This writeup started as a report on a poly speed dating event I have been helping to organize, and turned into a meditation on holding innovative poly events. If you want to skip the somewhat lengthy event report, head down to the Speed Dating and Poly Organizing section.
To date, we have held two poly speed dating events in Berkeley. They have been raucous and fun, a whirlwind carnival of romance and rejection. Our first event attracted fifty people to a pizzeria in Berkeley. The second event was attended by ninety people, and we completely stuffed the pizzeria, including their banquet room. We are looking for a larger venue for the third round, which has not been scheduled. If you want to participate in a future round, go to the poly speed dating website and email us using the link at the bottom to be put on our mailing list.
As it turns out, running poly speed dating takes more than one or even two people. Luke had the idea and continues to be the ringleader and main programmer, and he puts in the most effort. I helped him with the programming and I yell at people during the event to get them to do things. My partner Jen and her boyfriend have been logistical support, registering people, doing the data entry, setting up and taking down, and so on. A friend of ours provided website space. None of us has any prior experience holding speed dating events.
The basic premise of speed dating is that many people can gauge their level of attraction to someone within the first couple minutes of meeting them. For these folks, chemistry tend to either strike quickly, or not at all.
Mainstream speed dating pairs men and women up for quick “dates” that last from two to five minutes. Two people sit down at a table, chat for a couple minutes, and then get up and move on to the next date. Between dates, each person writes down whether or not they are interested in pursuing things further with the other person. If both people mark down that they are interested, the speed dating agency puts them in contact either later that evening or after the event. The organization is easy: you just have one gender stay seated after each date, and the other group gets up and moves to the next table.
For poly speed dating, we had to expand on this concept. First off, the organized polyamory community in our area has a lot of queer folks. Bisexuals make up a decent percentage of event attendance (20-50%, depending on event), and they are joined by a smattering of transgender, lesbian, and gay folks. Holding a speed dating event where men only talked to women would be way too limiting for this crowd. Which meant we needed to get people’s gender and attractions, and match them based on those.
But of course, this makes the problem of setting up dates very difficult. Instead of just rotating the men or women, we needed to create a schedule where people generally met with the gender(s) they were interested in. This is a very hard problem to solve, and cannot be done by just sitting down with a pencil and paper. Luke wrote a computer program to do it, using a search algorithm to find solutions that generally gave people as many dates as possible.
Since we already had a computer matching program in the works, we could also put in criteria other than gender attraction. We included age, since many people have determined that they date best in certain age ranges, or that they tend to be attracted to people in certain age ranges. (Though as it turns out, people’s dating age preferences turned out to be surprising – more on this below.)
And because this was poly speed dating, we also gave people the ability to date as a couple or group (say, as a triad). In other words, they would go around together, having dates with other singles or groups where they were both (or all) present. So, we needed to ask people if they were interested in singles versus couples/groups.
The computer program would do a first pass where it checked each particular dating unit (single, couple, group) versus every other dating unit to see if they were compatible. Then, it would run the search algorithm and generate a schedule, assigning each date to a particular location.
The good news is that running this program took only a couple minutes, including printing time. So we could do just-in-time scheduling, running the program after everyone was registered but before we started the speed dates.
We aimed for ten dating rounds, but as it turned out, we needed to put some people on more dates (up to fourteen) in order to get others to have a minimal number (say, six). More on this below.
We charged a minimal fee ($12 pre-registration, $20 at the door). The money went towards buying pizza (including vegan pizza), soda, and beer for the attendees. Basically we were renting the venue for the attendance price, and getting food and drink as part of the deal. People munched and drank throughout the evening.
In terms of numbers, poly speed dating has been a rousing success. We had fifty people at the first poly speed dating event, and over ninety at the second. Polyamory events in the SF area typically attract ten to thirty people, though there is the occasional pool party or mini-conference with more. Given that we were holding something on a Monday evening at a random pizza place in Berkeley, our attendance numbers were surprisingly high.
Matchups went very well. We were kind of surprised by how often people marked down that they were interested in pursuing things further. While there were some people who only put down one or two “yes” marks (or occasionally, none), there were lots who put down five or more. The upshot was that there were lots of two-way matches, and most people got at least one or two. The highest match count was ten for one person. There were also a handful of people at each event who got zero matches, and we sent them an apologetic note.
I think this might be one area where poly speed dating differs from mainstream (monogamous heterosexual) speed dating. If a person is looking for The One, my suspicion is that they will generally not mark down “yes” to ten different people. Of course, I could be wrong, since I’ve never been to a mainstream speed dating event. However, I think this is a good example of how polyamory tends towards romantic abundance. Several walked away with more matches than they could ever hope to actually date.
