Swipe right or left? How dating apps are impacting modern masculinity

What it means to be a man is changing. Critical men or masculinity studies is an emerging robust research field that explores how men and masculinity are being transformed by shifting socio-economic, sexual and political conditions in our post-industrial world.

Fascinating new male-identifying sub-cultures and communities have emerged, like mushroomcore and dandies. Yet heteronormative masculinity is typically framed as threatening, toxic or maladaptive, as in the case of fragile masculinity.

In my years of swiping on dating apps, I encountered different kinds of masculinities, as well as some very offensive and bizarre behaviours. Particularly perplexing was how quickly men vanished — or ghosted — when in-person dates were suggested, despite saying that they wanted physical intimacy. This was confusing and seemed to contradict the dominant narrative that men use dating apps primarily for hookups.

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If not for sex, what are straight men doing on the apps? Are dating apps impacting masculinity? How do these changes in gender and tech landscape impact women’s sexual possibilities?

A sexuality scholar writes about experiences with online dating.
(University of Toronto Press)

As a sexuality scholar and a woman who has sought intimacy with men on dating apps, these are important questions. I explore many of them in Sticky, Sexy, Sad: Swipe Culture and the Darker Side of Dating Apps, where I applied my academic training as an anthropologist to my dating life.

My book is based on notes that were taken between 2017 and 2022, when I was actively swiping on dating apps. No real names or identifying information are included in these data. Using the researcher’s life as subject is called auto-ethnography, and it’s an established approach that combines documentation with creative or literary techniques, memoir and cultural critique. Auto-ethnography is about articulating insider knowledge of certain cultural experiences of which the researcher is a participant.

Here are some of the most important things I learned about men and male sexual vulnerability while swiping my way into the dark heart of modern romance.

Lack of quality dating resources

Dating apps provide very little instruction for how to date beyond a few dos and don’ts, but there are other resources men can access, including books and coaching services, to fill the void. The problem is that many are business-oriented or rooted in sexist bro culture ideology, where women are positioned as opponents or prizes to be tricked into submission.

Take the titles of some of the leading dating books for men: The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed; No More Mr. Nice Guy! A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex and Life; The Foundation: A Blueprint for Becoming an Authentically Attractive Man; and the classic The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.

Also, most dating and relationship coaches, even those who are male, target their services to women, who are consistently framed as searching for love and wanting to understand men. On the other hand, men are typically seen as only wanting sex.

Lack of follow-through

One thing that was very clear during my swiping odyssey is that guys want physical intimacy and are eager to talk about it with people they trust. In my in-person dates and text exchanges with men, I would often ask about their experiences with swiping out of a desire to understand the men better and to provide a compassionate ear. Most of them were eager to share their encounters on dating apps, including the factors that were standing in their way from being able to follow through on the intimacy they were seeking.

The first factor is the gamification of dating: how dating apps are marketed as a game with endless options. This keeps men swiping and can make decisions about who to talk to or get together with feel somehow misaligned with the whole swiping endeavour.

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Add to this the links between gaming culture and misogyny, and it’s no wonder men regularly sacrifice sex and intimacy in the name of the swipe.

The second factor is the lack of quality sexual education and resulting dependence on porn. Many matches I spoke with said they learned about sex from pornography sites like PornHub. These sites often depict women in hyper-sexualized ways and don’t include dialogues about how the men featured feel about what they’re doing in an emotional sense. Excessive porn can lead to sexual dysfunction, which has been linked with an increase in sexual vulnerability and anxiety around sex.

The third factor is the perceived social pressure to be sexually sophisticated, to mirror the adventurous lives of celebrities and sports figures. Some men inflate their number of sexual partners or brag to their friends about doing certain acts to uphold a studly image. Yet in our interactions, they shared feelings of guilt and shame about lying to their friends and not being “good enough” at sex. Sometimes this means men avoid sex all together.

The fourth factor is the impact of the #MeToo movement, which began in 2017, around the time I started swiping. Men talked about feeling nervous and worried that they may come across as a creep or overly aggressive for something as simple as showing an interest in women on dating apps. They explained that this is why many of them ignore women who communicated with them or why they flake out on scheduled dates.

In many cases just talking about sex, let alone doing it, can feel too risky.

The fifth factor is the way dating platforms are designed, specifically Bumble. Until April 30 of this year, the heterosexual version required women to make the opening move and men had to wait to be asked out. Intended to put women in the driver’s seat, the role reversal seemed to make men uncomfortable, even though they were aware of the app’s design when they joined.

Indeed, the levels of misogyny on Bumble far exceeded what I experienced on any other swiping platform. This aligns with studies that show how a perceived lack of autonomy and independence — common attributes of masculinity — contribute to toxic masculinity.

Complex vulnerability

Beneath the negative gloss of toxic masculinity, there is a steady stream of vulnerability regarding sex, intimacy and identity among men in our complex contemporary world. These insights enrich our knowledge about how straight men feel about these issues, including sex, which is something that many are willing to forego rather than get wrong.

Men need and deserve to learn about sex, relationships, gendered communication and themselves in ways that are inclusive, welcoming and supportive. As a recent article in The Washington Post stated, when we teach boys and young men to diminish or ignore their emotions and sexual desires, this leads to poor health outcomes, including rising rates of suicide and unsatisfying or violent relationships.

Let’s make the future of dating sexier and safer by making space for boys, men and male-identifying people to explore and learn about these vital aspects of life in a different way. Läs mer…