Has Tinder Really Sparked a Dating Apocalypse?

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Photo: J.A. Bracchi/(c) J.A. Bracchi

Last night, the Twitter account for Tinder went on a tear against the Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales, who recently argued, in her feature “Tinder and the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” that dating apps are causing changes in human mating rituals of a magnitude comparable to those that occurred after the establishment of marriage. “As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex,” Sales writes. “Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship.”

The traditional methods of dating and courtship are out; endlessly jumping from fling to fling is in. And women, despite the supposed benefits of sexual liberation, are coming out losers in this hurried new sexual landscape — used, then discarded in a pile of dick pics. For the article, Sales conducted “interviews with more than 50 young women in New York, Indiana, and Delaware, aged 19 to 29,” as well as many men, and it adds up to a series of sleazy, depressing stories. And she’s hardly the first journalist to raise this alarm: Over the last few years, reports on  “hookup culture” — some focusing on alcohol and campus culture, some on technology, and some on both — have become a thriving genre.

Although Sales pins her case on online dating in general, she’s mostly focused on Tinder, whose “swipe” function she sees as the epitome of quick and easy shopping for sex. Tinder did not like this, and 30 ill-advised tweets ensued, first questioning Sales’ reporting, escalating to claiming that Tinder is bringing people in China and North Korea together, and culminating in the grand pronouncement that “Generation Tinder” is changing the world.

This was standard-issue self-importance from the tech industry, a place where people go to make billions overnight while telling everyone that they’re also enlightening humanity. But here’s the thing: Tinder had a point, at least about the way Sales portrays modern dating culture.

If you hang out with stats geeks for long enough, one of them will probably utter the sentence, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” This is a well-worn nerdism, but it reveals an important truth: When we consider our experiences and those of our friends and family, we’re only getting a tiny chunk of the full story of humanity. In that town over there, or in that state on the other side of the country, things might be very, very different, and it would be a mistake to extrapolate from our little slice of the world. This is worth keeping in mind whenever a new moral panic is afoot.

Sales’ account is loaded with anecdotes: There’s the finance guy who claims to have slept with 30 to 40 women off Tinder in the last year; the 23-year-old male model who insists that women want guys to send them dick pics (cool story, bro); the sorority sisters bemoaning the fact that college men, drenched with easy access to sex, are so bad at it; and the 26-year-old guy — think of him as a Tinder-era Walter Sobchak — who assures Sales that if he wanted to, he could find someone to have sex with by midnight.

The problem is that while Sales certainly spins a good yarn, it doesn’t really add up to evidence that something revolutionary is afoot. It’s one thing to write an ethnographic piece about Tinder-maters in their natural habitat; it’s another to extrapolate this to make sweeping claims about the epochal ways dating and sex are changing. This goes back to that anecdote/data thing. Wandering about and talking to people is important — is, in fact, a cornerstone of journalism — but there are inherent limitations to it. There will inevitably be some bias in who you talk to, or in who’s willing to talk to you; in Sales’ case, we hear almost exclusively from young, single people who are active (sometimes overactive) Tinder users, and almost entirely from men who are constantly looking for casual sex. In other words, Sales is talking to exactly the sorts of people you’d expect to use dating apps in a way that will help them find more people to sleep with, and then, having discovered that these promiscuous people use a promiscuity-enabling app to find other promiscuous people to have promiscuous sex with, reporting back to us that we’re in the midst of a promiscuity-fueled dating “revolution” in how people deal with romance and sex. This is known as confirmation bias.

Tinder super-users are an important slice of the population to study, yes, but they can’t be used as a stand-in for “millennials” or “society” or any other such broad categories. Where are the 20-somethings in committed relationships in Sales’ article? Where are the awkward, lonely young men who feel like they can’t find anyone to have sex with, let alone date them? Where are the women who stay off Tinder because they don’t like the meat-market feel of it? Where are the men and women who find lifetime partners from these apps? (Just off the top of my head, I can think of one guy I know who met his husband on Grindr and a woman who met her fiancé on Tinder, as well as countless long-term relationships that started on OKCupid.) Where are the many, many millennials who get married in their early or mid-20s? Reading Sales’ article, you’d think Tinder had wiped out all these millennials like, well, that aforementioned asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. But there are still millions of young people muddling through relatively “traditional” experiences of dating (and romantic deprivation).

If anyone is equipped to answer these questions about dating and sexual mores in a more rigorous way, it’s the social scientists who use national surveys to study attitudes and behavior change over time. In her piece, Sales cites the research of Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Twenge is the co-author, with Ryne Sherman of Florida Atlantic University, of a study released earlier this year in which the pair analyzed the results of the General Social Survey, a (mostly) annual, nationally representative survey that’s been administered for decades, between 1972 and 2012. The data, culled from between about 27,000 and 33,000 Americans (there were different numbers of responses available for different questions and years), showed that millennials appear to be having sex with fewer partners than the last couple generations were — specifically, “Number of sexual partners increased steadily between the G.I.s and 1960s-born Gen X’ers and then dipped among Millennials to return to Boomer levels.”

