Nonmonogamy for Men: The Big Picture

This guide was originally put together as a handout for a class on nonmonogamy aimed at men. Before finishing it, I decided to switch to a “tips” format instead, so I am publishing the portion that was finished, which covers the high-level conceptual stuff but does not get down into specific attitudes or the practical advice. This should be read as an addendum to standard poly 101 information, such as my guide. Also, see the sex parties for men essay.

A while ago I noticed a problem in my polyamorous social circles, namely that some of the guys just are not doing that well, in terms of finding partners, dating, and generally succeeding at nonmonogamy. In particular, the guys who are new to nonmonogamy seem to make a lot of blunders. Sometimes these are spectacular and result in those guys giving up and going back to monogamy, but other times they seem to take the form of a steady failure to date, or a quickly cycling through relationships. Of course, there are plenty of men who take well to nonmonogamy (myself included), espcially those who have been doing it for a long time. That said, longevity is no guarantee of success – some of the frustrated guys at my recent class on this subject had been polyamorous for over a decade but could still not get their groove on. My hope with the discussions below is that they will help other guys hopscotch past a lot of the conceptual traps that hold us back.

This paper is aimed at men who are attracted to women, which covers both straight men and bisexual men’s interactions with women. It is somewhat useful for men who are attracted to men, and for women, though many of the things I say will not apply. In many ways, men’s sexual/romantic interactions with men are very different than what I describe here, and of course the same goes for women’s interactions with women. I am focusing on men’s attitudes towards and involvement with women because that is where I have experience, and where some of the biggest problems reside.

There are a lot of generalizations in here, including lots of “men tend to” and “women tend to” statements. These are necessary in order to sum up the general way things work, but there will of course be particular men, women, or situations that are exceptions to anything I say.

Table of Contents

   The Valley of the Dolls
   Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)
   It’s a Small Scene
   The Gender Split
   Find Your Attraction
   Work on Yourself
   Take Your Time

The Valley of the Dolls

Men have this persistent fantasy that if you just find the right scene, if you poke your head through the right door, you will happen upon rooms full of gorgeous women eager to have sex with you.

We see this in porn all the time. The primary justification for people having sex in porn movies seems to be that they have found themselves in the same room. Or perhaps outdoors in the same location. Their response to this incredible coincidence is: “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” Sometimes they throw in a little bit of justification to spice things up. “Oh hi! You’re the plumber! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi, hubby! You just caught me having sex with the pool boy! Wanna fuck?” “Oh hi! I’m interviewing for a job. Wanna fuck?”

This is of course not just confined to video porn. Pick up Letters to Penthouse sometime: it reads just like a porn script. When men write down their fantasies, we often see these themes of sexual abundance and availability.

I call this mythological place full of nubile enthusiastic women the Valley of the Dolls, after Russ Meyer’s sexploitation film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Russ Meyer’s movies generally featured tall women with huge breasts having sex with… everyone. Because these movies were made in the 60’s or 70’s, they ended on a moralistic tone to avoid the wrath of the censors, with the loose women getting married or killed. But their draw was the promise of easy sex with amazonian women.

Back in the era of free love, there may have actually been some Valley of the Dolls situations, though I suspect the rumors are overblown. A number of factors in the 80’s ended this: AIDS, an increase in cultural sexual repression, and women realizing that free love may have been designed more for men than them.

Despite changing times, the Valley of the Dolls is still heavily present in men’s imaginations. There is a guy in the San Francisco scene whom I see every once in a while, who always asks me where he can find the play parties with the “hot young things”. I am always speechless. First, what he is looking for does not exist. Second, why does he think that I am the connection to this mystical event? Third, he will ask me this at parties that are full of very cool sex radical women (and men – he is bisexual) who would probably be willing to do all sorts of nasty with him if he could take the time and get to know them a bit. But he cannot, because he is too busy chasing a dream and cannot see what is right in front of him.

Here is the kicker, guys. The harsh truth. The thing you need to repeat to yourself again and again.

There is no Valley of the Dolls.

There is no party you can walk into where strange women will just throw themselves on you. There is no “Oh hi! Wanna fuck?” It is never that straightforward. There is always some effort involved, and usually it takes a lot of effort. Porn is lying to you. So are Letters to Penthouse. You may have heard from some guy about his Valley of the Dolls experience, but there is a good chance he was describing a fantasy to you, not something he actually did. Men produce these fantasies all over the place, and often try to pass them off as real in a grown-up version of locker room boasting.

There is a core piece of the Valley of the Dolls fantasy that is untenable: the idea that some women will make themselves sexually available to men just because they are that sort of woman. “That sort of woman” does not exist. What actually happens is that women have sex with men because they are attracted to those men. (Which should be obvious to us, but many guys seem to forget.) There is some level of negotiation involved, and women have input into that negotiation. The negotiation often takes time and energy, though other times it is quick. At sex or play parties the negotiation may seem fast and painless, but there is actually almost always some leadup, usually either people scoping each other out from across the party or some kind of shared history in the scene.

I think men are obsessed with the Valley of the Dolls for three reasons.

First, the sexual accessibility of women seems to be a central theme: the idea that there are women out there who will sleep with you because you are just in the same room. In our culture which sets up women as the gatekeepers of sexuality, men are trained to be attracted to women just because those women are available for sex. Which is about as low as standards get, and can cause all sorts of problems when men try to figure out which women they are actually attracted to.

