The Elder Hippie with Limitless Sexual Appetite
They’re probably among the first poly people you’ll meet — at the sacred tantric cuddle gatherings, the Burner parties, the tantric Burner cuddle parties — singlehandedly upending your entire understanding of the human life span. Free as birds and wise as owls, bright eyes belying their years, they live with vibrant abandon; singing, dancing, traveling, constantly engaged in new journeys of self-discovery. They accept and love comfortably their body, with all its stories, for it is a temple. A temple that is often used for sex. Lots of sex. Passionate, expert, grounded, kinky, mindful, vigorous sex.
They were poly before poly was a thing; to them, the “free love” dream never died, it only got a bunch of words made up for it — mostly by folks living in communes in the 70s, one of which they lived in too, and had sex with everyone inside it. When they’re not completely buck-ass naked, making morning-after-orgy breakfast like God equipped Eden with induction cooktops, they’re in something airy and flowing, and otherwise completely indistinguishable from someone you might run into at Costco. They also singlehandedly upend your entire understanding of the people you run into at Costco.
You’re not likely to date them in the classical sense — they definitely form loving attachments, but mostly organically, from members of their community they grow close to over time. But if you keep clicking ‘Going’ on Meetup, you just might make it into that circle — and find out what sex is like with 40 years of practice behind it.
The Manic Poly Dream Girlfriend
She has a membership at the local circus gym, a corgi named Bowser, a half-sleeve she got while living in Berlin, and roller derby scars. You can’t physically imagine her hair being anything but purple. You’ll run into her on OKCupid, where she has a 97% match with everyone, and six months after you message her, she’ll hit you up out of the blue to grab a drink.
Poly, for her, is the only lifestyle possible, due to the fact that she falls in love with approximately everyone she meets and nearly everyone reciprocates. As a result, she’s a whiz at scheduling dates, popping open her Google Calendar (or her trusty and completely incomprehensible paper planner) to inform you of the next three times she’s available, at least one of them more than a week out. She won’t flake, but she will be both late and highly apologetic. Regardless, you’ll have a ridiculously engaging conversation that touches on everything from cyborgs to dirty haikus to childhood fears. She’ll suggest you add her on Snapchat, since it allows her to maintain connections with lots of people at once.
Ultimately, your relationship will proceed in one of two directions: either you’ll manage to gel with her undiagnosed ADHD and become one of the partners she somehow manages to regularly make time for, or the strange internal algorithm she uses to allocate attention, obtuse even to her, will flag you as no longer interesting; at which point, her text responses will become slowly spaced further and further apart, and her schedule harder and harder to get on, until she’s gently — she thinks — faded from your life.
The Relationship, and Actual, Anarchist
“I just think”, they’ll tell you, over Fair Trade coffee, on your first date, which may or may not but will definitely involve bicycles, “that ownership of a person’s heart is about as inherently unjust as the ownership of any property whatsoever.” When they pay for said coffee, it will be with the slightly pained look of someone contributing to the downfall of civilization. You’ll want to be dismissive of them and their worldview, but the fact that they know more about the government’s role in overseas conflict than your political science thesis advisor and are the only person in your memory who’s ever asked before touching you makes it hard to.
Your second and third dates, and in fact, your entire relationship, will be an even split of completely unexciting and really exciting, like a vegan potluck where nobody drinks but suddenly everyone starts playing music on their own instruments, or a peaceful demonstration in the Civic Center but suddenly everyone starts blocking all southbound traffic.
If it doesn’t work out, it’ll be because their ideas are slowly becoming infectious, and you’re just not ready to start wondering if OitNB is really all that progressive, or why “up-and-coming” is only used to describe neighborhoods that are getting whiter. That, and dumpster diving is super totally gross.
The Pansexual Trans Girl
If you’ve managed to find yourself in the vast minority of humans who have the slightest clue how to respectfully talk to a transgender person, you might even find yourself dating one. Your dynamic will develop organically but intensely, satisfying in a way you can’t quite explain. Certainly you’re smitten: blunt, sarcastic, and disarmingly intelligent, she’s resolved forevermore against a life of repression, and is coming into a personal renaissance marked by complete freedom from limitation — expressed through her gender identity, sexuality, relationship style, and the number of striped knee socks she feels is reasonable to own.
