swiping left on casanova: new study says hookup apps don’t work

In the latest blow to the media's myth of hookup culture, it turns out that hookup apps are actually really bad at letting users hook up.
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If there’s one thing morning and daytime news shows love is creating moral panics to fret about for their audiences. Usually those panics are about young people having drug-fueled orgies under their parents’ noses so often, it’s a miracle they ever have their clothes on, but when they’ve run out of fodder for their next “rainbow party” hoax, the hosts turn to millennials and their supposedly disastrous hookup culture. Yes, according to the news old people watch, all of us under the age of 40 refuse to settle down because we’re drowning in each other’s genitals thanks to a proliferation of dating apps which supposedly make it almost effortless to find a partner on a moment’s notice, literally.

Thanks to the titillating nature of the topic, longform exposes on the pitfalls of hookups flood magazines and blogs, even if they’re blatantly and obviously written to support a narrative already determined by the writer before the draft is even submitted. But researchers haven’t been sitting on the sidelines while pundits fantasized and are doing very diligent research on the topic. What they found is the complete opposite of what the news will tell you. Younger generations actually have fewer partners than their parents, and in some cases grandparents, so much so that writers tried to coin the term “sex recession” when covering these studies.

It’s been a bit of a shock to the punditocracy to find one of their favorite myths challenged so brazenly by science, which is why we’re now often blasted with explanations of dubious quality and merit as to why the kids decried as lustful demons now have to be recast as frigid prudes. Meanwhile, science has been marching forward and is finding more nuance from those initial findings to explain why so many people think millennials paradoxically appear like lechers to the public but almost chaste in the bedroom. As it so turns out, neither of these extremes in media headlines is actually true and dating apps heralded as the lubricant of a millennial’s sex life are actually pretty terrible at their job.

Just consider a recent study conducted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology showing just how badly those apps work. Out of 269 subjects in the app’s target audience, only a fifth found a partner for casual sex, just eight managed two sexual encounters, and ten had more than two. The rest weren’t able to find any fitting and reciprocating matches. While this study was limited to just Tinder, and other apps might have slightly different results, its overall findings seem to fall in line with every other study about casual sex and the number of sexual partners. And if one the most popular and heavily used dating app in the world has a staggering 80% failure rate, it’s hardly good news for any of its competitors.

Overall, sexual partners for millennials plotted as data points don’t create a bell curve but an asymptote. Most of millennials tend to have about six partners and aren’t in a particular rush to have more. It’s not that they’re prudes, far from it. They talk about sex more and more openly than most other generations. But according to a 2017 study on the subject of how much sex millennials are actually having, not just the number of partners, all of this talk seems to have focused them on the quality of partners rather than quantity, and they’re still having a fair bit of sex — even if it’s a little less than previous generations in terms of raw numbers — just in longer relationships. Likewise, while they get married much later in life, they’re staying married for longer and are happier with their spouses than their parents.

And as part of this focus on quality, they actually hate the dating apps they use and say they’re a terrible place to meet partners, so it’s little surprise that those unwilling to play a numbers game on Tinder, or Bumble, or any other app don’t rack up a lot of partners. The vast majority of them don’t want to in the first place and any suggestion otherwise is just counterfactual hot air by pundits desperate for eyeballs and clicks. So, with that much data and research not just countering the hookup culture narrative but obliterating its very foundations, can we please, please, for the sake of all that’s cute and fuzzy take it behind a woodshed and finally put it out of its misery?

See: Grøntvedt, T.V., et al. (2019) Hook, Line and Sinker: Do Tinder Matches and Meet Ups Lead to One-Night Stands? Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1007/s40806-019-00222-z

Twenge, M.J., et al. (2017) Declines in Sexual Frequency among American Adults, 1989 – 2014, Arch Sex Behav, DOI: 10.1007/s10508-017-0953-1

# sex // dating / online dating / sexuality


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