Second, the women in these fantasies are never picky about their men. They are happy to have sex with whomever walks through the door. There are no real women like this. Real women have their own sexual agency, and they are looking for men they are attracted to. They are not interested in getting it on with men they are not attracted to, and just like everyone else, they are probably only attracted to a relatively small subset of people. Somehow this little detail gets lost in these fantasies, and it is not hard to see why. The fact that women are actually evaluating men is a major point of insecurity. Men tend to go way out of their way to deny the existence of women’s sexual agency, because if these men can pretend that women are not judging them, it means they do not need to worry about themselves: their attractiveness, their intellect, or whether they are acting like an asshole.

Third, these fantasies evade any sort of responsibility. There is no need to get to know someone first. There is no need to take them out to dinner afterwards. There is no need to use a condom (thus, there are very few condoms in porn) because there are none of the real-world worries about STDs or pregnancy. Sex in the Valley of the Dolls is free and uncomplicated. In fact, it is so uncomplicated that it cannot exist in the real world, where other people are complicated beings with needs and agendas of their own, and where all sorts of meaning attaches to sex.

If we look at the three elements, a pattern emerges. All three motivations boil down to having control of the sexual situation: women who are sexually available to any guy and who do not bring their own motivations into play, set in situations outside the social contract. Control is a staple of sexual fantasies (including many women’s fantasies), but control at this level is antithetical to actual sex with another person. If you have this level of control, what you have on the other end is not a person. In fact, it is usually a book, website, or video. There is nothing wrong with masturbating to control fantasies, but beyond a certain point the fantasy is not going to become reality.

(I can hear the domination/submission types in the audience gnashing their teeth. Even the strictest D/S arrangement involves some level of agency on the part of the submissive, or it is no longer D/S and has wandered into the territory of actual sexual slavery. My point here is that these fantasies tend towards an unrealistic level of control of the sexual situation, even when compared with real-life D/S. In fact, D/S erotica falls prey to the same pattern: as anyone who has done D/S can tell you, the actual negotiation involved is a lot more subtle and complex than what happens in Anne Rice’s Beauty series.)

Unfortunately, most depictions of nonmonogamy in popular culture fit the Valley of the Dolls model. It goes the other way as well: men’s sexual fantasies as played out in porn or erotica seem to require nonmonogamous women (and men). This has always struck me as a bit odd, given that men with these fantasies are usually unwilling to date nonmonogamous women themselves. Perhaps this is because sexually fantastic women like this must be on the wrong side of the madonna/whore split, or perhaps it would be somehow logically inconsistent for a man in these fantasies to be nonmonogamous while the women are monogamous to him.

In any case, the consistent association of nonmonogamy with the Valley of the Dolls has meant real trouble for real-life practicing nonmonogamous people. It means that men in particular enter nonmonogamous scenes with a totally unrealistic set of expectations: they assume that the scene will operate just like those movies and websites they have been looking at.

Women are Defensive (With Good Reason)

The reason that there is always negotiation is that women tend to be on the defensive in sexualized environments – and nonmonogamous scenes or online personals always have a slightly sexual air, whatever the intentions of their organizers or attendees. I think a lot of men have trouble understanding that this defensiveness is for a good reason: women are generally worried about sexual safety. This worry comes from a number of places.

First, our culture tells them to be worried, as part of a general campaign of keeping women’s sexuality under control. Young women are told that they are worth less once they lose their virginity, and that associating with the wrong guys will lead them to ruin. Sex education reinforces this by driving home a message that messing around will get you STDs and/or pregnant, and this message is reinforced by movies and other media. Sometimes this “sex is dangerous” meme gets frankly ridiculous – for example, when a woman has sex in a horror movie, it is almost always a guarantee that she will be die later in that movie. Of course, many women shrug off this sexual fearmongering as they grow up, but typically at least some of the conditioning takes.

Second, women actually do have to fear for their safety where sexuality is a concern. Somewhere around one in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, typically by someone they already know, and in many cases by someone they are on a date with. Women who have not been assaulted often know other women who have been, so it is an immediate concern. Of course, there are no easy ways to tell which guys are the sort that would sexually assault you, so many women find ways to feel out a guy and establish trust before anything sexual happens.

Which directly collides with the third issue, namely that guys are really pushy about getting dates with women and having sex with them. When a woman meets a man for the first time, there is a decent chance that he will hit on her in a clumsy, inappropriate, or pushy manner. If she says no (which she almost always does), he may insult her or try to make her feel guilty. Women deal with this sort of harassment on the street and on the job. So, when a man approaches a woman (in person or online), she starts already in a defensive position, because she has had to deal with so much crap previously. It is important to understand that she has every reason to be defensive.

Women’s defensiveness means that guys have to take special care not to be that pushy guy. Above all, this means a slow ramp-up: not giving her your number immediately, having conversations without coming on to her or flirting too hard, running into someone multiple times, and so on. Many of the issues covered below are a direct result of this bad dynamic between men and women. Of course, there are specialized situations where things move much faster, such as sex parties. But, even in these situations rituals develop that ensure that women feel safe – or they stop showing up.

This need to take things slow means that there is no Valley of the Dolls. Queer men do have some situations that resemble the Valley, most obviously bathhouses, where guys hook up mostly based on physical attraction, and there is little expectation of lead-up or follow-up. There is no heterosexual equivalent to the bathhouse. It might be tempting to get bitter about this situation, but I encourage you to take that energy and instead focus on making the culture sexually safe for women, because that is the only way to change things.

It’s a Small Scene

There are not a lot of openly nonmonogamous people. And when I say “not a lot”, I mean that a tiny tiny proportion of the population does this: somewhere between one in fifty people and one in twenty, depending on how you make the estimate.

