Swipe through a few Tinder bios and before long you'll see something along the lines of "in a relationship, but looking for a good time!" The not-so-subtle subtext? "I have a partner, but we're open, so let's have sex."
One in five Americans recently reported that at some point in their dating or married lives, they'd been in an open relationship. But what does it really mean to be open? And how does this conversation come about? Surely it's not as easy as pausing Netflix and asking, "so, um, you want to see other people?"
Or is it?
To find out, VICE chatted with three long-term couples about why they chose non-monogamy, what rules—if any—are involved, and why it works for them.
Kasara, 24 and Chris, 23
VICE: How long have you two been together?
Chris: We're coming up on three years in October.
And what's your origin story as a couple?
Kasara: We actually met on Tinder. That first night, we had some drinks and then went back to his place. I wasn't expecting to hear from him after that, but then we just started hanging out a lot. We called what we had a "fucklationship" for a while because we weren't familiar with any terms like open or non-monogamous.
Chris: And I was basically just looking to relax and enjoy myself the year I met Kasara, because with my last girlfriend I hadn't been having much fun.
Kasara: I'd also just gotten out of a relationship when we met, and so I liked the idea of maintaining that casual element. Then, when Chris left for Australia the first time—he goes back to visit family periodically—I ended up meeting somebody else who I developed some feelings for. His name was Yanis, but I talked to Chris about it and he was like, yep, that's fine. And so that's how we went from being open to a more poly situation.
Chris: It was initially a little bit strange when she was dating Yanis because I was so far removed and missing her and everything, but I was also incredibly happy that she had found someone to make her as happy as I did. It really opened my eyes to how making other connections can benefit a relationship. I mean, I haven't made any emotional connections with other people yet, but there's been dates and "almosts." It's not something I'm overly concerned about one way or the other. I'm fairly content with where I'm at and what I'm doing.
So what do your friends and family think about your relationship?
Kasara: When I was dating Yanis, I invited him home while Chris was in Australia. I was still living with my parents, though, and so my mom pulled me aside and was like, "you and Chris are moving in together soon! How can you do this to him?!" I told her it was fine and a situation we'd agreed on. So I think my parents know, but it's never talked about.
Chris: One of my worst experiences was when we first decided to define ourselves as polyamorous. I was in this obnoxious phase where I wanted to tell as many people as I could about it, and so I brought it up with my volleyball team and they mocked me mercilessly for it. They said things like, "She's going to go and fuck other guys, and you're okay with that? You're not going to get anything out of this." I tried to explain that's not quite how it works, but they never really accepted it. To them, it was just like this weird funny thing I was doing.
Kasara: Yeah, so when I tell guys about my relationship, watching their faces as they come to terms with it is hilarious. They make this thinking face and then they're like "ooohh so you and your boyfriend aren't having sex" and I'm like, "No, we still do that." And then there's a pause, and he'll say, "Ooohh so it's a convenience thing." And I'm like "no!" So that's always funny.
So why is poly the best choice for you both?
Kasara: It took a while for me to realize this, but I'm not a monogamous person. I've always been able to have feelings for other people. I don't think jealously should be perpetuated as the norm in relationships, as it is with monogamy.
Chris: I have a similar mindset. We never place limits on emotions other than love, like we don't say you can only be sad or happy about this one thing, but with monogamy it's like only one person is allowed to feel your love. And love is such a crazy emotion, so why not experience it with a bunch of people? Polyamory is OK, guys! We're not all weird.
*Lyndsay, 24 and Tyler, 24
VICE: When did the "open relationship" discussion take place for you, and why?
Lyndsay: I'd say it was about two years into our relationship, and we've been together for five. He opened it up and told me that if I wanted to go sleep with another guy, then I could. Because he gets so much enjoyment from my body—my boobs are huge—but he can't perform in the same way as someone with a bigger penis.
Tyler: Yeah. We were hitting a few bumpy spots on our relationship because she wasn't sexually satisfied. I have a micropenis, there's not much to work with, and so I felt I couldn't give Lyndsay the type of pleasure she was capable of feeling. And I just want the very best for her, so we started talking about different things we might do.
Lyndsay: First we talked about using toys to enhance my pleasure, but really, a cold plastic penis is not the same as a real one! And then we found that the realistic-feeling ones were, you know, about eight inches and I just couldn't handle that. Going from a micropenis to a giant fake one was never going to work.