And if you’ve managed not to be a complete dingus on your first few dates, in the bedroom, or fitting into her ecology of other partners, you’ll find yourself in a genuinely great, comfortable relationship — coming over after work to hang out while she streams on Twitch, snuggling while watching reruns of Battlestar Galactica, and lightheartedly debating the merits of your respective favorite programming languages.
Your love affair will dwindle to a close when you discover — in a slow, creeping fashion, suddenly blooming unbidden into a full-blown epiphany — that you’re transgender yourself. All her partners, in their own time, will come to the same realization. You’ll attempt to hold it together, but you have your own journey as a pansexual trans girl now, and it will take you different directions, and towards different styles of cat ear headphones.
Having successfully passed on the cis vaccine to the next unwitting cohort, she’ll return again to the dating realm — heart heavy, but with important work to do.
The Uncomfortably Hierarchical Couple
She’ll check her phone, fidgeting, as you leave the restaurant and start meandering towards a bar. “I agreed to check in with her after 10pm, unless it’s past the third date, but this is our first, so… hold on a second.” The screen lights up her face as she dashes off a text. Ten minutes later, a series of replies stream in, and she quickly checks each one before finally relaxing, clearly relieved, and goes back to enjoying the evening. This will continue with each successive milestone in your relationship, as both of you navigate a labyrinthine set of agreements designed, presumably, to keep everyone comfortable.
At no point will you be under any illusions as to your place in her life — she’ll make clear, with admirable honesty, that her primary comes before everyone else. And the relationship will be just fine, even if you can’t sleep in a shared bed, go off on vacations for more than two days, or do certain sex acts together. After a few too many dates get cut short, however, due to circumstances instigated by her other partner, you might feel it’s time to mosey onwards. This is when you run into…
The Uncomfortably Open-Relationship Couple
They send each other encouraging texts when one of them’s on a date, high five each other after sex with other people, and they’re in front of you now, hitting on you. At least, you’re pretty sure one of them is, and you’re not at all sure whether the other one’s enthusiasm is the world’s best jealousy management, an equal desire to participate, or somewhere in-between. “He’s fantastic in bed,” one of them will say with an entreating look, and you’ll suddenly wonder whether you’re at a bar or have somehow wound up at a dimly-lit livestock auction. In actuality, they’re simply really great at poly, with strong confidence in their relationship and unashamedness of who they are; but where you’re at right now, it feels a little overwhelming.
If you actually proceed to a date — which will, it turns out, be with just one of them — you’ll be greeted on pickup by their significant other, who lightheartedly shoos you both on your way like a couple of teens off to a drive-in movie. When it becomes clear that dating one very much means having the other in your life all the time, you’ll decide you’re just not there yet, and graciously withdraw from forward motion. They’ll understand, a little hurt but unsurprised, and continue being awesome together.
The Vaguely Gothic Geeky Feminist
For some, once the golden apple of “normalcy” has been stowed beyond their grasp at a tender age — for thinking different, for looking different, for being, different— they decide it’s far better off staying there, and happily grow up in a state of continual subversion. Whether through a keen awareness of how flippantly society marginalizes entire identities, or simply decent parenting, they become compassionate allies and thoughtful consumers and tremendous nerds.
Their geekery and their feminism exist in perfect harmony. They stopped watching Sherlock because of its abysmal POC representation, and instead binge seasons of Elementary for its fantastic intersectionality. They read comic books, but mostly by queer artists, grappling with serious issues, who picked up brushes because they couldn’t find any representation of themselves in contemporary media. They lose themselves in science fiction novels, written by women, with strong protagonists who don’t need chiseled jaws. They do not like Steven Moffat.
