I first downloaded Tinder in the spring of 2013, seven months after it launched. I’d heard about it as a concept (Grindr for straights) but felt exempt from needing it until one evening at the tail end of a drawn-out breakup with someone I’d told myself I would marry. We were at a restaurant in San Francisco, having one of too many brutal good-bye dinners that led to this-is-the-last-time-I-swear sex, and I put the app on my phone in front of him. He stoically chugged his negroni while I marveled at the hundreds, presumably thousands of men who were waiting for me on the other end, should he decide to go through with the breakup. “Look!” I said, waving my iPhone 5 in his face. (I didn’t mention that at this early point in the app’s history, it was mostly populated by 20-year-old college students and S.F. tech bros who exclusively wore free T-shirts from start-ups.) By June, my boyfriend had gone through with the breakup and moved on — quickly and not via app — to a woman he’d met through mutual friends. I wanted to die. But instead of the sweet relief of death: Tinder.
That July, after several swipes and false starts and conversations about “logistics” with friends who, like me, had downloaded the app but never gone out with a match, I had my first actual Tinder date: Jameson. Either his bio had a joke about “taking a shot of Jameson” or my opening message did. I’d chosen a pale-blue minidress that showed some tit but not too much tit because I was meeting him straight after work. And he’d chosen happy hour at an Irish pub in Alphabet City that was dive-y but not too dive-y. I’d chosen him because he had hair like Felicity-era Scott Speedman, and while nothing he said was that impressive, it also wasn’t boring or offensive, which I’d already recognized as hallmarks of most Tinder conversations.
Jameson worked for a carpet-importing business and paid for everything (nice!) from a thick roll of cash (uh, okay!). I had too many whiskey gingers on an empty stomach and was drunk 90 minutes in. To his credit, he waited until around 120 minutes before suggesting we move to his place for another drink, which was coincidentally less than a block away. Even though everything about Tinder was new, I still understood he meant it was Time for Sex. I thought to myself, This is ahead of schedule. We’d been hanging out for only two hours, and it was still light out. And I needed to eat, I told him. He waited patiently while I ate two slices of pizza at a tourist trap. Then he tried again, abruptly kissing me with grease all over my chin and pepperoni on my breath. As his tongue worked its way around my mouth with such agility I considered asking him to unearth some pepperoni stuck between my molars, I felt my body flood with the possibility of a great romance. Instead, I went home alone and felt sad he wasn’t my ex.
It wasn’t a good date or a bad date, but I liked how easy and fun it had been, and I felt certain that it would continue to be easy and fun to do again and again with other people until I settled down with someone and deleted the app.
Tinder turns ten in September, and I’m still “againing and againing with other people.” Around Tinder’s fifth anniversary, essayists and academics set out to chart the specific, permanent ways we had been reshaped and reformed by every swipe, as if we were our own sculptor’s hands. It’s now clear Tinder has become the dating air, or maybe the pollution, we all breathe. Every straight couple (Tinder will never lose its original heteronormative gloss) who admit they met on the app in their New York Times wedding announcement make Tinder seem like a legitimate path toward a happy ending. And yet as part of the first group of people to naïvely sign up for the app, I am surprised at how unobtainable a committed long-term relationship feels. Even those who have never downloaded Tinder aren’t immune to its societal effects, the kinds that make smug couples sigh with relief when they say, “I’m glad I met my partner before there were apps.” But it’s easy to overestimate the way technology shapes us and to discount the way technology bends to our needs and wills and desires. It’s possible Tinder didn’t do anything but promise us connection and we’re the ones who decided how we wanted to connect.
There are factors that may make my time on the apps different from yours — I am 36, Black, a woman, a resident of one of Tinder’s densest dating markets (New York), and I mostly date men. At this age, I often feel old — and frankly a little embarrassed — to still be using Tinder. I’m not in the most common age group of users (more than 50 percent are 18 to 25). I represent something like 20 percent of people who are swiping, and even Tinder seems to sense some desperation — or at least a business opportunity — in my age. Until recently, people over 30 had to pay $29.99 a month for Tinder Platinum, 50 percent more than the price for a younger user.
