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Tinder isn't swiping out romance: Why reports of the dating apocalypse may be greatly exaggerated

I'm a Tinder dater, and I don't recognize the bleak portrait painted by the recent Vanity Fair article at all


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Maggie MK Hess
August 14, 2015 7:54PM (UTC)

It’s a warm night in Seattle. I’m sitting on my couch, flipping through Tinder. I screenshot a picture of a man whose profile says, “I’d like to meet a cool gal that’s a little bit country, a little bit rock n roll, a little bit high maintenance, a little bit gangsta, a little bit comedian, a lot of nerd, a soft voice, nice butt, down to be girly but still do badass stuff involving the outdoors every now and then.”

The profile is annoying, overly prescriptive. I’m not going to apply to be his girlfriend. I keep swiping.

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Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” by Nancy Jo Sales, from Vanity Fair’s September magazine, opens with three investment bankers swiping left and right on Tinder in a bar in a fruit fly-like desperation to mate immediately. The article advances the idea that Tinder is ruining relationships, intimacy, and possibly all of humanity—because if no one’s looking for love, then eventually we’ll all stop having babies and the human race will go the way of the dodo.

I’ve been online dating for seven months. In that time, I’ve been on 19 first dates; all but two I met online. None of those dates acted as if online dating allows you to order a person for sex the same way you order takeout—something that Dan, one of the twentysomething investment bankers in Vanity Fair’s article, claims.

It’s very strange to sit up in bed on a random Saturday morning and read an article so completely at odds with your own experience.

I text the article to my childhood best friend, who just moved to New York and dates on Tinder. “It reads like an old person’s fantasy of Tinder,” she immediately writes back.

I don’t know if Sales went looking for them or just happened upon them, but she interviewed aspiring Tucker Maxes who treat women as scorecards. “Something about the whole scenario seems to bother him, despite all his mild-mannered bravado,” Sales writes about Alex, the one who claims he slept with five women in eight days.

I think he’s lying through his teeth.

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Back in 2007, The New York Times ran an article titled “The Myth, The Math, the Sex.” In it, reporter Gina Kolata unpacks the substantial difference between the average number of partners that men report and women report (seven for men, four for women, according to a U.S. study; and 12.7 for men and 6.5 for women, according to a UK study). The math doesn’t work out. Every time a heterosexual male has sex with a heterosexual female, that female also has sex. The numbers must be roughly equal.

In possibly my favorite scientific explanation ever offered for anything, Dr. Graham from the University of California, San Diego, explains all those extra women by saying, “Some might be imaginary. Maybe two are in the man’s mind and one really exists.”

Wednesday, I run into Christopher at a Seattle Reign game. He and I met on Tinder last month. He’s 27 and has been on Tinder ever since the end of a two-and-a-half-year relationship with a woman he met on OkCupid. I ask him what he thinks about the Vanity Fair article. “I couldn’t finish reading it,” he says.

I send it to him anyway and he dutifully digs in. “This is so fucking brutal,” he says. “Next-level cringe.”

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***

My first date on Tinder is arranged haphazardly on a Friday night. I message James complimenting him on his pictures. He messages me back asking if I wanted to meet up for a drink right then. Within an hour, we are at a bar near my house.

We have a drink. We talk about our careers, our artistic side projects, our families. We debate the differences between Los Angeles and Seattle and the merits of Steven Spielberg and Robert Frost.

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Holding my hand, he swings me around and kisses me under a streetlight. When we reach a corner near my house, I tell him I’m going to split off there. I’m cautious about the dangers of meeting people online, of not knowing who they are or having any context for who they claim to be. He kisses me—one, twice, three times—and says good night while I’m still leaning toward him.

Maybe he was trying to get into my pants. By not trying to get into my pants.

***

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People are definitely looking for sex online (and good for them, I say—one of the most unsettling things about “The Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” is its creeping sex negative stance, despite its proclaimed progressiveness). People have been looking for sex online since the Internet was created.

As one guy’s overly honest profile puts it, “Not here expecting a hook up. Having said that, if it’s on the docket at some point, it will probably not be turned down. My friends are mostly married so I’ve become pretty close with my dog.”

