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tinder: old-timey courting ideals needn’t be a part of the app

Tinder

Dating app, Tinder, has recently made adjustments to its profiles and algorithms, to create more ‘meaningful connections’ and lead to a ‘significant increase’ in matches. The profiles will now feature information around the user’s education and employment, while the new algorithm is meant to look at more data points as the user swipes left or right.

Whenever there is news about Tinder, it’s accompanied by a series of anxious diatribes over the type of dating culture it promotes: Tinder prevents proper intimacy; Tinder promotes casual sex; Tinder represents the end of romance and encourages promiscuity, Tinder amplifies misogyny; Tinder leads to jumps in sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates.

These anxieties are in part of function of the very wide usage of the app. Tinder currently has 50 million active users. Tinder’s success over other digital dating companies has come in large part from its appeal to women, something other heterosexual dating apps and sites have struggled with. The use of Facebook data to create a Tinder profile, in theory, provides some accountability. The necessity of a mutual swipe-right to match ensures there is less active rejection, as well as less of the inbox onslaught many women on other sites face from men who message en masse. The interface makes it feel like a game (‘keep playing’), removing some of the stigma associated with online dating  while the simplicity of the account-creation process (no long lists of hobbies and interests to fill out) means users never have to feel like they’re trying too hard.

However, its primary appeal, as with all digital dating options, is that it drastically widens the pool of possible partners. Offering access to people who do not automatically come from the same social circle skips the careful navigation of existing relationships.  Interactions that initially do not have to be face-to-face can encourage frank and forward conversation. Digital dating bypasses a lot of the tiptoeing and social anxieties inherent to other forms of dating.

Nonetheless, lots of people have awful experiences on Tinder. Unsolicited sexual advances, racial profiling, superficial judgements, threats to privacy, sexual commodification and objectification are rife on Tinder. Two of the company’s founders have also been the subjects of a lawsuit alleging they sexually harassed another of their co-founders.  All of this should be challenged and criticised. But so too should the suggestion that the internet and dating apps have caused a dating apocalypse, void of intimacy and romance, fuelling a superficial and unhealthy hook-up culture.

The arguments about the superficiality of Tinder profiles have merit. The only information a user has before swiping left or right is a series of photos and an optional – and very brief – bio.  Often, Tinder can feel like a sexualised popularity contest. What so many of the criticisms of Tinder forget however, is that dating in ‘real life’ works in much the same way. Someone’s attractiveness is crucial to their initial appeal. As is also the case in other forms of dating, attractiveness isn’t objective or quantifiable. There are all kinds of visual cues that make up part of any initial impression, many of which have little to do with physical appearance. These cues also form part of a Tinder profile.

The bemoaning of the end of romance smacks of the inevitable generational moral panic and the compulsive nostalgia for The Past. Notions of traditional romance are deeply rooted in gender inequality and rigid definitions of gender, neither of which enable healthy, happy relationships. Romance and relationships have never been static concepts. They are revised and reconsidered constantly to accommodate broader social changes. Marriage, traditionally the trading of a woman as property between her father and husband, is constantly being reinterpreted to reflect what each individual couple understands it to mean. Romance, and the gender and sexuality of those who share it, also continues to shift in meaning as the roles and definitions of gender become more fluid.

Dating, cohabiting, sex outside of marriage and de facto relationships are all variations on traditional romance that have been frowned upon by older generations and yet all have offered couples more options to negotiate for themselves a configuration that works for them. The freedoms and limitations of Tinder too have become a part of how people meet and form relationships, with Tinder reflecting the expansion of networks and experiences that the internet offers.

Anxiety over hook-up culture also stems from a societal fixation on monogamy and exclusive coupling as the ‘right’ way to date. There’s plenty to suggest that the perception of hook-up culture is overblown and that Millennials are not having much more sex than their parents did. However, that seems beside the point. If 20-somethings were having unparalleled amounts of casual sex, would that be such a terrible thing? Why shouldn’t the meaning of sex and the ways it is practised change from one generation to the next, as gender roles change and sexuality becomes less rigidly-defined?

Dating habits will always be changing. They changed with the sexual liberation movement, when the contraceptive pill arrived, when IVF became a viable option, and when women became a more significant proportion of the workforce. It changed when Facebook became ubiquitous and everyone could privately wile away hours poring over the profiles of a potential date.  It has changed with Tinder and it will surely change again.

Many of the concerns around dating apps aren’t unique to Tinder. Sexual assault and harassment are not the product of dating apps. As always, suggesting that anything other than the perpetrators are responsible for sexual assault is profoundly missing the point. Sexually predatory men, STIs, superficial judgements of somebody’s worth, bad dates and bad sex surround dating, regardless of the facilitator. Comprehensive and inclusive education on sexual health and consent will do far more to make casual dating safe and enjoyable than any reversion to old-timey courting.

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