You may be a different user, perhaps closer to the standard (75 percent are male, according to outside sources, though Tinder was unwilling to confirm), but if you signed up near the beginning as I did, I’m sure the broad strokes of our time there aren’t so different. It started with drinks over small-batch cocktails at too-precious speakeasies and lasted through picklebacks at ironic dives and is still going through natural orange wines at intimate wine bars. In between the drinks, there have been dinner dates, comedy-show dates, concert dates, non-dates that were just hanging out for sex. There’s been bad sex, meh sex, do-it-for-the-story sex, occasionally good sex, and sometimes sex that’s made me need to take a break from sex. We might even have matched, met, and fucked the same person, an overlap I discovered with two different people I spoke to while writing this. (Remarkably, one guy was an art handler from Chicago who was only in town for a weekend, and yet somehow …)
I’ve rejected people for bad grammar, racial slurs, boring first questions, aggressive and immediate sexual overtures, overly earnest chat, GIF usage, delay of IRL meeting, or an inexplicable ick, often involving their choice in footwear. I’ve forgotten I dated and slept with someone and rematched with renewed interest. I’ve been lightly catfished and probably almost scammed. I’ve received dick pics without warning, solicited dick pics, sent nudes. It never occurred to me some specifics would turn me on: a snaggletooth, a bad tattoo in a good location, clean fingernails. I’ve ghosted and been ghosted and taken all the rejection like a champ but then been so randomly, disproportionately felled by one single rejection I’m surprised at the intensity of my rage and despair. I’ve been lucky that I’ve never had anything truly bad happen to me.
I’ve deleted the app and redownloaded the app, deleted and done it again. I’ve had so many long-term text-only encounters that for a moment I wondered if I was a digisexual. I’ve strayed and used Hinge (why don’t I get any matches?) and Bumble (just because I can message first doesn’t mean you’ll message back) and Raya (C-LIST CELEB WITH ACCESS TO A PI, CAN YOU PLEASE?), and I once downloaded something called Headero, but I’ve always come back to Tinder. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve run out of matches on more than one occasion. I’ve never made it to a fifth date, which means the longest-term relationship I’ve had from Tinder is with Tinder itself.
As a teenager, I had some early and potent sexual awakenings in Napster chat rooms. Those X-rated online conversations with strangers taught me how to be both intimate and distant at once. In my 20s, I dated people I met on OkCupid and match.com, even though I’d lie about how we met. So I was not prone to moral panic over dating apps; it seemed obvious that technology could provide a dating assist. Plus I’d seen Sex and the City. The “simpler times” of clumsy come-ons in coffee shops had their own heartaches and missed connections and misread signals. For those reasons, I was willing to trust the app with my romantic hopes and ignore the douchebaggery lurking in its DNA.
Tinder’s launch party was a sorority-sister filled rager at the home of co-founder Justin Mateen’s parents. Less than two years later, Mateen’s behavior around the office led to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. The next year, another co-founder, Sean Rad, bragged about resisting bagging a supermodel who had propositioned him on his app and misused the word sodomy (“Apparently there’s a term for someone who gets turned on by intellectual stuff. You know, just talking. What’s the word? I want to say ‘sodomy’?”) in what was meant to be his redemption press interview.
At the time, you may recall, Silicon Valley venture capitalists threw money and adoration at hotheaded unicorn kings, and the only accepted ethos in tech was “move fast and break stuff” and “disrupt”: be it laundry or the taxicab industry or helicopters to the Hamptons. Tinder wanted to disrupt sites like match.com and eHarmony and OkCupid, which favored long profiles or “scientifically” backed quizzes to pair you with your ideal date, winnowing the meat market to just a handful of possible romantic partners. Tinder would dump all that, as well as the vague aura of “only desperate people online-date.”
“It was just like … apparently, this is what people are doing now,” Jane (who, like the other Tinder users I interviewed, requested anonymity) explains about her reasoning for signing up in 2013. “I’d tried to do OkCupid. I was on it for a day. I was very overwhelmed by the amount of information you had to give out.” She liked that on Tinder she could be “as oblique” as she wanted. “You could put out weird signals and see who fit.” On her first profile, she wanted to project a version of herself that was “adventurous and smart and cool.” She selected a photo from a Halloween party of herself dressed up as Molly Ringwald. Her bio was short: “Annie Oakley slash Annie Hall,” which she thought both revealed her native Californian pride and made her sound like she had sophisticated taste. (At least that’s how it read in 2013. She jokes that now the guns and Woody Allen combination would be better suited for Parler.)