Because of all these matches, after each event there was a flurry of email activity, with people arranging actual coffee dates with various matches. Of course, this is San Francisco, so there was also lots of laming out. I’ve heard “oh, I should really write my dates” so many times that I’ve lost count. But even so, there have been some hookups, and we have started at least a couple relationships. In other words, poly speed dating works, so far at least.
In another interesting development, the crowd that turned out for poly speed dating was not the same people who frequent poly community events in the area. I hold various events in the area, and the people at speed dating were mostly new faces. One of the pivotal east bay organizers was at the first event, and he said the same thing. Apparently there are a lot of poly people in the SF area who are on the lists or otherwise reachable, but almost never come to events. A bunch of them came to speed dating.
Issues, Surprises, and Wins
The first speed dating event, we had a big problem with no-shows. Around ten people simply didn’t show up. At first, we decided to leave them in the rotation for dates, assuming they would show fairly soon. We underestimated how many tables we would end up having with just one stood-up person. Five dating rounds in, we decided that leaving no-shows in the rotation was a bad idea, so we recalculated a new set of eight rounds for the remainder. A couple people walked out halfway through, so we still had some empty tables, but it was much better. This was a nice illustration of the power of being able to recalculate the dating schedule in minutes at the event.
At both events, we have had various demographic issues, where certain age/gender/sexuality groups would show up more than others, or where we had trouble matching folks.
The biggest one was that we got more men interested in women than women interested in men. This is a common issue with singles or dating events. Perhaps for various cultural reasons, men find them more accessible than women? The imbalance was compounded by the fact that over half of the women available to date men were bisexual, and so wanted to go on dates with other queer women. To put it differently, there were a lot more people interested in women than there were women.
Our first stab at handling this was to cut off pre-registration for men who were only interested in women a couple days before the event, unless they were coming with a woman. We were hoping that registrations after this point would balance things out. This had a slight balancing effect, but did not solve the problem.
Our second strategy was to just handle the imbalance in the setup of the dating rounds. People who were in the more-desired demographic simply got more dates, and the people who desired that demographic would get fewer. We abandoned our original goal of ten dates for everyone, and cranked up the total number of rounds to fourteen. This managed to get most of the straight guys up to six dates. As Debby noted, it meant that bi women tended to date all fourteen rounds, which gets a bit harrowing.
There were other demographic issues. We had trouble developing a critical mass of men interested in men and women interested in women. This meant that people only looking for same-gender matches could have a small number of of possibly matches, say four. When we increased the total rounds to fourteen, it helped a bit. We also expanded people’s age ranges slightly, which helped a lot. (More on age ranges below.)
Most of our registered men who were interested in men did not show to the first event. That and a scheduling snafu left guy/guy dating pretty much dead, which was sad. However, for the second event, we had lots of men going on dates with men. Moving from fifty to ninety attendees seemed to create enough of a critical mass of interest. There were similar problems for women only interested in women, in particular those under thirty.
We also had problems attracting folks under thirty, in particular men under thirty. I am not sure why – guys under thirty don’t go to dating events? Maybe they don’t pre-register in advance, and we cut off registration before they got to it?
In addition, there were very few women over fifty-five who attended the first event. We did get some straight men in this age range, and we unfortunately had to turn them away since we did not have any matches for them. Again, I am not sure what was keeping this demographic away: there are certainly plenty of women this age in the local polyamory community. This seemed to improve significantly in the second event, with more women showing up.
Our first round created some funny matching effects for bisexual women. Because our algorithm prioritized people who were harder to match, straight men could end up monopolizing bisexual women, even with the difference in the number of dating rounds. We changed the algorithm in the second round so that it would attempt to balance bisexuals’ dating between men and women as much as possible.
We tried to bake transgender and genderqueer inclusion into the event from the beginning. There was a trans/genderqueer gender registration option that could be picked on its own, or in combination with the man or woman options. We also asked people if they were interested in dating genderqueer folks. And happily, most were. A small but real number (six at the last event) of trans and genderqueer folks have been registering and attending.
We discovered that giving registrants the ability to designate an age range tended to create or exacerbate matching problems. In the first round, people were pretty restrictive with their age range interest, I think more so than they are when dating in their social life. The second speed dating event was better, but there were still some matching difficulties. In order to get matches for younger or same-gender-attracted folks, we ended up expanding some age ranges by a handful of years in various directions.
Some of the age ranges were downright surprising. A couple people put down age ranges that they themselves were not included in. This did not necessarily follow the stereotypical “man only looking for younger women” model, though there was a couple of those. One woman was only looking for women and men at least three years older. Another woman was only looking for folks (of any gender) younger than herself. Most people had really wide age ranges, but others had ranges that were as small as eight years.
