A few weeks ago I ended up on a date facilitated by an online dating service with a white guy who disclosed halfway through the date that he has a preference for South-Asian women. I left the date feeling offended. When I recalled the story to a friend, she asked, What is the problem with people voicing their desires? I pushed back, arguing that the idea of a man flipping through pictures of Indian women until he finds one to go out with feels really objectifying.
One of the most celebrated aspects of online (and now mobile) dating is the ability to be pickier about who you go out with: You can screen people, look at their pictures, peruse their profiles and chat with them before you decide to meet up. If you have a preference, you can adjust your settings and only be served Latina women that love The Smiths. But, some have argued that this ability to “swipe left or right” ad infinitum has allowed for an exaggerated choosiness and an ability to be downright piggish in your sexual appetites. In a much-debated piece in Vanity Fair, the writer Nancy Jo Sales makes a similar argument about the role of Tinder, and more broadly mobile dating apps, in unfettering romantic decency from our current sexual behaviors.
She paints a bleak picture of the dating prospects for 20-somethings, the sexual appetites of the men she interviews (who also happen to work on Wall Street) and the women that are frustrated with them. She quotes one of these young men at length:
With these dating apps … you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day — the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.
Someone reading the article who has never used dating apps would not be unreasonable in thinking that romance and basic decency are dead, and that the objectification of women is at an all-time high.
But suggesting that a dating app is bringing traditional courtship to an end is far too convenient a thesis. There are a lot of social and economic factors that have led to the destabilization of traditional, monogamous relationships. In the past few decades, women’s increased economic and workplace equality has changed who asks whom out, who pays for the bill and ultimately, when married, who is the breadwinner. Women today are less reliant on marriage as a means of survival, and people of all demographics are getting married later. Single people outnumber married people for the first time ever. For many reasons, people don’t feel ready to get married yet, creating a big divide between the years you start dating and being sexually active, and the years you decide to settle down.
Sales’ take falls in line with a trail of panic pieces that arise every few years about the declining morality of millennials. Her central argument builds on the work of David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who argues that men are wired to be sexually promiscuous and women want to settle down. The idea is that the infinite sexual possibilities that the Internet provides, agitates this inherent desire in men. What this leaves out (a point that Sales acknowledges) is that women also want to have sex and many of them aren’t ready to settle into monogamous relationships.
The notion that men’s sexual desires are inherently different from women’s, of course, is based on an outdated conception of gender. As Julia Serrano writes in her 2007 book “Whipping Girl,” biology plays a part in how we express our sexualities, but it is often socialization that exaggerates those differences. Buss, for instance, has also argued that men biologically desire younger women and that men are wired to kill their wives if they cheat on them. In “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs,” one of many critical texts of Buss, women’s studies researcher Rosalind Barnett and journalist Caryl Rivers found that it was social interactions, not biological differences, that caused these discrepancies — and that more equal societies saw these differences shift.
In other words, women are objectified on Tinder because they are objectified in real life. And perhaps a tool like Tinder allows you to scale up the rate at which you objectify. But the problem isn’t the tool. It’s the lack of healthy sex education; our inability to shed binary gender systems; and the rampant media objectification of women. Before, women often had little choice but to put up with sexist men, because they were everywhere! At least now when men are terrible online we can unmatch and remove them from our timeline.
Tools such as Tinder (or Grindr, Bumble, Hinge, etc.) have opened up space for people that traditionally didn’t have the greatest access to sex or relationships. It has allowed older or divorced women to find love again and queer people all over the country to find each other. These tools have had a powerful effect on our ability to be choosy. You no longer have to marry the guy next door. These are benefits for all daters, not just entitled, sexist stockbrokers.
That said, we also shouldn’t expect Tinder to have a silver bullet for sexism or social accountability. After all, the platform wasn’t exactly built with women in mind. While feminists initially lauded the ability to choose who can contact you, in reality, you can choose sexists just as easily as non-sexists — because how effectively can a picture filter out those who think less of me as a woman?
To be sure, Sales is documenting a real frustration that I have heard from younger women. But the solution is not to revert to a time when women get men to commit because we were their only option and could use normative ideals about relationships to keep them complacent. It’s to raise the bar and find people that have some sense of decency and have been able to evolve with the time — which, in defense of straight dudes, is a lot of them.
I probably sound more optimistic than society wants me to be. I’m 37 and unmarried and I just went on a date with a guy who was essentially telling me, after all my successes in life and my awesome personality, that what he liked most about me was the color of my skin. But I’ve been dating long enough to know this had more to do with the society around us — the sexualization of women of color has been going on forever! — than the app itself. Tinder isn’t perfect, but neither were traditional ideas of courtship. People today are marrying later and having more sex, and with it comes some sexist baggage. But as a society we are also more accepting of different sexualities and women’s equality than past generations — and I have to believe that this shift is also playing out, if imperfectly, in our dating lives.