She had success in her first years on the app, winding up in more than one long-term-for-Tinder relationship (three or four months) with people who left toothbrushes and met her friends. “But I was also totally manic. I used it obsessively,” she says. “I remember a really bad episode where I heard an ex of mine was on it and I would check for hours to try to find him.”
That impulse was familiar to me. All the buzzwords that wound up making Tinder seem impersonal and gross later — gamification and geolocation, behavioral science, game theory — were also its greatest advantage in those early days. Suddenly, I had all of the people I would ever want to want on my phone, in my hand. I could now see the entirety of the marketplace of possible partners available to me. I could optimize. I could find an ex and make him realize I was still out there, available, and maybe he’d try to restart things. I could, if I swiped fanatically enough while sitting at the bar around the corner from my crush’s apartment, find his profile, swipe right, match, make him realize we were harboring secret feelings for each other. With one weeknight binge, I could shave years off the search for long-term companionship. “It’s a numbers game,” I learned to say.
Each date proved me to be both incredibly brave and the biggest wimp. Even as I tried to be a game theorist, it was hard not to read genuine possibility into every encounter. “I think I just found the love of my life,” I dramatically Gchatted my friend Liz one afternoon during work (did I even work during these years, or did I just use Tinder?). We hadn’t exchanged numbers yet, but I was certain he’d be mine, I told her. “Oh, really, how do you know?” Liz, who was not on Tinder, challenged. Well, Liz, because each time I swiped on someone I had decided I liked — really liked — based on some arbitrary mention or photo No. 4 on their profile, and we matched, and they messaged, I’d get a psychic flash of our entire relationship as if it were a rom-com, from the first kiss to dancing together at a friend’s wedding. I didn’t say that; instead, I told Liz the specifics of him: He was a documentarian and liked pizza. In one photo, he was holding a puppy; in another, he was sitting in a heart-shaped hot tub in a sleazy motel room. He had a lot of chest hair. Love, thy name was Jay.
According to the rest of the chat history, Jay and I did agree to meet. Liz joked she couldn’t wait for the wedding so she could print out these Gchats and read them out loud during a speech at the reception. Before the date, I had a preexisting appointment with my usual tarot-card reader. Naturally, I asked where things would go with Jay. “Nowhere. It will go nowhere,” she divined.
Over the years, there were so many Jays I cannot count them all. I learned to be buoyant in the face of disappointment. So many of these dates were just people plucked out of a random void and returned to that void after. The memory of their rejection couldn’t last if they didn’t. Plus there was always another message, another hit, another Jay to distract me. If there were long-term effects from this creeping sensation of disposability, I didn’t pay any attention.
Instead, I was like a laboratory: both scientist and experiment, learning what parts of my personality worked on another person. I learned to dress as someone who dated but wasn’t obviously on a date: no dresses, minimal makeup, casual shoes, “accidental” cleavage. I could intuit when the conversation had landed on the right frisson point to offer my number and on the inside joke that would carry us from text to in-person meeting. I had a handful of bars I could rely on for lighting that suited me, music that made me seem knowledgeable, and a repartee with the bartender in case the date was bad. I kept mental notes about what worked. I threw out the Madewell jeans I was wearing when the dude excused himself, talked on the phone for an hour, and came back with a halfhearted excuse about an elevator emergency in the building he managed. It was certainly the jeans’ fault he was setting up his next date while on our date. Every nonstarter was a chance for self-improvement.
Even as I got used to inventive new ways of rejecting and being rejected (ghosting, pigging, breadcrumbing, slow fading, relationshopping, weaponization of attachment theory), swimming in the murky waters was still fun. This was before profiles showed the scars of too much time on dating apps (“No, I will not follow you on Instagram,” “serious relationships only,” “please don’t catfish me”) or boasted “necessary” virtue signaling (“If you voted for Trump swipe on, BLM, ACAB, Anti-capitalist only”) or became ads for people’s open relationships (“ENM, happily partnered but we play separately”).
