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Tinder Mercenaries

How barbarians mate in our time

Not too long ago, a college professor told me that the dating app Tinder was popular on his Christian campus. Students used it to set up casual sex dates. Not just a few students, he said; most of them. He explained to me how it worked, and to my middle-aged ears, it sounded barbaric, inhuman. Could young people really be doing this?

Well, now Vanity Fair is writing about how Tinder is changing dating among Millennials. I hope you’re sitting down for this. Here are some choice excerpts, but I assure you, this is only the tip of the iceberg:

As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex. Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” he says. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.”

People used to meet their partners through proximity, through family and friends, but now Internet meeting is surpassing every other form. “It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually,” Garcia says. “It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint.” As soon as people could go online they were using it as a way to find partners to date and have sex with. In the 90s it was Craigslist and AOL chat rooms, then Match.com and Kiss.com. But the lengthy, heartfelt e-mails exchanged by the main characters in You’ve Got Mail (1998) seem positively Victorian in comparison to the messages sent on the average dating app today. “I’ll get a text that says, ‘Wanna f*ck?’ ” says Jennifer, 22, a senior at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany. “They’ll tell you, ‘Come over and sit on my face,’ ” says her friend, Ashley, 19.

Mobile dating went mainstream about five years ago; by 2012 it was overtaking online dating. In February, one study reported there were nearly 100 million people—perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone—using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida. “It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”

This is exactly what the college professor told me interactions on Tinder are like for undergraduates at his university. More from Vanity Fair:

On a steamy night at Satsko [a NYC bar], everyone is Tindering. Or OkCupiding, or Happning, or Hinging. The tables are filled with young women and men drinking sake and beer and intermittently checking their phones and swiping. “Agh, look at this,” says Kelly, 26, who’s sitting at a table with friends, holding up a message she received from a guy on OkCupid. “I want to have you on all fours,” it says, going on to propose a graphic sexual scene. “I’ve never met this person,” says Kelly.

At a table in the front, six young women have met up for an after-work drink. They’re seniors from Boston College, all in New York for summer internships, ranging from work in a medical-research lab to a luxury department store. They’re attractive and fashionable, with bright eyes highlighted with dark eyeliner wings. None of them are in relationships, they say. I ask them how they’re finding New York dating.

“New York guys, from our experience, they’re not really looking for girlfriends,” says the blonde named Reese. “They’re just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder.”

“People send really creepy sh*t on it,” says Jane, the serious one.

“They start out with ‘Send me nudes,’ ” says Reese. “Or they say something like ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes—are you available?’ ‘O.K., you’re a mile away, tell me your location.’ It’s straight efficiency.”

“I think that iPhones and dating apps have really changed the way that dating happens for our generation,” says Stephanie, the one with an arm full of bracelets.

“There is no dating. There’s no relationships,” says Amanda, the tall elegant one. “They’re rare. You can have a fling that could last like seven, eight months and you could never actually call someone your ‘boyfriend.’ [Hooking up] is a lot easier. No one gets hurt—well, not on the surface.”

The term young women use for their male hook-ups is “f*ckboy.” One woman the writer interviewed says every one of the men she meets these days are f-boys. More:

Bring all of this up to young men, however, and they scoff. Women are just as responsible for “the sh*t show that dating has become,” according to one. “Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault,” says Alex, 25, a New Yorker who works in the film industry. “They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.”

“Women do exactly the same things guys do,” said Matt, 26, who works in a New York art gallery. “I’ve had girls sleep with me off OkCupid and then just ghost me”—that is, disappear, in a digital sense, not returning texts. “They play the game the exact same way. They have a bunch of people going at the same time—they’re fielding their options. They’re always looking for somebody better, who has a better job or more money.” A few young women admitted to me that they use dating apps as a way to get free meals. “I call it Tinder food stamps,” one said.

Even the emphasis on looks inherent in a dating game based on swiping on photos is something men complain women are just as guilty of buying into. “They say in their profiles, ‘No shirtless pictures,’ but that’s bullshIt,” says Nick, the same as above. “The day I switched to a shirtless picture with my tattoos, immediately, within a few minutes, I had, like, 15 matches.”

