Does digital dating put women at an evolutionary disadvantage?

Experts consider the case for going analog to avoid left-swiping yourself into insanity

Published April 2, 2017 10:30PM (EDT)


When you factor in the expense of going out, meeting potential sex or relationship partners at bars or other social events, buying drinks or eats, and closing the deal, it’s no surprise a man would want to streamline the dating, mating and relating process to maximize his ROI. The explosion of the digital dating app market has allowed him to do just that. As one Tinder match who shall remain nameless recently wrote to me: “I’m here mostly to make my sex life more convenient. Advantages are being able to talk to multiple candidates at once, not waste too much time, money, and energy.”

But is one man’s convenience a woman’s sacrifice? The answer is probably yes.

As my dear friend Louann Brizendine, a UCSF neuroscientist and New York Times Bestselling Author of “The Female Brain” and “The Male Brain,” told me almost 10 years ago during the era: Digital dating puts women at an evolutionary disadvantage. When Louann and I recently reconnected, she said she still believes this is true — if not worsening as society becomes more technology dependent. In the absence of IRL interaction, the anthropological cues that help women determine the safety and desirability of a potential partner are eliminated. Eye contact, smell, vocal intonation, physical demeanor and proximity. Without them, a woman is reduced to physical appearance and willingness to copulate. Or at least send some risqué Snapchats for a little Joaquin Phoenix-style “Her” action.

It’s an interesting conundrum for a variety of reasons that cross biology and gender roles, sexual orientation, generational shifts and social structure.

While many would take legitimate issue with ideas around gendered evolutionary advantages, much of societal function has been shaped by them and reinforced. Thus, for straight people, the prevalence of app-based dating has created an environment where the already shallow, once-physical bar for connection has been both digitized and lowered, breeding ample dissatisfaction beyond the casual sex marketplace. Potential serious partners with similar relational goals struggle to find each other and exert significant emotional capital weeding through surface-level options. The result is that lots of men are scoring, while women are losing.

This scenario is further complicated when you step back and examine the evolution of the dating app market and the broader offline trends shaping its growth. The market was not born of straight culture. Dating apps were introduced by gay men through Grindr, which was designed for transactional hookups and relied primarily on location data. As similar straight-facing products, such as Tinder and Hinge, came to market, they disrupted desktop dating stalwarts like eHarmony. Both straight and queer women got some skin in the game initiating female-centric brands such as Bumble, The League and HER. Yet all of these apps were developed within the context of Silicon Valley’s super straight bro culture — a culture that is systematically erasing female needs from user experience.

“It’s not an intentional decision, but you think about what works well for you,” says Robyn Exton, founder of the queer women’s dating app HER. “Many of the apps model male user behavior, and the products they start lean into an experience that performs slightly better for men. Then, they optimize the business around men’s experience.”

Exton says that within just six months of launching her company, it was clear that the technology that worked for Grindr was not going to be a functional option for women.

“The way men and women date is so different,” she says, noting that HER users take an average of seven days to meet up. “Guys come in looking for the outcome they want and they take the steps to get there. Women have multiple desired outcomes, especially in the queer community. They’re looking first for friendship, and it would be great if there’s an attraction. It’s not as clear to them what they’re looking for, and it’s much more about browsing and absorbing each other’s behavior.”

Sites for both straight and queer women tend to focus more on the profile and cultivating a sense of genuine humanity to pair with all the photos. This is also true of some male-founded apps, like Hinge, which redesigned its user interface and rebranded as “the relationship app.”

“The next big frontier will be about personality and identity,” Exton says, adding that this forthcoming technology iteration will impact all dating apps because 50 percent of the younger generation don’t identify as straight. “We’re thinking about improving the profile with a heavy focus on good UX. So far we’ve really only seen apps trying to integrate social channels. That’s not right. We need to think about, ‘What shows my character and is representative of me?’ Gay guys may have started this market, but perhaps some queer non-binaries can wrap it up.”

These forward-thinking tech entrepreneurs may successfully build a more robust dating app experience eventually, but it’s still virtually impossible to account for the gap in physical presence against which Dr. Brizendine has cautioned women to be wary. While the programmers code away, it’s probably a good idea for actively dating women to get their online connections to an offline scenario as soon as it’s comfortably possible.

“I encourage my clients to think of it as ‘online meeting’ not ‘online dating,’” says digital dating expert Laurie Davis, founder of the company eFlirt. “It is the opportunity to create a connection to make a date. If you can get to a date, then you can still have the advantages of in-person communication.”

Apps aren’t necessarily a bad thing for women, Davis says, because they generate leads and offer some indicators of compatibility that meeting offline does not. You might, for example, know you both once lived in Philadelphia, prefer dogs, practice Christianity, enjoy reading books, and that smoking pot is a disqualifier. You won’t know, however, if you have chemistry.

“Don’t get too connected before you meet up,” Davis says. “Just like with your job, you have an emotional paycheck. You only have so much to invest, so be wise and ask yourself: ‘Where is the return?’ If you deplete your resources, you won’t have the emotional stamina to continue.”