I imagine that the first telegram was an urgent plea for a hookup. “COME OVER -(STOP)- DO NOT WEAR GIRDLE -(STOP)- WILL WAIT THREE YEARS NO MORE -(STOP)- MAYBE FOUR”

But the questions remain: Is sex the only thing you can find online? Is Tinder ruining dating? Are Millennials ruining intimacy? Are we all doomed to die alone? Will the human species be wiped out because of an app that invites you to swipe left or right?

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Not to ruin the suspense, but the answer is no. Tinder hasn't ruined dating, just like airplanes didn't ruin the journey. Fewer people die of dysentery on the Oregon Trail now; more people travel to Oregon. Humans are still humans. Technology may change the way we interact with the world, but it's not the death toll of anything.

“It's a faulty burrito,” says Ryan Hagen, 32, a doctoral student in sociology at Columbia University, of the Vanity Fair article. “Full of spicy local color about Internet-enabled womanizers, but wrapped in the flakiest tortilla of pop sociology. It just disintegrates in your hands.”

He says the silliest thing about the Vanity Fair article is the theory that Internet dating is the second most consequential change in human mating behavior since the advent of agriculture. Other inventions that have transformed our sex lives as radically (or more so): mass urbanization in the 19th century, the entry of women into the labor force in the 20th, the invention of birth control.

“If you're looking for how non-revolutionary Tinder is, look at the list of sexual conquests Alex rattles off at the head of the piece,” Hagen says. (All Alex knows about the 5 women from last week are where they work: “works at J. Crew; senior at Parsons; junior at Pace; works in finance...”)

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“In other words, exactly the same kinds of women that finance bros were preying on in the ’80s and ’90s and forever, only without the benefit of this digital infrastructure,” Hagen argues. “Do we think that without Tinder, Alex and company would be camped out at Lilith Fair? Would they be model boyfriends pursuing elaborate and sensitive courtship rituals with 21st century women trying to make it and have fun in New York? Or would they be little Pete Campbells instead?”

Hagen, by the way, met his wife on OkCupid.

I use Tinder for the same reasons many people do: it’s entertaining, the profile’s quick to set up, it closely mimics the “bar” experience.

As Aziz Ansari says, “Maybe it sounds shallow. But consider this: In the case of my girlfriend, I initially saw her face somewhere and approached her. I didn’t have an in-depth profile to peruse or a fancy algorithm. I just had her face, and we started talking and it worked out. Is that experience so different from swiping on Tinder?”

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I’m not here to promote one app or site over the other. Tinder’s Twitter meltdown in response to the article is a lesson in “what not to do in crisis communications.” Lesson one: Don’t respond. Lesson two: Don’t respond on social media. Lesson three: Definitely don’t respond on social media late at night if it might seem like you’re been drinking. Lesson four: If any response is too much, then 30 tweets is a tantrum. Lesson five: Strive not to sound like a rejected middle schooler.

***

I meet Tom for tacos at a little shop on Broadway. It’s my third date in four days. I’m tired of small talk. I don’t expect to enjoy myself. He didn’t have anything written in his profile. I swiped right because we had mutual friends and one of them told me that he was funny and plays cool jazz music.

He’s got a scruffy beard and wild hair. I talk about doing yoga at work, and how it feels awkward to stick your butt in your co-worker’s face. I comfort myself with the fact that if my boss is doing it, it’s definitely okay for me to be doing it. I mention that I’m planning to ask for the day off soon.

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He suggests that I ask by sliding under my boss while she’s doing cat/cow—maybe on a flat scooter, like the kind used in auto body shops.

I laugh so hard I snort salsa up my nose and cry.

We go out for a second date and then he texts me saying he doesn’t think we’re a good fit. I go to his band’s show a few weeks later. He gives me a giant hug. “It means so much to me that you came!” he says. I invite him to my birthday party. I go to his CD release party. We’re friends.

Men and women are more than real life sex dolls.

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***

I’m 29, female, and straight. According to society, I’m online dating to find a husband, or at least a guy willing to knock me up in the next three months so I can have a baby within the year. Or—because I’m on Tinder, not one of the more “serious” online dating apps—I’m just there to “hook up.”

Neither of those stereotypes allows for the vast gray area of what a person might be “looking for,” online or otherwise. And the Vanity Fair article didn’t seem to find a single person in New York who is living in that gray area.

