There are few things more elemental to humanity than sexual relationships – only food and shelter are more primal.
So when writers start fretting that technology has altered modern courtship forever and for the worse, some healthy skepticism is in order.
The press has been grumbling about mobile dating apps like Tinder ever since they started to gain real traction in 2013. But the hand wringing reached a new high point in the September edition of Vanity Fair, an American popular culture magazine.
In an article entitled Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’ Nancy Jo Sales dives deep into the Manhattan dating scene. Through interviews with dozens of attractive 20-somethings she uncovers a culture dominated by casual sex “hookups”.
In this new market for mates, men are constantly on the prowl for the next conquest, often meeting two or three women in a single evening. While some of the women enjoy the freedom of unattached sex, most complain about feeling devalued and disposable. One relates a story in which, mere minutes after having sex with her, a man was already checking Tinder.
Most of the men interviewed are unabashedly delighted by this seemingly endless stream of attractive and available women, a mere swipe of the thumb away. One charmer compares meeting women on Tinder to having fast food delivered.
If we’re to believe Sales, and the tame experts she trots out, apps like Tinder, Hinge and Happn have destroyed modern courtship, turning men into feckless philanderers and leaving women bereft of the opportunity for meaningful relationships.
Except that they haven’t. By ignoring the underlying causes of this trend and blaming the apps, Sales is essentially shooting the messenger. The most obvious cause is that young single women outnumber young single men in New York by around 230 000. The demand for the attention of young men is therefore higher than the supply.
The economist Paul Oyer, who has written extensively about the market for mates, points out that New York is a classic “thick market” for dating – one in which there is a wide variety of choice and a much higher chance of finding an ideal mate.
In a market like that young men are simply less likely to get into long-term relationships. Taking a moral standpoint on the issue is pointless: many young men will choose casual sex over a committed relationship.
More to the point, many modern women feel exactly the same way. Apps like Tinder are only successful because young women have shrugged off so many oppressive gender norms. They are now relatively free to enjoy sex without fear of being labelled and ostracised. Sexism and misogyny are still alive and well, but their edges are significantly blunted.
Another underlying cause that Sales fails to acknowledge is that anyone using Tinder in New York is, by definition, looking for a hookup and not a relationship. Teleport to New York right now and ask a random 25-year-old “What is Tinder?” and they will answer “A hookup app”. So using Tinder as an example of the end of courtship is like using McDonalds as an example of the end of health food.
Tinder flatly denies this, of course. When Sales’ article hit newsstands the company lambasted both Sales and Vanity Fair via its corporate Twitter profile, much to the amusement of onlookers. The rant proves that Tinder is every bit as facile and immature as the interactions it enables between its users.
If we broaden our view beyond New York myopia, we see that dating apps have very different roles in different contexts. Here is South Africa – a much thinner market than Manhattan, with far less gender disparity – Tinder is just another dating app.
Chat to 20-somethings who use the app, and you’ll hear about happy couples who met through the service. Some recount amusing anecdotes of foreign Tinder users arriving in South Africa and being soundly rejected by everyone they approached for casual sex. In the dating game context is everything.
Sales is not entirely wrong. Social media and mobile apps have greatly accelerated dating and mating, giving ordinary people enormous power to search widely for the right mate.
Some people have chosen to take this to extremes and are gorging on casual sex, but many more are old-fashioned and cautious. Most people realise that constant anonymous sex is not a basis for long-term happiness.
Courtship is as old as humanity. Young men (and women) have slept around since the dawn of time. Most people eventually meet someone they really like and settle down. Against that kind of momentum, mobile apps are hardly a blip.
And while dating apps frighten some people into apocalyptic predictions, we should remember that society changes far more slowly than technology. The freewheeling sexual adventurers of Manhattan may foreshadow a global future, but it’s more likely that they are outliers.
In theory people are sexually omnivorous and not programmed for monogamy. But most of us prefer choosing one special somebody over an endless stream of nobodies. No dating app is going to shift that preference. Technology has the power to change us, but only when we are willing.