To put it differently, it can be really hard to find people who are up for something other than monogamy. This is true even if you just want some people to talk to on the subject who are not horrified by the thought. But it gets much worse when you are looking for people to date or have sex with. There are of course the usual concerns around whether they are attracted to you and you are attracted to them, which already cuts the number of possibilities down to a fraction of the people you meet. If you are looking for people who are not monogamous, that slashes the number of potential partners in your circles by another couple orders of magnitude. If you are looking for a particular type of nonmonogamy (poly, swinging, open, kinky) then the situation is even worse, since you have to find people looking for the same thing.

Monogamous people are generally used to being able to date pretty much anyone who takes their fancy and is available, since most other people are monogamous. So, monogamous people often end up getting involved with co-workers, people they meet at the gym or on the plane, neighbors, and so on. Nonmonogamous people rarely have that luxury, because our neighbor has at best a one in twenty chance of being one of us. Once you pile on all the other things that can narrow the search (like gender, mutual attraction, and situation) then dating random people that you run into becomes somewhere between difficult and impossible.

This can come as quite a shock to someone who is used to dating in a monogamous world. Indeed, many people who decide they want to be nonmonogamous take a long time after that decision to actually end up in a situation where they are involved or having sex with more than one person. I am not talking about two weeks: three months to a year is more common. The delay is due to a learning curve, where the person new to nonmonogamy has to effectively re-learn how to date due to the new situation, and in particular has to learn how to cope with a severely limited dating pool.

To give yourself a sense of what these numbers actually mean, take a minute and remember all the people you have dated or had sex with in your formerly monogamous life (assuming you had such a life). Think about all the effort involved in finding those compatible people. Now, imagine that only one in ten of those people was actually compatible with you, which is what we are dealing with (optimistically) when you take all the monogamous folks out of the picture. How much harder would you have had to search to find those partners? How much more effort would you have had to put in? Are you getting a sense of the scale of the issue?

This is not to say that there are no nonmonogamous people around. In the greater San Francisco region, I would estimate that the number of nonmonogamous people is counted in the tens of thousands. Indeed, there are a number of regular polyamorous gatherings, a similar number of registered (with NASCA) swinger parties, three separate dungeons holding frequent and regular events, and a huge underground of people in open arrangements who are not associated with any particular group or community. But this is an area whose population is counted in the millions. So while there are plenty of nonmonogamous people, we are still rare in relation to the overall population. Picking each other out of the crowd is difficult, and made more difficult by the fact that most nonmonogamous people do not advertise their habits, typically out of fear for their jobs or similar closeting reasons.

The solution to this numbers problem is typically to gather in groups. If we put in the upfront effort to seek out and spend time around other nonmonogamous people, then our chances of finding partners go way up. In fact, one of the primary purposes of nonmonogamous community is finding compatible people. Certainly, nonmonogamous communities serve many other functions: for example the public polyamory community seems to be largely set up to teach people skills and provide support. But at the same time, it is doubtful that these communities would exist without the draw of locating other nonmonogamous folks. There are of course a lot of nonmonogamous people who fly under the radar and do not join any sort of public or official community. But in most cases, these people develop networks of nonmonogamous friends, which serve the dual purpose of providing support and functioning as a dating pool, basically a different sort of community. For example, most of the polyamorous people I know have at least a minimum set of other poly friends. I will use the term “scene” to describe any of these groupings of nonmonogamous folks, whether formal or informal.

However, due to the relatively small number of people engaged in nonmonogamy, there tend to be a limited number of scenes in any particular area, and each scene tends to be rather small. We end up with a number of effects as a result, each one of which I will mention here and then discuss in a section on its own.

First, it can be really hard to break into a scene. Depending on the scene and the region in question, it can be really hard to just find the scene in the first place. On top of this, nonmonogamous communities tend to be fairly insular. This is partly due to closeting concerns and partly to avoid a constant problematic influx of new folks carrying the prejudices and misconceptions of the larger culture. Once in the door, it still takes a while to learn the particular customs and rituals of the scene, and further time to get to know people and settle in.

So, getting into a scene takes time. Scenes reward people who are patient, flexible, and able to handle a couple rounds of rejection. Getting into a scene takes actual effort, and the process tends to weed out those who are not fairly committed to their practice of nonmonogamy.

Some people manage to circumvent this process successfully by using online personals services, and the ability to connect through the internet seems to be fueling the current growth in nonmonogamy. However, the personals require a different sort of commitment, and even on the biggest personals sites the pool of nonmonogamous possibilities is still relatively limited. In a way, we can think of the online personals as a different sort of scene, one with its own set of customs and skills, which in fact can be specific to the particular website in question.

In addition, the small size of the nonmonogamous population means that there is less room for a negative reputation. In the larger monogamous world, men sometimes use the anonymity of crowds as a shield for their own bad behavior, switching from social group to social group to avoid censure. In this way, they continue bad dating practices, both relatively benign bad habits that tend to scuttle men/women interactions, and seriously harmful acts like controlling behavior, stalking, harassment, and rape. If a particular social group wises up, men will just move to a new social group or social venue, which while not painless is quite possible in the monogamous world.

In small nonmonogamous scenes, there is much less room to do this. Word gets around fast, and a person who is known for acting poorly will often find themselves with a stunning lack of dating options. If a person messes up so bad that they have to leave the scene, it is a major setback, because they then have to start over in a new group, meeting and getting comfortable with new people. Worse, scenes often share members. This is especially true in rural areas or small cities, but even in large sex-positive cities there can be a significant overlap across groups. Getting a bad enough reputation in one group may quickly get one locked out from all the groups in the area, making the actual practice of nonmonogamy difficult or impossible short of moving to a new region. Some men try to work around this using the online personals, but even there word gets around because there just are not that many people. That cute swinger you are chatting up may well know people at that swing club where you offended someone last week. In fact, at least the poly and BDSM communities have a informal reference system in place: often before meeting or playing with someone new, a person will actually check up on them by asking around in the community.

