By Caila Brander
At face value, dating apps can look a bit silly. Swipe, swipe, click, swipe — in a few minutes, you can make hundreds of snap judgments about other single people based on a few photos and brief bio. Dating apps put matchmaking into the palms of our hands, delivering potential partners as conveniently as ordering takeout, all on a platform that can feel more like a game than dating. This rapid and dramatic rise of these apps’ popularity has been met with both praise and controversy. At the center of this critique is a debate over whether dating apps benefit or harm women.
For those who have never used a dating app, each one offers different iterations of the same basic premise. The app offers you options: other users in the area who match your described sexual orientation, age filters, and geographic proximity. You, the user, get to sift through these options and let the app know which profiles you like and don’t like. If you like someone, and the person with that profile likes you back, the two of you are matched. What happens next is all up to the users. You can chat, get to know each other, and decide if you want to meet. Maybe you see them again, maybe you don’t. You might end up dating, even falling in love. What happens after the initial match is truly is up to you.
Although other platforms like Grindr preceded it, Tinder, released in 2012, caught on with young people and turned people’s attention towards dating apps. As Tinder exploded popularity (its creators reported a remarkable 10-20,000 downloads per day back in 2013 1), it sparked reflection on the societal impact of such convenient, game-like dating platforms. Tinder has received a lot of criticism. It has been called stupid and harmful for making human connection harder.2 It’s been called unromantic and likened to a factory.3 Some have said it erodes the concept of adult consequences when “the next best thing is only a swipe away.”4
Tinder has also been criticized for harming women specifically. Interestingly, Tinder was the first dating app to be truly successful in recruiting significant numbers of female users and was praised for finally making dating apps feel friendly and safe for women.v But by 2015, the narrative had shifted. In a popular Vanity Fair piece, Nancy Jo Sales wrote a scathing critique, maintaining that Tinder fosters the modern “hookup culture” in a way that harms women, by making female sexuality “too easy” and fostering a dynamic where men held all of the power.5 The article offered realistic assessments of the double standards between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior, but failed to look beyond those double standards and stereotypes about women’s sexuality when drawing conclusions. For example, Sales concludes that the app hurts women, because she assumes that the supposed loss of romance or relationships is something that harms women more acutely than men.
I have a different theory to posit, based on a very different experience than the one painted by Vanity Fair. The time I spent using dating apps was by far the most empowered I had ever felt while dating, and it led to a happy and healthy long-term relationship. Could it be possible that this app, so heavily criticized for harming women, is not only good for women but is a force for feminism? I think so.
Dating apps like Tinder can be empowering because they require choice and mutual investment before a match ever happens. With each small choice, from downloading the app to creating a profile, you are accumulating tiny moments of agency. You are deciding to date. You also get a lot of control over what happens on your profile. Everyone using a dating app spends some time putting together a series of images and chunks of text conveying who they are. The level of information required varies greatly by app, but each one requires you, and everyone else seeking a match, to put forth effort.
For me, these tiny moments of agency were quietly revolutionary. My prior dating experience was spent passively receiving male attention, waiting for men to initiate everything from conversation to relationships. I could flirt or agonize over my outfits or put on more makeup, but I could only respond to a limited set of options I received. I was not the one in control of the narrative. Men were. While some women I knew defied the norm of passive female dating, the pressure to default to acquiescence is powerful. These were the sorts of interactions I was socialized into as a girl.
Downloading Tinder my junior year of college was not something I thought of at the time as an act of rebellion, but that was certainly its effect. For the first time, I felt I had the power. Once I had it in the palm of my hand, it was life-changing.
Of course, there are times dating apps don’t feel empowering. Many women are harassed on online dating apps. There seems to be some correlation between dating apps and lower self-esteem, and the societal trend underpinning Vanity Fair’s article is true — women do face a double standard that shames them for embracing their sexuality. However, using these facts to critique dating apps misses the point entirely. An app that exposes misogyny in our culture is not necessarily misogynist. It’s not like women are not harassed or held to double standards about their behavior in the off-line world. Rather, these apps are allowing millennial women to take charge of our hookups and dating lives, have more say in the men or women we want to date, and do so on platforms it’s easier to be assertive in.
Some dating apps have even made it their mission to create more equitable and empowering spaces for women. In contrast to Tinder’s laissez-fair approach, apps like Bumble, for example, require that women make the first move in chatting with a potential match. Bumble is explicitly feminist, aiming to normalize women’s assertiveness in relationships and proactively curtail the harassment that can plague other apps. Like many aspects of social media, what makes a new technology good or bad is largely determined by how people use it. Using dating apps may not be the most vivacious expression of feminism, but, for me at least, it was certainly one of the most fun.
Caila Brander is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis who joined the NWHN as a Policy Fellow in January 2017. When she’s not writing about pop-culture-feminism, you can find her out hiking, biking, or sipping coffee in her favorite DC cafes.
1. Bosker B,”Why Tinder Has Us Addicted: The App Gives You Mind-Reading Powers” Bustle, April 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/09/tinder-dating-app_n_3044472.html
2. Evans D, “Tinder is Dead” Gawker, February 2015. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/tinder-is-dead-1683394434
3. Biddle S, “The Only Opening Line You Need” Domesticity, January 2015. Retrieved from http://domesticity.gawker.com/the-only-tinder-opening-line-you-need-16812147644
4. Feuer, A, “On Tinder, Taking a Swipe at Sex, or Love, or Something, in New York” The New York Times, February 2015. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/nyregion/on-tinder-taking-a-swipe-at-love-or-sex-or-something-in-new-york.html
5. Greenfield R, “Tinder: A Hookup App Women Actually Use” The Wire, February 2013. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/tinder-hook-app-women-actually-use/317875/
6. Sales NJ, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” Vanity Fair, September 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-dating