I began to think about my dates in terms of a cast of characters on a TV show, with cameos by DAN TINDER, SETH HINGE, SAM DECENT DICK, CON-AIR (an annual cross-country connection), and the people who are in my phone only as DO NOT ANSER, DO NOT ANSWER, and DO NOT TEXT, though I can barely remember why they’re blacklisted now. There was “That’s sick!” Guy, who yelled “That’s sick!” when he came. He had only a one-episode appearance. There was the Tall Teacher, who had enough steam for a multi-episode arc but was too nice and boring to carry a season. The only multi-season story line was Adrian, who, for one year, would message me every few months. In December, he asked, “can I lick your [redacted] for breakfast lunch and dinner?” In March, he reached out to let me know we could “[redacted] and then we can taste you together.” In June, a man of consistency, he returned to declare “I wanna [bleeped out] let you [redacted] on my [redacted] can I try that?” This past fall, I rematched with him and carried out a whole conversation before I realized his requests to perform cunnilingus had an eerily familiar linguistic signature.
Of the dozens of people I’ve spoken to about their early experiences on Tinder, the ones who successfully found a partner seem to fall into two camps: They’re either the annoying people who met their partner on their “first-ever Tinder date” during the first year, or they determinedly and doggedly dated with clinical precision, making dating a second job. A woman named Hannah, who popped into my DMs to share her experience, explained how she developed a “date zero” tactic, meeting for a single drink for one hour to suss out the vibe. After that, she’d take a moment to consider if she actually wanted a real first date. Some apps seem to promise specific outcomes, forcing users to understand what they want out of connections. (Hinge you download if you want to date seriously; Feeld you download if you want to hump respectfully.) Tinder has always promised and attracted chaos. For some, the chaos magically produced a great match, while for others, the chaos was something to manage and tame, dating by quota and Excel spreadsheet or automated bot. The less meticulous or lucky are simply at the mercy of the chaos.
By 2015, studies were regularly popping up about Tinder’s effects on brains and hearts and societal well-being — how it was lowering our self-esteem and making us lonelier, how the snap-judgment swiping was enabling racial bias, and how the apps’ lack of safety features let people get away with harassment in messages and in person.
At the time, I knew it was doing something to me, but I didn’t see the impending dating apocalypse that Nancy Jo Sales wrote about in Vanity Fair. The article suggested, for the first time, that Tinder was irrevocably fucking up our ability to date normally. To prove it, she followed a handful of insufferable (weren’t we all) 20-somethings in New York as they navigated Tinder, chronicling how “Fuckboys” and “Tinderellas” (I promise we didn’t call anyone that) dated one another and slept with one another. Sales reported how Tinder normalized the psychologically and socially damaging behaviors of hookup culture, where young people devalued sex and themselves in their relentless pursuit of short-term flings. I remember being struck in particular by a guy in the story who was so sick of fucking women, yet off he went, begrudgingly, to fuck another woman he didn’t care about just because they’d matched on the app.
TINDER IS TEARING SOCIETY APART, the New York Post summarized after the article went viral.
I read it and thought, If it was really all that dramatic, wouldn’t we have stopped using the damn app? I also worried I’d been confused about sexual capital and sexual freedom. Did I like sex this way, or was I just told to like sex this way? Then I read the story again and realized it was sort of an instruction manual. The reason Tinder wasn’t working for me had nothing to do with me, I theorized with friends, and everything to do with the fact that I thought I was using it to find a boyfriend when I should have been using it to fuck, as everyone else was, apparently. And off I went, giving myself full permission to abandon the pursuit of love.
I changed my photo from a smiley me on a baby-pink bike, laughing, to a sullen-faced me, throwing fuck eyes, alone on vacation in Argentina. I changed my bio to “Yeah. Sure. Why not.” Should I have worried? Seen this as an indication that I no longer saw love and partnership as a realistic goal? Maybe, but I didn’t.
It felt like a natural progression of something that had become an increasingly unnatural feeling. There were people I saw one day a week for weeks in a row whose roommates’ names I never learned; that would have been an overassertion of intimacy not matching our actual knowledge of or attachment to each other — everything was built to be disposable and short term. I didn’t like it like this. I didn’t want intimacy lite, so I decided I might as well cut intimacy out of my diet altogether.