A number of people got to the event and realized that their gender and/or age range restrictions had kept down the number of dates they would be going on, and expressed that they would likely change them for the next event. I think there was a general tendency to treat the speed dating registration much as one would the registration for a personals website. Personals websites have membership numbers in the thousands to millions, so restrictive searches still net some people. We have less than a hundred people at speed dating, which makes matching much harder.
Couple/group dating was a special challenge. Remember, couples or groups could sign up and go on dates as a single unit. After starting registration in the first round, we realized that we couldn’t figure out who to match the groups with. If a M/F couple said they were interested in men, did that mean straight men, bi men, and/or gay men? We ended up mostly matching groups with each other for the first speed dating night. For the second, Luke updated the registration so groups could specify who in the group was attracted to which genders, and/or who was just along for the ride and not really looking.
So far, all of our eleven registered couples have been M/F couples, with some straight and some bi sexualities. We had one queer triad at the first event.
We had trouble getting people to write down their yes/no answers right after each date, since they would be running around to find their new table and then would start talking to the new person. Attendees often forgot who they had met and whether they liked them. In the future, we have a dream of having people with internet-enabled cell phones enter their yes/no answers on their phone after each date, and get the next date on their phone as well.
This would help with a further problem we had, where we did not have enough time to enter all the data from the dates before the end of the event. We want to give people their matches on the way out the door, but it just takes too long to input into a computer. We have ended up sending out match emails later that night instead. Getting people to mostly enter their own matches via phone (or possibly afterwards on a computer) would solve this problem.
We also discovered that many people simply cannot judge whether they like someone after talking to them for five minutes. There have been a lot of requests for more time, or for a “slow dating” event variant. This points to a need for a variety of poly dating events, since some people are not served by speed dating. However, most of the attendees seemed to be fine with the fast dates, and some explicitly stated that they liked the format because they felt they could judge chemistry quickly.
I think that people who pick up chemistry slowly tend to characterize speed dating as shallow, focusing only on physical attributes. Certainly there have been criticisms along those lines on various poly lists in the area, with people stating that speed dating would never work for them because they value personality. However, most attendees seemed to be judging personality-based chemistry as much or more than looks, from their comments. I think it is actually possible for some people to gauge personality compatibility relatively quickly, and those folks do well at speed dating.
It is important to remember that the speed dating rounds are mostly there to get people to the “hey let’s have coffee” level, which means that most of the chemistry-building will actually happen (or not) after the event, and the dating rounds are really there for quick elimination of folks who definitely do not match. It’s pretty easy for many people (myself included) to quickly rule out most people they meet due to personality or physical factors. It does not necessarily indicate shallowness, but rather good self-knowledge around one’s desires and attractions. Note that these attractions often do not match up with mainstream culture’s expectations of what is attractive.
There were some complaints from BDSM aficionados that they were having trouble finding other kinksters. If a person is only attracted to kinky people, ending up on a number of dates with non-kinky folks can be a bummer. We may add an “interested in BDSM” criteria in the future if we have the critical mass, or hold a separate kinky speed dating event.
We have some concern that attendance may shrink at future events. That tends to be a problem with events in our area: they make a splash in the pan, and then disappear. Also, we may be victims of our own success in certain ways. This can happen if they actually start dating due to the speed dating event, since they then have less need for a dating event. Also, I think people were in some cases overwhelmed by the abundance of possibilities afterwards, and this may lead them to avoid dating events for a while. We had few repeat customers at the second event, which means that people may not be up for returning much. This may lead to a less frequent speed dating schedule – the first two events were about three months apart.
Ironically, most of the organizers are too busy in our own lives to date new people, through a combination of prior relationships, work, and family. Though apparently we are not too busy to organize dating events.
My sense is that we hit a nerve with poly speed dating, evidenced by the large attendance by people who normally don’t make it to poly events. At the first speed dating night, there was not only a lot of interest during the dates, but people seemed pretty flirty during the open social time as well. Watching this, I realized that there haven’t been any poly dating events (speed or otherwise) in the area at all.
We hold lots of poly discussion or support groups, and we hold plenty of social events. But at the social events, we tend to discourage come-ons. This is reasonable, because if the event starts to take on a meat-market atmosphere, people (particularly, but not exclusively, women) start getting uncomfortable, and the poly social event dies. So, we generally encourage light flirting but steer people away from heavy flirting or come-ons.
This works well to create a good social atmosphere, but it means that poly social events do not really double as opportunities for meeting people to date. It can be done of course, but typically one has to attend a poly social gathering repeatedly and really get to know the regulars before dates start happening. This is a decent-sized time investment.
