Sex App(eal)

Apps like Tinder and Grindr are changing the way students interact with casual dating and sex. Opinions Editor Kevin Hurren looks at why these apps might be so popular on campus, and what effect they’re having on relationships.

Swipe right for yes, left for no. Tap for more pictures.

It sounds like a video game, and for fourth-year psychology student Samantha*, it certainly feels like one too.

“The first time I stayed on it for hours. It was very entertaining,” she said.

But Samantha wasn’t playing a game — at least not one in the conventional sense. Samantha was on Tinder, a matchmaking smartphone app.

Tinder is just one of several apps that use the geographical location of its user to find nearby potential matches, falling in line with Grindr, Blendr, Pure, BeNaughty, and Tingle.

The idea is simple: If two users swipe “yes” to each other’s pictures, a private chat box appears. Having established mutual attraction, the two can arrange to meet up.

The simplicity of the app is partly what attracted Samantha to the product.

“I find that other dating websites are a bit too intense,” she said. “It sounds silly, but I think it’s more demeaning going on those websites and spending hours making a profile. On Tinder, it’s less time-consuming.”

Samantha isn’t the only one to feel this way. Launched in late 2012, Tinder has since created more than 250 million matches, many of which happen on university campuses. According to a report released in early September by Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen, almost 70 per cent of the app users are between the ages of 18 and 24.

But the popularity of these apps isn’t surprising to everyone.

“A lot of people today have a smartphone, so they’re constantly connected to Facebook, Twitter, and other communities,” said Anabel Quan-Haase, a professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies who teaches a course on social media in everyday life.

“It just seems natural that dating and intimacy would move into that sphere as well,” she said.

Technology, according to Quan-Haase, is already used to mediate potential relationships. When you’re getting to know someone, you exchange messages through Facebook and text conversations. Apps like Tinder just capitalize on this tendency.

“Applications like Grindr become a type of game — you have to ask the right questions, do it the right way. You have to play this game of combinations and permutations to sell yourself” — Evangelos Tziallas, Western grad and doctoral candidate 

But although they feel like social media, apps like Tinder have a much more sexual subtext, says Western grad and doctoral candidate Evangelos Tziallas.

“Their popularity is actually based on their ability to become a platform for self-made amateur porn,” said Tzaillas, who has researched Grindr specifically.

“Applications like Grindr become a type of game — you have to ask the right questions, do it the right way. You have to play this game of combinations and permutations to sell yourself,” he said.

Getting caught up in the pseudo-anonymity, protection, distance and non-commitment these apps offer, Tzaillas found that users often have erotic conversations — sending a stream of messages, texts, and videos that collectively create a kind of pornographic sequence.

“Most of the time [users] don’t even end up hooking up with the guy they invested all this time in. Once they get their pictures and have their sexy chat, they’re kind of done and move on to the next guy,” he said.

After using Grindr on and off for over a year, second-year MIT student Corey* understands how it feels to be the object of this kind of “DIY” porn narrative.

“People are very blunt on these apps. It’s not face to face so people say things they normally wouldn’t say in person,” he said.

Receiving a number of sexual photos and forward messages, Corey realized how he was being viewed on the app by the majority of other users.

“A lot of people will see you as a sex object. For some people I might be a person, but for others I’m just a body to have sex with,” he said.

Tzaillas believes this is all part of the screening nature of these apps, a process that can leave many disheartened.

“There’s obviously a preference for a certain kind of body — thin, muscular,” he explained. “You can announce your preferences under the guise of collecting information, and you’re not trying to be hurtful, but you almost are implicitly. That can leave an effect on someone to feel bad about themselves or bad about their bodies.”

Tzaillas finds that after continuously getting blocked or rejected, Grindr and Tinder users will then undergo a disciplining process of eating less or going to the gym more.

Michael, a fourth-year music student and fellow Grindr user, who didn’t want to reveal his last name, also feels the burden to look a certain way.

“I definitely think that it does make you somewhat more self-conscious — people are very picky, vain and shallow,” he said. “I think these apps tell you that you have to be perfect in order to get someone to message you.”

But, according to Samantha, this aim for perfection is a result of the way Grindr and Tinder are designed.

“There’s so many people on the app, if you start saying yes to people who you think are just okay looking or acceptable you’ll get too many matches. You learn to refine,” she said.

And Samantha’s not wrong to feel overwhelmed. According to AppMtr — an organization that measures the use of apps that connect to Facebook — as of this month, Tinder has more than 3.78-million active users. Of these, over 1.6-million use the app daily.

“It’s not necessarily about people enjoying their bodies and sex, but about people enjoying their bodies and sex with others who are deemed conventionally beautiful” — Andrea Allen, women’s studies professor

Though justified, emphasizing snap judgements based on appearance doesn’t prevent women’s studies professor Andrea Allen from seeing this as a dangerous potential.

“The focus on superficiality can be problematic because it can limit the possibilities for people who may not look what is conventionally attractive,” said Allen, who believes that the lack of alternative matching criteria in these apps reinforces certain ideas about beauty.

“So then it’s not necessarily about people enjoying their bodies and sex, but about people enjoying their bodies and sex with others who are deemed conventionally beautiful,” she said.

But for Tzaillas, the problem isn’t just conventional beauty — it’s the unachievable standards.

“Apps like Grindr and Tinder create this sense that perfection is out there, and you can find perfection,” he said. “There’s this kind of pump and dump cycle where we’re chronically dissatisfied with what we have in front of us — we’re always going onto the next person.”

Because of the seemingly endless supply of potential partners, app users often feel less inclined to go out. Samantha, Corey, and Michael all said these apps were a way to expand their communities, but Tzaillas argues that they actually supplant traditional ways of networking.

“New media falsely sells itself as connecting us, when ultimately it alienates us,” he said. “You’re so ‘connected,’ but really all you have is images and a few words — it’s a false image of intimacy and connectivity.”

As such, this leaves Tinder and Grindr users with two options. They can go out — facing the potential of rejection, disappointment, chance, and spontaneity of the night.

Or they can slide right.

*Source spoke on condition of anonymity, and is referred to with a pseudonym

  • RJ

    I just use Tinder for the great conversation!

  • Colton

    Great article, Kevin!