Dear Dr. NerdLove,
So, I’m a 34 year old lesbian in a somewhat unusual situation. I’ve been happily married to my wife for the last five years; however, she’s asexual. Fortunately, we’re poly, and so she’s encouraged me to find sexual fulfillment outside of our relationship. Unfortunately, it turns out this is much easier said than done.
In the past few months, I have swiped through every profile in my area on no less than three major dating apps (Tinder, OKC, and HER, if you’re wondering) with no luck. I don’t frequently get matches, and on the occasion that someone does match with me, the conversation goes dead pretty quickly, no matter how hard I try. I should also note that I live in one of the top five most populous cities in the US, so it’s not for having a small dating pool! At this point, I’m more perplexed about why this might be happening, and if there’s anything to do be done about it.
In my opinion, I’m pretty average looking, but I make up for it by doing my best to be really interesting (professionally, I’m a researcher trying to figure out better ways of detecting life on other planets, and in my spare time I’m a burlesque dancer, singer and a professionally published science fiction author). I’m trans, but I don’t explicitly reveal that on my dating profiles (my theory being you should at least take me on a first date before being privy to that information; plus, in any case, I’m post-op anyway).
Is my situation just that convoluted that most queer women aren’t going to be interested? Am I more visibly trans than I realized, and that’s what’s turning people off? Do I need to lower my standards even lower? Or is this the sort of thing that sapphic women on dating apps just kind of experience in general, and it has nothing to do with me personally?
Any and all advice is appreciated!
Just Trying To Get Laid
This is one of those questions where there just aren’t any good answers. Not because you’re particularly fucked, JTTGL, but because… well, ultimately this would require my being able to read the minds of literally everyone who’s seen your profile. Which means that, unfortunately, what I can offer you is advice on how to start trying to diagnose your problem, rather than being able to provide you with an answer.
Now my standard disclaimer for situations like yours is that I’m a cis-gendered, heterosexual man; there are likely angles or nuances to your situation that I am likely to miss or not even realize are there in the first place. So not only do I recommend taking my advice with suitable amounts of salt, but I invite my female readers who sleep with women to share their advice or suggestions, especially those who’ve dealt with similar issues.
So with that in mind, let’s roll it from the top.
The first thing I always, always recommend to folks who struggle with dating apps is to make sure you’re on the right apps. Every app has a different vibe and caters to a different audience. OKCupid, once the scrappy young upstart, is the 500 lb gorilla; it’s worth being on there because pretty much everyone is on there, and it caters to the widest audience. Because OKC goes out of its way to provide options for folks who are LGBTQ, folks who are polyamorous, and so on, it’s got something of an anything-goes vibe to it. Tinder, on the other hand, has never fully escaped its hook-up app origins; that plus it’s swipe mechanics tend to prioritize photos over everything else, which means that you tend to get more folks who will never look past your photos. Bumble and Hinge tend to be lower key and more tuned towards folks who are looking for something a bit more committed and Plenty of Fish… exists.
One of the things that may be useful to you, specifically JTTGL, is to look towards apps that specifically cater not just to women who love women but to apps that cater to folks in open and polyamorous relationships. Ones like Feeld and #Open — both of which focus on non-monogamous relationships — may have a user base that’s more conducive to what you’re looking for.
The next thing I suggest is to make sure that your photos are on point. As frustrating as it can be, photos will tank interest in your profile before they can learn how awesome you are. And you’ve got a lot of awesomeness to share! However, especially as more and more apps move to the swipe-based mechanics that Tinder popularized, people tend to make a lot of gut reactions based off that first photo or couple of photos, before moving on to read the profile. That means you want to make sure that your first couple photos are ready to catch people’s attention and draw them in. This means you want to make sure that the first couple pictures of you are your best photos and — importantly — just you. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve seen group shots as the first photo on a profile, or even the first couple photos. Trust me, nobody wants to play “Where’s Waldo” or “Spot The Difference” to try to figure out whose profile they’re looking at.
Now, you mention you’re average looking and you make up for it by being interesting. While that’s an excellent philosophy and one I recommend — being fun and interesting is more attractive in the long run than just looks after all — that doesn’t work as well off the bat on dating apps. That may mean that your photos aren’t the best; a lot of folks I know across the gender and sexuality spectrum tend to fall into this. As a result, folks never find out how awesome they are because they didn’t present their best self in their pics.
That having being said, don’t write off your looks, especially in your pictures. One of the things people continually under estimate is how much lighting, angle, makeup and even the choice of lens can affect how you look in photos.
I would recommend taking new pictures specifically for your profile, where you would be done up as you would be for a date: so an outfit you would conceivably wear on that first date, makeup (if you wear it) and grooming like you’re about to meet your dream date, etc. There are a number of photographers out there who specialize in photos for apps — both portraits but also “candids” that help show you at your most charismatic and interesting. That might well be something worth pursuing. If you aren’t in a position to try that, you can try doing some photos on your own. If you go that route, I would recommend that for your first couple pics, you want to make sure that you have a low f-stop so that you get that nifty shallow depth of field that will help you pop. If you’re going to go the selfie route — or your partner is going to help you out, then consider the lighting; a ring light is helpful here, but you can still get great results just from facing a window that gets plenty of sun. This will help give you nice, even, lighting that will show you off to best effect. Beware overhead lighting and especially overhead fluorescent lighting; that shit will bring out every single pore, blemish, and shadow possible and will make even Ryan Gosling or Lupita Nyong’o look like a bridge troll.
The third thing I would suggest is have a friend whose judgement and taste you trust go over your profile. Sometimes part of the problem is that things you think work may, in fact, be turning people off. Part of the problem, of course, is that this can be so personal to everyone that it’s really difficult to pin down. However, one way you can address this is to do a little A/B testing; have your profile written one way for a month or two, then try it again another way and see what results you get. One of the benefits to this approach is that it keeps you active on the app, which gives you a bit of an algorithmic boost; the apps want people who are active on their service and so fine-tuning your profile helps make sure more people see it.
