joreth: (polyamory)
joreth ([personal profile] joreth) wrote2018-10-21 02:51 pm

The History Of The Term Unicorn Hunter

We have this damn argument constantly in poly forums.  Somebody calls someone a "unicorn hunter", somebody gets upset at the insult, someone else demands that there's nothing wrong with being a unicorn hunter, someone chimes in that they're a unicorn and proud of it, someone else tries to explain what the term means and where it came from, and then everyone yells "language evolves!" and "language police!" to justify whichever position they happen to hold.

And I'm fucking sick of it.

The history of this term is hard to cite sources for, because nobody really documented it at the time.   I mean, all our conversations were in text on the internet, but in old BBS boards and email lists and geocities websites that are all defunct now.

So basically it's left up to the old-timers like me who were around back then to try and explain things, and then the young'ins come along with no understanding of our cultural history and how that shapes our cultural present, insisting that things aren't the way that we experienced.  Most don't even realize that we *have* a "cultural history".   But the word "polyamory" was coined in 1992, and it was coined because people were already doing this thing that we wanted to name.  26 years is long enough to create a sense of culture, to create art and history.  It's long enough that we are now multi-generational.

So let me tell you a little story about How Things Used To Be.

The polyamorous community did not invent the term "unicorn" for a bisexual woman.   That came a long time ago, at least from the 1970s, back in the disco swingers' era.  It might even have origins earlier than that (as the wife-swapping version of swinging is said to have evolved out of WWII with soldiers on deployment, so swinging has been around even longer but it may or may not have been applicable to have "unicorns" in other iterations of the Lifestyle) , but since I was never part of the swinger community, I am not as up on swinger history as I am on poly history.  I only know it as tangential to poly history.

So, anyway, in the '70s swinger communities, a "unicorn" was a bisexual woman willing to have threesomes with a straight MF couple, and then go away again without causing any complications like coming between the primary couple or trying to "steal" anyone.  I'll be honest, I don't know if there is any subtext or any implications in that context.  I don't know if it was considered an insult or a compliment or if it was neutral.   Again, I wasn't part of that community, I just know that this is where I first heard the term to refer specifically to a bisexual woman.

However, when the poly community adopted it, the term was definitely used derisively.  When we used the term, we weren't actually calling bisexual women "unicorns", like we were complimenting them as magical beings.  We were insulting the people who were using women as breathing sex toys by accusing them of "hunting" for a mythological creature who didn't exist anywhere except in their own imaginations, to fulfill their own fantasies of capturing such a wondrous creature.

Back when the term first started getting widespread use, those of us who used it were not calling bisexual women "unicorns".  Bisexual polyamorous women were "bipoly" women.   That was our term for them back then.  We liked portmanteaus back then more than the slang today that prefers metaphor or pop culture references.  We used to say that you couldn't go to a poly potluck (because back then we didn't have "discussion meetings" or conferences, we had potlucks) and swing a stuffed parrot (because that was the symbol we used in public for people to find our gatherings) without hitting a bipoly woman.

We weren't calling anyone "unicorns".  Unicorns don't exist.  That was the whole point of using that term.  A "unicorn" was symbolic, not a real person.   It was symbolic of all the hopes and dreams and naiveté from monogamous couples curious about "opening up" their marriages.  As the unicorn has always been symbolic of hopes and dreams and naiveté.

And power.

The unicorn has also always been a symbol of power.   The brave and courageous hunter or prince or knight charges into the forest, seeking that symbol of purity and beauty and grace, hoping to overpower such a powerful beast, kill it, and tear its horn from its head to drink from and steal its magical properties for himself.  There are actual, real thrones made out of narwhal horns and billed as unicorn horns.  Ground "unicorn" horn powder was sold as medicine and magic.

Or perhaps the hero sought the unicorn be found worthy by the magical creature who only appears to the pure of heart to bestow its blessing.   Every myth and legend about the unicorn says something about how the men see themselves, or how they see their gods (which are further reflections of themselves).  Even the legends about unicorns being irresistibly drawn to virgins to lay their heads in the young maidens' laps and sleep (so leaving a young girl alone in a forest as a trap for a unicorn was a thing) says something about powerful men and their values.

The unicorn has never been about the animal.  It has always been about the ones seeking it.

So when the poly community adopted the term "unicorn hunter", we used it in this manner.  A lot of our early lexicon-creators liked literary allusion and historical references (some a little more "pseudo" than others).  The arrogance and ignorance and entitlement of the wealthy white fictional and real historical men who hunted unicorns was more than applicable to what we saw happening in our own communities, with hetero couples trading on their couple privilege to maintain an uneven power distribution in their relationships.

Back then, we didn't have the language of "disempowerment" and "privilege" ... not that this language didn't exist, but it hadn't made it into widespread social use as it is now.   A lot of us made a lot of semantics mistakes back in the '90s and early Naughties because we didn't have this language.  But we were talking about the same things we continue to talk about today - power.