So, nonmonogamy goes a lot better with good relationship skills and a commitment to not acting like an asshole towards one’s lovers, even unintentionally. In addition, people make a point of keeping breakups amicable and staying friends with exes, because they want to continue moving in the same small circles with those same exes.

The Gender Split

In addition to dealing with the repercussions of moving in a small scene, nonmonogamous men have to face the fact that there are simply more men interested in any particular nonmonogamous scene than women. In other words, a gender imbalance.

I see this gender imbalance as a cultural artifact. It is not a surprising outcome given that we raise men with the message that they should be studly and having sex with whomever (at least while young) and at the same time women are told to be chaste and only have sex in the context of a monogamous relationship. This double standard exists in the larger culture in order to give men more sexual freedom than women, and it is effective at that (though that is really not a laudable goal). However, it backfires badly for men who are interested in nonmonogamy with women, because it means that the pool of women is always smaller.

Now, the gender imbalance is not ridiculous – there are still plenty of women involved in nonmonogamy. But it is real none the less. For example, a friend of mine surveyed an online poly dating site and discovered that there were about twice as many men on that site as women. I think this two-to-one ratio is pretty typical (though there are no statistics on this), but the actual ratio varies widely from one scene to another. Mixed-gender scenes that are friendlier to women have a ratio that is pretty close to one-to-one, while scenes that are unfriendly to women will have a vanishingly small number of women.

The upshot of this imbalance is that women (who are attracted to men) are in demand, and they know it, and nonmonogamous men know it as well, or end up learning it very quickly once they enter a scene.

As a result, nonmonogamous women are generally unwilling to deal with the usual crap that men put them through out in the mainstream world. In the monogamous world, there is this persistent sense that there are not enough men to go around. I am not sure if there are actually less men, given that statistics often suggest otherwise. But there is a constant media message that women have to hurry up and find a mate now, which at least produces the myth that there are less men. As a result, monogamous women are often willing to look past bad behavior of various sorts in order to stick with a guy they like.

Nonmonogamous women, on the other hand, are generally not so accommodating. This is doubly true for the majority of women in the scene who already have a primary partner and are looking for other partners or casual play buddies. If someone pulls crap on them, they just look elsewhere, and there are plenty of elsewheres to check out. This creates an interesting situation where guys coming into a nonmonogamous scene often try to behave in the way that they are used to acting in the mainstream world, and they hit a brick wall of women who are unwilling to take it, and other men who are supportive of those women. The usual result is the rapid learning of hard lessons, or a quick ejection from the scene.

Swingers in the audience might be objecting at this point – after all, swinger parties generally have slightly more women than men. But this is not due to a lack of interest on the part of men, but rather because single men are generally not allowed at these parties. Similarly, swingers who meet online generally are M/F couples looking for other couples. These practices ensure a gender balance. However, I would argue that the upshot is still that women have a lot more say in how things go than in the monogamous world, because the couple cannot swing if the woman loses interest. Indeed, at many swinger parties is the custom for the women to arrange the hookups.

In addition to changing the balance of power, the gender split means that there is simply more competition from other men. Finding women partners takes more effort and more time than expected, and it is important to consider one’s approach closely, something that is not required in the monogamous world.

However, the good news is that the practice of nonmonogamy itself can even this out a bit. For example, if there are somewhat more men than women at a sex or BDSM party, this may just mean that women get somewhat more play, but men are still doing pretty well. Similarly in the poly world, women might have on average more partners than men, but most men still end up with at least two partners.

I often run into men who have gotten bitter about the gender imbalance, either online or in person. Sometimes they give up on nonmonogamy entirely once they realize that there is a gender imbalance. Other times they continue but tend to complain a lot about it. Other guys still will embark on a crazy quest to find a scene where there are more women than men, basically looking for the Valley of the Dolls. These reactions are all a bad idea. The complaints may be accurate (though usually I find they are overblown) but complaining is never sexy, and guys who get bitter about their dating prospects tend to doom those same prospects through their bitterness.

Sure, the gender balance seems unfair. But if you have a problem with that, I recommend that you go work on fixing our mainstream culture, which tells women of all ages that sleeping around makes them a slut. Until the slut-shaming of women in the larger culture is fixed, we will have this local problem in nonmonogamous scenes. Getting upset or complaining about the effects on nonmonogamous men is frankly kind of petty, given that the larger cultural problem is really detrimental to women as a whole.

Find Your Attraction

Men are told all sorts of things about our sexuality. We are told that we are constantly voracious and ready for sex. We are told that we always say yes to sex with women when it is offered, to the point that men are do not even think of the possibility that they might say no, resulting in a good deal of confusing signals and lackluster sex.

Paradoxically, right alongside being told that we should be willing to have sex with anyone, we are taught to separate women into “hot” and “ugly” categories, with the hot women looking like the models in the magazines at the checkout stand. Of course, those women do not actually look like that: the pictures have been photoshopped to within an inch of total absurdity, and often beyond. In other words, we are taught that what we are really attracted to are very specific bodies, bodies that are so rare that the number of women who have them are a vanishingly small minority. (In fact, we make the standards of women’s beauty pretty much impossible to fulfill, as evidenced by the popular magazines that spend their pages critiquing tiny little things about how movie stars look.)

