Last year, at the age of 31, I found myself single for the first time in many years. A few months later, though I was still mourning the loss of my young marriage, I decided to try dating again. In particular, having somehow lost the wilder sexual self of my younger years when I became a wife, I planned to have nothing short of a sexual renaissance. I was curious about all sorts of things: Tantra, BDSM, those sleek new vibrators that look like modern art. World of sex, I thought, here I come.
But first, I resolved, I was going to have a threesome.
Back in college I had threesomes with two different couples. There was the handsome writer and his dimpled girlfriend who frequented the Irish pub where I waitressed. Then senior year I slept with a gorgeous doctor and her fiancé a few times. It all felt thrillingly wild and experimental. Above all, it was secretive. Afraid my friends would judge me, I didn't tell anyone about my exploits. Although I loved being with these women, I never seriously considered myself bisexual. I assumed I was turned on by the societal taboo of a threesome, not the girls themselves.
Even though I hadn't dated in years, I had enough single friends to know exactly where to head to fulfill my group sex fantasies: OkCupid, the free online dating service with a reputation that hovers somewhere between soulmate market and place to find a glorified booty call.
I didn't blatantly advertise my interest in group sex. I didn't have to. Turns out all I needed to do online was acknowledge liking both men and women, and plenty of folks assumed I was interested in liking both at the same time. It felt distinctly insincere to identify myself as "bisexual" when I set up my profile. All the "real" bi girls had disclaimers reminding anyone who perused their pages that they were absolutely, really "NOT INTERESTED IN COUPLES!" Meanwhile, here I was, stealthily stalking their turf.
During my first few weeks on the site, a handful of couples messaged me. One was in their sixties — far too old. A few messages were sent by men advocating their threesome causes with such desperate and/or pornographic excitement that it gave me the creeps. One note featured such poor grammar that my inner English major simply wouldn't let me respond.
No dates with a couple had materialized after a month online when I got a message from Jenna, who was listed as single and bi. She commented on my naming Jo Ann Beard as a favorite author and asked if I'd ever read Lauren Slater. Four literary banter–filled messages later, she asked me out for drinks. The flutter in my stomach was all the incentive I needed to say yes.
Jenna worked for a nonprofit, spoke fluent Russian, and volunteered at a hospital two evenings a week. She had shoulder-length brown hair and small blue eyes. When she laughed, she tipped her head forward a little instead of back, like most people do. Like me, she was newly exploring her interest in women after primarily dating men.
After a long night of flirting and drinking followed by some serious making out on the sidewalk, I asked her to come home with me.
"I would never say yes to a man who asked that," she confided. "But yes."
We held hands all the way home. Like little girls, I remember thinking, my instinctive point of reference for the intimate act. But of course this was not like little girls at all, despite our giggly giddiness.
I considered sleeping with Jenna a lark, something to mark off my sexual "to do" list now that I was single. But it was not a lark at all when we got into the bedroom. I was totally mesmerized by her naked body: her freckled skin and small breasts, the way she reflected and refracted me. Jenna and I texted a few times after our night together, but another date never happened.
So when a pretty girl with a boyfriend contacted me a few weeks later for a potential threesome, I agreed to meet her for drinks alone to see if we clicked. I tried to go back to thinking about sex with women the way I always had — as part of experiences defined by men, requiring men. But seconds after meeting Jodi, a lawyer with a wicked sense of humor and the most beautiful neck I'd ever seen, all thoughts of her partner fled the scene. I wanted her. Just her.
I was flummoxed by this realization. My attraction to women felt safe within the context of threesomes. There, it had an easily accessible Girls Gone Wild-esque context, complete with male gaze and male appendage. To like women on their own meant trading in my performed sexuality for a trickier, more authentic one. And I didn't know how. Did I have to come out? Should I re-envision my potential future family? What part would I play in an LGBT community, if any?
Before grappling with my place in the real world, I decided first to address my presence in the online one. Now that I was no longer interested in securing threesomes, I found myself sympathizing with all those all-caps disclaimers on bi girls' profiles. Now that I was no longer on the hunt for group sex, I found the flood of couple inquiries more than a little annoying.
Still, those could be relatively easily ignored. More troublesome were the single men I seemed to attract based solely on my "bi" status. I deleted some messages right away, like those proclaiming how "hot it is u r into girls." But at least those guys were clear with their intentions. One guy I went on a date with had said he was in an open relationship, but when I asked about his girlfriend, he admitted she didn't know he was out with me. "She was at work when I left," he shrugged. Then he began talking about how he was looking for someone "to surprise her with," at which point I drained my drink and left him with the bill.
Attracting single women was challenging in similar and different ways. Even though their messages tended to be more substantive and appealing, the bi women who contacted me were often partnered up. And few gay women reached out or wrote back when I messaged them, signaling to me that I was trying to cross an unspoken but very real gay-bi boundary.
After two months of frustrating inquiries and encounters, my roommate suggested splitting up my profiles, offering a straight one for guys and a bi one for girls, but I loathed the idea. I had spent so long in my marriage feeling like I was hiding part of myself. Even within the weird world of online dating, I didn't want to have to practice sexual subterfuge for even a second — and that's what making two profiles felt like.
Eventually, though, I acquiesced, because I just couldn't figure out how to project that while I was open to a relationship with a man or a woman, being bisexual didn't mean I was available for any and all sexual arrangements. OkCupid's online rubric made me feel like I was still performing my sexuality for the benefit of others (mainly men), like I had in my twenties, and I'm no longer interested in that.
I'm not saying that I'll never have threesomes again. Under the right circumstances, I still think they can be incredibly exciting and fulfilling. But I've realized my approach to sex and dating in my thirties shouldn't be about reliving my younger dalliances.
So today, online I'm "bi" to women and "straight" to men — and I explain it all in person. After all, my story deserves a lot more than checking a few boxes and answering endless multiple-choice questions. Still, engaging with narrow dating-site labels has been productive. Even if I don't find love on OkCupid, I've at least found out a little more about myself.
Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure (Bantam Books).