The Tinder-Is-Satan Arms Race Heats Up Further

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Photo: Birgit Klemt/Getty Images

In terms of scary culture-panic headlines, it would be hard to one-up “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’” the headline above the scaremongering, profoundly oversimplified Vanity Fair feature by Nancy Jo Sales I critiqued last week. Leave it to the New York Post, though, to accelerate the culture-panic rhetorical arms race: “Tinder is tearing society apart,” screamed a column in yesterday’s paper directly into the ears of terrorized and confused parents.

In it, Naomi Schaefer Riley offers a panicky, breathless account of Sales’s account of the narrow slice of millennials she spoke to. If it doesn’t quite hold together, that’s because Riley’s column isn’t really about Tinder. Rather, it’s a raw expression of timeless fury at what Kids These Days are up to. Of course Riley’s mention of marriage rates falling since 1970 is relevant to a discussion about mobile-dating apps, because … well, kids these days!

She’s aware of the criticisms of these culture-panic arguments, but she brushes them aside:

Skeptics will say that Ivy League grads working at investment banks have never had trouble finding sexual partners in New York. I have certainly known my share of them. They would yammer on about how many dates they would have to sit through before expecting sex — three was the max, I recall.

They would have first date, second date, and third date restaurants, representing how much they would spend to get a girl into bed.

It all seems quaint now. These apps have brought the men’s “game” to a new level. First of all, they never have to leave their apartments, let alone spend money on a date. Now it’s just messages like “Send me nudes.” Or “I’m looking for something quick in the next 10 or 20 minutes.”

They never have to leave their apartments. That damnable interwebs delivers them women like pizza!

As with all these arguments, at the end of the day it’s really about protecting helpless women from the perverts stalking the real-life bars of Manhattan and the cyberbar that is Tinder: “[I]f a critical mass of women are willing to be used by hook-up culture, because that’s what all the kids are doing these days, it affects everyone’s prospects. Men too are allowed to live in a perpetual adolescence and never find out what it means to put effort into a relationship.”

It’s striking to read Riley’s column and the feature that birthed it, and then to read Moira Weigel’s wonderful piece in The New Republic on this same subject. Weigel, a researcher at Yale who is working on a book about the modern history of dating, explains that “If there is one thing I have learned from combing through over a century of material about dating, it is this: People have been proclaiming that dating is about to die ever since it was invented.”

Contra Sales’s claim that Tinder reflects an epochal, unique danger to the institution of dating, Weigel explains that every step of the way, as society has changed, people have interpreted these changes as threatening to the “proper” ways men and women should interact:

In the 1890s, massive changes in the American economy and social landscape started to change courtship customs. Millions of people were migrating from the countryside, or from other countries, to large cities. And in these cities, women were going to work in public. Women who would have toiled as slaves or domestic servants or housewives if they had been born a decade earlier were finding jobs in factories and shops and restaurants. The Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has estimated that by 1900, 55 percent of American women worked outside their homes. At work, and on the street, they could meet more men every day than they would have in a lifetime in the rural villages they came from. Sometimes they “made dates” with them.

This meant they met them at a bar or restaurant or boardwalk or movie house in order to eat something or enjoy some entertainment. Given how poorly many women were paid, making dates was often the only way they could afford a hot meal, not to mention have any fun. But there was no precedent for women meeting strangers in public, unless they were “public women,” or prostitutes. And so, authorities were highly suspicious of the first women who did. Indeed, they often arrested them.

In the 1910s, the Bedford Hills Reformatory, an institution in New York founded rehabilitate female “delinquents,” was full of women who had been locked up for dating. But the Vice Squad did not, or would not, get it. (Then, as now, the police often used suspicions of sex work as a pretext to harass poor and minority populations.) These women were not necessarily promising sex to the men who had invited them out, and certainly not for cash. They only promised a few hours of their time and attention. And so, the ambiguous emotional transaction that is the modern date was born.

Every time [dating changes], trends pieces declaring a moral crisis have appeared. In the Roaring Twenties, these pieces were all about the antics of the first generation of students who mixed at coed high schools and colleges. Writers coined the phrase “sexual revolution” to describe their behavior. Magazine writers reported on their saucy slang. Among the flappers and fussers (their playboy male counterparts), there were “button shiners” (boys who danced so close to their partners that they appeared to be polishing their suit or shirt buttons on their dresses), “crumpet munchers” (who danced close “for the kick they get out of it”), and “snuggle pups” (don’t ask).

In other words, 100 years from now a cultural historian will be putting our Tinder panic in its proper cultural context: alongside the frothing rantings of moral guardians decrying heavy petting or reefer madness.