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How dating apps reflect our changing times

As we look forward to explore what’s next in love and sex, it makes sense to examine to the heart. That which lovers have once worn on their sleeve is now being navigated in the palm of our hands. With mobile devices and apps letting us literally explore desires with our fingertips, as social scientists we are in a new frontier in which to examine who we pursue for love, and why. Is this the end of romance, or the beginning of a new way to love and connect to one another?

With over 1,500 dating apps on the market, many have come to the conclusion that the romance of courtship has been replaced with fantasy and heavily-edited Instagram photos.  Along with driving this increase in dating apps, the millennial generation is also delaying marriage and moving away from conventional religious practices. Because of this, many popular magazines and TV shows suggest that hook-up culture dominates contemporary pursuits of love. Right-swiping, label free, highly educated, and technologically savvy, today’s young people appear to pursue sex frequently and do so on their own terms. There also appears to be much more equal footing between genders than ever before.

Anyone can download a dating app and begin swiping left or right within minutes, it does not seem to mean that more people are having sex. In fact, 15% of 20 to 24 year olds born in the 90s reported no recent sexual partners compared to 6% of Gen Xers (when they were the same age). This is likely more about our current cultural climate and less of a generational difference.  Recently researchers found out that across all generations, reported frequency of sex appears to be falling compared to even two years ago. Even the Washington Post recently suggested Americans are having a sexual dry spell, opaquely insinuating that desire has been replaced with student loan debt and existential peril.

Economic anxieties aside, we have to wonder: If connecting to one another is easier than ever, why are we more likely than ever to keep our hands to ourselves?

It may be that the dry spell is not a dry spell at all, but a sexual recalibration. Some scientists suggest that less sex doesn’t reflect relationship satisfaction or overall happiness. In fact, less sex could mean that people having healthier “sex diets,” partly driven by people’s increased ability to apply selective criteria to potential romantic partners.

Accelerating this growing desire for romantic discernment may be the advent of new and specialized dating apps. Instead of relying on a friend’s opinion on a potential romantic partner after a few drinks at the bar, you can now enlist your friends through the app Wingman to peruse potential romantic partners for you and select what they think is your best match. This makes us more selective about who we ultimately meet in real life, decreasing the need to go to out and nervously introduce yourself to a potential suitor sitting across the room.

However, this increased discernment means that some people aren’t having much sex, but other people are having most of the sex, especially heterosexual individuals. A recent study analyzing swipes and likes on Tinder showed that the top 20% of men, in terms of attractiveness, were pursued by the top 78% of women. What this suggests is that the online dating market is heavily unequal in terms of who is most likely to receive attention from the opposite sex. It is not surprising then to see the decline in sex in the overall population is being led by a particular proportion of young men. Even the dating market experiences its own versions of economic inequality.

But these statistics aren’t meant to dissuade a longing lover from trying his or her hand at meeting a potential romantic partner. In fact, technology may be providing new tools for connection that have never existed before. A new site called Dating-Bots allows programmers to upload specially trained bots for the public to use that can be deployed on a number of different dating sites. These bots then chat with potential suitors using dialogue that has been statistically tested to garner the most replies or phone numbers. These bots promise to “take your love life to the next level” while “teaching you how to flirt” and “helping you select the best match.”

Ultimately, dating apps are developing based on our prurient interests in finding the best possible mate for our current market value in the dating market. Some apps help to give people the best chances for achieving that, while others may make it easier for those with the most desirable qualities to be selected at higher rates than ever before. However, like most markets, in time there will be more parity as new tools emerge for connecting different types of romantic partners.

What this all means for researchers is that to understand sexual behaviors, we must look at the economy, culture, and technological changes together to understand changes in overall averages of sex rates and habits. While online dating is most likely not the cause of a Dating Apocalypse, it is likely a telling window into the hearts, minds, and libidos of our ever-evolving American culture.

Featured image by Rob Hampson via unsplash

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