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Can online dating ever be lady-friendly?

I'm a feminist who uses dating apps created by men; here's how I get by

September 28, 2014 6:00AM ET

Every year, on the morning of my birthday, I brace myself for the sweet but uncomfortable barrage of emails and social media messages from friends, strangers and products wishing me a happy birthday, replete with digital cake and a coupon for a beauty treatment I had never heard of and didn’t realize I needed.

This year, however, the first alert I got came from OkCupid: “Happy 36th birthday! Find people that want to meet up on your special day.” I chuckled. How sad it would be to meet up with someone from a dating site on my birthday. Then I grimaced — 36 and single and I still hadn’t found “the one.” Like many modern women, I didn’t subscribe to the sexist idea that my worth as a 30-something woman comes from my relationship status. But I didn’t need my first piece of birthday junk mail to remind me of this existential dilemma.

The debate over whether it is possible to have female-friendly dating sites and apps reveals an inherent tension that underlies the whole find-your-mate enterprise. On the one hand, scores of women use the Internet to date. Of the 41 million people who date online, approximately 47 percent are female. On the other hand, the Internet can be an extremely toxic environment for women.

Tinder was supposed to be the solution. Launched in September of 2012, the mobile dating app was lauded as lady-friendly, because users can contact you only if you choose them first. On most dating sites, since anyone can email you, you spend 75 percent your time slogging through misogynist messages from creeps named Dino. (Apologies if your name is Dino; I’m sure you are very nice.)

The good will many women felt for Tinder makes the recent controversy over the apparent sexist treatment of one of its female co-founders all the more disheartening. Last month a story broke that placed male co-founders Justin Mateen and Sean Rad at the center of a lawsuit brought by former marketing executive and co-founder Whitney Wolfe. It alleged sexual harassment and workplace gender discrimination and accused the two men of cheating her out of a co-founder title. This is not the first time we’ve heard about a startup founder accused of sexism or sexual harassment, nor is it the first time we’ve heard of women navigating sexism in the tech world at large. But Wolfe’s suit felt uniquely ironic, given Tinder’s female-friendly repute.

It also raises the question whether it is possible to develop a dating application that caters to women if those creating it don’t see or understand the world from a woman’s point of view. If you are a developer who doesn’t or refuses to acknowledge sexism in your work environment, chances are you probably aren’t thinking about how sexism might affect how your end user experiences the app.

New medium, same message

What has historically been true about the Internet is still true: The sexism of the real world is reproduced online. In fact, for many women, sexism is intensified in virtual environments. The superfast and focused ability to reach people online can amplify sexist microaggressions. Aside from unwanted sexually explicit or offensive messages on dating sites, many women receive aggressive or sexist tweets or comments on other social media platforms with alarming regularity. It can sometimes feel like a lose-lose scenario. No matter how much progress women make on- and offline, they are still navigating a malecentric world. These sexist experiences compound (and the irony increases) for those who use online tools — too often created by malecentric minds — to find happiness in their love life.

The hope is to find a sweet spot: venturing into this new territory of modern dating while remembering what we are not willing to overlook.

The hope is that dating online allows single people to function as equals. We can size each other up on a level playing field, trying to determine if the other is a compatible potential mate. Instead, it’s all too similar to dating in the real world. Being the right age, size and in some cases ethnicity or race affects how many messages you receive or how many responses you get to the messages you send. And as in the real world, where dating relies on a set of gendered expectations — from who talks first to who pays — a lot of women still don’t feel comfortable messaging men, and sometimes men are turned off if you message them first.

To further illustrate this point, I share with you a sample size of one. After I turned 36, I saw a sharp decrease in how many messages I received and how many responses I got. (Frankly, this was sometimes a relief.) I had officially expired. Given that even the oldest men in the online dating pool tend to set the upper age limit of their desired partners much younger than 35, I had waded into no man’s land — just as all those annoying naysayer dating columnists predicted.

It’s easy to discount as manufactured the pressure that many women feel to marry by a certain age. But the fact is that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the market-driven messaging that shames women into feeling they should have a partner — your friends are getting married, your family thinks you should get married, and so does every TV ad, song or movie — and the very real desire to be in a relationship.

This is particularly the case when you read an article about all the reasons you are still single or get an e-reminder from a dating site that you are still on the market. Many online daters are somewhat ambivalent about their online profiles but keep an active account in an effort to at least try. When that dating site constantly sends you reminders to “log in and check out singles,” it’s easy — natural, even — to start feeling you are falling behind on your homework.

The feminist’s compromise

Despite these harrowing circumstances — Internet sexism, trolling, market-driven messaging — I continue to use these dating sites. Part of it is that I’m an optimist, but mainly it’s because I want to be in a relationship and don’t feel I have a choice other than to navigate the questionable terrain of online dating. And despite getting fewer messages as I get older, I do find I meet people I am more compatible with online, probably because I’m spending less time in bars and because I’ve distilled what I’m looking for pretty darn well. It’s as though the offensiveness on dating sites becomes a sorting mechanism, a virtual last man standing; only the last man is (hopefully) not a drunk sexist jerk.

I think this is true for most feminist women. Despite the sexism of a system that is working against us (in careers, dating and life as a whole), we recognize we have to navigate that system to get the things we want. The progressive and independent woman’s task is often a difficult one — trying to have an authentic connection, share a good kiss or get laid, all while understanding there may have to be compromises in how we get there. The hope, I suppose, is to find a sweet spot: venturing into this new territory of modern dating while remembering what we are not willing to overlook.


Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a New York City–based digital strategist and writer and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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