Read the whole thing. Do it. It’s a bracing read, but we need to see this stuff. I can’t get this graf off my mind:

And even Ryan, who believes that human beings naturally gravitate toward polyamorous relationships, is troubled by the trends developing around dating apps. “It’s the same pattern manifested in porn use,” he says. “The appetite has always been there, but it had restricted availability; with new technologies the restrictions are being stripped away and we see people sort of going crazy with it. I think the same thing is happening with this unlimited access to sex partners. People are gorging. That’s why it’s not intimate. You could call it a kind of psychosexual obesity.”

When I was in Nashville last week at the Southern Baptist event, someone said that we, the church, need to be there to take in the walking wounded from the sexual revolution. He’s right. But see, the kind of thing that this Vanity Fair piece talks about goes right to the core of what the Benedict Option needs to be. We have to do what we can to raise kids who will not succumb to Tinder culture. This is going to require radical steps. A reader of this blog said something to the effect of the Benedict Option cannot be about the church doing what we’ve been doing all along, except pushing even harder for our kids to save sex until marriage. This Tinder article is a perfect illustration of why she is right. The culture itself has changed to allow for a sexual free-for-all, but the most important aspect of this story is the role technology plays in driving the culture. Any Benedict Option that fails to deal honestly and forcefully with our relationship to technology and popular culture will fail.

Is the church succeeding? Both Catholic and Protestant clergy tell me that by far and away the biggest problem they’re dealing with in their ministries is pornography addictions among their flock. Additionally, if the church — by which I mean all churches — were doing such a good job, why are so many young Christian adults espousing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

The truth is, I think that far, far too many of our churches and Christian communities are involved in modernity and popular culture in ways we scarcely grasp, but that compromise us. I include myself in that critique too.

By the way, in our forum the other day in Nashville, Michael Gerson objected to my use of the term “barbarians.” It was my fault for not being more specific, and explaining that I was using it in a philosophical way, a la MacIntyre. Still, if the Tinder mercenaries of this story aren’t barbarians, the word has no meaning.

UPDATE: Commenter Patrick Harris:

Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” seems apropos here. Not everyone (perhaps not even most) using apps like Tinder or OkCupid are actually indulging in mind-bogglingly shallow promiscuity. I know plenty of people who use such apps to, you know, go on dates. However, even when the behavior is less obviously dysfunctional, the *medium* exercises a profound influence on the way we think about relationships. “Swiping” through pictures of dozens of complete strangers to compare romantic options necessarily fosters a commodified understanding of relationships even if one’s intentions were as pure as the driven snow. Heidegger would call that the Gestell: the “frame” that technology imposes on how we relate to the world regardless of how we consciously intend to use it.

It’s precisely the awareness of the pervasiveness and the danger of the “frame” of late-modern liberal culture that distinguishes the Benedict Option (I think) from “just the Church being the Church.” The culture of Tinder is obviously a challenge to Christian notions of chastity, but that doesn’t mean that merely a redoubled moralism is equal to the task. The problem is not simply what people choose or what they value. It is not even simply how people think. It it is what they can *imagine* thinking and choosing. A certain distance from the mainstream culture is necessary not simply to cultivate better habits or more coherent beliefs, but to create imaginative spaces where orthodoxy and orthopraxy are even intelligible.

Burke spoke of “the wardrobe of the moral imagination” that was “necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.” I think modernist Christians often try to “clothe” their children from the common American armoire, only to find it’s mostly (imaginative) booty shorts and Lycra.

UPDATE.2: I’m not posting comments that lay into my unnamed professor friend, because I can’t defend him without risking disclosing information that I don’t have the right to disclose. He sometimes reads this blog, so maybe he will come here and defend himself. To clarify, he was talking about what he sees and hears about on his campus, not among all college students everywhere. I perfectly well understand you readers who disbelieve him based on the description I’ve given here; I’ve got no problem with that. But it would be wrong of me to have his character held up to criticism here when I cannot give more information about the situation than I’ve already given.