I came into the poly community as a single, bi-curious woman back in the '90s.  I did not start out "opening up" a monogamous relationship.  I wasn't introduced to poly society as part of a "couple".  I didn't have the safety net of an existing relationship to fall back on if this "poly thing" didn't work out.  If my relationships ended, I didn't have an "existing primary" that I could "close up" with and try to go back to being monogamous, or who would stick by me as we tried again as a single unit, I was left alone to mourn the loss of my relationships, and possibly the loss of several relationships if I also lost my metamours in the breakup.  Unlike those couples who only lost a girlfriend, I lost an entire  *family* when a couple decided to dump me for not living up to their magical unicorn standards. 

From my perspective, the community was made up of two kinds of people - hetero couples and Free Agents.  Long before we had the term "solo poly", we had Free Agents - people who dated and who had partners but who always operated as individuals whether they had many partners, one, or none.   The men who were Free Agents were routinely looked upon with contempt for their callousness, lack of empathy, and selfishness.  Even by women who were also Free Agents.

But the women who were Free Agents... I did not identify with that term.   I had known too many men who treated polyamory as a way to have lots of sex without doing any emotional labor in their relationships (not that we had *that* term either).  What I wanted was to build intentional family.  So I didn't identify with the Free Agents.  But because I always maintained my own identity and independence whether I was partnered or not, I was seen, essentially, as a Free Agent by the hetero couples, who almost exclusively did hierarchical polyamory.  The fact that I wanted a "family" but was "unattached" made me extremely attractive to hierarchical polys looking for a bipoly woman to "add to their relationship".

So let me tell you how people treated me.  I have a whole inbox from an old poly dating forum filled with nothing but straight men asking me to join their households either as an equal threesome or as "sister-wives", raise the children, keep the house, and manage the chicken farm.

No, seriously, there was one in particular that actually opened up correspondence with me looking for a co-wife to raise chickens in Montana.  Or, South Dakota, or something.  And when I complained about his email online, a half dozen other women responded that he had sent them the exact same email, verbatim.   A form letter seeking a co-wife to run his chicken farm.

Many of them didn't start right out the gate like this guy, asking if I'd be interested in becoming a wife.  Most of them went through the motions of pretending to want to get to know me first, but really, all of these meetings and correspondences were interviews.  They had a job position to fill - co-wife - and they wanted to see if I could fit into that position.

The first couple of emails from the first couple of guys ... it's easy to overlook the feeling of being "hunted" at first.  Especially if you're in a category of person who, statistically speaking, never gets hunted and is expected to be the hunter.  Complain about catcalls to a lot of men, for instance, and many of them will respond with "I *never* get complimented!  I would *love* it if women would just yell out a compliment on the street sometime!"

When you're in a category of person who has a lot of social capital and a lot of cultural power, even if you, personally, have setbacks and challenges in your life, it's really difficult to understand how someone without that capital and power might feel on the receiving end of attention from people who have it.  Because part of the advantage of all that capital and power is the freedom from experiencing life without it and not ever needing to even notice what life is like without it.

So, the first few emails just sound like ... dating app messages.   But the next few emails, and the next dozen emails, and the next hundred emails, over years and years and years of them all being the same thing - hetero couples not listening to me, not seeing me, not getting to know me, all of them looking for what I can do for them and not really caring about who I am or what *I* may be getting out of the deal...

It's predatory, it's demoralizing, it's depressing, and it's dehumanizing.

Hence, "unicorn hunters".

So, before our history is lost to ... well, history, I wanted to make a record of what it was like back then.  I wanted to put in black and white what our intentions were when we were still coming up with the terms that people throw around, and away, these days with careless abandon.

Sure, "language evolves" and words change meaning.  But a word's *origins* are important. Words, out of context, might have just a simple definition. But within context, the word can say a whole lot more than just a line in a dictionary.  The origins of a word can tell you what a culture's *atmosphere* was like when the word was coined.   It can show you insight into how we got to any given point and when we turned a corner and where the culture was destined to go from there.  It can explain the subjective experience of the participants of being in that culture.

Words have power.   We started using the phrase "unicorn hunters" to describe a very specific set of circumstances and a very specific type of people.  We needed that term because we needed to be able to discuss a very big and very real problem we were having.  If we couldn't discuss it, we couldn't address it.

And now we have people entering the community who were in diapers back when the term was first being coined, arguing about "evolving language" and "taking it back" and being "proud" to be unicorns, as if all our history doesn't matter.  We still need to talk about disempowerment in relationships and predatory behaviour in our community.  The need for the term still exists, whether that specific term has "evolved" or not.  But we don't have a replacement for a term that is still incredibly accurate.  And the words we *do* use to describe what we mean when we say "unicorn hunter" are received with even more offense.

Because that term is meant to be offensive.  It's meant to describe offensive behaviour.  That's what we always meant when we started using that term nearly three decades ago and that's what many of us still mean when we use it now.  People might want to erase all the subtext and context that comes with the term "unicorn hunter", but I want to make sure that we at least don't erase the history.  That history will tell us where we came from, and show us where we're going.  


For reference:
desert_dragon: (Default)

[personal profile] desert_dragon 2018-12-12 10:45 pm (UTC)(link)
Reading this made me wistful for the days of alt.polyamory. I miss Usenet.