So we are conditioned via two seemingly contradictory cultural/media myths: one which insists that men must be attracted to all women, and another that men are only attracted to a very particular sort of woman. While these two cultural imperatives seem to be at odds, they are both types of sexism. The first myth is an attempt to justify men’s bad sexual behavior, in particular rape, with a “he couldn’t help himself” defense. In addition, it is insulting to women because it implies they are interchangeable. The second myth creates a standard of beauty that is unachievable for most women, devaluing women’s real bodies and creating a storm of insecurity.

Both myths create problematic behavior in men. In addition to being an excuse for sexual assault or harassment, the first myth leads guys to engage in spamming behavior when looking for women, which I will discuss below. The second myth can cause men to ignore women who do not fit the conventional ideal, and simultaneously give way too much attention to women who come close to the beauty standard (which basically becomes harassment). Respecting women requires getting away from both of these myths.

Both myths have a curious side effect on how men think: they prevent us from figuring out the type of women we are attracted to, because they paint men as being either hot for all women or almost none. Of course, actual men are typically attracted to some subset of women. Sometimes this might be a large subset, like a third of women. Other guys are only attracted to a very small number of women. A particular guy will have a particular things he is attracted to: short women, smart women, women who are cynical, women who like to dance, tough women, and so on. It is these components of desire that determine which women he will find sexy.

If you watch TV or read a popular magazine, it would seem that there is only one type of attractive woman out there: thin, feminine, middle or upper class, and probably white. And in fact, some men end up fully conditioned by media to only be attracted to these women. But most of us do not. Most men end up with a set of actual attractions towards women that simply do not line up with anything you can find in the pages of Cosmo or mainstream porn.

But at the same time, the constant bombardment of particular types of images can have a funny effect on us: sometimes we get convinced that we are attracted to the media standard, even when our attractions lie elsewhere. I have seen a lot of men with this funny kind of doublethink, where they might go on and on about how they like tall women with pornstar bodies, but the actual women they date are consistently short and round. Taken to an extreme, this sort of attraction disconnect can lead to self-hating and abuse of one’s partner: I knew one man who dated a particular type of woman, but then would always tell his current girlfriend that he thought she was ugly. He clearly had a specific set of attractions, but he had been brainwashed into thinking that the women he desired were somehow inferior.

On top of all this, men are constantly told that we are primarily attracted to bodies, to physical aspects of people. We see this assumption everywhere from “sex sells” billboards to swimsuit issues to visual porn. Again this training takes for some men, but it fails for most of us. We are actually attracted to a combination of physical and personality traits, and often personality trumps a person’s physical appearance. But again, we often lose sight of this fact, and are convinced that we are only hot for butts, boobs, hair, or some other combination of body parts. We end up with another desire disconnect, where we think that we are primarily looking for particular bodies, when we are really looking for personality with a side dish of physicality.

The upshot of all this is that most men are not quite sure what we want when it comes to women. We blunder around, often successfully following our gut feelings, but typically not quite sure where those feelings are coming from. Very few men can list off a set of traits that they are looking for in women, and then have that set of criteria accurately predict whether or not they will click well with someone. Often a guy’s friends can better identify his type than he can.

Certainly this describes me, at least up until recently. In retrospect, my high school and college dating career can be described as a series of missed opportunities because I was unaware of who actually turned my crank. I only figured out that I was into BDSM because all three women I was dating at one point were kinky, and that finally caused the kinky clue-by-four to hit me. These days I feel like I am actually getting a solid handle on the factors that make up my attraction to others, and it took almost two decades of dating to get to this point.

I encourage my guy readers to explore your own attraction. If you are the type of guy who has always been willing to get with most anyone (like me), then try to narrow things down and focus on whom you would really prefer. If you ended up very narrowly attracted to conventional bodies, then try to widen your scope and consider how you might find non-conventional women attractive. A good place to start either introspection is your own history: what women really did it for you, either in terms of your relationship or in bed? Were you ever surprised by your own lack of interest once you ended up getting to know a woman, or have you ended up having sex that was not fun for you even though the person you were with was nominally your type? Have you ended up with someone who was not your type, but you were strangely hot for anyways? When we end up in these situations where our own desires surprise us, it is usually a hint that we have one of these desire disconnects: we think we want one thing, when we actually want something else.

While doing this discovery, remember that personality is paramount. What personality traits do you find attractive in women? Shy? Accomplished? Social? Introverted? Feminine? Butch or tomboyish? Considerate? Inconsiderate? Nerdy? Stubborn? Funny? Happy? Vulnerable? Mature? Innocent? Dynamic? Chill? Active? Politically aware? Stubborn? Kinky? Gentle? Rough? Sometimes figuring out what we desire can expose some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. For example, I have met a number of guys who were attracted to clueless women because they are easier to boss around. Do not shy away from these truths if you run across them: the first step to fixing your own behavior is recognizing it. Also, note that you may well be attracted to different traits that are impossible to find in one person, like cutesy and sophisticated. This is good because it means you have a flexible set of desires, and of course if you are not monogamous, then you can potentially find these different traits in different people.

Of course, do not ignore the physical aspects of attraction. But try to remember that there is a lot more to physical attraction than breasts and butt. Maybe you have a thing for a certain sort of hair, or skin tone, or body curve, or hands, or eyes, or facial structure. Sometimes the physical elements we want are not reducible to a body part: maybe you are attracted to someone who is strong or wiry, or who moves with a particular style. Again, you may be attracted to various things that are contradictory. For example, I am attracted to both long and short hair on women, in different ways. It is hard, but try to step away from the conventional standards of beauty. Get a handle on who you are really attracted to, not who you think you should be attracted to.

