Why Being The 'Unicorn' In A Threesome Isn't Always A Magical Experience

Single women say they're being turned off by the boundary-crossing behaviour of some couples they meet online.

Never miss a thing. Sign up to HuffPost Australia’s weekly newsletter for the latest news, exclusives and guides to achieving the good life.

Threesomes are high on many people’s sexual bucket list. According to one study, 95% of men and 87% of women have fantasised about sex with multiple partners. Dating app Feeld (which has been called “Tinder for threesomes”) has more than 200,000 weekly users, 3Fun encourages users to browse and “meet open-minded hot couples and singles nearby”. Meanwhile, hookup and swingers’ site Adult Friend Finder has a staggering 80 million users worldwide.

On Feeld, which has a growing membership in the UK, couples can use “paired accounts” to search for a singleton to invite into their bedroom. This person is often referred to as a “unicorn”, a bisexual single person (not always but most often a woman) who wants to meet, sleep with, and sometimes date, a couple.

But is being a unicorn always as fun as the name makes it sound? Cath*, 30 used to meet couples through dating apps. But after a series of unpleasant experiences she now steers clear of “unicorn hunters”.

I’ve had situations where the male part of a couple has pushed my boundaries too far, even when I’ve been asking him to stop,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“It can be alienating being that third party. I slept with one couple who did try hard to include me. In the morning the woman went out and bought us all breakfast, but the night before I’d really felt like I was just there to fulfil their fantasy and in the morning I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

This feeling is echoed by Kate*, 27, who has also stopped meeting couples after one too many bad experiences. “I’ve been made to feel like an unpaid sex worker at best, and a human sex toy at worst,” she says. “Too many couples don’t understand how to treat a third person with respect.”

Dr Ryan Scoats, a lecturer in sociology at Coventry University who holds the world’s first PhD in threesomes, has interviewed hundreds of threesome participants, from those in existing relationships to people who’ve had more casual hookups, as well as studying more than 200 qualitative surveys of people’s sex lives.

The fact that many threesome horror stories are told by women could be partly down to the types of threesomes people are having in the first place, he says.

A male-female-female threesome (referred to online as MFF) is by far the most common setup. Culturally, we’re more accustomed to seeing threesomes framed this way – as fantasy fulfilment for a heterosexual man. A quick search on PornHub confirms this, throwing up more than 150,000 videos showing threesomes and the highest viewed all featuring two women and one man.

Outside porn, mainstream cinema and television has also projected a heteronormative view. From American Psycho to Mad Men, on-screen threesomes often portray the male character as hyper-masculine and dominant.

“Historically, certainly for 50 or more years, we’ve seen a tying together of masculinity and homophobia”, says Dr Scoats, who suggets that while women have not been constrained in the same way, “women’s sexuality is encouraged from the perspective of the male gaze”.

This can be connected to perceptions of emotional security and threat, he adds. “Women’s bisexuality is often not taken seriously, so it’s not seen as a threat to [a] relationship. This can be problematic when it leads to the man involved in the threesome feeling that the threesome is all for him.”

Does it follow that gay, queer and non-binary people might be more likely to successfully navigate a threesome? “All relationships, regardless of gender, can encounter problems around poor communications and jealousy,” says Dr Scoats. “Though I would say that people in those groups have more experience reflecting on what they want and what they’re looking for. Also, they may already have experienced stigma from society for their sexual behaviours. This may free them to further explore sexual behaviours that are seen as less accepted.”

Feeld’s user guidelines encourage inclusivity and openness to other people and minds, but also stipulate: “no one owes you anything” and “consent is key”.

“Everyone can always say no. This applies across the board, from desires to information – if someone doesn’t want to share, it’s their right not to,” reads the safety section of the site. “Trusting that someone understands what you are comfortable with, what your limits are and that they won’t violate those limits without your agreement – and vice-versa – is essential to all interactions.”

“Too many people, particularly men, just watch threesome porn and think that’s how it goes.”

- Gigi Engle

Certified sexologist and feminist writer Gigi Engle says that planning, as well as clear communication, is one of the most important parts of any threesome.

“Couples should be really specific about what they’re looking for,” Engle says. “There needs to be a game plan that takes into account things like whether you’ll all have dinner together, whether that third person is sleeping over, or whether you’ll put them in an Uber at the end of the night, for example. A lot of people just don’t think about these things.”

People often think that sex has to be spontaneous, but Engle says this is where things can go wrong, with poor planning leading to boundaries being crossed. “As well as communicating, people need to educate themselves. Read up on threesomes, learn about them first. Too many people, particularly men, just watch threesome porn and think that’s how it goes.”

Boundary crossing in threesomes can be emotional as much as sexual. For Gemma*, 29, a recent encounter with a couple went wrong when they expected more from her than she was comfortable with. What began as a casual sex arrangement became more serious when the couple asked her to join them on holiday.

“I wasn’t comfortable with that and didn’t want anything more than a casual relationship, which I’d explained to them from the start. They got quite upset and couldn’t understand why I wanted to have that boundary,” she says.

Looking back, Gemma she feels the dynamic wasn’t a healthy one. “I couldn’t see it at the time, but now I can see there were quite a few times when I was treated as secondary to their desires and needs as a couple. I definitely wasn’t equal, my emotions and boundaries didn’t seem to matter to them as much as what they wanted out of the situation.”

So, how can we change the conversation around threesomes and stop women in particular from feeling objectified, with their pleasure taking a backseat?

Daniel Saynt, founder and CEO of NSFW, a private members sex club in Manhattan, argues for greater visibility for all shades of ethical non-monogamy. “Many people are mostly stagnant in their sex lives and rarely engage in activities that are out of the heteronormative,” says Saynt, who has been called “the king of kink” – and has plenty of hands on experience with threesomes.

Bisexual and polyamorous, Saynt has experienced prejudice and rejection from his own family, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. “For straight cis men there are heavy pressures to be hyper-sexual and always looking for sex,” he says.

″[Many men] aren’t able to explore in the same way as women, as any inclination towards bisexuality is met with hostility from friends or straight partners. This toxicity can be expressed in many ways during a threesome, either by being entirely closed off to exploring with another male, or feeling that the MFF threesome is only for their pleasure.”

Language also matters, says Engle. The terms “unicorn” and “unicorn hunters” may seen harmless, but Engle argues they are symptomatic of the way society often views sexually-empowered women. “The problem is we don’t have adequate language to talk about sex and sexuality in the first place. So, we fill the space with language that’s fun and cutesy,” says Engle.

“It’s really important to question the terms we use. Using a term like ‘unicorn’ really shows where people think the power lies. In this case, it’s all with the couple, and it implies that they don’t need to treat that third individual like a person… or even that to do so would threaten their relationship.” Dr Scoats agrees the term is problematic. While “a helpful shorthand”, he says it’s too easily thrown around and “can lead to a lot of unhelpful assumptions”.

Ultimately, says Saynt, “we need more polyamorous couples in the media and more people sharing their lifestyles proudly.” Perhaps it’s time to stop using cute emoji-friendly euphemisms and have a more open discussion about sex, however you chose to have it, and whoever you’re choosing to have it with.

* Some names have been changed to provide anonymity.