This article originally appeared in print in Pull Out, a magazine exploring the relationship between sex and technology. Order a copy here.
Dating in the 21st century no longer means going out to social events — it means making a profile on an online dating app.
Gone are the days when meeting strangers online was taboo, today it’s a given: Tinder, OKCupid, Grindr, Christian Mingle, Bumble… the list goes on and on. Thousands of suitors, depending on your distance settings, await at your fingertips.
I finally downloaded Tinder as a result of a breakup — typical, I know. Convinced that I was simply looking for something new and exciting, whether that was an ephemeral hook-up or an unforeseen relationship, the world of dating apps seemed filled with endless possibilities. An unlimited number of men streamed directly to my phone, and all I had to do was swipe.
My broken heart received confidence boosts every time I got a match. It was invigorating to know how many guys were interested in me, from only five previously Instagram-ed photos and a sentence long bio, which read, “Tell me your favorite Justin Bieber song.” The confidence I built from Tinder left me eager to try any free dating app that I would fit on my iPhone’s storage. For a brief time, I thought it was possible for me to use these apps to fulfill the romantic void in my post breakup life.
The apps facilitated the initial sorting by filtering guys within my preferred distance and age ranges. Then, if there was mutual interest, the floor was opened for conversation. Swiping was effortless — the hard part was forming a connection based on the superficial, visual content that brought us together. The number of viable candidates decreased significantly as I attempted to form a rapport with these mysterious people on the other side of my phone. The digital banter felt exhausting and artificial. Then the number dropped even lower when it came to guys I actually wanted to meet.
After spending eight months sending messages to strangers on various apps, this was the total number of guys I met. And it only took one to two dates to realize that the faint connection we formed online was not present when in person. For instance, 25-year-old John* and his lingering obsession with his college party life left me cringing, and Mark* ghosted me after the second date when I awkwardly slipped out of the car because I was not comfortable enough to kiss him.
“Is it me?” I desperately asked my therapist one day when I was questioning why I was still alone after spending so much time swiping left and right.
I was frequently getting asked out on dates, yet often declined because I would look for, and inevitably find reasons that snuffed any initial interest. No one seemed to be worth the time and effort to endure an awkward first date. I began to realize that I was using dating apps to fill the pain from the dissolution of my last relationship. Looking online for the attention and validation I was no longer receiving from my ex-boyfriend. The truth was that my breakup left me feeling alone and terrified. As eager as I was to move on, I found myself discouraged when my attempts to make new connections did not come as easily as my last relationship.
Knowing that I had thousands of men at my fingertips was now making me lonelier than I was at the beginning of my online dating saga. The moment of excitement when matching with someone dulled when I realized there was nothing substantial between us.
In my opinion, I think loneliness is the key reason why dating apps are successful. We are all trying to find some sort of connection through these clicks and swipes, whether it’s casual sex, platonic friendships, or intimate relationships. Dating apps provide the illusion that you can meet your match through algorithms and preference settings. If this were true, then why is my generation having less sex than the generations before us?
A study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that millennials are having less sex than young adults were in the 1960s. Additionally, CDC research indicates a decline in sexually experienced teens today compared to teens in 1988.
Although sex has different meanings for different people, it is still a physical action that creates a bond between two people. My guess is that my generation’s drop in sexual activity comes from, in part, our struggle to make connections past the digital space.
Dating apps, and a social media as a whole, attempt to imitate authentic conversation. They are ubiquitous and succeed in bringing some people together, however, apps will never truly mimic IRL relations. You cannot replicate the chemistry felt face-to-face, and while it is not impossible, it’s extremely difficult to create a genuine connection over the screens of our smartphones. And even if you think you do, that connection can dissipate when it moves from the digital to physical realm.
I wonder if we all stand to lose something by basing intimacy off of online interactions. We no longer evaluate significant others solely through actions and words, but now have a digital archive of dating profiles, posts, and tweets to analyze a human being. I’m skeptical if online dating actually makes it easier to find someone when it opens a whole new world of content to criticize.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Perhaps loneliness makes me more closed off and tentative to open up to new people, especially to strangers. Maybe I haven’t had any success with dating apps because I, like many of my generation, am hesitant to move into the physical space. Maybe one day I will be charmed by someone’s five previously Instagram-ed photos and sentence long bio. Maybe I will anticipate a deep and true connection from his online presence. Maybe I will be brave enough to move past the digital wall and meet him face-to-face. And maybe the connection will be just as alive — maybe even more so — than it was behind the screen of my phone.
*Names were changed for privacy purposes.
Gif via Giphy, and photos by Sofia Amburgey.