Tinder was now just Seamless for sex. I swiped while traveling. In L.A. for work, I made use of company-subsidized hotel rooms. On vacation, using Tinder’s new Passport feature, I had flings with interesting people who also gave me restaurant recommendations. (“Here for a good time, not a long time,” my bio said.) I took more chances. I didn’t dismiss people for showing up as a green bubble. It didn’t matter if they were truly bizarre humans (often better) or if they said ridiculous things to impress me like “Yeah, I rap sometimes” — they weren’t people to me anyway. Sometimes the meetups and exchanges ended in sex, and sometimes they didn’t, but I felt more in control than I had when I was trying to date for something more.
Sometimes, though, I wondered if my desire was being manufactured. In 2016, then-CEO Rad explained in an interview with Fast Company that Tinder matched members based on “desirability” using the same scoring system that ranks chess players: When you’ve played an advanced player with a high score, you gain more points than if you’ve played someone with a lower score. On Tinder, then, if you matched with someone hot, you got hotter matches. The marketplace wasn’t wide open. Instead, you were given your aesthetically compatible matches and told of the rest, “Don’t even bother.” In 2019, a post on the company’s blog said it had abandoned that algorithm (presumably for something even more exacting). Still, it’s impossible not to see myself on an attractiveness scale determined by Tinder and to wonder if what I find attractive is modulated by the matches I am “good enough” for. Do I even like men with mustaches, really, or has this weird social experiment just conditioned me to want to sit on the face of a man who has one?
One night at home in 2015, I sat on my couch, picking a playlist, waiting for a Thor-looking dude who worked in book publishing to arrive. I’d showered, hidden my piles, let my friends know someone was coming over, and sent them a name and a photo just in case I got disappeared. The doorbell rang around 10 p.m. He was shorter than I expected, par for the course, but more muscular. If there were things about me that fell short of his expectations, he didn’t show it. I turned and led him inside. “I knew you’d have a nice butt,” he commented.
I poured us some whiskey because I’d said I was a whiskey girl, even though I am whiskey ambivalent. We made nice small talk. I didn’t move him to the bedroom — that was too personal — instead, we had sex on the couch. After, while sitting naked next to each other making more uncertain small talk, he started crying. About a girlfriend he’d broken up with, how they were still living together, about the torture of trying to figure out a modification for the stick and poke she’d given him. I felt resentful that he had brought his emotional needs into my carefree fuckpad. As his tears dried up, so did my horn. “You look sexy in that robe,” he sniffled, and began to loosen it, looking for solace in a second round.
I assumed if the apocalypse Nancy Jo Sales predicted ever did arrive, it would feel catastrophic and abrupt and destructive. Instead, I was just weary. Soon after Crying Guy, I deleted the app.
The urge to delete and redownload and delete for me never really feels instigated by one horrible incident. Something can go wrong and I’ll double down on swiping, trying to update photos or tweak my bio for better results. Another time, one little snag, a dropped conversation or a match with someone who unmatched me as soon as I messaged “hello ✌️,” or getting excited for a date and finding the real-life version smelled overwhelmingly like corn, and I’ll groan in disgust and delete my account. Sometimes, after a pleasant run of conversation or a good date that goes nowhere, I am too tired to start again with new banter and new rhythms and new reveals and a new, enticing self.
Amanda also got on the app ten years ago when she first moved to New York. She figures she has been on almost 1,000 dates by now. “I’m a hopeless romantic and also a practical optimist,” she explains, almost the ideal psychological profile (other than a sociopath) for someone who remains on Tinder after all these years. When she deleted it at the end of 2015, it wasn’t because of one bad date — like, for example, the time she went out with a guy who told her she had “shark Jew eyes.” Instead, she had started thinking of Tinder as “derogatory and crass.” At 32, she was beginning to ask herself why she hadn’t yet had a serious relationship. She wanted to know she could get into one without an app. She met someone, a co-worker she’d always felt an attraction for, but wasn’t sure she could date until, ironically, she saw him on Tinder. When that relationship ended, she realized she’d missed being able to go out on adventures with new people. Also, she says, “I think I’ve been so accustomed to meeting people and dating from apps that on the rare occasion when I have been hit on IRL, I get thrown for a loop and end up feeling blindsided and unprepared.” She recalls an outing with friends on a loose acquaintance kept hinting they should hang out. “I told him, ‘We’re hanging out right now?’ ” She couldn’t recognize, in this context of real life, that he was pursuing her. She got back on Tinder.