Tyler: I figured that nothing was going to be better for her than the real thing. She deserves to get the same type of pleasure that I do from her. Why not let her have the best?
That seems really generous. But is there an element of self-sacrifice here? Does having a one-sided open relationship create any imbalance?
Lyndsay: There's always bit of fear and guilt for me around even thinking about sleeping with someone else, even though it's something Tyler actually wants. Like he wants me to have that pleasure. I still haven't actually been with anyone else though.
Oh, so it's more of a fantasy at this point? You're open to being open.
Lyndsay: Yeah. Because the thing is that I don't want to go and sleep with someone else and then have a bunch of shame about it. Right now we're more interested in the idea. We create scenarios and play with the idea.
And how important is it that you 'consummate' this fantasy?
Tyler: To me, as long as she's happy, I don't really care whether it happens or not. I really think that she would enjoy it if she did try it. I have high hopes that she'd go through with it.
Do you think you have a kink? Cuckold fantasies come to mind...
Tyler: I've thought about it that way. For me, I think it started when I was around 16. I had a friend with benefits who was kind of fascinated by my small penis, because she hadn't seen anyone who had one like mine. She would have sex with other guys, but she always came back to me. We wouldn't have actual sex, but she'd give me blow jobs and all that, like she just liked me and wanted to hang out. So maybe that sort of opened the door for me in terms of being OK with openness.
Lyndsay: I actually played a trick on him once, saying I was about to sleep with someone else. I was at the airport and I texted Tyler to say that I'd found a guy to do it with.
Tyler: And I was super excited for her, because I knew it'd be a new adventure. I think having those adventurous types of sexual experiences throughout your life can be fulfilling. I've had some in my own life and I want Lyndsay to have the opportunity too, but the thing is that I can't perform in a way that would allow that. So yeah, when she texted and said she was going to have sex in the airport bathroom, I was actually really happy.
Do you feel jealousy or insecurity because of that?
Tyler: I'm really really comfortable with myself, so I was just excited. I'm accepted for the way I am. We still have a good sex life, regardless of my size.
Daniel, 42 and Regina, 39
VICE: How long have you two been together?
Regina: We've been together for six-and-a-half years and married for four-and-a-half.
For what part of that time have you been open? And how did that decision get made?
Daniel: Regina and I were together exclusively for a year before we started going to play parties with other couples. We're swingers.
Regina: But right from the start, we discussed things like our sexual and relationship histories. He'd been married, I'd been married, and we'd both dated in the context of dating multiple people at the same time. In the age of Tinder and dating websites—which is how we met—you can date multiple people simultaneously and it's not necessarily that you're non-monogamous, but it's that your non-exclusive, and I feel like that's almost a precursor to eventually being non-monogamous.
What initially drew you both to the swinging lifestyle?
Daniel: About five years ago, my ex-wife told me she had fallen in love with another man. But she taught me the most profound lesson: no matter who you are, your partner could wake up one day and not be in love with you anymore. And that's no one's fault. I realized that my next relationship needed to be open because I no longer have the desire to control my partner. Control is just an illusion anyway.
Regina: And for me, sex has never really been a big deal. I've never had any bad sexual experiences, fortunately. For me, meeting new people is exciting and not nerve-wracking or scary. So swinging feels right.
Is there such a thing as infidelity in an open relationship?
Regina: Yes. If you knowingly cross a boundary that you both set, that can be really hurtful.
So when you're out in the world or at a play party, what is your screening process normally like? Do you both have to agree on the person?
Regina: Actually, I can give you an example from just the other night. So Daniel went to a bar and a girl asked him, "what would you do to me, if you could?" And he didn't know what to say! Then, he texted me and said "she wants to know if I have your consent." This woman was literally asking my permission to have sex with my husband! And my response was "only if you're really hot for her." So the next morning I got him on the phone and I told him I needed some aftercare. I said, "I just want you to say, and honestly say, that you had a great last night but nothing compares to me." And he chuckled and said, "Oh my god of course. I can't wait to get home to you." And that's the crux of it. After I hear him say that, and hear the tone in his voice, it's the most honest and tender thing ever. It's right.
Daniel: Exactly. We're swinging because it's a great addition to our lives, not because we're missing anything with each other. All this feels like a big bonus. Swinging is just a nice fringe benefit.
*Names have been changed.
Follow Mica on Twitter.