When I met Brett at the sports bar on a Wednesday night, we were both happy to see that our profiles had been accurate. He was a former fly-fishing guide with an Ivy League degree: broad-chested, blonde, blue-eyed, and bearded. I’m a freckled, green-eyed brunette with the ability to cut superfluous likes out of my sentences, and I’ve been told I have a great rack. For three hours we drank beer and swapped stories of our outdoorsy adventures. We talked about books and places we loved, and when our knees touched we didn’t flinch. Then, he ventured into steamier conversational territory: “Want to know the first thing I thought when you walked in? You’d be the perfect height for shower sex.”
After five beers, I was in a state of constant blushing—from both the alcohol and the lust simmering within me. “I live right around the corner,” he said. “Do you want to go watch a movie?”
I took a deep breath. “Can I be upfront with you?” I asked, placing my hands on his thigh and leaning closer. “Can we take sex off the table tonight?”
He paused, then nodded. “Yeah, of course. That’s probably a good idea for the first date.”
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What I didn’t want to tell him—what I didn’t want to tell anyone I met on Tinder—was that I’m a virgin, with no plans to surrender the v-card anytime soon. In a time when most sexual choices are met with applause and approval, my choice to wait is one that still makes other people uncomfortable. Even in conversations with friends, I rarely go into the reasons behind my decision. And yet, here I was on Tinder, hoping to make a connection, and hoping to save that conversation for later.
Ten days before my date with Brett, all I knew about Tinder was that if you spoke about it, you spoke in hushed tones. That if you admitted to being on it, you were admitting to being horny and looking for an easy lay. And really, could it get much easier?
1) See a picture of someone within your preferred age range and geographic location.
2) If you find him attractive, swipe right. Unattractive, swipe left.
3) If you both swipe right, you get a match notification and you’re able to chat inside the app.
I knew only two friends—both straight men—who would admit to using it, and only after some prodding on my end. One regularly had girls over whose names he couldn’t remember, but who readily slept with him at the end of the night. The second said he tried it and the novelty wore off quickly, but it’d be a good way to meet people in a new city.
And then the 2014 Winter Olympics began, and U.S. snowboarder Jamie Anderson revealed to the world that Tinder had made the age-old tradition of super-hot-international-athlete-sex much more efficient. On Valentine’s Day, NPR ran a story about Tinder, citing Anderson’s comments on its popularity in Sochi. Two days after that my friend Britany texted me and told me that, after hearing the NPR story, she’d downloaded it. She said, “It’s like playing Candy Crush, except the candy is for my eyes!”
So I downloaded it too.
Britany was right—the gamelike feel of the app was entrancing. For the first few minutes I felt shallow, judging these men solely on the way they presented themselves on my 2x3-inch screen. But it’s essentially brand management, right? Here we are marketing ourselves and hoping someone is intrigued enough to buy in and swipe right. And every time the screen paused, darkened, and proclaimed, It’s a Match! a tingle would start behind my ears and travel down my spine. Okay, I’d think. If we were in a crowded room together we’d both be checking each other out.
The plan had been to move from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., at the same time as my boyfriend, a Marine who was going to report to The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, in October 2012. We had been friends for years and a couple for 18 months; I was certain we were going to get married. I had put my own plans to move to D.C. on hold when we had started dating, so now that the opportunity presented itself, why wouldn’t we go east at the same time? Then, the day after I accepted a job offer, he sat me down. “I don’t want to marry you,” he said, “so I don’t think we should date any more.”
Eleven days later I arrived in D.C. with five suitcases and a broken heart. I went about making a life from scratch—some friends here, a hobby there, a new wardrobe sprinkled on top. After six months, I thought maybe online dating could help me get all the way over him. He had been my only boyfriend, the only guy who’d ever confessed romantic feelings for me, the only one I’d ever been on dates with. I just needed practice, I thought, so I bought a six-month subscription to a lesser-known site that promised to get you offline and on dates. But after three weeks, one melodramatic-clinger-on, countless creepy messages, and one really boring date, I went on a crying jag, canceled my account, and let the website keep my sixty dollars.
By the following autumn I was completely at home in D.C., confident in my job, smitten with my grad program, and content in my single life. “I don’t have time to date,” I’d tell people. “And besides, D.C. doesn’t even attract my kind of guy. I’m just going to finish up this master’s, move back to Colorado, and find a bearded mountain man to settle down with.”
I believed it—in bars, on the street, at friends’ parties, I never saw anyone I considered my type. It seemed like the Hill was swarming with scrawny, short men who never changed out of their suits and had never used their hands for anything other than typing, networking, and holding Jack-and-Cokes. At five-foot-ten, I wanted someone who would make me feel tiny, who knew how to build a fire, who would take me to bluegrass concerts, let me cook fancy meals for him, read books we could talk about, and never utter the phrase “I work for a member.”
