“Plenty of fish in the sea!” You may have heard this sentence before. Standard dating advice assumes there are many, many compatible people for each and every one of us out here. And all you have to do to find a match for yourself is join some social groups to pursue your shared interests with a bunch of other human beings and/or make a profile on a dating platform of your choice and go on lots of dates. And sooner rather than later (or so goes the story you’re told), you will almost inevitably meet a great match for a relationship! (And if you don’t, you probably just didn’t do it right.)
But what if that’s not true?
What if you’re limited in your mobility (and therefore your dating radius) due to a physical or mental disability or a lack of money for travelling, or by previous commitments you’ve made (e.g. being a parent or caretaker, or having preexisting partners or a location-bound job you want to keep)? And what if you don’t live in a big city, either?
What if your desires are rather far from the mainstream because your version of kinky is less ‘silk scarf blindfolds and sensual spankings’ and more ‘boot licking and impact play that leaves plate-sized bruises in fifty shades of dark purple or multiple bleeding wounds on a regular basis’ or ’24/7 Victorian-style M/s relationship with a side of pony play’? What if you also don’t switch? And what if you don’t do vanilla sex at all to begin with, so the ‘consensually grow your own kinkster’ approach isn’t an option, either?
What if the range of genders you’re attracted to includes neither feminine cis women nor masculine cis men but nearly exclusively people on the nonbinary or androgynous spectrum? What if your own gender has needed major customized hardware changes and/or continues to require a bunch of workaround hacks and a much-annotated user manual before you can enjoyably get down and dirty with anyone (if you even find someone who is into all of that, “niche product for a discerning market” that you are)?
And what if you’re affected by several of these factors at once? (Not that this list would be anywhere near complete, mind you.)
I’m sure few people would argue that so much intersecting deviation from the dating norm will shrink your dating pool to a size that is more like a dating puddle.
In other words, sometimes, the reality of your dating pool is a lot less like a vast ocean full of exciting and hugely varied fish that you might encounter if you just keep swimming — and a lot more like a tiny aquarium where you’ve already dated at least half of the available and roughly matching ten fish at some point in the past, ruled out another two of the remaining five (because one is already dating your roommate/best friend/boss, and the other is best friends with that ex you don’t talk to anymore, and that’s just too many social complications) and simply have no chemistry with two more of the remaining three fishes. Which leaves exactly one fish who is a match for you. Maybe. If you don’t look at the details of everyone’s needs and desires too much.
And then we haven’t even started looking at things like your politics, any unusual interests (beyond kink) you may have, and all the gazillion other characteristics and preferences that may also play a role in your partner selection (or in other people’s selection of you as a partner). Or any of the many, many places where things can be hard in the world of finding compatible people for romance and/or sexytimes and/or kinkytimes. Never mind the necessity to weed out the creeps and abusive assholes from the group of people who would potentially be a match otherwise.
But hey, don’t just take my word for it. I’ve recently listened to an older podcast that was looking at online dating from an economic perspective. It’s guests explained how being in a ‘thick market’ for dating (that is, a situation where there are lots of theoretical matches) means more options altogether but also requires more screening to find “the right one.” Whereas being in a ‘thin market’ (that is, a situation where there are very few theoretical matches to begin with) means you should probably be less picky. And while it’s true that online dating platforms make it much easier for members of ‘thin markets’ (examples given in the podcast were gay or lesbian people, Jewish people in the U.S. looking for a Jewish partner, or people with “very, very specific sexual preferences”) to find a match at all, that doesn’t change the fact that we genuinely do have a much, much smaller number of theoretical matches to choose from than the average straight, vanilla(ish) person in their 20s or 30s. So I highly doubt that just because it’s online “it’s enormously easy to match on very, very specific sexual preferences” (as one podcast guest claims). Compared to finding a match for highly specific kinks offline and outside of the BDSM community, perhaps. But certainly not compared to finding an online match as a straight, vanilla(ish) person. Especially — as I said above — if we belong to more than one minority category that’s relevant in the dating world (e.g. as a kinky, nonbinary transfeminine person of color over 40 with a chronic illness who is living in a fairly small town).
And I want us to have room to occasionally express our frustration with that reality and perhaps roll our eyes a little bit about people whose biggest problem seems to be that they have too many offers and now need to filter for the ones that aren’t crap. I mean, I am extremely grateful that I’ve so far been spared most of the harassment that seems to arrive in large amounts in the inbox and mentions of everyone else who isn’t a cis man these days. But sometimes I still wish I’d at least get crappy offers instead of almost none at all. (No, this is not an invitation to send me crappy messages.) To give you some numbers: In the past six years, during which I’ve been very active in the BDSM community and went to many, many munches, playparties, and other kink events, I’ve gotten offers for kink/sex from about 20-25 people altogether, both online and in person. And I’m being very generous in counting something as an ‘offer’ here, which means, I’ve included all the random messages of people who clearly didn’t read a single word of my FetLife profile (not all of whom were cis dudes, by the way). Every one of the very few messages I’ve ever gotten on a dating platform has either been strictly friends-only, or (once) a drunk ‘mistake.’ Every other flirty contact, whether it ultimately resulted in play/sex or not, was originally initiated by me (which is ironic, given the fact that one of my kinks is not initiating things). On bad days, this makes me feel like I’m horribly undesirable and far too weird in my erotic tastes to ever find someone who actually wants me as I am, let alone for more than a one-off scene. Even though I know (and my repeat play partners tell me) that this is objectively nonsense. In reality, I’m fucking awesome; I’m just suffering from an extremely ‘thin’ market.
