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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 45, New Delhi, October 23, 2021

Online Dating Apps: Changes and Continuities in Gender Relations | Piyali Sur

Saturday 23 October 2021, by Piyali Sur

Abstract

This article looks at how online dating apps provide opportunities to women to ‘take charge’ sexually but within a wider context of persistent coercion and inequality.

Introduction

Dating applications, primarily navigated by young adults, have emerged as a new platform to connect and form relationships that may be romantic or sexual, committed or casual in our consumerist society. Tinder, launched in India in 2016 is the most widely used app with 100 million users at the end of 2020 (Shetty, 2020) [1]. Apart from Tinder there are a dozen of dating apps that can be downloaded on smartphones like okcupid, Bumble, Grindr, all launched in 2018 in India. The online dating industry in India is worth over ₹2,394 crores, and the country is the third-largest revenue generator, after the US and China. Apps like Tinder have ‘people nearby’ feature where once logged in, profiles of users appear on screen arranged in order of distance. The profiles usually have photographs, hobbies, interest and the ‘swiping’ feature allows the user to swipe right across the profile to signal interest and left to indicate rejection. If both the users swipe right over each other’s profile, they can start a conversation. Bumble is marketed as a ‘feminist app’ due to ‘women text first’ feature in heterosexual equations and it is women who initiate the first conversation. Dating apps like Grindr facilitates same-sex intimacies and is stated to enable the queer to explore themselves with privacy. Though the online dating apps try to be inclusive, the online platforms cater to young from middle class to upper-class backgrounds. Online dating is not only facilitated by ‘economic capital’ but also by ‘cultural capital’, profiles display ‘taste’ of the individual in the Bourdieusian framework [2]. The first impression is made by what is written on the profile, the hobbies, taste for music, inclination towards Netflix, amazon. What is written on the user’s profile, what he/she wants to convey or self-presentation (Goffman, 1959) [3] is very important in online dating. Online dating is a kind of consumption where class and gender are experienced, imposed and resisted.

The question that emerges is does this technology have subversive potentialities for women? Wajeman’s (1991) technofeminism [4] claims that gender and technology are mutually constitutive and that new technologies include existing gendered social relations. If culture of technology is the ‘culture of masculinity’ as Wajeman asserts then can the dating apps be considered a feminist tool enabling women users to redefine the traditional notions of femininity as passive and sexually disinterested? Is this technology disrupting gender norms by giving women a sense of power to choose/reject or is it reproducing the existing gender power regimes? With these questions in mind, I interviewed 10 young women aged 20 to 32 years, identified as heterosexual in Kolkata, India. There was a deliberate focus on women in heterosexual accounts of internet dating as my aim was to observe whether women can take control over their sexuality through this new technology of intimacy. In India, premarital sex has for long been proscribed and discussions about sexuality a taboo. Even schools avoid or hesitate to impart lessons on sex education for fear that it will increase pre-marital adolescent sexual activities. The sexual double standard persists where men still gain status by their sexual experience and women’s reputation is tarnished by it. A woman’s reputation is linked to her sexual reputation while a man’s to his personality, academic qualification and profession. Sexually active women easily earn the label of ‘sluts’, sex is linked to procreation with no space given to enjoyment of sex. Traditionally sex is conceived as a one-sided activity, men are only concerned with their own self-centred pleasures. Though women are reduced to their bodies and are defined by their sexuality, they are not allowed any agency to express their sexuality. Most Indian women are made to think that sex is a bad thing, related to morality, and that they should not explore their sexual needs or sexual pleasures. In Indian society the normative ideal for a woman is to be a virgin unmarried daughter, chaste wife and self-sacrificing mother, their attire and movements regulated. In recent time, both in the global north and in India, there has been an ideological shift due to the feminist movement and youth global culture. The feminist movement with sexual autonomy as its political goal and the global youth culture having permissive sexual attitudes have produced changes in the expression of female sexuality. Kimmel (2005) [5] feels there has been a masculinization of sex’ that involves pursuit of pleasure for its own sake with less emotional ties. Young women’s negotiations of sexuality are complex in India, on one hand there is sexual regulation and on the other the promise of sexual freedom. India Today-AC Nielsen ORG-MARG Sex Surveys (2005 & 2006) [6], it was observed younger generations are willing to take that risk and are displaying more permissive attitudes towards sexual behaviour (Thomas 2008) [7]. In this context, my aim was to inquire whether the sexual-gender gap is coming closer, whether women are resembling men in sexual behaviour and whether women in Kolkata are using this app for pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake.

