As a result of strict parents and a general adolescent disinterest in people, I moved to New York for college having been on exactly one (1) date. It wasn’t great preparation for life in the big city. The only information I could access about dating was from a limited selection of movies, TV, and magazines, all terrible tools for learning about consent and boundaries. I left home wholly unprepared for New York’s aggressive dating culture. I learned how to make out before I learned how to hold hands, so I ended up in a lot of unsafe, emotionally manipulative, and generally bad situations. There didn’t seem to be any way out of it
That is, until Tinder came up.
Initially apprehensive about the freaky realm of online dating, Tinder’s taglines were intriguing. Built to expand your dating life outside of your circles, the app clicked perfectly with my new “thou shall never ever date a friend ever again, ever” rule.
So I learned how to swipe and quickly figured out the red flags to look for in someone’s picture, bio, and messages. Men with professional head shots or photos of exotic animals, or men who include the gym, their frat, travel, entrepreneurship, or Tame Impala in their bios: These slide away with the swipe of a thumb. If you allow them into your messages and they, say, try to hit on you by invoking both incest and rape, or by copying and pasting a graphic essay from a pick-up artist site, you can report them and maybe get them kicked off the app.
Tinder’s entire structure is built upon layers of “no”: a swipe left is a no, unmatching someone is a no, blocking and reporting someone is a hell no. Other dating apps, like Bumble, operate similarly, making “no” as simple as a few taps on a screen. Saying no in so many nonverbal ways makes saying no out loud become gradually easier.
Realistically, reporting people doesn’t always work. People (mostly men) still find ways to circumvent any type of no you throw at them. They DM you on Instagram to tell you that you should give them a chance after you swiped left. They text you months later to say that they saw you and wanted to say hi. You wake up to a 3 a.m. Facebook message from an ex saying he’s near your apartment and it’s cold outside. Tinder’s not perfect, but there’s a certain power in saying no over and over again, via swipe, block, report, or, I guess, now throwing a drink in someone’s face.
It’s obviously not enough; Tinder’s layers of no don’t fix the 200,000 untested rape kits in America alone, or a police system that largely doesn’t care about sexual assault. I swiped left so many times, reported an insane number of men ranging from creepy to manipulative to threatening. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
From the number of nos I sent out, I could have taken away that men are awful and irredeemable and Tinder is a cesspit of despair. At times, this was true: Tinder doesn’t correct toxic masculine behavior on or off the app. But for the most part, it validated my boundaries and let me be rightfully pissed when anyone tried to breach them. Women are generally socialized to be accommodating and uncomfortable in conversation, lest they be killed, or worse, be deemed unlikable, high-maintenance, dramatic, ungrateful, silly, histrionic — my parents still tell me to be less opinionated, lest I hurt someone’s feelings. But after subjecting myself to an endless internet dump of aggressive and disgusting people, I was fine being rude, demanding, or bitchy right back. Why should I give a good attitude to an asshole? On particularly bad dates, I just left once I’d had enough. If they were nice, but not for me, I’d tell them and go home. When a guy ghosted me after insisting we were dating, I made him call me — why should he get to exempt himself from his own behavior at my expense?
We’ve all joked about cutting down men on Tinder (at least, all of my female and queer friends have), shared screenshots and sniggered at men clearly unaware of or confident in their creepy and rude attitudes. But it was constant, annoying, and too often threatening (and always from men). In cases where a direct no translated to “playing hard to get,” and subsequently violent threats, I yelled, I blocked, I reported.
There’s plenty of tangible evidence of how people are emboldened to say things online that they’d keep under wraps in real life. The majority of that focuses on misogynists and neo-Nazi’s creating spaces to fester their harmful ideologies — far too little celebrates how queer people, women, and people of color use the same medium to form networks that legitimize experiences, feelings, and fears. The Shitty Media Men list was a complicated mess — but it leveraged the anonymity of the internet to create a space in which women learned that we weren’t crazy, that there were people hunting for our bodies at work. My oldest friend came out to me not in person, but over MSN Messenger in middle school. And Tinder told me that I was right to be angry when people act inappropriately toward me. As Mark Zuckerberg and u/spez try to figure out the problem of free speech sans toxicity, I hope the beneficial aspects of screen-to-screen communication aren’t lost. If only for the sake of my love life.