I’m not exactly sure when I decided that dating apps were not for me. Maybe it was the time I went on a date with a guy who tried to recite the entire script of the 1988 horror movie Child’s Play (“And then Chucky says, ‘Wanna play?’”). Or maybe it was when I was on a date with a guy who grabbed my crotch under the table not 10 minutes after I’d sat down. But by the time I was ready to permanently delete these apps, I was also hooked: hooked on platforms meticulously designed to be addictive – as well as, I would argue, to deliver up women’s bodies to men.
Let’s face it: dating apps have been terrible for women – especially straight women like me who have to deal with the straight men who use them. (Although, from what I’ve heard from my sources and media reports, LGTBQ+ women have plenty to complain about as well.) For years I’ve been puzzled by why no one wants to be the one to say it – is it fear of looking like an “old” or a prude? – but here goes: I believe that online dating has made single women overall less happy, less likely to find a long-term partner, and more at risk of experiencing sexual violence. All of which has only gotten worse since the pandemic, when dating sites have become pretty much the only way to date for millions of people across the world. Since Covid, business media tell us, online dating has “surged”.
This isn’t to say there haven’t always been more risks for women when it comes to dating – of course there have. But dating apps have led to the normalization of abuses which would have been considered appalling in other, supposedly less progressive eras. Unsolicited dick pics, harassing messages, and the non-consensual sharing of nudes are now routine features of dating for women across demographics. What some would chalk up to “the new dating culture” are actually crimes that women have been told to laugh off lest they look like they’re just not cool girls.
Dating app companies, which inhabit a multibillion-dollar industry, have been very adept at co-opting feminism in the marketing of their products as “empowering”. Yet they do next to nothing to help women with their very real concerns. In a 2019 survey by ProPublica and Columbia Journalism Investigations of 1,200 women who said they had used an online dating platform in the past 15 years, “more than a third of the women said they were sexually assaulted by someone they had met through a dating app” and “[o]f these women, more than half said they were raped”. These are astronomical figures, and yet somehow still largely left out of the online dating conversation.
Nearly every one of the hundreds of women and girls I’ve interviewed about online dating over the last several years has told me she’s experienced some incident where she didn’t feel safe, if not something much worse. But these same women say that when they’ve tried to report these incidents, the dating apps in question often don’t even respond. How, I’ve wondered, in the #MeToo era, are these companies still able to get away with this outrageous lack of accountability?
Dating platforms which market themselves as female-friendly aren’t always any better in dealing with the problems of harassment and sexual assault on their sites. Bumble, for example, which calls itself a feminist app, has had a number of reported cases of stalking, sexual assault and rape, and users have been quoted as saying that the company has failed to address their concerns as they would have hoped.
And then there are Big Dating’s faulty promises of long-term relationships. Their marketing teams would have us believe that everybody who swipes is about to walk off into the sunset with a soulmate. But no matter how many dating app weddings we see touted in the “Vows” sections of the media, the available data does not suggest a rise in committed relationships or marriages among dating apps users. According to a 2020 study by Pew, only 39% of regular online daters – and 12% of Americans overall – “have married or been in a committed relationship with someone they first met through a dating site”. If there was a Covid vaccine with a 39% efficacy rate, would you line up for a shot?
My time on dating apps made me think about how these platforms aren’t just bad for women, but men as well – with men being inculcated into the worst aspects of toxic masculinity under the guise of “fun” (how Tinder co-founder Sean Rad described the purpose of the app in early interviews). There’s the “fun” of rating women as hot-or-not; the “fun” of having so many options, you tend to see women as disposable objects. And then there’s the fun of thinking that these apps guarantee you sex, an assumption which a 2016 study by the UK’s National Crime Agency says has factored into a startling rise in sexual assault perpetrated by male dating app users who are less likely to have a previous history of sexual violence. I don’t think there’s any question that dating apps are rape culture.
Since the pandemic, the invasion of Big Dating into our most intimate of spaces has led to an overwhelming of courtship by corporations: corporations which above all want our time, our money and our data, rather than to see us find love or even good sex. (Multiple studies have shown that the hookup sex often associated with online dating is less satisfying for women overall.) The capitalistic takeover of dating will continue to be very bad for women, tearing away at our opportunities to find love and lasting relationships and destroying our self-esteem (as studies say dating apps do). Unless we do something about it, that is. The question is what.
I would argue that women should delete their dating apps en masse in some Lysistrata-like move of self-preservation; I know many women who have chucked these apps and find themselves much happier for it. But I doubt most women – or most people, regardless of gender – will follow suit. One of the most insidious aspects of dating apps is, again, that they are designed to be addictive – so addictive that many people say they use them without intending to ever meet up with someone in person. I think this is one of the greatest dangers of online dating: that the new dating technologies will eventually become more important to people than other human beings. Sadly, I think this is already starting to happen.
But then when it comes to love, hope springs eternal. My hope is that, somehow, one day, love will indeed conquer all, and both women and men will reject the sexist scam of online dating in order to find and build loving, caring relationships as equal partners. Have some people already found this through online dating? I don’t doubt they have. But this doesn’t make the harm that is coming to others through these platforms any less urgent to address.
Nancy Jo Sales is a writer for Vanity Fair and the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Her new book Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno is released on 18 Mayby Hachette