Endlessly dating different people and getting nowhere changes your mood and your attitude, Davis adds. This can ultimately become very unattractive and self-defeating, forcing women back into the swiping pool with low self-esteem and exacerbating the whole cycle.

In order to successfully establish a lasting relationship, it requires both digital and IRL skills, Davis notes. The breakdown might not be solely the fault of the app interface; it may be because face-to-face interpersonal skills are generally underdeveloped or atrophied because of increased technology use — which often falls along generational lines. Older daters who matured in an analog environment might have trouble embracing or understanding digital skills, whereas younger Swiping Natives might experience crippling anxiety in the flesh. In fact, Davis’ husband, Thomas Edwards, runs a business called The Professional Wingman, where he offers mostly younger men coaching and Fearless Dating classes that help them interact and “meet women in-person, in their everyday lives.”

An in-person encounter with a digital paramour, of course, should only take place after some due diligence. Davis suggests that her clients view their first encounter as a meeting and not a date. In addition to evaluating chemistry, it’s a chance to gather relevant safety information, such as whether a potential partner wants to meet in a well-lit public place, see if his or her story checks out, and confirm that you’re not being catfished by a scammer. Although it’s not an exact science, Davis says that as a point of reference, it’s best to transition from online to offline after three to six longer swapped messages on a desktop-based dating service or 15 to 30 shorter messages on an app. Once a woman is with her potential mate in person, that’s when she can naturally lock eyes, smell the soap, listen for a comforting and sexy voice, and observe situational manners.

The highs and lows of app-based dating may dominate the current culture, confounding or negatively impacting the lives of millions of individuals in their sexual or romantic prime, but historically speaking they could ultimately contribute to an evolutionary shift that is slowly beginning to favor female empowerment at scale.

Duke University’s Lee D. Baker, a professor of cultural anthropology, puts all this rapidly changing relating into perspective by pointing out that women have lacked choice in romantic partnership for centuries.

“Although both women and men have access to these digital tools, the advantage I believe goes to the women, because traditionally they have had more risk in selecting dates and mates. Arrest records, confirmation of employment history, and a general survey of one’s digital footprint can tell you quite a bit about someone,” Baker told Salon via email. “Throughout our human history, marriages have been used to unite disparate groups, sometimes enemies, and often used to shore up alliances of disparate groups. In short, humans saw the value of using affinal relationships to produce consanguineous ties between disparate groups, which led to better understanding, relationships, and stability among different groups.”

(“Consanguineous” means blood lines, if you’re like: “This s*** just got deep.”)

Basically, women were used for diplomatic means and economic gains by men in a patriarchal society. The fact that today we have so many options — even superfluous and superficial ones — across the orientation spectrum is the result of sustained social justice organizing efforts and the entrepreneurial leadership of women like Exton and her fellow female founders.

Although Baker says women have gained from technology-driven dating culture, he does warn that relying on algorithms to do the matchmaking can have other potentially disruptive ramifications that will further exacerbate an increasingly tense political climate. A climate, it's worth noting, where many might oppose or actively derail all this non-traditional free love.

“In more modern times, romantic relationships that happened at work, in bars, or through casual interactions led to marriages that were inter-racial, inter-religious, and bi-partisan,” Baker notes. “Digital dating is contributing to a divided America, where news, information, and even partners are gleaned from homogeneous sources that reinforce and reproduce specific worldviews that are becoming increasingly polarized. In the digital dating world, rarely do people say “I am looking for someone really, really different than myself. Marriages across lines of difference [such as race, class, religion, party affiliation, and sexuality] often increased understanding and appreciation of those differences among families and communities.”

As the digital dating market continues to evolve, the onus will be on the innovators to consider the far-reaching side effects of their services. I sometimes imagine a world dominated by Swiping Natives and shudder, marveling at the ways I can’t fathom how human interaction and relational bonds will shift as a result. All the more so because I’m exhausted by the prospect of having to keep up with them. Exton was quick to remind me that this is a natural part of the aging process, pointing out that she “had a life before the Internet” prior to founding HER.

“My grandma probably feels that when she looks at me,” Exton says. “Younger people are being nice and expressing care through the filters and bitmojis they select. That’s like such a romantic gesture. That’s their dinner and a rose.”

It’s a fair point. Perhaps anyone over 35 today will be the last of the analog lovers. According to the New York Times, people are having less sex. According to the Pew Research Center, a third of online daters never meet up in real life.

“There will probably be an AI or VR component in the future, or something like FaceTime pre-dates,” says Davis. Until then, eFlirt’s steady stream of clients still have to date in the present.

Davis encourages hopeful romantics to do the most they can with what’s available to them right now. It might not be much, but why can’t a well-crafted one-liner be the small spark that ignites a meaningful passion?

“Don’t just lamely say hi. Make messages based on what you do know,” she says. “If he has a sushi pic, ask him if it’s a California roll or spicy tuna.”

By Maegan Carberry

Maegan Carberry is a writer and artist. She is the author of the novel “Do I Have To Vote For Hillary Clinton?” about the 2016 election and is hand-making 100 dresses to raise awareness about sexual assault through her project, birdbrain.  

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