As a young person today, it’s not uncommon to have partaken in Tinder’s high-spirited match-making experiment, to be uncharacteristically charmed by its pleasant jingles and ever-jovial “You’ve got a match!!!”. Especially in the context of unsolicited periods of sexual dormancy ushered in by the pandemic, these brief moments of digital flattery promise to counter feelings of isolation and inadequacy. It’s unsurprising, then, that in March 2020, Tinder boasted a record-breaking 3 billion swipes in a single day. Yet this gamified experience hides a sinister format that turns dating into addictive cycles of risk and reward.
Not insignificantly, the rise of internet dating has peaked in a sort of ’sex recession’, in which young people are getting frisky less frequently relative to other generations. It’s any wonder that, even during a public health crisis (and an age of COVID-induced helicopter parenting), we’re still looking to get down and dirty. The blame for our generational paucity of sexual intimacy can be levelled at a range of modern grievances – including (but not limited to) increased porn consumption and more screen time.
However, I am going to explore how dating apps perpetuate this issue. After all, it seems counterintuitive that in an age of Tinder’s ever-present commitment to forging us new ‘connections’, young people are having less sex than previous generations. Who (if anyone) are these apps serving? And if they aren’t fulfilling our needs, why do dating apps continue to be used?
“in an age of Tinder’s ever-present commitment to forging us new ‘connections’, young people are having less sex than previous generations”
Tinder seems, at first glance, to yield endless opportunities for romantic and sexual encounters. The reality, however, is more complicated. Like a child in a candy store, the infinite reel of beach pics, mirror selfies, and the mandatory Cambridge formalwear photo can overwhelm us, negating our ability to choose just one individual. What if the next dashingly gowned man grasping champagne bottles outside of King’s, proffering a cheeky “6’3 – if that matters”, will be The One? .. Or the next? Spurred on by addictive cycles of risk and reward – not dissimilar to those at work when we engage with slot machines – our brains are hooked on the app regardless of its sometimes empty outcome. It’s distressing that the gambler’s fallacy, in which individuals make mistaken judgements about the likelihood of positive outcomes, is now driving our romantic and sexual conquests; over 70% of Tinder users have never actually met up with someone from the app. Its popularity soars not because the app is effective, but because we think it might be. Here, the notion that “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” becomes a tantalising and malevolent remark on the brain’s fervent desire for satisfaction.
This fruitless charade of swiping is not only damaging to those experiencing ‘fobo’ (fear of a better option), but also to those who are buried under streams of other eligible singles and thus receive little to no attention. Here, the burden usually falls to men. (Heterosexual) men using Tinder receive on average 0.6 matches for every 100 swipes – insultingly few considering that users on the free version of the app are only provided with 100 swipes per day. Hence, users are caught in a sort of luxury trap. Attractive, both demographically and geographically suited singles appear more accessible than ever, but intimacy remains elusive.
In extreme cases, periods of sexual dormancy experienced by an individual can lead to the convictions that (1) people are not and cannot be attracted to them, and (2) physical intimacy is too elusive to be worth pursuing. The internet phenomenon of the ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate) is born from these twin assumptions, and the resulting mental health crises of this ‘revelation’ has dangerous consequences for these – often male – individuals. I should note here that I am (incorrectly) asserting that the heterosexual dating landscape is the norm; queer online dating experiences can be drastically different, if equally damaging. Grindr, for example, is renowned for its prolific sexual encounters, yet such an emphasis on sex appeal and performance can incite ’vicious cycles’ of low self-esteem and depressive episodes.
It must be noted that a ‘sex recession’ should be a cause for concern not because anyone is owed sex or because we should all be having sex all of the time – but because it marks an era in which the internet’s perpetual promise of ‘connections’ is experienced as a digital Siren, luring some users into higher levels of depression and anxiety.
“the internet’s perpetual promise of ‘connections’ is experienced as a digital Siren, luring some users into higher levels of depression and anxiety”
Sex is complicated, and I’d like to stress that less sex is not necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, choosing to have less sex is a guarantee that the sex you are having is wanted and enjoyable. For example, casual sex has reduced in part because of reduced alcohol consumption by (and greater autonomy of) young women. Dating apps, too, are a mixed bag. Many people swear by swiping as the best way to embark on their ‘hot girl summers’ or meet people with shared interests; others are merely using Tinder for ’confidence-boosting procrastination’. However, when the algorithm we’re relying on to seek intimacy in this age of isolation seems engineered for our failure, it’s high time we recognise its shortcomings. Perhaps the gamble you are taking with that risqué Tinder bio, or ill-considered pick-up line could be traded for flirtations that take place outside of platforms that turns our personal wants and needs into parodies of desire.
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