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Why dating apps make you feel awful

Nancy Jo Sales’s new memoir reckons with the effects of “Big Dating.”

Hands holding a phone displaying a picture of a person in a dating app. Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

In 2015, the journalist Nancy Jo Sales — she of The Bling Ring and many a buzzy celebrity profile in the ’90s and aughts — published an article about Tinder. But it wasn’t really about Tinder per se; it was about how Tinder and dating apps like it were ushering in a new, dystopian romantic landscape in which sex was the result of an algorithm and relationships were almost never actually formed. Instead of offering real, human connection with a single swipe, Sales argued that dating apps were simply turning up the dial on hookup culture, and hetero women were once again left to work out the mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that, actually, this was good.

Yet throughout her years reporting the story, and later her book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and her documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, Sales became one of Tinder’s most enthusiastic power users. A single mom in her 50s, she reported finding particular success on the apps with young men in their 20s, some of whom turned into exciting trysts, others awkward sexual partners, and one a life-altering heartbreak.

These are the subjects of Sales’s latest book, a memoir titled Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, in which she also recounts her childhood and the many instances of sexual assault she underwent as a young woman, combined with analysis of the depressing state of sexual violence and oppression that social media, she argues, exacerbates.

Nancy Jo Sales
Courtesy of Hachette Books

The result is an intensely personal (and incredibly juicy) retelling of Sales’s life as a marquee writer at New York magazine and Vanity Fair, replete with media gossip and detailed sex scenes that make it impossible to put down. In my interview with Sales, we talk about how dating apps make us feel terrible, and discuss some ideas on how to make the internet a more tolerable place for women.

Your 2015 Vanity Fair story “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” was one of the first viral articles that pushed back against the idea that dating apps were a net good to society. Do you feel vindicated at all that in the six years since, people have been a lot less sympathetic to Big Tech?

We’re in a techlash, which I think started around 2016 or 2017 with Cambridge Analytica and the congressional hearings. The media, finally, is criticizing the moves of Big Tech, and we’ve come to realize that this is a really big problem in all of our lives, and we all need to go a little Upton Sinclair on this.

I call it Big Dating because it’s like Big Pharma in the sense that they’re more interested in selling you pills than curing what’s really wrong with you. Dating happens 24/7 now, whereas there used to be times when we date. To the extent that disruption is good business, I see it as an insidious thing because they’re disrupting our lives — especially women, people of color, trans people, LGBTQ people, who are more vulnerable to abuse. There has not been a reckoning at all in the way it needs to happen. Columbia Journalism Investigations surveyed 1,200 women and found that more than a third of them reported being sexually assaulted or raped by someone they’d met through a dating site.

One of the points you turn to a lot is that dating apps make people feel disposable and that they gamify dating. What impact does that have on the way we date?

Everybody’s on these sites now, and I think different generations use dating apps in slightly different ways — older people sometimes retain the dating norms of their generations. But I also think that the app controls our behavior and makes us treat everybody as disposable. My friend who is referred to as Constance in the book, who is 60, feels like she’s getting used by all these guys who are her age. She’ll check their phones and find out [these older men] are trying to hit up 20-year-olds to be their sugar daddy.

People who would normally not have had these thoughts in their heads are doing this because of dating apps. It’s imposed on you by platforms and algorithms that aren’t really about you finding love, they just want you to engage. The more you see 18-year-old women or whatever — and [the apps] have fake bots, too — it gets your dopamine spiking. So you think, “Maybe if I just keep swiping and keep swiping, I’ll get another one.” It’s like gambling.

At the time of the Tinder story, people accused you of creating a moral panic and of being a pearl-clutcher. What’s your response to that?

I’m not saying we need courtly love. I did my whole thesis on courtly love and feminism. I know the pitfalls and the problems, and I’m not saying that we should go back to, like, the Sir Lancelot idea of somebody being in your thrall. But it really is nice to have somebody in your thrall, trying to make you feel special. That should be a goal on both sides, to make someone feel special. Let’s not have a competition to see who can care less and who’s gonna text back after more time has passed. All this hedging that people do over dating apps is so tiresome to me. They bend over backward to say, “I didn’t mean to say I cared about you!” What’s wrong with caring about somebody? You don’t have to marry them. But just, like, could you just care a little bit?

