Welcome to Oh, bi the way, a monthly column exploring philosophical and existential ideas around bisexuality, pansexuality, and other nonmonosexual identities. Each month, I’ll answer a question from a reader, taking the opportunity to dive a little deeper into issues of community, labels, demographics, disparities, and more.
My name is Heron, and I’m a policy attorney and researcher who loves to talk about the theory behind bias against bi and pan folks. Bi+ advocacy is my side hustle that doesn’t actually hustle me anything. During the day, I research and monitor anti-LGBTQ advocacy and rhetoric here in the US and abroad for Political Research Associates.
It’s June 20BiTeen! Happy Pride everyone! I hope your parades are full of bi and pan flags, your denims vests full of pins, your bi and pan t-shirts tucked fully into your jean shorts, and your heart filled with love from your communities.
QUESTION OF THE MONTH: Why, unicorn hunters? Whyyyy???
Oooooh, my friends. This month’s question is a big one.
On Twitter, Alex asked me about unicorn hunters.
Alex brings up a lot of good questions around unicorn hunting — a phenomenon that will be familiar to many bisexual and pansexual readers in which different-sex couples approach female bi or pan people to ask them to have sex together. Some questions include: why do monosexual people often assume that bi and pan people are looking to have a threesome with a different-sex couple? How does bi+-misogyny create a space in which women in different-sex couples feel comfortable having sex with another woman, but potentially not identifying as bi or pan? How does the erasure and invisibility of bi and pan identities play into these dynamics?
Now, before we go further, I want to clarify what this column will be about, and what it won’t be about. This is a column from the perspective of bisexual and pansexual people who have (and who haven’t) been approached and asked to have sex with a different-sex couple. This is not a column about consensual nonmonogamy. This is not a column from the perspective of polyamorous people, or a couple looking to invite someone to have sex with them.
(Ok, I am going to talk a little about consensual nonmonogamy, but only to point out that, like public perception of the queer community, public perception of the consensually nonmonogamous community is that of mostly white, cisgender, wealthy people. The reality is quite different. “ These types of relationships have existed since the dawn of humankind and continue to flourish in many cultures around the world,” says Isabelle Kohn for Mel Magazine, “but ever since the book The Ethical Slut brought them to the Western mainstream in the early 1990s, we’ve been fed the line that there’s a certain “type” of person who practices them. . . . [On the contrary,] ‘[d]espite previous speculation that people in consensual non-monogamous relationships tend to be homogeneous in terms of education, socioeconomic status and ethnicity, this proportion remained roughly constant across age, education level, income status, religion, region, political affiliation and race.’”)
So what are we talking about today?
Today we’re going to talk narrowly about how the practice of unicorn hunting can reinforce racist and sexist notions about sex and power. Specifically, 1) how white cisgender men can use unicorn hunting to manifest specific fantasies about power, 2) how this manifestation can rely on the assumption that sexual contact between (cisgender) women isn’t really sex, and 3) how white cisgender women who ally their power and privilege with their white cisgender partners can leverage these racist, sexist notions of sexual contact to explore or perform their own bisexuality or pansexuality.
Let’s do it.
In all consensual sex between adults, and I mean all sex, power and privilege play enormous roles. Unicorn hunting, threesomes, triads, etc are totally fine and hot and awesome, as long as all participants are aware of existing power dynamics and work consciously to mitigate how sex, race, sexual orientation, and other power and privilege dynamics may influence the consent and safety of everyone involved. When those dynamics aren’t uncovered, they can work to stifle agency and consent by allowing power and privilege to reduce someone’s ability to refuse a specific request, or to have full participation in a potential triad.
Much has been written about how unicorn hunting traffics in bi-misogyny (that is, bias against or hatred toward bi and pan women). Hannah Anthonia points out that unicorn hunting may capitalize on the vulnerability of bisexual and pansexual women. “Anyone approaching bisexual women should be aware that they are a vulnerable minority whose sexuality is frequently fetishised and they deserve as much care and respect as anyone else.” Kale at Relationship Anarchy adds, “[Unicorn hunting] might be presented as a chance for the woman in the couple to explore her bisexuality, but that doesn’t make it clear why the dude needs to be involved.”
Bi+ women become things that are acted upon. Our sexuality no longer belongs to us. Instead, people think it exists to elicit attention or in service of male desires, even in the abstract. The discovery that I am a bisexual woman becomes something they can harness for themselves. It is why men who don’t even know me feel comfortable asking me to make out with other women or soliciting me for threesomes. It’s difficult for people to conceptualize that the romantic and sexual attractions of bi+ women exist independent of the male gaze. So while not every bisexual or pansexual woman is interested in a threesome, people assume that our sexual identity exists for the purpose of one.
J (not their real name) told me: “I had an ex who told me “women don’t count” so we had an open relationship as long as I dated women outside of him. Because they “didn’t count.” It left my mind lost about a lot of things for awhile because I had only had sex with women up to my relationship with him.”
Heaven-leigh shared the following:
Here on Medium, Lois Shearing writes about how the erasure of female sex and pleasure can even lead male partners to mind less when their female partners cheat on them with other women. “Female sexuality is seen as inherently belonging to, or being for the benefit of men. Female bisexuality is particularly vulnerable to this misogynistic view of our lives, as men see their bi/pan/queer girlfriend hooking up with other girls as inherently for their titillation, even if they’re not actually there when it happens.”
