We’re in the midst of a “dating apocalypse,” if one is to believe a recent article by Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales, a terrible time in which apps like Tinder have disrupted the basic nature of human courtship and turned us all into sex-crazed commitment-phobes.
Sales interviewed "more than 50 young women in New York, Indiana, and Delaware, aged 19 to 29" and concluded, depressingly, that romantic intimacy is dead.
Not so, Tinder shot back yesterday, in what appeared to be a late night Twitter meltdown:
Sales isn't the first to worry that “hookup culture” has corrupted modern ideas about love and dating, with an endless supply of online lovers reducing single life to an cycle of flings.
Anyone who has ever received a message on OkCupid starting with "nice pics" or "wut r u doing tonight?" can attest to the fact that the dating game is certainly a little different than it used to be. But Tinder's tweetstorm has a point: there is little beyond anecdotal evidence to suggest that in the era of Tinder there is anything really wildly different about the way we mate.
Here's how both Tinder and Sales' points stack up:
POINT ONE: DATING APPS HAVE CREATED A PERVASIVE HOOKUP CULTURE
"Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship," Sales writes. "Dating apps are the free-market economy come to sex."
Tinder countered "that the vast majority of Tinder users are looking for meaningful connections" and that people are on Tinder "for all kinds of reasons" including "travel, dating, relationships, friends and a shit ton of marriages."
Eli Finkel, a professor in the psychology department at Northwestern University who studies relationships, doesn't believe that things like smartphone apps are killing romance. On the contrary, he says, dating apps like Tinder solve a problem that has long plagued the lovelorn: getting more dates.
"Tinder is a tool that helps us meet other people. Different people can, and do, use it in different ways," he told me via e-mail. "But the available evidence does not suggest that large swaths of people are using Tinder to have enormous amounts of casual sex. Yes, the Vanity Fair article found a few testosterone-filled examples in New York, but those people aren’t typical of Tinder users."
In fact, a study that Sales mentions in her piece but quickly brushed aside found that millennials appear to be having sex with fewer partners than the last couple generations.
"You can't make a case about dating changing over time with data from only one time point," one of the authors, San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge told me.
Hookup culture, she said, is nothing new.
Analyzing the results of the (usually) annual national General Social Survey for the years between 1972 and 2012, her research found that the number of sexual partners a person had "increased steadily between the G.I.s and 1960s-born Gen X’ers" but has since dipped among Millennials to return to the levels of Baby Boomers.
"There was certainly a lot of promiscuity going on in the 1970s as well," she said. "You would get these same stories if you went around and asked people about dating back then. They would have just met the people they were hooking up with at the nightclub instead of on Tinder."
David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the evolution of human sexuality, and an expert that Sales quoted in her piece, notes that Sales missed much of the nuance of his work. Apps, he said, haven't "altered our fundamental mating psychology" even while they may have expanded our options.
"It’s fairly clear that men have a greater desire for short term mating," he said. "They’re more likely to have affairs and visit prostitutes. Women are more likely to hope that the sex might lead to something else. But those are fundamental differences in mating psychologies, not something new."
POINT TWO: ONLINE DATING SITES CREATE SO MANY OPTIONS FOR PARTNERS THAT NO ONE EVER SETTLES DOWN
"It’s telling that swiping has been jocularly incorporated into advertisements for various products, a nod to the notion that, online, the act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable," Sales writes. Dating, she says, has become like online shopping, shopping in a store so big that the dater becomes paralyzed by the array of choice.
"The ability to meet people outside of your closed circle in this world is an immensely powerful thing," Tinder countered.
Sales quotes Buss, who says that "apps like Tinder and OkCupid give people the impression that there are thousands or millions of potential mates out there."
The fact that people marry later and have children later, he said, may have extended what he called the "period of experimentation." But Buss told me that while easy access to mates might initially prevent a guy from wanting to commit, most people eventually couple-up in the long term.
"People when they’re young have a period of experimentation before they settle down," he said. "But even those who can keep doing short-term dating eventually usually choose not to. Long-term, committed pair binding is one of the hallmarks of the human mating system."
Finkel pointed out that most research shows that the same college-educated people who make up the sources in Sales' piece are marrying at equal rates to the past — they’re just marrying later. And divorce rates in that demographic, he said, have been declining sharply in recent decades.
Buss said that all that experimenting may actually be a good thing, not a sign of pending doom.
"When I think of most people I know, or even myself when I was 22-years-old, I think, 'How can you really know what you want with so little experience?'" he said
POINT THREE: THE INTERNET CREATES ANXIETY ABOUT IRL RELATIONSHIPS AND KILLS INTIMACY
"'You form your first impression based off Facebook rather than forming a connection with someone, so you’re, like, forming your connection with their profile,'" one young dater named Stephanie told Sales. "They say they think their own anxiety about intimacy comes from having 'grown up on social media,'" she wrote.
Social media, in other words, has ruined people's ability to have real-life relationships.
"Can men and women ever find true intimacy in a world where communication is mediated by screens; or trust, when they know their partner has an array of other, easily accessible options?" Sales wonders.
There is lots of interest in understanding how being online so much impacts ideas about intimacy.
UCLA developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield has found in her research that, at least among teens, there's been a decline in intimate friendships and many young people instead derive personal support from stuff such as "likes." Plenty of other studies have suggested that cellphones can negatively impact relationships.
POINT FOUR: DATING APPS ARE BAD FOR WOMEN
"Such a problem has the disrespectful behavior of men online become that there has been a wave of dating apps launched by women in response to it," Sales writes, pointing to Bumble, an app created by Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe that allows women to message dudes first and, presumably, weed out the creeps.
But Sales kind of debunks this point in her own piece.
"Exploitative and disrespectful men have always existed," Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College, tells her. "There are many evolved men, but there may be something going on in hookup culture now that is making some more resistant to evolving.”
Dating online is no different from any other online activity for women. The sexism of the real world is reproduced dutifully online and, often, thanks to the guise of anonymity, amplified. Tinder isn't the problem.
POINT FIVE: TINDER IS HELPING PEOPLE DATE IN NORTH KOREA!
This claim, obviously, is from Tinder.
Tinder did not respond to request for comment from Fusion, but told The New York Times, "We have users in all 196 countries, including China and North Korea. We cannot disclose additional information on our user base there.”
The Times points out that, because the average North Korean does not have access to the Internet, it is unlikely Tinder has any real following there beyond foreigners and elites.