Learning to recognize your own attraction makes dating and hooking up so much easier. If you are narrowing down, it means that you can stop haphazardly bouncing around and instead focus your energy on meeting the people who really knock your socks off. If you have been stuck on mainstream standards of physical beauty, then realizing what other sorts of women you desire will break you out of the cycle of endlessly chasing a small number of women who may not even do it for you. Either way, self-knowledge gets you a better set of dating options.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with nonmonogamy. The monogamous world tends to curtail the sort of bad behaviors caused by these attraction myths. In the land of monogamy, guys do not hit on every woman who walks by because they assume most women are taken. In nonmonogamous settings, it is quite possible that every woman walking by is theoretically available. Even if they are not actually available, the slut stigma that adheres to nonmonogamous women means that most men will assume they are available. So, men are then encouraged to hit on every woman who walks by. Similarly, the tendency of monogamous types to pair off tends to buffer the mobbing/ignoring that happens due to mainstream beauty standards. When people are playing outside of the couple paradigm, then the tendency of guys to go for conventionally attractive women to the exclusion of others ends up creating very unbalanced and uncomfortable situations.

Nonmonogamous scenes have become sensitive to these behaviors, and tend to resist them. Hitting on every woman at the party will quickly get you labeled as creepy and possibly thrown out. Making a beeline for the most conventionally attractive woman at the party will cause people to think you are shallow (correctly), and will not impress anyone.

The good news is that the nonmonogamous world is also a good place to figure out your attraction. Sometimes monogamous people do not figure out their desires until late in life, or not at all. Because nonmonogamous people have a larger number of partners, we more rapidly learn our own desires. In addition, there is usually a greater ability to experiment. If there is some person whom you are attracted to but is not your usual type, you may well be able to go for it because you are not necessarily looking for that person to be the be-all and end-all of your romantic life.

Work on Yourself

For most men, the idea that they might want to change some things about themselves to become more attractive is somewhere between alien and disturbing. We are simply not taught that we should consider our own attractiveness as a factor, and instead people will just be attracted to us because we are just that cool. This is great for the self-esteem, but creates a huge blind spot for us around the possible reasons that women might be finding us attractive or unattractive.

Of course, women are taught from birth that they have to work to be desirable. Usually this focuses on appearance: how to do their hair, how to put on makeup, how to exercise oneself into the right sort of body, and so on. But personality is also well-known as a factor: how to be charming, how smiling is important, and so on. Women end up thinking a lot about this stuff. This gap between the genders has been slowly closing: men are starting to consider their own attractiveness, in particular queer men. However, there are still lots of men who rarely consider their own desirability, and in fact we tend to actively resist any real discussion of our own attractiveness with knee-jerk negative reactions whenever the subject comes up.

I want to say that I am not talking about one’s approach here. Guys do spend a lot of time working on their approach: the right way to flirt with someone, the right pickup line, and so on. But these same guys do not think much about their overall personality, look, or what have you. Here is the thing: approach does not matter in the slightest if the person is not attracted to you, and women will have likely figured out whether or not they are attracted to you before any approaches happen, yours or theirs. (Or if they have not figured it out, that means you are headed for rejection anyways.) So, how you look, talk, act, and the general overall impression you make are much more important than one-liners or pickup strategies. (And as a bonus, if you are in an attractive mode, women will sometimes come on to you.)

This blind spot around our own desirability can make it difficult for us to effectively find partners, whether we are talking sex, BDSM, or dating. It means that we miss what we might be doing that turns people off, or what we could be doing that turns people on. It means that we can screw up mightily and we blithely blame it on the other person and then do it again two months later. What this means is that a man who spends effort working on himself quickly stands out from the crowd. It is a little sad that it is so easy to do so, but the world’s low standards for men are your opportunity. If you take some time to work on yourself, it will quickly pay off in your social and sexual life. You know how straight women are often attracted to queer guys? This is largely because queer guys are more likely to work on themselves.

Working on yourself does not necessarily mean going to the gym to buff up or slim down. Guys have this strange idea that if they just pump enough iron the women will start flocking to them, which is bullshit. Working out does the trick for some guys just because it makes them feel more attractive and confident, but it is important to remember that being more conventionally attractive does not necessarily make you more attractive to real people living in the real world. Even if we just stick to the physical appearance, there is so much more to work with. Working on yourself might mean dressing up more, or dressing down more. It might mean dressing in a particular style that you like, like goth or grunge or funny tee shirts. Working on yourself might mean learning to love your fuzzy bear side, and finding ways to accentuate that in your appearance. Or it might mean plucking your nose hair. Working on yourself might mean experimenting with hairstyles (shorter? longer? surfer cut? buzz cut?) or it might mean adding or removing facial hair.

I hope I am getting the message across here that there is no one right way to work on yourself. There is no magical formula, like going to the gym and then wearing lots of suits. In fact, nonmonogamous communities tend towards the rebellious and favor unique individuals, so simply looking more conventional is generally the exact wrong way to go, as is trying to fit a cliched stereotype. This is not a makeover. You are not trying to hide who you are, but rather to make your true self visible. Trying to be some ideal caricature of a person will just make you neurotic and not actually make you more attractive. Working on yourself is a process of accentuating the things that are interesting about you.

I can use myself as an example here. I am an effeminate man. I have ignored this facet of myself for most of my life, but a couple years ago I decided to play into it and I started wearing long skirts. The skirts are a better expression of my personality, and while wearing them definitely makes me less of a Real Man(tm), it also gets me noticeably more dates with women.

One way to get a handle one what this might mean is by considering what makes you feel sexy and attractive. Confidence is an important piece of attractiveness, so if your look or personal expression makes you more confident, that is already an improvement. So, start with your own impulses: how would you like to come across differently, either in looks or personality? When have you felt really sexy in a way that did not depend on someone else finding you sexy? Another source is friends. Check around with your friends (of all genders) for recommendations on what little changes you might make, remembering that what works for other guys may not work for you.