You’ll reach out on OKCupid based almost solely on the strength of their “books, movies, shows, music” section, and if your message has more than five syllables in it and (and none of them are “babe”), you might get a reply. You’ll find out that for them, polyamory is just another sensible option among many; when one is used to breaking down defaults and constructs, societal programming holds far less sway. And also, screw structures that treat women like property.
You’ll meet at a coffee shop, or other public space, and the first thing you’ll notice will be their abundance of dark clothing with a lack of cohesive statement, like they casually selected an outfit from a closet that just happened to be mostly black. They’ve fully internalized and transcended their goth years, and are solely in it for the aesthetic now.
Your conversation will go remarkably deep and be chock-full of references, and you’ll try hard to avoid being intimidated, or at least letting it show. You probably won’t get a second date, unless you’re already a feminist, and don’t need to be onboarded into 21st century thinking. Which so very few are. But that’s okay; they expected as much.
The Queer Academic
You’ll meet through the friend of a friend, when two adjacent social circles commingle for birthday drinks or an eminently tweetable art show, and strike up a conversation that starts with discussing a book and ends with exchanging phone numbers. You’ll find out, somewhere in the middle, that they’re a Ph.D. student, making the best of their interminable limbo by getting to know the city they’re confined to for the remainder of the decade.
You’ll be proud to not be completely lost when they talk about their thesis, though that’s not the same as being remotely able to understand it. They won’t mind — the life of such an intellectual pursuit is marked by an unearthly depth of focus, and the resulting loneliness in the asteroid fields at the outer perimeter of human knowledge is expected — and will gladly discuss it with you anyway. Your ability to enjoy this will be one of the sole determinants of your relationship success.
Their poly is an extension of their feminist ideology, informed as much by principle as identity, regardless of their actual day-to-day success in navigating the business of human feelings. They socialize and primarily date within queer lesbian circles, whether or not they exclusively date women, and whether or not they identify as a woman — because fuck identity policing.
You will probably get married. Unless they don’t believe in marriage, in which case, you will probably get cats.
The Respectable Poly Parent
No three new flings a week. No all-night benders. No sex parties — at least, not until the kids are tucked in. They’re still putting themselves out there, and may already have a partner or two, but this isn’t a game: there are other lives at stake.
Cautious and somewhat cynical about many people’s knee-jerk reactions to their having children, they’ll bring it up in the first few minutes of a date, even if it was already plastered on their profile. They may or may not expect, and in fact, may expressly not desire, your participation in their childrearing — but historically, most they’ve encountered don’t understand or believe that.
They’re part of a larger poly community, in need of support and a balm for the isolation of parenting with a marginalized identity, but it’s balanced with a background fear of being outed in spaces that might endanger their family. They message the admins of events and groups on social media, inquiring about privacy settings, and don’t care if it makes them appear paranoid.
If you’re a long-term fit, not just with them, but their tiny primaries, you’ll be privy to the beautiful experience of poly parenting. It takes a village, after all. Just don’t cause any drama.
The Poly Blogosphere Celebrity
It takes you awhile to figure it out: the way they casually drop words and names you’ve never heard before, how they can draw out their sixteen-person relationship diagram in seconds, that their Twitter notification is going off literally all of the time. This person is famous. Not famous famous, but like, poly famous. You’ll Google their name later, finding a collection of articles, and feel a mix of flattered and nervous, clearly getting the hang enough of poly to make it here, but also under pressure to do well.
Three months later, you’ll accidentally transgress one of their boundaries, and having both very high standards and a plethora of other options, they’ll kindly and expertly de-escalate the relationship. You’ll be glad for the experience, but leave with the vague sense that you might have inspired a blog post in the process.
Tremendous thanks to Alex Temple, Kara Raphaeli, and our mutual friends for the Facebook discussion that led to this atrocity, and the LGBTQ in Tech Slack for the initial wave of popularity. P.S., if it helps, I’m trans (they/she please), have ADHD, and host vegan potlucks.
If you want less funny and more poly, I wrote a thorough and concise primer on polyamory. If you want less poly and more trans, I wax emo about gender sometimes. If you want less queer, I’m sorry, I can’t help you.
Read folks’ wonderful submissions in the comments!