The fourth thing I tell people is that the goal of messaging someone on an app is ultimately to get off the app. That doesn’t mean to push for meeting up in person ASAP (though I recommend this); it means moving the conversation off the app and either to a messenger app like WhatsApp or to texting. The longer you’re messaging over the app, the greater the odds that the conversation is going to die off. Not only does staying on the app increase the likelihood that your message may get lost in the churn of other folks messaging your matches, but moving off the app implies a greater level of interest. It’s a small thing, but a significant one. It doesn’t magically change people’s minds and make them decide that they want to date you, but it does mean that you’re much more interested in meeting up.
If your conversations are dying on the vine fairly quickly, then the odds are that either you’re not having great conversations, or there’s something you’re saying that’s pushing people off. One thing I see fairly often with folks who struggle with messaging folks on dating apps is that the conversation is… fairly dry. “hey, what’re you up to?” “NM, u” and so on. I recommend not just asking questions, but interesting questions, ones that lead to interesting conversations. I’m always a fan of asking about stuff that people have positive associations with — vacations, bookshelves, childhood ambitions — that also get to the heart of who people are. You can also have generalized fun with some of them. “If we were to rob a museum, what would you go for first?” These can also lead to some low-key flirting if you play your cards right.
Now I do recommend meeting in person sooner rather than later — again, this helps keep the momentum going. My personal choice would be to propose a pre-date date — a 15 minute meet-up for coffee or ice cream or something at a venue of their choice, to gauge whether you have chemistry in person as well as online. This has the benefit of being a relatively lift; it’s a low investment of time with a hard cut-off. If things go well, then great! If not… well, you’re out 15 minutes and the price of a cup of coffee or a cone. And also you have coffee or ice cream. Win/win.
With the more broadly applicable stuff out of the way, let’s talk about a few things that are more specific to you and how this may be affecting things. Part of the issue could well be that you have a more restrictive dating pool. As a woman who dates other women, you’re in a smaller general pool than straight or bi/pan women. That is likewise further filtered by the fact that you’re in a non-monogamous relationship. That’s going to cut down on the number of potentials out there. There’re a lot of folks across the sexuality spectrum for whom that’s just going to be a no-go — either because they don’t do non-monogamy themselves, or because they aren’t interested in starting an ethically non-monogamous relationship with someone who’s already partnered — especially if they already have a primary/nesting-partner/spouse.
(Yes, I realize that seems absurd, but it’s a thing; there are lots of ethically non-monogamous folks who refuse to date people who are married, for a multitude of reasons.)
In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you don’t want to date folks who aren’t cool with your relationship and relationship style. It just means that, unless you’re willing to fake being single (… and please don’t), you’re going to have a smaller pool of potentials, which is going to slow down the process. This is why checking out Open or Feeld may help.
With that in mind, one thing that jumped out at me is the dichotomy between how you label your relationship (poly) vs. your sign-off. You mention you’re just looking to get laid; if you’re listing or describing yourself as polyamorous, that might be an issue. While the terms poly or polyamorous and open are often used interchangeably, for a lot of folks there’s a pretty significant difference, especially if they’re already in the ENM community. Polyamorous would imply that you’re open to a potentially romantic or committed relationship, while open tends to imply that you’re more interested in a sexual connection, rather than a romantic one. If your profile suggests one but your messaging suggests the other, that disconnect could be what turns folks off. Similarly, if you say you’re poly but you’re mostly just looking for sex, then people who see your profile may think you’re looking for something you’re not; as a result, you may be missing folks who are interested in what you have to offer, but think that you’re not looking for them.
As for whether or not people are swiping left because you may or may not be as femme-presenting as some would prefer… that, unfortunately, is one of those situations where shit’s mixed. On the one hand, the last thing you want is to be dating someone who is going to have issues with your being trans — and there’re a lot of shitty folks right now who are actively TERFs or transphobic. Their swiping left is a gift to you; they aren’t inflicting their shittiness on you and you aren’t wasting the gift of your awesomeness on them. On the other… it still hurts. And, again, figuring that part would necessitate being able to read their minds. It’s easy to make assumptions about why folks are passing on you — especially if those assumptions tie into worries or insecurities you may already have — but the truth is that most of the time there’s no way to know. I’m of a mind that you should take the pictures that make you feel like you’re ten pounds of sexy goodness in a five pound sack, and worry less about how other folks see it. But again: cis hetero dude here, which means I don’t have your experiences nor do I face the same risks, so all the necessary salt with said advice.
There’s also what I tell everyone: use dating apps as a supplement to how you meet people, not the only way. Even in the 21st century, we still mostly meet our partners — sexual or romantic — in person, and usually through mutual interests or friends. One of the drawbacks to apps is that they rarely leave room for serendipity; we often meet people who we might not vibe with if we saw them on Tinder, but who we REALLY dig in the flesh. And while I know that a lot of — possibly even most — LGBTQ dating starts on the apps (especially as lesbian bars disappear), there’s still a lot to be said for the in-person meet-cute. Especially if you’re having a hard time connecting via text.
The last thing I would say is that dating is and always will be a numbers game; there will be more people you don’t match with than ones you do. That’s not a flaw in you — or anyone else; that’s just about compatibility and meshing properly with folks. While it can be frustrating, especially if you’re not getting results that you want, it’s important to remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking it personally, especially when so often it isn’t personal, gets demoralizing fast. But take some time polishing your pics and fine tuning your profile and you’ll not only cut the frustration factor immensely, but you’ll make it that much easier to find your sexy match… and to help them find you.