Bearing this in mind, let us consider personality for a moment. Personality is more important than looks: you can be the sexiest guy in the world but if you act like an asshole or are stunningly boring your looks will not save you. There are nonmonogamous environments where one’s looks and style are nominally more important than personality, most importantly sex parties and BDSM play parties. In situations where people are mostly looking for hookups, it is sometimes possible to get in and out of a sexy encounter even with a terrible personality match, though such problems will still crop up when flirting and scuttle things. However, if you are looking for a repeat performance with this person (or people), then personality starts to really matter. So, even at play parties, an attractive personality will make a huge difference in how much fun you have.

Think about your own personality. If there are there things about it you like, try accentuating those. If there are things about your personality you do not like, figure out how to change or at least work around them. If you are drawing a blank, then just start paying attention to your social interactions. When do things go well? Poorly? Track how you are feeling when you have a good time socially and/or feel attractive, and how you are feeling when things do not go well. Similarly, keep an eye on when notable things happen. Did everyone at that dinner stop talking to you after that one thing you said? Again, your friends can be useful: ask them to give you their honest opinion on your social habits and personality, both positive and negative aspects (and be emotionally prepared to find out some not-so-flattering things about yourself).

Nervousness is a big problem in social settings, inside or outside of nonmonogamous communities. Remember that in any social situation, how you are feeling will rub off on the people around you. If you are anxious, they will get nervous and twitchy and possibly bail on you, and in any case the socializing will not go well. So, the most important thing is to be relaxed and happy when socializing. I see a lot of guys who seem to be terminally nervous, not just when in a nonmonogamous setting or when dealing with women they are attracted to, but any time they are in a social environment. If this sounds like you, figure out how to relax. Maybe this means going out with friends or maybe you should only socialize in groups smaller than five. Maybe there is some other sort of setting change that will help. Maybe you have been going into social situations with a defeatist attitude, and you just cannot break out of it all night, in which case finding a way to avoid that feeling is paramount. Also, if you find yourself getting tense in any particular situation, consider how you could relax or failing that consider bailing on the situation. I do this: I will often withdraw from parties if I feel myself getting socially anxious, either to a corner or all the way home.

Another big personality issue is being interesting. I do not mean being witty, charming, or debonaire, though those are things to think about. Rather, I am talking about being an interesting person overall. Now, most people are interesting in some way: either they are doing interesting things now or they have some interesting history. The problem is that people usually manage to hide these complex and exciting aspects of themselves. Sometimes this is due to closeting (say, if your interesting pursuits include kinky sexual practices) but mostly this just seems to be a reluctance to lay ourselves on the line and really talk about what we like. And perhaps this is for good reason, as it is true that not everyone will be interested in your rabbit farming hobby or habit of reading esoteric physics manuals. But then, some people will, and even those who are not will start seeing you as a complex being rather than just another face in the crowd.

Again, I can talk about myself here. A number of years ago I got into a sexual and romantic rut after a breakup. I was going to play parties and social events, but the people I ended up playing with were poor matches and nothing seemed to be clicking romantically. So I gave up for a while and started spending my time writing essays like this one instead. Three months later, I was dating three women and discovering my kink. While it may seem odd, my writing was crucial to this in two ways. First, it made me a more interesting person because I was clearly into something that most people do not do, writing non-fiction. Second, it forced me to stop bouncing all over the place and instead just focus on potential dating partners who were especially interesting to me. There is a lesson here: doing something you love is an aphrodisiac. Maybe that is fixing cars, gardening, reading, doing your job really well, or playing video games. Do what you love and then share that love with other people, and some of them will be attracted to you because of it.

If you can integrate what you love with a nonmonogamous community, then you win on all fronts. Here in San Francisco we have polyamorous people who enjoy hiking, so they organize poly hikes. Our local dungeon has a knitting group. Maybe you like swinging and boating, in which case you could attend or hold a small event on the water. Putting your interests in the same place as your nonmonogamous scene means you can do what you love while surrounded by people who are potential dating or play partners, a convenient timesaver for those of us who are too busy.

Through all of this, it is important to remember that people generally have cycles in their sex and relationship lives. Most folks I know go through boom and bust periods. In the bust periods, nothing seems to work and it all feels hopeless. In the boom periods, people get more play than they could possibly handle. We like to blame our bust periods on other people or on the situation but the truth is that we are the common factor. If you are in a rut, spend some time just improving your life in general and also figuring out what exactly is going wrong. Also, just relax and let it take some time. Eventually you will pop out of the down period and then you will have a whole new set of problems, like too many possible dates for a Friday night. Being nonmonogamous is a real boon when a person hits one of these boom cycles where they are just very attractive and in their groove, because we can get involved with more than one person at once, instead of having to pick just one and then have the boom period end without investigating those other opportunities.

Take Your Time

Nonmonogamous men seem to be in a particular hurry, especially those who are new to it. This shows up in a number of different ways: too eager to meet someone in person, preferring to skip past the sex party negotiation and straight to the sex, not willing to invest the time to become part of a nonmonogamous community, and so on.

I think this eagerness is perhaps the Valley of the Dolls myth in operation again. We have been well-trained by porn and other fantasies of sexual accessibility to think that the Valley is just around the next corner. It isn’t, of course. Around the next corner is a complex series of interactions and negotiations with people which, if performed well, will eventually lead to a comfortable and fulfilling sex and/or relationship life. There are of course other things that spur people on, like the kid-in-a-candy store effect of discovering nonmonogamy for the first time when you have been looking for it for a while.

