by Lindsay Russell // March 8, 2019
I pressed the palms of my hands into the smooth wood of my vanity, bracing myself against the counter and meeting my own gaze in the mirror. I took a long, deep breath.
“Okay. There’s no reason to panic,” I tried to convince myself. It wasn’t working. I was panicking. There are girls who are effortlessly put together and navigate the dating world like they’re the Bachelorette. And then there was me. Not effortless. Not the Bachelorette. Instead, I was standing in my dorm room trying not to vomit.
I was willing myself out the door for what would be the first of many Tinder dates that year. It was early January 2018, and I had resolved to start dating again. My recent romantic history would be described as calamitous, at best. I had my heart broken in the most spectacularly painful of ways the year before. More than once. I’m talking soul-crushing, bring-you-to-your-knees heartache. And what does any college girl recovering from a breakup – or two – do to move on? She creates a Tinder profile, even if she swore she never would. So despite my rising panic, off I went.
Here’s a brief synopsis of that first date: it was terrible. It was something akin to sitting in a calculus lecture, except there was pizza. He was a Marine, and when I tried to tease him about that old Army joke that Marines eat crayons, he proudly admitted to eating one on a dare. Needless to say, we weren’t a match.
But here’s the thing about that horrible first date – it wasn’t all bad. It marked the beginning of an era, my yearlong foray into the world of app-based dating. I can’t say I’ve attained Bachelorette status, but over the last year, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been on painfully bad first dates, but I’ve also been out with some really great guys. I’ve met all sorts of people, and I can say that the idea of Tinder being exclusively for meaningless hookups isn’t necessarily the whole truth. More than anything, I don’t think the story of Tinder can be painted with a broad brush.
Since the app launched in 2012, it has reached 57 million users.1 That’s 57 million individual people with their own stories, hopes, fears and desires. It’s 190 countries.2 People are matching in the seaside villages of Greece, in the mountains of Chile, on the busy streets of India. They’re connecting in Arabic, Spanish, Farsi. There is no one narrative for what it means to be on Tinder. There can’t be. We’re 57 million souls all searching for something.
After my troubling first date with the Marine, I matched with a guy from another school in D.C. He was cute, made me laugh, and belonged to a fraternity that I was familiar with. It seemed promising. We made plans to go out to dinner one Saturday night in February, but the craziest rainstorm I had ever seen hit Washington that weekend.
I was sitting on my windowsill watching the rain, thinking I’d rather die than go outside into this weather, when the Frat Boy texted me. He offered to come over and save me from going out into the torrential downpour. I set my phone down and contemplated all the ways this could play out:
Scenario A – Frat Boy comes all the way to AU to murder me.
Scenario B – Frat Boy comes all the way to AU because he wants to hook up. I turn him down, send him home and waste everyone’s time.
Scenario C – He comes all the way to AU for his stated purpose of getting to know me. Nothing goes awry, and we essentially recreate an actual dinner date on the floor of my bedroom.
Scenario C seemed a little overly optimistic to me, but I can’t stress enough how much I didn’t want to wait for the bus in this rain. So I invited him over.
As it turns out, Frat Boy was adorable. We had pineapple pizza delivered to my dorm and ate it on my floor. He asked me about my friends, my goals and my favorite childhood memories. The more we talked, the more I realized that all of the assumptions I made about the good-looking fraternity boy from New York were wrong. He didn’t venture out into the rain that night looking to get laid. He was looking for a partner. Someone who would be there to keep him company at the frat parties when the upperclassmen assigned him to sober duty. Someone he could take to Greek formal nights and spin around the dancefloor. I wasn’t that girl. We never went on a second date, but that night made me hopeful. We were different people with very different lives, but we were searching for the same thing – someone to be there.
Connection is an innate human need. College students, especially, can have a hard time connecting. Campuses are bustling with activity, but it isn’t always easy to find a place in the chaos. In 2017, an American College Heath Association study revealed that 64 percent of college students have felt “very lonely” in the past 12 months.3 I’ve been there. I think there’s a sort of shame in admitting that you’re lonely. It’s really hard to talk about, especially for women, because we live in a culture where independence and strength are so highly valued. Gloria Steinem said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Maybe she’s right. But with all due respect to my feminist icon, maybe the thing missing there is that even if we don’t need a romantic partner, it’s okay to want one. Sometimes we feel lonely. Sometimes we wish there were someone to come home to at the end of the day. That doesn’t make us pathetic. It makes us human.