I’m looking for people I like. I don’t know what I want out of any given interaction until I meet (in my case) him. I’m happy to find a new friend. I’m interested in finding someone I like enough to make out with. I’m an adult. My decisions around sex are based on individuals and individual moments in time. I don’t have a rulebook. I have reactions, feelings, desires, connections, and changeable visions of what I am looking for based on whom I find.

Online dating has certainly made it easier to find people. The fact of the matter is, you can swipe through hundreds of people in a night. You can search for someone who “is a dog lover with a Liz Lemon-like personality with a pixie cut, open communicator, has shopped at Sock Dreams or Sock Monster, Seattle Reign fan.” (Sir: I hope you find that woman.)

Online dating, like everything else about the Internet, has increased convenience, multiplied the options, and lowered the barriers.

You can find sex, but that’s not the only thing you can find. There are just too many people who are online dating to present the uniformity of experience that the Vanity Fair article claims.

According to Pew Research Center, “One-in-five adults ages 25 to 34 years old have used online dating” in the U.S. That’s approximately 8.7 million people. Sales says a study in February reported 100 million people total, perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone.

“I feel almost embarrassed saying this after reading that article—but I’m looking for love,” a 33-year-old friend who works at an arts nonprofit told me. “I’m definitely not looking to rack up numbers and message girls cock shots. If I did something like that, I imagine my grandmother rising from the grave and beating my ass with a wooden spoon.”

One of my friends, recently divorced, not looking for anything serious, developed a casual arrangement with a man she met online. They saw each other for over a year, off and on. They were allowed to see other people. They had sex. And they treated each other like human beings.

“The act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable,” Sales writes in the Vanity Fair article.

“When I choose a partner—in this case a casual one—it is not a flippant decision like picking almond over coconut milk for my coffee,” my friend explains. “Just because I am not looking for ‘the one,’ does not mean I'm looking for just anyone. I value my time, and if I am going to spend that time with someone—they better be worth it.”

I ask Carlos, a 29-year-old former co-worker, what he’s looking for. He reels off a list: “I’m looking for a girl who a) I find attractive, not my friends or mom, b) Seems to have a sense of fun and adventure, no wet sandwiches, c) Doesn’t appear to have hang-ups about past relationships, d) Doesn’t seem overbearing with details of her life; I like some mystery, and d) Seems honest and motivated.”

But what about sex? What about the idea that people are gorging, that we’re in a stage of “psychosexual obesity” as Christopher Ryan, co-author of "Sex at Dawn," claims when interviewed by Sales?

“If someone blatantly said they were only looking for sex, I’d tread carefully, if at all,” says Carlos — the same guy who once cheerily explained to me that "bang town" is a term used by men and "bone zone" is slang more commonly heard from women.

***

On Friday, I meet up with Archie. We met on Tinder back in April, dated for a while, lost track of each other. This is the first time we’ve seen each other in two months. We make small talk, hit two different bars, accidentally end up at an outdoor screening of "The Princess Bride."

When the movie ends, he offers a hand to help me stand up and doesn’t let go. We kiss in the park until the sprinklers come on.

I send the Vanity Fair article to him. He texts back, “How long is this article? Reading it is keeping me from sending dick pics and saying really misogynistic things to women online.”

***

Don’t get me wrong; our culture of misogyny is the worst. And the article paints a grim portrait of what it’s like to be between the ages of 19 and 29 and dating in New York, Indiana or Delaware. I just don’t think that’s all that out there; or that Tinder is to blame.

I invite all of the young men and women interviewed in the article to move to Seattle. Or to ask their parents if dating in the ’60s was like Candyland (it was; the acid made it so).

Some people are terrible. Some people are awesome. It’s called being human. And Tinder—or any online dating app—hasn’t caused a dating apocalypse any more than flu season is the zombie apocalypse. At least, not yet.

You have to read signals, and body language. You have to ask people what they mean, what they want, and then see if you like the way they go about getting it.

As far as I know, this is how dating has always worked.

Here are some things people might be looking for online: Sex. Relationships. Restaurant recommendations. A date for a Friday night. Help assembling IKEA furniture. Someone to make them feel less lonely temporarily. True love.


Maggie MK Hess

Maggie MK Hess lives in Seattle. Her writing has appeared on The Washington Post and The Rumpus, among other places. She chronicles her online dating experiences on her blog, Dear Mr. Postman.

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