I want people to let themselves fall in love, and even if they get the heartbreak, they fall in love and have good sex and they don’t think that there are 5 million other people out there, because probably there aren’t. It’s like when you sit down and watch Netflix, you spend more time checking out all the different options than you actually do watching the show.

The irony, of course, is that as you were doing all this research in the mid-2010s, you’re also using Tinder and hooking up with younger guys constantly. How did you see your own dating patterns change when you got on the apps?

There used to be a lot more randomness. Believe me, I can’t stress enough that I’m not romanticizing the past. You read the book — in the past, a lot of bad things have happened to me. But I do remember having a lot of fun, and the kind of fun that was about being an independent young woman in New York. You’d run around and go to parties and then you’re on a rooftop making out. It was random. It was a mystery. It was magic. Everybody wasn’t watching porn — they were starting to, but it wasn’t accessible in the way it became in the late ’90s. They’d connect with you more in bed.

Then I went on dating apps, and I felt like I was in service to the app. It was labor. A lot of young women that I’ve interviewed have actually described it as exhausting. You’re working for this company to create data, and you don’t really realize that because it’s never openly expressed. You’re being judged constantly. You’re being approached by these guys that might be sweet and cute, but they might be a bot. They also might be an incel. You might be having a good conversation but then they want to get a nude, or they want to come over right away and you say no, and they turn on a dime and turn abusive.

Very often with young men, I felt like they didn’t know how to have a conversation. I definitely met some interesting guys, and the reason why I was going out with younger guys was because I was trying to get over a heartbreak and it seemed like a fun thing to do to date a 24-year-old for a minute as a nice distraction. But also, there weren’t a lot of people my age. Tinder, at that point, didn’t even go past 40!

One of the moments in the book that stuck with me is the feeling of trying to explain to a male friend — someone who likely thinks of himself as a feminist — about sexism and watching his eyes just totally glaze over. Why is it still so hard for people to accept that some things are sexist and that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not talking about them?

As much as we are having a moment and are moving forward, I think this technology is exacerbating misogyny. I don’t think it’s good for men, either: It’s making it harder for all of us to truly connect and find lasting relationships, and not just relationships, even just good sex.

I had a lot of one-night stands in the ’90s when I was a girl about town that were just like … muah. Like, “Wow, that’s a nice memory.” But those are harder and harder to find because you’re in this box now where you have to do things the way the corporation makes you do them. That’s really a problem when it comes to dating because dating should be all about agency and choice, yet algorithms are getting you addicted and making you turn yourself into an object. “Am I fuckable or not?” I want to see radical change, and that all starts with thinking about what you’re doing and what people are making you do. I don’t mean to sound like I have all the answers. I honestly don’t know.

In your documentary, you interview a psychologist who theorizes that the two biggest shifts in dating have been the agricultural revolution and the internet. That made me feel like we’re this generation of guinea pigs who are being tested on by these forces we have no control over. When we look back at early dating apps a few decades down the line, what do you think or hope we will have learned by then?

That this was a dark age; that this was a period of acceptable and normalized brutality that encouraged things that are completely at odds with our health, our well-being, and our humanity. I know that sounds extreme, but I do hope that’s what will happen. Dating is often seen as a trivial thing, but it’s not trivial. It’s how we get family, which is pretty important. We have companies that are actively blocking us from finding what we need under the guise of doing the opposite. I think that is so wrong.

For those of us who know you mostly for your narrative reporting pieces, this book was strikingly personal. What was it like going from writing about other people to writing about yourself?

It didn’t start out great. I went to an Airbnb in the Catskills in fall 2018, and I would sit down with my computer and think, “I don’t want to write about that.” And then I realized, every time you think to yourself, “I’m scared to say that,” that’s the thing you have to write about. Just like when you’re interviewing someone, you do things to make them comfortable enough so that their real self starts to come out, I had to do that to myself. I was very scared.

There’s some things that you discover about yourself that are going to be valuable when you share them because they’re probably very, very human [experiences] that everyone can relate to. That was stuff that once upon a time I would have considered shameful or embarrassing or pathetic — dating situations where you’re having sex with a guy and just getting through it, like you did consent but you’re not really excited about it. I had heard about these kinds of things from young women, and secretly I would be thinking, “I know exactly what you mean, I’ve done that a thousand times.” By talking about it, it’s not so scary anymore.