Poly Culture and Online Dating

The search for more inclusive polyamorous options on dating sites.

by Matt Albrecht on September 8th, 2014

In 2013, my wife and I made the decision to become nonmonogamous. It’s a word Google Chrome recognizes as a typo… alongside “inclusivity”.

We came to the (eventual) agreement to explore a polyamorous lifestyle using OKCupid, a site whose match-based percentage system starts with a series of questions ranging from the seemingly obvious to the unmistakably obvious.

The first question OKCupid asks new users is this:

“Regardless of future plans, what’s more interesting to you right now? Love or Sex?”

Screenshot of the OKCupid question.

But, for a couple who is opening their relationship and not necessarily interested in what has been termed “casual sex,” even a question that appears as divisive as “are you looking for love or sex?” immediately sets the tone that these goals are at odds with one another; the Choose Your Own Adventure paths may, it seems, never converge into something resembling a more polyamorous path.

Hacking Online Dating

The term “nonmonagamous” is perhaps less readily recognized alongside “open,” “swinging,” “polyamory” and others expressing intent to have intimate relations outside of the structure of traditional pair-bonding. Given the variety of terminology used and the subtle differences in meaning implied by all of these terms, how does one leverage online dating tools to find like-minded folks? Do these tools even offer non-traditional relationship filtering options at all? Is there a shared language and set of unspoken rules one must use to navigate a monogamous landscape, also reflected in the digital space?

I spoke with a few self-identified poly participants with online dating experience who wished to remain anonymous. Among them I found a consensus to use OKCupid, despite some gripes. Said one couple I spoke with: “OKCupid has been the most effective in finding long-term partners as opposed to one-off hook-ups. We met all of our regular partners through OKCupid and followed a more-or-less ‘traditional’ dating pattern with most of them.”

I found that any success with the platform begun with a period of research and sifting through questions to build a match percentage that didn’t attempt to lump polyamorous intentions in with the much-stigmatized “casual sex”-seeking crowd. And despite efforts to “hack” the matching algorithms, the common experience is that true intentions have to be spelled out in profile text, that the keyword-searching algorithm coupled with insufficient filtering options resulted in a whole lot more effort than seemed necessary if self-identifying options were simply more inclusive.

For example, when a couple is dating together on OKCupid, I found that a joint couples profile is often the default. However, there is no “couples profile” option on OKCupid. A common workaround for Male/Female couples I spoke to was to identify as a bisexual female and to state clearly within the very first line of the “About Me” section that this was a couples’ profile. OKCupid did nevertheless make huge strides earlier this year in both allowing you to identify as “Married” while also listing yourself as “Non-monogamous,” a brand new category, which is a huge contrast to more widely known dating sites such as eHarmony.

The problems with eHarmony are multifold and immediately evident; you must first immediately identify via traditional notions of the gender binary, something that couldn’t be a clearer signal to poly-identified folk who also, often, identify as genderqueer. But that aside, you’re simply not allowed to proceed honestly through the profile creation process if you are married, a clear indicator from eHarmony that your business isn’t welcome if you’re poly and that someone who is married should not be dating.

Screenshot of eHarmony relationship status question.

Poly Across the Web

My own experiences being relegated solely to OKCupid, I wanted to get a bigger picture of online poly dating across the web from those who were interviewed.

Responding to the question of which dating site participants found least inviting to finding polyamorous partners, multiple participants noted that FetLife fell short of expectations. The experience of going to FetLife for the first time is one that conjures feelings of clandestine thrills to be done in the cover of night; the red splash of hot red on a black backdrop is evocative of the same sensational covers of the Twilight series, meant to evoke illicit temptation. The image on the left of the landing page randomly refreshes to show users enjoying various states of BDSM.

Screenshot of FetLife homepage.

But this branding can be uninviting to those not seeking the novelty of kink but rather the novelty of others in general. Though there is certainly an overlap in the two communities, there’s no mistaking that FetLife presents itself as a site for sexual “kinksters” while polyamorous seekers may not see themselves as part of that community.

Asked to speak to what she would change about dating sites to make them more inclusive of her lifestyle, one anonymous respondent says she’s pleased with OKCupid’s recent introduction of “monogamous” and “nonmonogamous” filtering, but laments “if only they’d add ‘queer’ and ‘trans’/’genderqueer’/etc as options.”

She continues, “It would be great if profiles could select that they don’t want to be shown to non-monogamous people—it is kind of disheartening to see a super cute queer only to have them state at the bottom ‘no couples, gross’ or what have you, and because there are so many people who feel that way, I almost never message somebody unless they state specifically that they’re also poly or otherwise into non-monogamy.”

As I understand it, this is a typical experience for poly folk on OKCupid; due to a lack of filtering options and still antiquated notions of gender and sexuality, the excitement of finally having found a potential match is quickly squashed by the realization that there’s an important deal breaker somewhere in the essays that comprise someone’s profile. I’ve found that even when your specific questions match on the preference or possibility of nonmonogamy, it’s still difficult to trust that you’re on the same page unless it’s spelled out clearly in the profile, since everyone has vastly different preferences of who and what they’re seeking.

The same respondent concludes, really emphasizing the need for certainty before sending a message, “As a ‘bisexual’ woman I get enough messages from unicorn hunters (straight man, curious woman, want somebody for ‘night of pleasure’ with no necessary connection beyond that) that I don’t want to make someone else feel that way.”

Clearly, though, there is a fine line between some specificity and too much specificity, because a Google search reveals multiple dating sites that distinctly brand themselves as being for polyamorous daters. No one I’ve ever corresponded with on the topic has made mention of these lesser known sites with apt names like “Beyond Two” or “Love Many,” the latter of which presents genderqueer and couples profile options right on the landing page.

But like FetLife, I think one reason why lesser-known alternative sites aren’t often sought out is because people who are poly do not view themselves as being outside of the norm. I can certainly confirm that, and it’s my wish to be able to effectively use the same services enjoyed by the majority of the dating public in search of something that seems as natural to me as breathing—even if that means sites like OKCupid are a little behind in their inclusiveness.

I was nevertheless disarmed by the discovery that many vocal polyamorous folks I know of online had professed never having used a dating site to find like-minded individuals, suggesting that perhaps using faulty tools offered up to us by a set of business owners and developers aren’t necessary to explore this lifestyle. It was nearly a year into my own polyamorous experiences before I’d even discovered fully what it was that I was seeking and how best to define it that I broached the topic with close friends—in particular, a pair of friends who are dating that turned into something “polyamor…ish.” No online dating site involved!

And that said, it’s been even more fascinating having the conversation with folks whose reactions you would never expect; the consensus even amongst those who haven’t done any sort of relationship opening themselves seems to be excitement and complete understanding, if not sometimes envy. This may have more to do with the highly liberal nature of the friends I’ve curated (and that I live in Brooklyn), but I’d like to believe that more inclusive polyamorous options on dating sites wouldn’t be so unwelcome and that their mere inclusion would be enough to bring acceptance to the idea and enable others to begin thinking about bonding in an entirely new and healthy way.