Swipe Right: A Reading List about Online Dating

Getty Images

They wrote you an intro

Wow and hello. You seem phenomenal and you probably receive four million messages but I just couldn’t resist…

Gorgeous woman, you are taller than me. I’m bummed.

I am capable of taking care of you financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I love unconditionally, with all my heart, and I love you as you are. 

Your hair looks nice. See ya.

My self-summary

Some days I log in and read introductory messages that ring hollow, like the promises of car salesmen. Others, I receive long and far too intense missives declaring love or making some other absurd commitment based on a quick glance at my photos. And most days, I receive a tepid “hey.” Most days, I ask myself why I bother maintaining a profile –– what am I hoping to find? And isn’t there a better way to date?

I had never used a dating app until a few months ago: a combination of introverted tendencies, a series of summers spent at an evangelical Christian camp, and a traumatic sexual assault in college made it so I was scared to form relationships with people I knew in real life, let alone strangers on the internet. But after my first long term relationship ended, I moved across the country to a town where I knew hardly anyone and made a profile for the first time. While uploading photos and answering questions, processes which underscore just how much artifice is involved with online dating, I grew a little nervous. I had heard stories from friends about men who ghosted them; who retaliated viciously via email and other social media platforms when rejected; or who showed up to the date and weren’t exactly who they said they would be. After being in a safe, committed relationship for so long, the idea of trusting someone to be kind and respectful on a first date was nerve-wracking, but I took precautions in my own way, and tried dating.

At first, it was fun, even exceeded my expectations. I met people I otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to find within the scope of my daily life. I explored parts of my new locale with people who have histories here, and enjoyed visiting places I’ll continue to return to. And the dates were lovely, for the most part. There was homemade pizza and wine in a park; dates who snuck away to secretly cover the bill without asking for anything in return; and hikes where we foraged for berries in spots only a local would know. 

But there was also the guy who lived at home, told me his mom cooked for him every night, and that he would expect his partner to do the same. There was the man who told me, after a few dates, that his friends had agreed I was “too smart” because I had earned my PhD. And, there was the date who leaned across the table to pet my hair and told me I would be “even hotter if I hunted,” though he had proselytized veganism to me just moments before. 

After some time, skimming profiles no longer excited me. Instead, the series of photos started to look like a grid of loneliness, in each answer some sort of want.

I spend a lot of time thinking about

Are dating apps the best way to meet people in this day and age? Do they even work?

Gina DiVittorio’s viral video about dating on Hinge.

How much of my relatively positive experience on dating apps is based on location? My identity as a straight, cis, white woman who has an invisible –– rather than visible –– disability?

Are there ways to improve online dating so that it is safer, more inclusive, and less discriminatory?

What I’m actually looking for

The same as everyone else, probably: to permanently log off these apps.

1. What I Learned Tindering My Way Across Europe (Allison P. Davis, March 21, 2016, Travel + Leisure)

I use them all—Tinder, chiefly, but also Hinge, Bumble, Happn, Desperat*n (I made that one up) 3nder, Flattr—and they are all swipes to nowhere. In boom times I experience a weak trickle of men; during drought, it’s like I’m in the dating version of The Martian—except Matt Damon did eventually receive messages from humans.

When Allison P. Davis left Brooklyn to travel across Europe, she wondered if dating would be any less lackluster, or if Tinder would offer her anything other than sex. In chronicling a variety of dating experiences and encounters in London, Berlin, and Stockholm, Davis ruminates on the differences between dating in the U.S. and abroad, particularly as a black woman. 

2. Diary (Emily Witt, October 25, 2012, London Review of Books)

Subletting an apartment for a week in San Francisco, Emily Witt goes to a bar alone in hopes of finding some form of human connection. Instead, she ends up perusing OkCupid. Witt, in this piece, offers a comprehensive history of online dating and ruminates about the specific kind of loneliness that beckons people to online dating apps. 

I wanted a boyfriend. I was also badly hung up on someone and wanted to stop thinking about him. People cheerily list their favourite movies and hope for the best, but darkness simmers beneath the chirpy surface. An extensive accrual of regrets lurks behind even the most well-adjusted profile.

3. ‘So Can You F*ck?’: What It’s Like to Online Date With a Disability (Sarah Kim, April 15, 2018, The Daily Beast)

It’s not news that lots of women receive ridiculous and misogynistic messages on dating apps, especially on Tinder. But as a 22-year-old with cerebral palsy, I get one at least twice a week.

‘So can you f*ck?’

‘But you look normal in your pictures.’

