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If you’re over 40, you’ll probably remember when online dating was seen as something only ‘desperate’ people did. Now, it’s as popular as toilet paper at that first mention of “lockdown”.
Today, says marriage celebrant, Yvonne Adele, 70 per cent of the couples she marries met online.
This month, on the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia’s “Seriously Social” podcast, I asked some experts whether online dating, and the platforms we use to do it, are shifting the power-balance in dating relationships.
There’s no denying the online dating scene still has a reputation for breeding toxic behaviours like racism, ageism, sexism, misogyny and harassment. Nearly every woman who’s tried online dating has a hair-raising story to tell.
But there’s another side to that coin, and it’s a positive one. Something’s changing for women and some LGBTI + folks when they meet men online, as opposed to at the pub or nightclub.
On dating apps, women can take back some of the power. According to Sydney-based dater Melanie who spoke to me for the podcast, she went from questioning her currency and attractiveness as a potential partner, to suddenly becoming the one to do the picking once she started using dating apps. (That’s not always the case in real life—especially for older women who were acculturated to “wait until you’re asked.”)
Chris Beasley is Emerita Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, with an interest in gender and sexuality, at the University of Adelaide. Chris is also a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.
Traditionally, the pace of dating has traditionally been controlled—or steam-rolled—by men. But in researching their new book, Internet Dating: Intimacy and Social Change, Chris and her co-author, Mary Holmes, discovered that women feel safer when technology, and a degree of anonymity, allows them to ‘take the reins’ and control the speed of the relationship.
Chris and Mary were also delighted to find some older women are smashing stereotypes and using internet dating for casual sex. Chris explains:
“Freed from the risks of, possibly, pregnancy, or their social environment telling them not to do this … older women are having much more casual sex than they’ve probably ever had before. Internet dating provides them with that opportunity.”
LGBTIQ people have also found internet dating empowering. Online, there’s usually no doubt about who will welcome an advance from a same-sex or trans or non-binary partner and who won’t. And, if you read the signals wrong, it’s far less dangerous than in real life.
It takes a lot of angst out of that first approach. For Bee*, a bi-sexual, finding love in the ‘real world’ was “like looking for a needling in a haystack.” But, after a few months online, she met her future wife.
According to Chris, people with physical disabilities also benefit from the convenience of online dating. They can meet a lot of people within a wide geographical area, without the physical barriers (and now, health concerns) inherent in bar-hopping.
For those who feel anxious or uncomfortable in social situations, vetting potential partners online can make dating much less stressful.
She also suggests online dating tends to lead to intimacy more quickly than the old-fashioned kind. But, it’s not just physical intimacy which happens faster. Online, you get to ask the kinds of interrogative questions about interests, attitudes, values and expectations—even sexual preferences—that may feel inappropriate if you’ve just met someone for the first time at a pub. And, if you don’t like the answers, you can close down the conversation safely, without fear of being harassed or followed.
Of course, dating ‘online’ is only a preliminary to meeting up in ‘real life.’ But, it gives women a broader range of candidates and a better filtering process. Hopefully, changing what happens at the ‘front end’ has the potential to overcome some of the issues women experience during and after that first face-to-face meeting.
If online dating is making women feel more empowered, Chris thinks it’s also making men think more carefully about how they present themselves online.
“On dating apps, the most common language that men use to describe themselves is ‘easy going,’ says Chris. “I think that’s a kind of shorthand language for saying, ‘I know that I just can’t get my own way.’”
As dating apps boom in popularity, specialist apps have entered the marketplace. Bumble, for example, was set up with the express aim of giving more power to women.
Features like photo verification have been added to assure women they’re talking to a real person whose identity has been verified. Apps like Bumble and Hinge are designed to encourage conversation over presentation—also, arguably, a safety feature.
Marriage celebrant, Yvonne Adele, says some of the couples she’s married spoke for months before they actually met in person.
Lucille McCart is the Asia Pacific Communications Director for Bumble. She says: “I think that a platform is never going to be the single answer to solving the gender issues that prevail throughout most Western societies and many other societies as well. But, I think the original philosophy of Bumble that still stands today is that if you can encourage a woman to make the first move on a dating app—it’s a very small experience, but it’s an empowering experience.”
Lucille thinks that once women find their confidence and power in dating, it can translate into other areas of their lives. But she sees bringing gender equality into dating as something that serves all sexes.
“It’s not about making the world a better place for women,” says Lucille. “It’s about making the world a better place for all people, and helping all people try and find more healthy and equal relationships.”
Illustrations: Created by Anna Dennis for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Used with permission.
Written with Kim Lester and Sue White