That was in 2017, the same year I returned, in my case because Tinder seemed like a way to wean myself off an expensive Candy Crush habit; after all, it lit up the same pleasure centers of my brain. Also, a relationship I’d wanted to work out hadn’t, and it felt like there was nowhere else to turn. When you come back to the app, it’s like saging the room. Everyone you swiped right on and didn’t match with and everyone you swiped left on and everyone that unmatched you must consider you again.
Almost immediately, that winter, I started dating (for three weeks! Which was only four dates) a Norwegian artist. He was a ginger and vegan, kind and alert. He had a strong nose and had once been arrested in Oslo for tagging a building. He told me about the prison sauna, and we had a whole debacle with a clam pie at Speedy Romeo that could have mortified me, but instead we laughed hysterically about it. I was in. But when I sent him a photo of me and a friend enjoying $1 Long Island iced teas and a mountain of mozz sticks at Applebee’s, he ended things by simply never responding. I was bothered, but it’s still my reference point for “using the app correctly”: meeting someone interesting I never would have met; having good conversation and fun sex with them; walking away with fond feelings, a few good stories, and most of my sanity intact.
The years since then are a blur of swiping and matching and talking and stopping and then deleting and downloading and seeing Jared, 40, on Tinder every time I do and feeling sad that he’s probably stuck on the same emotional roller coaster I am, but I won’t swipe right because he likes Crossfit. In the liminal spaces between people of interest, I do wonder if the app has exacerbated certain aspects of my personality, made it easier to be nasty or avoidant or careless or clingy or overstimulated and flaky. If I had never downloaded the app, would I still be single?
Early in the pandemic, I would take walks in Fort Greene Park. Usually, if I was walking up to the monument at the center of the park, I would skip the path Frederick Law Olmstead had designed a century ago and instead walk up a grassy hill where dogs play during off-leash hours because it was faster and less difficult. Many people did the same thing, so many that the grass was trampled and refused to grow back. Urban planners call these “desire paths,” well-worn ribbons of foot traffic in the terrain that are “a consequence of the usage of the shortest route to a destination.” In the pandemic, though, there was time to reengage with things we had been rushing through. I stopped taking the shortcut.
In the face of acute loneliness becoming a terminal condition, my dating-app ennui miraculously lifted. On March 29, about two weeks after New York shut down, there were 3 billion swipes on Tinder. People were willing to treat people like, well, people, because all of a sudden we were without them. Our assessments of matches changed. We could go slower, be more selective. We had to. We reverted to what was rebranded by Time as “intentional dating.” A different kind of intimacy emerged. There were stories of phone conversations and video dates before meeting in person and chaste meetings in the park and slow courtship and rapid moving in together and soul mates. There was a realization that we didn’t have to use Tinder the way we had been using it. We could improve it.
April 2020: I was staying in my mother’s house, surrounded by personal artifacts of “simpler times” (a flip-phone graveyard, an empty Magic Wand box) in my childhood bedroom, when I got a message from PJ, 39, back in Brooklyn. There was a red flag: He didn’t have a bio (mine was “Can someone tell me what day it is? To which he responded, “Wednesday.” It was Friday). He had just emerged from a ten-year relationship and was brand new to the apps, but he was chatty and quick-witted, and we talked every day for months before we met. I learned his taste in music (Gen-X white-guy rock), and he watched movies I recommended. He hated pop culture but liked when I talked about it. He could make plants grow, and I lamented the fact that I killed every plant I purchased. For the first time in a long time, I wanted someone in a way that felt organic and not calculated and Tinder-y. Because I’d taken the slow loop, it felt like I really got to know him, so by the time we did have sex, one afternoon, when he showed up at my door holding the thoughtful gift of a murderproof plant, it was next-level spiritual soul-mate shit.
Given the outcome of most pandemic pastimes (did anybody keep up those sourdough-baking and LEGO-building hobbies?), it should not surprise anyone when I say PJ was less next-level spiritual soul mate and more shit. In fact, he was married with two children and using Tinder to cheat. And that November, when it all came to a head, in my devastation, I reverted to using Tinder the way I knew how. Seamlessing a man: a librarian with a big dick who Rollerbladed to my house just when I needed the emotional distraction and left exactly when I needed him to.