Whatever the reason, I see a lot of guys who are expecting that they will start getting some action very soon. Like, next week soon. This is wildly unrealistic. Some guys do go from zero to sixty, finding dating or sexual partners almost immediately, but they are an exception just due to their particular personality or situation. (Usually this happens because someone was waiting in the wings, and so the work was effectively done before the switch to nonmonogamy.) For most of us, it takes some time.

It is important to approach nonmonogamy much like you would approach dating in the monogamous world. When dating in the mainstream, you expect it to take a while before you find someone with good chemistry. (Or, if you bounce from one relationship directly into the next, people understand that maybe you have a problem and should slow down.) The process of finding the right someone can take months or years, and will involve a lot of false starts.

Romantic dating in the nonmonogamous world is the same, even when you may already have a partner. There is some weird mind flip where people expect that having the one partner on hand should make finding the second or third one easy. But of course, finding that second partner is just as hard as finding that first one was. But somehow people miss this, and I run into a lot of poly guys who are upset because they have been looking for a whole two months (or even two weeks) and nobody has landed in their lap.

Indeed, finding that second person can be harder if you are dating in the smaller pool of nonmonogamy for the first time. It may be a while before you find people that you have chemistry with, and finding them may mean checking out a number of different social scenes before you locate one where you get along well with the people attending. We see this in the polyamory community: there are a lot of small poly social events in my area, each of which has its own personality, and people have to shop around a bit before they find one they are comfortable at.

This seems to be a particular problem for men in couples who have just opened their relationship. Of course, the process of getting to an open relationship situation may have taken years of talking and negotiation, so it is understandable if someone is a little frustrated. (Though it should be said that women rarely exhibit this particular frustration.) But the process of finding people is the same whether or not you have already put a lot of effort into being able to practice nonmonogamy, so this frustration is not useful.

But wait, you say! What about guys who are looking for casual sex or BDSM play? If someone is looking for relatively light-weight sex or play, then it is in theory easier to find people, as they do not have to be date-worthy matches. As it turns out, this theory does not hold up. It is true that one can generally connect with a wider range of people for recreational play, and that the negotiation process for any one encounter is generally shorter. However, there are a lot of other factors that make it difficult to get into nonmonogamous play. If you are looking for a party scene, then finding the right one and getting an invitation can take a while. If you are looking online, then finding an online venue and learning how to work the personals takes a while. Each sex and play scene has its own set of negotiation rituals, and you basically have to learn those rituals before anything happens, which can be a trial and error process. (This is different from dating, where we at least borrow the general framework from monogamous dating.)

On top of all this, having an over-eager (also known as “desperate”) air is a turnoff in its own right, and for good reason. When a woman meets a guy who seems desperate, she will probably assume that he is not going to really try to get to know her, that he has an agenda which will not contain much space for her agenda, and that if things do not go perfectly he will get more frustrated and move on. And she will probably be right. So, being frustrated or in a hurry can be a self-fulfilling prophecy where the desperation itself ensures failure in dating.

So, the lesson of this section is slow down already. Take your time, and measure that time in a scale of months or years. It usually takes someone six months to really get rolling once they decide on nonmonogamy, and it will be a couple years before they are fully settled in. Do not feel like you are immediately entitled to getting some action or having a dating situation work out – you aren’t. Getting there may well require a sustained effort over a long period of time.

In addition to slowing down your expectations, taking it slow applies in a number of other ways.

First, take your time when entering a nonmonogamous scene. Some scenes set up barriers to force this: for example, swinger parties may insist that you attend a clothes-on meet-and-greet before you can go to a sex party, and a dungeon in my area requires that you attend a class on a non-play night before you can become a member. These and other entrance measures are basically in place to keep that drunk guy from blundering in on a Saturday night with a “where’s the hot chicks” attitude.

So, do not be that guy. Recognize that it is going to take some time to integrate into a particular social scene, and until that happens, you will not get dates or play in that scene. You have to be around for a bit, and then you have to meet people, and then the women in the scene need to get comfortable enough with you to date you or play with you. This all takes time – I generally recommend that you attend a particular event three to six times before you start thinking about actually hooking up with people.

Also, try not to get frustrated if things do not work out quickly or if you do not seem to have prospects. If you find yourself at an event where you do not seem to have chemistry with anyone, that is a sign that you should check out other events in your area. But at the same time, consider coming back to this event a couple times. Nonmonogamy events often have a high turnover, and next month some people may show up who are to your liking. Or you may discover over time that the people you did not like at first are more interesting than first impressions would indicate. I often see people bounce through all the events in an area and then give up entirely, without having given any one event enough attention.

If you do the work in one scene and still nothing pans out, then it may be time to think about your flirting behavior or try a new scene.

Second, take it slow with any one woman. Coming on to someone when you first meet them is a guaranteed recipe for failure. She will assume (again, probably correctly) that you do not really know if you are attracted to her, and that you are just hitting on her for relatively shallow physical reasons. Instead, get to know her a bit before any propositions. This might mean running into her a couple times at different iterations of the event, or it may mean having an hour-long animated conversation the first time you meet her. In any case, if you are starting to know her, and she is starting to know you, then both of you can judge the chemistry and decide where to take it from there.

I think guys get worried that they will never see this particular attractive person again if they do not give them their number at this event right now. Indeed, sometimes people disappear never to be seen again. But you will see most of them again, at this event or another event in the (again, small) nonmonogamy scene in your area. And giving someone your number out of the blue is an almost-guarantee of failure, not just in the immediate situation but also in the future. If this woman does throw your number away, then when you two meet again she will remember you as that pushy guy and still have you mentally crossed off the list, even if otherwise she might find you attractive.