’s two people.” AC and her husband now practice conscious non-monogamy, which allows for a balance of support and exploration: “Non-monogamy is hard, but for us it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Though distinct and separate from polyamory, unicorning is often filed under the same category of “alternative relationship.” As with all self-created and co-created models, communication and opt-in consent are keys to success. And the term “unicorn” could just as easily describe the relationships themselves, which are hard to find and harder to maintain: “A dysfunctional non-communicative two-person relationship can exist indefinitely,” observes EP, “but a dysfunctional three-person relationship breaks down very fast.” The most important factor, she says, is the couple’s primary relationship. “It’s easier to have a healthy relationship at the base, before adding this other element. No one is using anyone else. You are trying to make the three of you work together.”
Of course, the possibility of emotional and physical danger can never be entirely ruled out. “In hindsight,” laughs AC, “I put myself into really dumb situations without taking any steps back to evaluate what I was doing.” Women interested in unicorning with a new couple should absolutely take all the same precautions they would for a hook-up: practice safe sex, alert friends of their locations, have an exit strategy.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to call anything objectively “safe” for sexually adventurous women in the modern world. However, it’s high time for unicorning to shed its “dangerous” stigma. “When my girlfriends got together to do an intervention about my unicorning, I called BS,” says KH. “Any time I’d gotten drunk and taken home a random guy, no one said a word! This couple is safe. We play sober. I know their STD status. I’ve been to their home, and I’m in their lives. This is a safer place to be than what is socially acceptable for young women.”
Lucy Gillespie is an Anglo-American screenwriter, producer, and essayist based in NYC. She is the managing editor of Frenchly. Her original short series Unicornland, about a woman who explores her sexuality by dating couples, is due for release in January 2017. Follow Unicornland on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook @unicornwithus.