If dating culture were in fact imploding into a sticky morass of one-night-stands in any meaningful way, it would likely show up in this sort of data. But Sales addressed this study solely to brush it aside in a parenthetical paragraph noting that the authors told her “their analysis was based partly on projections derived from a statistical model, not entirely from direct side-by-side comparisons of numbers of sex partners reported by respondents.” Well, no — there are plenty of side-by-side comparisons in Twenge and Sherman’s research, since the study is based on a survey in which the same question is asked in the same way over the years. As for the “projections,” that just refers to the fact that the authors can’t provide lifetime numbers of sexual partners for millennials who are still very much alive, so they projected that one category. It doesn’t bear on the overall finding that there’s no sign of an explosion in promiscuity. (To be fair, the paper’s data ends in 2012, which was pre-Tinder, but well into the era of OKCupid and other online dating services that opened up a whole new world of sex and dating partners.)

Twenge told me that when she spoke with Sales, the journalist seemed to have arrived with some preconceived notions of what the real story was here, and was therefore very skeptical of Twenge’s data. “She said, ‘Well, I’ve gone around the country talking to college students and adults and all I’m hearing is about the hooking up and so on. I don’t believe what you’ve found,’” said Twenge. “I said, ‘Well, there’s a really big difference between going around and talking to people and a nationally representative survey,’ and I must have repeated that five or six times, and it was clear she was not really hearing me.’” Twenge made it sound like a classic case of journalistic and social-scientific culture clashing: “Suffice to say that this reporter had her conclusion and then just didn’t want to believe anything I told her about her analysis,” Twenge explained.

I emailed Sales about Twenge’s work: “The conclusions of the study seemed somewhat suspect to me,” she said. “And contradictory. For example: It finds that, while millennials have more open and accepting attitudes about sex, they also have fewer sex partners. This didn’t make sense to me. Nor did it make sense that people who are waiting longer to marry (or not marrying at all, so far) — that is, millennials — would also have fewer sex partners than past generations, who married earlier.”

But it doesn’t matter whether the conclusions of the study “make sense” to Sales. The whole point of a large, nationally representative sample is that it captures a bigger slice of the picture than more piecemeal efforts like traditional journalism. Later in her email to me, Sales referenced Twenge’s argument in her paper that the fear of AIDS could explain the fact that while acceptance of casual sex is going up, there hasn’t quite been a commensurate rise in the number of people’s sexual partners. “This really didn’t seem correct to me, either, since fear of AIDS has been much reduced by the advancement of AIDS drugs and other social factors.” But, again — it doesn’t matter whether or not given findings “seem correct” unless you can explain why the data’s wrong.

(Data isn’t infallible, of course, and Sales said she hired a data scientist who found issues with Twenge and Sherman’s analysis but couldn’t fit it into the piece. Sales told me she couldn’t put me in touch with the data scientist because she’s traveling; Twenge, for her part, said her co-author Sherman, who did the brunt of the data analysis for the article, spoke with Sales about the data scientist’s concerns — Sales said the data scientist was too busy to speak with Sherman herself — and was convinced she was making a fundamentally wrong critique.)

Taking a moral-panic approach to something like mobile online dating makes for a good story, but it also drowns out the opportunity for a richer conversation, and hardens certain false notions about millennial culture. Online dating clearly is changing how many people meet other people and date and have sex. But it’s probably changing their behavior in all sorts of different, sometimes conflicting ways. In some cases, it’s probably helping people find husbands and wives sooner, leading them to have fewer sex partners. In others, it probably does lead to some decision paralysis and frustration with dating. In many cases, it probably just reinforces the user’s preexisting preferences — pro- or anti-promiscuity, pro– or anti–finding someone to settle down with.

But you wouldn’t be able to fit “apocalypse” into that headline.

Corrections: I incorrectly wrote that the Twenge/Sherman study looked at the “results of the General Social Survey, a (mostly) annual, nationally representative survey that’s been administered for decades, between 1972 and 2002.” The latter year should have been 2012.

I also wrote that Sherman spoke directly with Sales’ data scientist. Twenge corrected me in an email: “Ryne Sherman spoke with Sales, not the data scientist. Sales said the data scientist was too busy to talk to Ryne, but said the data scientist had walked her through the critique.”

The sentence, "This was standard-issue self-importance from Silicon Valley, a place where people go to make billions overnight while telling everyone that they’re also enlightening humanity" also gave the false impression that Tinder is based in Silicon Valley, when it’s actually based in L.A. The sentence has been updated to reflect the fact that it was meant to reference the tech industry more broadly.