Nevertheless, let’s go back to hypotheticals and say we have indeed found that one match. One ‘fish’ should be enough, right? Let’s not be greedy here. (Then again, why on earth not?) So you try really really hard to make it work with that one fish.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! There’s nothing wrong with investing some time and effort into calibrating communication styles to find common ground. There’s nothing wrong with adjusting one’s own expectations to something a real-life human being can realistically fulfill. There’s nothing wrong with compromising on some things. There’s nothing wrong with realizing that no one person can fulfill our every social, sexual, and kinky need (yes, that’s true even for the monogamous folks).
However, such real, measurable scarcity of potential partners can also reinforce our tendencies to keep trying to make things work that just never will, to keep thinking “we can fix this” against all evidence to the contrary, to keep enduring things that make us feel awful. It can make us accept behaviors and incompatibilities we’d otherwise find unacceptable because we can’t stop wondering if there’ll ever be a next time, a next one at all. Never mind someone who would be an actual good match for us.
It can even create a situation where it becomes even harder to escape an (emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically) abusive partner. Especially when the other person has a lot less structural power/privilege and/or individual ability that would enable them to a) recognize the abuse in the first place and b) get out. Yes, I’ve been there. Yes, that experience has made me even more picky than I used to be, especially when it comes to romantic partners or D/S dynamics that aren’t entirely scene-based.
And still: The puddle is real. And the desire to find a match nonetheless is also real. Megan Stories has expressed it like this:
“And, I am heartsick. For eleven years, I have wanted this thing. I couldn’t have put a name to it at first, but what I’d call it now is abundance. I want sex and play, and the particular kind of emotional connection that comes with them, and I want enough. Enough that there is time and space to learn and explore and grow and try things and make mistakes. To meander into different corners of my desire. To surprise myself by liking things I didn’t expect. To watch my edges shift, to move with them. To have kinds of play that feel comfortable and easy, and others that challenge me. To do things wrong and learn to pick up the pieces.
By and large, I haven’t had this. And today, I am filled with sadness for the things I haven’t done and for the ways I feel alone now.
Someone asked me recently if there was ‘anyone special’ in my life. I answered that there were many—the housemates I live with, friends near and far, but as for ‘special’ in the romantic way, no. ‘And you’re okay with that?’ she asked, sort of marveling at it. And the truth is I’m not, really. It’s not what I’d choose for myself if I had the choice. And the other truth is that I am. It is what it is, and I’m proud of choosing to be alone rather than accepting partners (romantic, sexual, play, etc.) who are wrong for me.
But it hurts. It hurts to lack some fundamental kinds of intimacy. It hurts because I am someone to whom desire and intimacy matter deeply, and there are parts of myself that I can’t fully access alone.”
And boy, does this resonate with me these days. Not all of the specifics, but the general sense of wishing for abundance in a situation where there’s anything but that. The sense of wishing even just for ‘enough,’ knowing that that’s probably still too much to ask for.
And then I see yet another instance of people advising each other to “just dump them!” over minor misunderstandings or differences of opinion or taste. And I think that I probably wouldn’t have had a single relationship (erotic, kinky, and/or romantic) in my entire life if I had been that picky and unforgiving with my partners. Because “just dump them!” becomes a lot more difficult than it is for everyone else already if you know with absolute certainty that there aren’t plenty of other fish in that puddle just waiting for you to become available again. And that, if you end this not-quite-satisfying situation, you’re very likely facing an ocean of absence, and not just for a while.
I don’t have a solution for this. I don’t think there is one, beyond accepting the dating puddle and occasionally making some time to grieve the absence of abundance. This post is a part of that.
(So please, keep the dating advice and everything along the lines of “I’m sure you’ll find someone someday!” to yourself today, okay? Other comments are welcome, as always.)
 ⇑ These descriptions may sound like exaggerations to some. But while I don’t personally know anyone with this particular combination of marginalization characteristics, I definitely do know multiple people with a similar number of deviations from the straight, white, cis, vanilla(ish), thin, non-disabled, young, middle-class, and living-in-a-big-city norm.
 ⇑ Which is not to say that there aren’t also many, many cases where I wonder why people are still writing letters to advice columnists or posting on Reddit and haven’t run away screaming three years ago. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Which is also not to say that I myself shouldn’t have run away screaming much earlier than I did in a few cases.
This is a post for the Kinktober prompt “too little / too much.”
Image source: Flickr / Alan Stanton, CC BY-SA 2.0, cropped by me