“One of the greatest truisms in psychology is the fact that relationships matter to our sense of well-being,” writes Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor the University of Massachusetts Amherst.4 “Intimacy is key…”5
Dr. Krauss Whitbourne’s forty years of research suggest that young people who are open to intimacy tend to be happier and more optimistic adults.
As more research is being done, there is new evidence to support the idea that Tinder users are using the app to search for that sort of emotional and physical intimacy. A 2017 study found that the three most common motivations for young adults who joined Tinder were finding love, finding causal sex, and taking advantage of the easy communication.6 If it ever was, Tinder is no longer solely an app for hooking up. “Notably, the findings call for a more encompassing perspective on why emerging adults use Tinder,” wrote the research team in the study’s publication.7
I know there are other people on Tinder looking for love because I’ve dated them. When I went home for the summer, I matched with a guy who worked for the Rhode Island Democratic Party. He was a college graduate, a Christian, politically active, and he adored me. On paper, he was perfect. We spent the month of July eating ice cream and sitting on the beach while he patiently listened to every single (painfully long) story I told about my crazy nannying job. He never complained. He was impossibly sweet and always considerate. He was one of the good ones. In another world, I think we probably could have ended up together. “Who are you?” he asked me one night, tilting his head and looking over at me as we sat under the stars. “And where have you been my whole life?” But I wasn’t there to stay. The impermanence of those college summers at home doomed our romance from the start. August came, and I had to go. But after I met the Democrat, I never again doubted that there were good guys out there.
New research and my own narrative complicate the stereotypes that surround Tinder, which is important because with those stereotypes often comes judgement that needs to be dismantled. But what’s also important is acknowledging the idea that Tinder is for more than just casual sex without demeaning the experiences of those who do use the app for casual sex. Physical intimacy is a normal thing to crave, and not everyone is looking for the emotional attachment or commitment of a relationship.
Dr. Barry McCarthy is a psychologist, author, and American University professor who studies sex and sexuality. He pointed out that college students have a statistically low rate of negative sexual encounters when compared with other age groups. McCarthy attributes that, in part, to the more equitable status of men and women on college campuses.8
He also noted that while relationships are the strongest when physical intimacy is matched by emotional intimacy, physical intimacy by itself is not inherently harmful. “When sex works well in people’s lives, it’s not a major factor… Sexuality allows you to feel healthy and desirable,” he said.9
I have never been one for casual sex. That’s just me. But some of the most respectful conversations I’ve had on Tinder have been with guys who were explicitly just looking to have sex. I once matched with a guy who messaged me and very politely asked if I’d like to come over and let him dominate me in bed. I couldn’t help but laugh. I told him that sex with strangers wasn’t my particular cup of tea, but I was flattered. He replied, “That’s fair. Have a great weekend! You have a beautiful smile.” Not every story goes that way, but I’ve had pleasant conversations with guys who were open about their sexual prowess more times than you would think.
In my year on Tinder, I didn’t fall in love. I didn’t find The One. But I did learn more about myself and the world around me than I would have ever thought possible. I learned that I’m capable of asking for what I want and walking away from the things that don’t serve me. I learned that the other people cannot be reduced to the stereotypes their online profiles emanate. Maybe most importantly, I learned that there is no “type” of person who ends up on Tinder. At the end of the day, the guys I’ve met on Tinder are no different than the ones I’ve met out in the world. We all have our own stories. We’re all just trying to connect, in one way or another. We’re all just doing the best we can.
1 – Iqbal, Mansoor. “Tinder Revenue and Usage Statistics (2018.)” Business of Apps, 27 Feb. 2019, http://www.businessofapps.com/data/tinder-statistics/.
2 – Ibid.
3 – “Fact Sheet: Loneliness on Campus.” The Foundation for Art & Healing, The Unlonely Project, 2019.
4 – Strauss Whitborn, Susan. “We All Need Some Intimacy In Our Lives.” Psychology Today, 27 Oct. 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201210/we-all-need-some-intimacy-in-our-lives.
5 – Ibid.
6 – Sumter, Sindy R, et al. “Love me Tinder: Untangling emerging adults’ motivations for using the dating application Tinder.” Telematics and Informatics, Laura Vandenbosch and Loes Ligtenberg, vol. 34, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 67-78. Science Direct, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2 016.04.009
7 – Ibid.
8 – McCarthy, Barry. Personal interview. 4 March 2019.
9 – Ibid.