Of course, it’s clear that this mindset necessitates a particularly cisgender view of “female.” Writing on a similar topic, when Madeline Holden asked her interview subjects “how this logic would hold if their girlfriends cheated with trans men or women, both were stumped. ‘That’s a complicated thought to process,’ Alex says. Michael responds in kind: ‘I’m not sure I know the answer to that one, sorry.’”
Holden is forcing these male partners to articulate just how far their “one-penis policies” extend (*smirk*). And it turns out, very far. Consensually nonmonogamous men and non-consensually nonmonogamous men “are taught that penis-in-vagina intercourse (a.k.a. PIV) is the only sex that is real. Therefore, there’s no threat from your partner sleeping with another woman because if there’s no penis involved, they can’t actually have sex, and so long as your partner only has access to your penis, no one else can fulfill them sexually. This also means that there’s no sexual threat.”
One-penis policies define unicorn hunting. The cissexist, biphobic, misogynistic presumptions underlie the conventional trope of the cis different-sex couple looking for a cis female partner to join their relationship, whether for a night or a year. Only one penis involved. Two vaginas. One straight man. Two bisexual or pansexual women.
But how does race play into unicorn hunting?
I asked award-winning educator, curriculum writer, and sexologist Bianca Laureano to help me out here. Laureano is a Foundress of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN), the LatiNegrxs Project, ANTE UP! Virtual Freedom Professional Development School for Justice Workers, and hosts LatinoSexuality.com. In short, Laureano is amazing. (Follow her on Twitter.)
I asked Laureano how, in her view, white supremacy and bi-misogyny interact in the unicorn hunt.
I think the ways white supremacy impact all of us makes it so that white coupling or partners are more highly desired. I think white couples have the safety to explore and search for what brings them pleasure in life and sex [more] than BIPOC. This of course is rooted in exploration, conquest, and colonization. None of these couplings are new or radical yet when family formation has been erased and crafted to look one way and only that way because of the violence of colonization those who have found other ways of living are often isolated and shamed.
With the increased interest in kink relationships and exchanges, finding a unicorn can be guided by racialized fantasies or fetish. This can result in the BIPOC not being offered all their choices to engage in a consensual way that honors their body autonomy if they are not told and if the racially white partners are not clear of this desire.
Over on Twitter, Diana (not her real name) shared a story illustrating this dynamic.
A few months ago, a friend of mine reached out to me to ask — on behalf of another couple — about how to find a unicorn. She asked me because she knows that I’m bi and polyam. She ended the message with “I’d have offered to set you up with them, but they want a Black woman.”
The question “how do we find a unicorn” and specifically “how do we find a Black unicorn” sort of reinforce the fundamental problem of unicorn hunting. That is, couples who want a third are generally looking for something to fulfill a fantasy that they both share. They aren’t looking for a person who has her own desires and interests and needs. They’re not approaching the situation from the lens of “what can we offer someone?” but from “how do we get to live out our fantasy?”. This is already so dehumanizing. When you add in specifics about appearance and/or race of the potential unicorn, it becomes clear that they want a sex toy rather than a fully autonomous person.
“They want a Black woman.” Think about that. As Diana put it so well, its clear that this particular couple isn’t looking for a relationship, no matter how brief or how long, with a “fully autonomous person.” They’re not interested in what they can offer a potential partner. They’re looking for a sex toy.
Ki, a 34-year-old South-east-asian bisexual woman living in London, told me another story. (Ki’s pronouns are per/pers/person.) “ In my past dating life… I was a unicorn (in this context — a bisexual female submissive open to threesomes ) I was in a steady throuple for almost 8 years… But these days I avoid couples like the plague.” I asked Ki if per thought that being non-white played into into how folks treated per as a unicorn. “ A little maybe… Certainly being east Asian played into the submissive east Asian stereotype.”
About why Ki no longer dates couples, per said, “The dynamics of it never work out quite as intended. I’m also not convinced couples without any poly experience are secure enough in themselves to navigate the emotions and jealousy of having a third brings up. So the[se] days I'll date poly people, solo poly or relationship anarchists, and I'll even date mono people... But anyone with a couple profile is a no-go.”
Ki and Diana ’s stories illustrate Laureano’s academic observations. Whiteness and maleness privilege themselves in sex as in all things, erasing the sexuality, agency, and even existence of bisexual and pansexual women, especially women of color, especially trans women.
Sex is great. Sex with one person is awesome. Sex with two people is fantastic. Sex with three people is fabulous. Sex with four people is really cool.
Each time we have sex, we bring ourselves and our relative power and privilege to the relationship. And we hope that as each of us brings our mutual power and privilege, we are acting in a way that ensures equity, agency, and consent for one another.
Unicorn hunting is distinguished from other modes of group sex by the characteristic of a couple approaching a single bisexual or pansexual woman as one unit. And there lies the difference. When a couple approaches a single individual for sex together, instead of as two individuals, the couple is aligning their power. And if that couple are both white, and the female partner is aligning her power with her white male partner’s, then she is not approaching the relationship as an individual — she is approaching the relationship aligned with white male supremacy.
It stands to reason why unicorn hunting is appealing to many bisexual and pansexual women. As we discussed last month, bisexual and pansexual women are extremely vulnerable to intimate partner violence, particularly in the moment they come out to a partner as bisexual or pansexual. Unicorn hunting provides a safe context in which a bisexual or pansexual woman can have sex with other people without endangering her relationship or her safety.
But when a white woman in a different-sex partnership relies on her whiteness, her partner’s white maleness, and her partner’s bi+-misogyny to protect her from the violence that faces bi and pan women, what is the cost?
This June, go have sex with a lot of people at once.
But come as yourself. And be clear what you can offer.