So when I got on Tinder and set my preferred area to a ten-mile radius, I was pleasantly surprised to come face-to-screen with a bunch of bearded men wearing flannel, making good jokes in their bios, and liking the same bands I did. But even more entertaining were all the left-swipes. Every night before bed I’d open Tinder and send my friends screenshots of men holding up fish and deer they’d killed, men who only had pictures of their bulging underwear, men petting exotic animals, men looking for girls to smoke weed with, and the one guy in a Dora the Explorer party hat whose bio read, “Medium-small penis, extra-large personality.”
One night, one of my matches sent me a message asking how my evening was going. I replied, “Good, just drinking some tea while I read.”
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He wrote back, “Awesome, I love England. Wanna make out?”
I laughed out loud at this, my first overt proposition, and typed back, “Well, that escalated quickly.”
“This is Tinder,” he said. “What did you expect?”
It was a fair question. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want a boyfriend. What I wanted was a casual date or two, with no expectations and no angst. I wanted a cute, witty guy to affirm that I too was cute and witty. And maybe there was a part of me that wanted to toe the line. To see if any man thought I was worth spending time with, without the promise of getting some. To declare a man an asshole if he cut things off after learning the truth. I think, after getting blindsided by a break-up, I wanted to feel in control.
* * *
I never heard from the fly-fisher again. When I complained to one of the aforementioned guys I knew who used Tinder, he told me, “Look, if he isn’t talking, then it’s probably the sex thing. I warned you of that when you started using Tinder. It’s a hook-up app.”
Well, the efficiency of Tinder makes it easy to get back on the proverbial horse. Surely, I convinced myself, it just can’t be that every single Tinderer is only looking to get laid. By this point, I had about seventy matches queued up in the app. Should I really just flush away all that opportunity? And even better, I was starting to see the effects of what Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, referred to as the “abundance mentality.” That’s the idea that there are plenty of good things in the world to go around—for example, just because my friend got an awesome job doesn’t mean that I can’t also get an awesome job. And just because I went on one good date with an attractive man doesn’t mean I can’t go on another.
Rather than learning about the abundance mentality from Covey, I first heard about it from a book my well-meaning dad sent to my Kindle. He said it was the cheapest/best-selling dating book in the Kindle store, and if it was stupid I could ignore it, but maybe it’d be useful. I read it on an airplane, and it was shallow, even sexist in places. In one of the less offensive sections, the author invited me to spend some time meditating on a quarter—what it looks like, feels like, smells like. He posited that now I would start finding quarters everywhere. Was it because thinking about them had willed them into existence, or had meditating on them made me more likely to notice them in the world? What does it matter, he asked, as long as you get the quarters? The application, of course, was to spend time meditating on my perfect man so that I’d be more apt to notice him in the real world. That’s stupid, I thought, summarily deleting the book from my device.
But a few weeks into my Tinder habit I started wondering if all that swiping had been my quarters exercise. I noticed attractive men everywhere—on the Metro, at the grocery store, walking dogs in my neighborhood. After holding the communion chalice in church one Sunday, I had to confess to a friend that for every man who approached the cup I had mentally assigned him a right or left swipe. At the Air & Space Museum with another friend, we saw a man with thick brown hair and hipster glasses, who was easily a foot taller than me. My friend and I grabbed each other and squealed, “Swipe right!”
And then, one night during my bedtime Tinder ritual, a familiar picture popped up. I recognized him immediately as the cute waiter who used to banter with my friends and me during early week-day breakfasts at a neighborhood diner. I swiped right. It’s a match!
Three days later we went on the first of what would turn out to be many dates, walking all over Capitol Hill for hours. As the flirting intensified, I felt a gnawing guilt about my standard nondisclosure procedure. I sighed and broke the v-card news. “If it’s a deal-breaker,” I said, “I won’t think less of you.”
“It doesn’t bother me,” he replied with a shrug. “I’ve had sex. Is that a deal-breaker for you?”
I laughed, surprised and relieved that he would regard my choice with just as much respect as I did his. “No,” I told him. “But congratulations on finding the only virgin on Tinder.”
He smiled. “Isn’t it weird?” he said. “Sometimes you have to look in the dirtiest places to find gold.”
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It was only a matter of weeks before I realized his feelings for me were stronger than mine would ever be for him. So I broke things off—for the first time ever, I had that sense of control I’d wanted. And it kind of felt like shit.
I kept swiping for another three or four months, going on multiple dates with multiple men. The v-card conversation never came up again, but that didn’t keep some of the guys from dropping off the radar without notice.
During the great Virgin on Tinder Experiment, and in the months since, I did find some of the things I was looking for. I found that there are attractive men who enjoy spending time with me. I found that I am a delightful date, and that maybe the v-card isn’t the dealbreaker I assumed it would be. I found what it feels like to hurt someone. I found that sometimes, I’d rather devote my free time to strengthening the relationships I already have, instead of trying to start a new one. I found that my hope for finding a partner is unshakable.
Maybe I haven’t found love, but I have found abundance.