Lately, I’ve been thinking about how complicated modern dating can be. Across every social media platform, I consistently find stories about how somebody got ghosted, how their Hinge date was a catfish, or even how the Instagram algorithm sent them a suggested reel of someone they had just matched with on Tinder. Hookup culture, dating apps, and situationships have allowed people to break free from traditional narratives about how people should meet, or who they should date. Online dating has the advantage of breaking down barriers between social class, ethnicity, and gender barriers. The addictive sensation of matching with a new potential partner and receiving momentary satisfaction in knowing that a stranger out there finds you attractive is a familiar feeling. But, in a society where everything is accessible at your fingertips, dating has become just another way to entertain yourself and dissociate from the world around you. Not only is online dating a business, but the social interactions on these applications mostly mirror traditional dating gender scripts.
The apps are designed to be addictive (most dating apps are owned by Match Group who profit off your swiping) but they are also just another way for women’s bodies to be delivered to men (or the other way around). New women-focused dating apps, such as Bumble, try to empower women by having them “make the first move” and disrupt the traditionally masculine norms but many feel this represents forced empowerment. Dating platforms that market themselves as “woman-focused” aren’t necessarily better at dealing with problems of (online) harassment and sexual violence.
Bumble has a number of reported cases of stalking, sexual assault, and rape, with many users saying that the company has failed to address their concerns. An overwhelming majority of dating app users experience sexual harassment on the apps. Whether that be through inappropriate comments, being contacted again despite rejection, threatening language or unsolicited sexually explicit content, it seems as though harassment in “real life” has simply migrated to online spaces. There have even been new terms created for this type of violence,“Dating App-Facilitated Sexual Violence.” The majority of victims are queer identifying individuals, closely followed by cisheterosexual women. It seems like it’s almost expected that when you interact with someone in an online space, there could be the threat of receiving unsolicited sexually explicit images or comments. This normalisation of microaggressions in online dating speaks to a larger societal issue: the culture of violence that is accepted as the ‘norm’. In other words, when you sign up for a dating app, you sign up for inappropriate comments from strangers. Hiding behind your screen, it is easy to call someone a “prude” or “slut” for not conforming to your expectations. Has consent been thrown out the window?
Dating apps do not only perpetuate sexual violence, but they’re also the perfect ground for people to judge a book by its cover. Have you ever thought about how your seemingly trivial dating preferences might be impacted by racist, transphobic, ableist, or fatphobic biases? The fetishisation of people of colour permeates the online dating scene, filled with colonial remnants regarding the oversexualisation of black men and women. The trope of docile and submissive Asian women also means that they receive more matches than any other ethnicity, but this online interest doesn’t translate offline. Findings indicate that plus-size women experience fat-shaming or fetishisation whilst online dating, and have to work to detect this unconscious bias before meeting up. Whom we find attractive and choose to date is a reflection of the way we think about hierarchies of desirability.
The sense of anonymity provided by dating apps is the perfect environment for bad behaviour. Ghosting, breadcrumbing, orbiting, love-bombing, so many terms have now been created to decode the complex interactions with people you meet while navigating the tumultuous waters of online dating. With so many people to choose from, short-term situationships have become the norm because of the paradox of choice. Having too much choice in our everyday lives can actually overwhelm and paralyse us, instead of letting us feel satisfied with our final decisions. So we wait, patiently, mindlessly swiping, for our mysterious future lover. How cruel we can be, and how easily we dispose of one another when we decide that a person’s flaws no longer play into the idealised version of them we have created in our heads. Don’t like garlic? Unmatched. Wearing “ugly” shoes? Blocked. Never watched Game of Thrones? Ghosted. It’s tragic and comedic at the same time.
Dating apps are also a minefield for transgender and non-binary people. Transgender users on Tinder are more likely to be reported than cisgender people and receive 0 responses when attempting to rectify the issue. Online dating is often designed around the gender binary and although in recent years many of the apps have allowed users to choose from a number of gender options, queer people often tend to be an afterthought, even on queer-oriented dating apps. For instance, Grindr markets itself as the world’s largest social networking app for “gay, bi, trans and queer people” but in practice it is geared towards men who like to have sex with men.
Huge numbers of young people are turning off the apps and finding love in real life, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up on forming connections through dating apps – just use them mindfully! New apps are being developed everyday, with more safety precautions and for all kinds of individuals seeking connections. One such app is Feeld, which encourages open-mindedness and respect, and is very popular with nonbinary and transgender people, hardcore BDSM enthusiasts, asexuals, and people in ethical non-monogamous relationships. Around half of Feeld’s users identify as something other than cisheterosexual so the company allows users to change their gender selection and sexuality as many times as they want.
Yes, it’s hard to denounce online dating when there’s no clear alternative and we definitely shouldn’t discount what a positive impact apps have had for queer, kink, and polyamorous people in finding communities. Just remember, there is another person on the other side of the screen (so treat them with respect) but don’t let every rejection on an online platform get to your head.