“I don’t think it’s Tinder’s fault that I’m still single,” Amanda said over the phone, suddenly making me aware of the fact that I do. Amanda was getting ready for a date as we spoke. She was hopeful, excited even, but realistic. She has a lot of great first dates, she says, then she’s disappointed on the second one, and she knows it really takes her about five dates to determine if she likes someone.
I wonder, listening to Amanda, if perhaps I’m again defining success and failure on Tinder incorrectly. I had been using Tinder for things that occur only sporadically and chaotically — relationships, good sex, adventure. What Tinder is good at, what it seems designed to do, is make me much better at being single.
If I find myself alone on a Saturday when I don’t want to be, Tinder’s marketplace offers an ambient comfort that I can find a way out of specific loneliness and into a drink. And because the people I meet are strangers with very little connection to my actual life, I can compartmentalize my dating instead of letting it pervade parts of my life that bring me the most satisfaction: If I go to a party, I’m not overly concerned whether there will be a single person there (so annoying); I travel alone; I’m not always badgering people for setups. Friends never see even a screenshot of someone I’m going on a date with anymore. I live my life; I go on dates. One doesn’t really affect the other. If I think about Tinder in these terms, I’ve conquered it, even if it’s not in the way I expected.
Not to say I can’t still be thrown off course when it goes awry, like last summer, when I was temporarily living in the Catskills. I went on a date with a British actor named Alex. The date was great; he saved me from a skunk. And after we parted ways, he immediately messaged me to say he regretted not asking me to come have a beer back at his house. By the time I got home, there were several messages asking for a second date. We confirmed a day, the day came, and surprise! He canceled. “Maybe COVID,” he said and left me to wonder if he was lying and why. The highs, I suppose, have gotten flatter, but it’s harder to sustain the lows. For days, I Googled “Skunk good omen bad omen,” again looking for some sort of supernatural explanation for this very earthly rejection.
Even my therapist was confused by this one. She made me tell the story again. I went through it all woefully, a thorough autopsy of a dead hope. And then she suggested, “He was an actor, right? Maybe he was rehearsing? For a part? Of a person in love?”
I was haunted by that, but I am guilty of it too. According to a study called “Swiping for Love,” it’s maybe a necessary tactic, not just one man’s psychopathy. The study investigated whether it was possible to incorporate traditional ideas of love into modern modes of dating, specifically Tinder. Subject after subject reported that they were on Tinder to find someone to love and to love them back and defined love in the most traditional of terms: something that took work, a container in which sex was sacred and where intimacy built over time. They acknowledged that their encounters on Tinder didn’t offer that, yet they went to Tinder to find it. The contradiction was confusing: They wanted sex to be meaningful but felt that Tinder removed the sacredness. They wanted bonds to be lasting but acknowledged they were easily broken. To make sense of the contradictions that disturbed them, the subjects insisted upon a bifurcation of the self. There was the person who was seeking love and the person who was on Tinder. To protect the part of ourselves that feels enough hope to keep us on Tinder forever, we’ve split in two.
Recently, I went on an early-evening date, and after two beers, I decided, You’ll do. We made plans to meet again, and I continued on with my night and met friends at a bar where people actually danced with one another. I reported to everyone: “The date was good! He spoke five languages and had a great beard and seemed to like me!” All of my friends, who are married or in serious relationships, looked relieved. “Oh, good,” they said. “You normally don’t sound this excited about a person.” Then I got caught talking to a friend of a friend — this scumbaggy guy with a tiny little mullet and a tiny little earring. Unfortunately, against reason, I realized I wanted to fuck him so badly I let him explain the nuances of American Sign Language to me (he does not know ASL). It was worth it for the moment he leaned in so close to my ear he bonked his nose on my temple and I had a full body reaction.
I talked about it for days, the nose bonk. This, I told my friend, was what was missing from Tinder dates. Tinder was robbing me of pheromone, it was messing with my ability to feel my horniness and follow it wherever. Yes, steady, tidy, prearranged encounters were helpful, but this was attraction, so feral and potentially life-ruining I didn’t know what to do with it anymore, so I did nothing at all. Instead, the next day, I reached out to You’ll Do guy, who ghosted me before date two.