Can Anything Tender Survive on Tinder?

by Heather Robinson

There’s a very good new piece in September’s Vanity Fair magazine about the collision of “hookup culture” with dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Happn, and how this technological explosion is affecting relationships between men and women.

I’ve been writing about these issues for the past several years, especially in my columns for The Jewish Week that explored topics such as some men’s preference for the virtual over the real; many people’s difficulty focusing on one individual when dating; and the seeming diminution in male initiative and libido that has accompanied the proliferation of online dating sites and apps (and the proliferation of online pornography, though I only slightly touched on that latter subject out of deference to my employer, a family paper). It is, in fact, a subject that is under-reported and under-explored in media, given its far-reaching effects in society.

Interestingly, this Vanity Fair piece, while it does not examine the subject of online pornography and its proliferation in depth, unearths in interviews with very young people (college students) some startling trends: what sounds like widespread erectile dysfunction in college age men, for instance. From the story:

They talk about how it’s not uncommon for their hookups to lose their erections. It’s a curious medical phenomenon, the increased erectile dysfunction in young males, which has been attributed to everything from chemicals in processed foods to the lack of intimacy in hookup sex.

“If a guy can’t get hard,” Rebecca says, “and I have to say, that happens a lot, they just act like it’s the end of the world.”

“At four in the morning this guy was so upset, and I was like, Dude, I’ll just go to fucking sleep—it’s O.K.,” says Sarah, 21, the one with the long curly dark hair. “I get really tired of faking.”

This was especially striking because it is from an interview with a group of attractive college women.  The story seems to suggest the problem may be connected with overuse of pornography; the desensitizing effects of which one can only speculate on. Might it be possible, too, that the availability of “easy” sex – with young men able to “hook up” easily with many young women while investing minimal effort in courtship or any type of pursuit – could also be playing a role? The story seems to suggest that, and it’s intriguing.

Scientists have long told us that the human male is hardwired to seek as many sexual partners as possible, etc. and craves variety. But given this turn of events, might science be missing something vital in the equation regarding male sexuality? Is it possible that on some level, while men do crave easy sex with many partners, actually getting it on a continual basis with many women and almost no effort required might not, in reality, be satisfying to young men, even physically, and that, far from being “natural,” it’s wreaking havoc on the psyches of not just young women but young men also? Just speculation, but I do recall from a college sociobiology class that in the animal kingdom, most female mammals must be “in heat” in order to mate. Human females have no such biological regulating system, but it seems that human emotions and social mores serve a similar function in regulating the frequency and occurrence of sex. In other words, I would speculate that it isn’t really natural to have sex frequently with random people one doesn’t know and to have many many sexual partners. While of course there have often been promiscuous individuals and prostitution, infidelity, etc., I’m not aware of the existence of any human society in which anonymous, emotionless “hook-up” sex with strangers  and promiscuity was the norm for a broad spectrum of the population. This is something new. And it isn’t working out very well.

Because, while I realize ED is a widespread and common condition many men experience at one time or another (usually relatively later) in life, who ever heard of this particular problem becoming widespread among college boys? These are extremely young men, biologically at their sexual peak, and it sounds like a not insignificant number of them are already having a lot of trouble with basic functioning. This stunned me a little.

Then there are the girls. My heart goes out to young women in their 20’s who are “dating” today, some of whom have told me in interviews they have never actually been on a date. Although I’m sure there are many exceptions, and as I’ve often noted, people still meet, fall in love, and start families (sometimes from online dating), and the media does tend, by its nature, to distort (it is the sensational, the disruption, that makes news, not the stuff that goes well), I think that if anything, the deleterious effects of technology on human relationships – especially relations between men and women – has been under-explored and under-reported.

From the story:

On a rainy morning at the University of Delaware, the young women who live in an off-campus house are gathering on their front porch for coffee. They’ve been joined by their sister “squad,” so the porch table is crammed with sorority girls in shorts and sundresses, all ponytails and smooth bare legs, all meeting up to discuss their Saturday night, which included some hookups.

As they talk, most are on their phones. Some are checking Tinder. I ask them why they use Tinder on a college campus where presumably there’s an abundance of available guys. They say, “It’s easier.” “And a lot of guys won’t talk to you if you’re not invited to their fraternity parties.” “A lot of guys won’t talk to you, period.” “They don’t have to.” “Tinder has destroyed their game.”

“I’m on it nonstop, like nonstop, like 20 hours a day,” says Courtney, the one who looks like a 70s movie star.

“It’s, like, fun to get the messages,” Danielle says. “If someone ‘likes’ you, they think you’re attractive.”

“It’s a confidence booster,” says Jessica, 21, the one who looks like a Swedish tennis player.

I tell them how I heard from guys that they swipe right on every picture in order to increase their chances of matching.

“Nooooo … ” They explode with laughter.

The rain comes down harder, and they move inside to the living room, which has a couch, a coffee table, and tie-dyed tapestries everywhere. The talk turns to sex again:

“A lot of guys are lacking in that department,” says Courtney with a sigh. “What’s a real orgasm like? I wouldn’t know.”

They all laugh knowingly.

“I know how to give one to myself,” says Courtney.

“Yeah, but men don’t know what to do,” says Jessica, texting.

“Without [a vibrator] I can’t have one,” Courtney says. “It’s never happened” with a guy. “It’s a huge problem.”

“It is a problem,” Jessica concurs.

“I think men have a skewed view of the reality of sex through porn,” Jessica says, looking up from her phone. “Because sometimes I think porn sex is not always great—like pounding someone.” She makes a pounding motion with her hand, looking indignant.

“Yeah, it looks like it hurts,” Danielle says.

“Like porn sex,” says Jessica, “those women—that’s not, like, enjoyable, like having their hair pulled or being choked or slammed. I mean, whatever you’re into, but men just think”—bro voice—“ ‘I’m gonna fuck her,’ and sometimes that’s not great.”

“Yeah,” Danielle agrees. “Like last night I was having sex with this guy, and I’m a very submissive person—like, not aggressive at all—and this boy that came over last night, he was hurting me.”

They were quiet a moment.

These young women who are so available to men aren’t even enjoying the sex, it seems. And the young men who are Don Juans of Cyberspace have become marginally interested and incompetent as lovers. Or, perhaps, given that they are college age, it would be more fair to say they are not developing the skills and confidence – emotionally and physically – to develop into good lovers.

It’s truly a sad state of affairs: women, always lower in the self-esteem department than men, have been assaulted in our time with confusing messages about what it means to be empowered. They seem disinclined to be discerning; to take their time; to require that any man they sleep with respect their psyches and bodies. As they settle for less, men give less, and learn less about what women need.

And this cycle, begun in college, all too frequently plays out in big city dating in young adulthood.

Last night I saw the film, “The End of the Tour,” about the writer David Foster Wallace. I never read Infinite Jest, considered his masterwork, and don’t know much about him. But I was impressed by his character’s prescience on the subject of pornography and its dehumanizing effects on the psyche. I can’t recall his exact words, but in the film, his character says, “A lot of the women in magazines, they aren’t erotic because they don’t look like anyone you actually would know.” He also says something about how compulsive self-stimulation will “kill you.” I wouldn’t go that far, and I believe fantasy certainly has its function in a healthy person’s psyche, but it seemed to me his character was not being literal; rather, perhaps he was suggesting that a society in which the virtual has by and large replaced the real as a source of gratification is on its way to a spiritual, and perhaps an actual, demise. To be sure, the ramifications of virtual over actual experience and casual sex over true connection in the world of romantic relationships are many: neglect of human feeling; stunted emotional growth; and bad sex.

More to come.