When Sarah Kim creates online dating profiles, she questions whether or not to immediately disclose her disability or to let potential suitors get to know her before sharing. By interviewing a range of experts like sexologist Dr. Mitchell Tepper and therapist Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, and other people with disabilities who have dated using apps before, Kim offers valuable insight and ultimately comes to the conclusion that how –– and when –– to disclose can be handled in a variety of ways, and decisions are best left up to each individual.

 

Related read: Online dating is hard enough. Try doing it with a disability. (Timothy Sykes, January 18, 2014, The Guardian)

 

4. How a Math Genius Hacked OkCupid to Find True Love (Kevin Poulsen, January 21, 2014, Wired)

As summer drew to a close, he’d been on more than 55 dates, each one dutifully logged in a lab notebook. Only three had led to second dates; only one had led to a third.

Most unsuccessful daters confront self-esteem issues. For McKinlay it was worse. He had to question his calculations.

After largely striking out on OkCupid, Chris McKinlay decided to put his mathematical prowess to the test, using a Python script to create a database of women’s answers and subsequently analyze patterns. With his unconventional approach, he succeeded in going on far more first dates –– but not many at all led further. As Kevin Poulsen notes in this strange and fascinating story, McKinlay had to strike a balance between calculation and human intuition in order to find true love.

5. What It’s Like To Date Online as a Trans Person (Brittany Wong, October 29, 2018, Huffington Post)

Tinder only enabled users to select gender identities such as “‘transgender,’ ‘trans man,’ ‘trans woman’ and ‘gender queer’” three years ago. Slow to evolve, OkCupid, Tinder, and Grindr have put transgender users at risk in their failure to incorporate inclusive models, as Christiana Rose, Dawn Dismuke, and Jackson Bird explain in their interviews with Brittany Wong.

Though roughly 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, there’s still a widespread lack of understanding of trans issues among the general public. And sadly, transphobia is on the rise; 2017 was the deadliest year for transgender people, with at least 28 deaths tracked by the Human Rights Campaign.

6. I Thought My Immigrant Mother Would Never Accept My Queerness. I Was Wrong. (Krutika Mallikarjuna, February 19, 2019, Bitch)

Of the many pitfalls of being a queer desi woman swiping through Tinder, I never expected to find myself getting trashed in a bar trying to forget that I was on a date with a white girl named India.

After a date unsettles her, Krutika Mallikarjuna finds herself reflecting on her mother’s reticence to accept her as queer, and experiences a deep depression. Mallikarjuna, in this essay excerpted from The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America, chronicles the ways her relationship with her mother has evolved as a result of therapy and phone calls, eventually leading to shared laughter over a date gone wrong.

7. ‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating (Ashley Brown, January 9, 2018, NPR)

OkCupid released a blog post in 2014 showing dating that “most men on the site rated black women as less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities. Similarly, Asian men fell at the bottom of the preference list for most women.” Through interviews with people who have encountered racism on dating apps, and interviews with experts who consider how apps might evolve to become more inclusive, Ashley Brown offers a harrowing portrait of the harm caused by racist dating app users.

Other dating experts have pointed to such stereotypes and lack of multiracial representation in the media as part of the likely reason that plenty of online daters have had discouraging experiences based on their race.

8. Guys are Reporting Women On Tinder for the Crime of Not Being Into Them (Lauren Vinopal, September 10, 2019, MEL Magazine)  

After Lauren Vinopal politely declines a date with a man, he sends her a slew of rude text messages before reporting her to Tinder, resulting in her being banned from the platform. When Vinopal researches the cause, she discovers she’s not the only woman to be banned for rejecting a man –– in fact, there are a large number of others who share her experience.

Many other people have reportedly been banned for reasons that have nothing to do with terms and conditions — e.g., disclosing that they have herpes, identifying as transgender, or in the strangely specific case of 32-year-old Nichole, posting a picture with a dead deer during hunting season.

9. Why It’s So Hard for Young People to Date Offline (Ashley Fetters, September 5, 2019, The Atlantic)

Such a staggering number of millennials start dating because of connections made through apps that Camille Virginia wrote a book called The Offline Dating Method, which provides tricks and tips for potential daters to make conversation in public and frequent places where they might find a partner. Ashley Fetters, in addition to providing an overview of Virginia’s book, contemplates how much the era of “stranger danger” and the increasing prevalence of convenience in apps across the board –– in areas of food, services, etc., –– have contributed to people relying on online dating.

In the years since, app dating has reached such a level of ubiquity that a couples therapist in New York told me last year that he no longer even bothers asking couples below a certain age threshold how they met. (It’s almost always the apps, he said.)

***

Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.