A speed dating event, on the other hand, is much more focused. You talk with a number of people, meeting them with the explicit goal of finding people to date. At the end of the evening, you’ll probably go home with a couple prospects. The time investment is relatively short compared to the work of digging into a new social scene. And this is San Francisco, so people are busy.
I think the formality of speed dating helps to keep the event from feeling like a meat market, even though that’s exactly what it is. People tended to avoid clumsy come-ons (or come-ons of any sort, really) during the social time, which is understandable given that they had their hands full with between six and fourteen dates during the dating rounds. The system of marking down yes/no made rejection nicely impersonal and thus really easy. And even if you got paired with a person who was aggressive or creepy (and indeed there were a couple of these who attended), they would be gone in five minutes.
In any case, we have identified a need for poly dating events, at least in the SF bay area. Speed dating certainly doesn’t work for everyone, but poly organizers should consider holding dating events in their area, preferably ones that somehow avoid the bad meat-market atmosphere that singles (availables?) events tend to fall prey to. Formalizing the event in some way might do this. For example, one could have an explicit “no come-ons” rule combined with a way to register interest to the organizers, and again mutually inform any two-way matches. Also, I think that having an activity of some sort tends to make the event feel comfortable. In speed dating, the activity is the dating rounds. In other events, it could be social games (charades, etc) or other things that get people talking.
The largely new crowd at the event brought me to a further conclusion: there are a lot of poly people out there who are not being served by poly events. Again, this may be specific to the San Francisco area. I would estimate that the number of poly-identified people in the area is measured in thousands. If we include people in any sort of nonmonogamous arrangement, it moves into the tens of thousands. However, I would estimate that the number who attend poly events in any year is in the hundreds, and the number of regular attendees is around two hundred, tops.
Being the rabid community organizer that I am, this inevitably leads me to the question of why: why are these folks not coming to poly events? Polyamory events tend to be useful for support, advice, camraderie, and to find dating partners. But perhaps they are not useful enough? After all, people are busy with work, friends, and all kinds of social stuff. And in this region, they’re really really busy.
I’ve been trying to build a profile of these non-attending poly people. At least among my poly friends, most people have figured out their jealousy issues and rarely get into big poly drama. They aren’t in crisis. They know a lot of poly people, just through their friend network and dating network. They date folks in these networks. In many cases, they are polyamorous second and something else first: Burning Man aficionado, gamer, pagan, new age, goth, etc. A lot of them are super-busy with job and/or family.
In other words, it takes a lot to get these people to a poly event. They won’t go just because an event is poly. They usually need some other draw as well. Perhaps the event intersects with one of their other interests. Perhaps it is a focused one-time thing that quickly fills a poly need without a lot of lead-up time. Perhaps it draws a large number of people. Perhaps it is really entertaining in some way.
I feel like the usual discussion group / social event / conference trifecta is not working for these folks. Support and discussion groups are great if you need support or like to discuss polyamory. Poly social events are good, but people who primarily socialize in other scenes don’t make it. Conferences tend to be aimed at people new to polyamory, and are a big time investment. In other words, the trifecta works for some people, especially people new to polyamory. But it does not work so well for certain long-time poly folks, who have their own poly social networks and don’t need support or advice.
My poly friends came to poly speed dating, most of them. This is a first: I have been bedeviled by absence of my own social cohort at the poly events I organize. In some ways, this is turning into a new event success litmus test for me: are my friends going?
The unexpected success of poly speed dating has inspired me to reconsider how we hold poly events. We tend towards the sexual minority organizing model pioneered by LBGT folks, oriented towards community and support. This is great, and provides community and support, something that many of us need. But, I feel like we should branch out, and borrow organizing models from other communities, or at least creatively break out of the usual patterns.
I want to put out a call to poly organizers: try something vaguely ridiculous, or at least very different, while still maintaining your usual poly events. Poly speed dating was a half-joke from the beginning. Somewhere along the line, it morphed into something that actually works and is pretty cool at the same time. What weird poly event could you put on? Most of these will of course bomb out, but the occasional one will surprise us and turn into something really cool.
In some ways, this sort of thing is already happening. People are innovating in various ways. In New York, Cuddle Parties seem to have become a poly community mainstay. There’s various poly book clubs springing up. What else is going on?
There’s lots of other things we could try (or perhaps already are trying). Advanced polyamory conferences of some sort? Poly club nights? Poly groups pursuing random sports, like rock climbing? Poly rafting trips? Poly sex/play parties?
I don’t really know what events would work, or I would already be holding them. And indeed, I was not the clever person who came up with poly speed dating. But, I think this sort of social and community innovation is crucial, and I strongly encourage you to put on the occasional odd, different, or downright silly shindig in an effort to expand the horizons of what we are doing as a community.