Among my interviewees the most used online dating app was Tinder. Women logged in to the app with a sense of curiosity, to talk freely with someone outside their own circle, to navigate their sexuality better, to check out on men, to date men and have partnerships, to get over and have their minds off a nasty break up. A few women interviewees used the market metaphor and said they just enjoyed reading the profiles of men like in ‘online shopping, you swipe one catalogue after another.’ Women also stated that they enjoyed the validation without having actually to meet the person. Most women interviewees were not on these apps for casual relationships and wrote on their profiles ‘not for hook-ups’. They knew on online platforms one could not lookout for long term relationships but they looked for genuine men with whom they could meet, interact and then could move to something more intimate or sexual. Though users navigated the apps with the presumption that there would be physical intimacy but the majority of my women users wanted some kind of bonding before sexual intimacies. Even the very few women who desired casual sex and were using the app to explore their sexual desires wanted men who were “emotionally available”. Though most women users sought to establish physical, face to face relationships after they had connected online, there were few interviewees who were not interested to meet the men offline but wanted to chat online. However, the women felt most men prioritize sex and women interviewees took extreme caution to swipe right. They avoided profiles with shirtless pictures of men, overt mention of sexual expectations like “looking for a good girl with a dirty brain”, having condescending statements like “only swipe right if you are smart enough”, hypermasculine attitudes like “only care about gyms and bros”, “very competitive”, “will treat you as a princess if you discard your bad habits”. Political views of men were also very important, most women interviewees stated they liked men with left leanings. Men with hypermasculine attitudes were rejected by women for not believing in gender equality. Women in this study swiped right when men’s profiles stated that they were looking for relationships and companionship. After swiping right, women left or ‘unmatched’ when they saw their dates talking more about themselves rather than trying to know the women. Here women participants asserted their choice, personal autonomy, focused on themselves. A woman interviewee stated in her narrative “there is a sense of power in being able to repeatedly sample and reject men.”

Expression of sexuality

Informant’s narratives show that use of dating apps helped them to understand their bodily needs and how their bodies respond. One woman narrated dating apps “gave me personal gratification, I learnt to love myself, became open to see what I liked, helped me to explore my agency.”

However, most were of the view that slut-shaming very common in online platforms constrained them from freely expressing themselves. Internet interactions enable one to reveal aspects of oneself that cannot be easily disclosed in offline face to face interactions. Women interviewees, however remained alert and made choices around which words to use while creating their profiles as writing freely about one’s sexuality always ran the risk of being abused and called a slut. For instance, one woman expressed that she could not write on her profile that she was a bisexual for fear that men would make creepy sexual propositions. Women felt that Indian men were not yet prepared to accept women’s sexuality. “In India there are no modern men who can handle sexually expressive women, men have not changed and they judge women, make women feel uncomfortable by using crass words.” Women had to face abrupt sexual propositions as there is a general notion among men that women who are on online dating apps are easy, promiscuous and deserve sudden unsolicited sexual comments.

There are always risks for women associated with transgression of gender norms. Hence women were very careful to read and interact in online communications to avoid men who may pose danger offline. A woman stated “it takes a lot of filtering, screening men on dating apps is a task in itself. The worst thing that can happen to a man is a bad date, but I may be raped or murdered. A huge risk is involved. The onus lies on women to filter it out.” Here is found the autonomous, freely choosing subjects of neoliberalism who have to take the risks of their own choices.

Concluding remarks

Dating apps do make it easier for women to meet different men, and take decisions whether to be sexually intimate. It is a medium for women to explore sexual desires and assert sexual agency. It reverses ‘male gaze’ where women engage in a sexualized way of looking at men that gives women a sense of power. However, online dating places women ‘at risk’ as men with the same traditional notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad women that pervades in the wider society enter the world of online dating. It can be said dating apps provide opportunities to women to ‘take charge’ sexually but within a wider context of persistent coercion and inequality.

(Author: Piyali Sur, Professor of Sociology, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.)

Acknowledgement: ’The research has been conducted with the help of Maddu Sumanjali.’


[1Shetty, A. (2020). How homegrown dating apps are finding love in India. Retrieved from: https://www.forbesindia.com/article/local-champ-2020/how-homegrown-dating-apps-are-finding- love-in-india/65155/1

[2Pierre Bourdieu (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press

[3E. Goffman (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday Anchor Books

[4Judy Wajcman (1991) Feminism Confronts Technology, by Judy Wajcman. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991

[5Michael S. Kimmel (2005) The Gender of Desire: Essays on Male Sexuality. SUNY Press

[6India Today (2005) Sex and the single woman http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20050926/cs-main.html ; India Today (2006) Men in a muddle http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20061113/cover.html

[7Thomas, S. (2008). Navigating a world in flux: sexual scripts in India. Retrieved from: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/apexprod/rws_etd/send_file/send?accession=miami1228500236&disposi tion=inline

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