Books

How Dating Apps Feed Into Racism, Sexism, and “Rape Culture”

In her latest book, Nancy Jo Sales examines the real-life dangers of online dating.

A close-up of a person holding their phone, with their thumb on the screen. They are on the log-in page for Tinder, which has a pink background and the name of the app in white.
Aamir Qureshi/Getty Images

Nancy Jo Sales has been reporting on women’s experience of the internet since well before people were aware of the unique dangers it posed. A longtime writer for Vanity Fair, in 2015 she published the book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, which detailed the negative effects of the internet on teenage girls, including cyberbullying and sexism. That same year, she wrote a piece titled “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’ ” about the chilling reality of online dating—how it’s sold as something that can help people find love or at least a relationship, yet many women in particular have negative, even dangerous experiences instead, feeling objectified and powerless. What popular platforms like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble were really doing, Sales found, was commodifying hookup culture and blocking people from forming real connections.

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The piece went viral, but Sales faced a lot of criticism for the article, both from Tinder and from other publications. She was dismissed for inciting a moral panic and called naïve; she also was the subject of ageist comments that she was “too old” to properly understand the internet, dismissing the credibility of her analysis.

But she kept reporting anyway. In 2018, she wrote, produced, and directed a documentary about dating apps called Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, and now she’s released Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, a memoir that details her own experiences with online dating while she was reporting on it. It’s a vulnerable, in-depth look at her own life, career, and some of the trauma and abuse she suffered. It’s not just a memoir, though. Throughout the book, Sales weaves in a thoroughly researched and reported analysis of sexism, technology, and dating, and she also makes a much bigger argument: that dating apps have exacerbated misogyny. “Dating apps did not invent misogyny, but they weaponized it,” she writes.

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Now that we’re in a period of increased skepticism of technology and social media, Sales urges that dating apps also be held to account for the ways they are endangering women, people of color, and trans people. Following the release of Nothing Personal, we discussed what inspired her to return to the subject of online dating in the internet age and exactly how and why sexism, racism and transphobia propagate on dating apps.

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The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Aliya Chaudhry: You’ve been writing about how young women live their lives online for a long time. What made you want to return to the subject with Nothing Personal

Nancy Jo Sales: It was [inspired by] the feeling and the knowledge that even with all I’ve been trying to say and report, this discussion still has not made it into the mainstream. The mainstream media tends to portray online dating as something really fun and cute. … The overall sense of [mainstream] reporting does not take into account the harm that is coming to women, to people of color, and to LGBTQ people through harassing messages, unsolicited images, and even sexual assault and rape of women—and men too.

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There have been murders, and you do not hear about this in the mainstream media … I felt like I wanted to continue to talk about this because after [Swiped] came out in 2018, I was getting emails and DMs, from people, especially women, saying, “Thank you for saying this. This is not being talked about enough. We’re being told this lie. These companies are lying to us, exploiting us, getting us addicted, getting us hooked, but we’re not able to actually share our true experience.”

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In my 2015 article about online dating, Justin Garcia at the Kinsey Institute said that this is an unprecedented moment in mating. This hasn’t happened in 10 to 15,000 years, since the agricultural revolution. And it’s happening so fast. Whenever there are big shifts like that, there’s enormous potential for people to be exploited. But there’s also potential for people to seize the reins and take charge of their own liberation.

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How do dating apps amplify misogyny and sexism? 

Starting with the male gaze, women are objectified through the publishing and posting of pictures in this game of “Hot or Not,” whereby men get to decide, is she fuckable, or is she not? Some people do say, well, the same thing happens to men; women decide too. But you don’t have to be a feminist scholar to see why it’s different if it’s a man than if it’s a woman, because our whole culture is set up to objectify [women]. And then [objectification] is weaponized by the fact that now in dating, there is a split second by which a man gets to say, “Are you hot or are you not?” In tech theory, they talk about how behaviors affect attitudes. … Just by doing this one behavior of swiping on females’ faces and bodies and deciding in that split second whether or not there’s someone you want to have sex with or date, you’re being conditioned to believe that it’s OK to do that, that’s acceptable behavior, to treat women that way, as objects.

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I think dating apps are rape culture. Rape culture is described as those things which support a culture in which rape is excused, enabled, encouraged or minimized. The National Crime Agency of the U.K. did a study in 2016, which was only a few years after heterosexual mobile dating appeared. It said that there had been a 450 percent rise in sexual assault and rape in the U.K. related to online dating. And they attributed this to a new kind of sexual offender. He’s a guy who normally is less likely to actually have any history of sexual assault, but he starts online dating. The way that the apps are presented to him makes him think that they guarantee him sex. So when he goes on a date with someone, or even talks to someone, and she is not immediately willing to have sex with him, he feels that she is not living up to the bargain of the app, which is that he will get sex from her. And he can become potentially violent in his insistence on sex happening.

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There was a ProPublica story about the high incidence of rape. More than 30 percent of [a group of] 1,200 women who have used online dating over the last 15 years said that they had experienced some kind of sexual assault, and 50 percent of those experiences were rape. It’s just [happening] in astronomical numbers, which are not talked about enough.

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I read about a study done in 2018 at Cornell that said that dating app algorithms are racist, and they encourage racism in the broader world. They’re also transphobic. Trans people have just terrible, terrible experiences on these apps. And they do talk about it, but they’re not listened to enough.

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Can you explain more about the kinds of discrimination—like racism and transphobia—taking place throughout online dating?

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A trans person I’ve interviewed over the years told me about horrible things that are said to them, because they have trans in their profile. People say things to them, question them, ask uncomfortable questions, say harassing things, come onto them, say uncomfortable things that are not right and that a person wouldn’t say in person. You can see people’s names now, on most apps, but for all intents and purposes, online dating is still pretty anonymous. The [anonymity of] these things and communicating through screens makes people more aggressive, and they will say things that are just not acceptable in any place, but they’re very assaultive. And people do this to people of color as well.

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They will even write in their profile such things as—I hate to even say it, it makes me sick to even say it—but they’ll say “no Blacks,” or fat shaming things like “no fats,” body shaming things, “no Asians,” “no Africans.” This is not OK. This should not be allowed. And they get away with it because the apps say, well, it’s a sexual preference. I’m sorry. It’s not. I don’t accept that. It’s racism. It’s not a sexual preference to have on your profile “no Blacks.” You should be immediately kicked off that app.

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The algorithms are racist themselves. The Cornell study from 2018 shows how they are set up to send people to the people of their own race that they may have swiped on the most. And this, I would argue, reinforces racism in real life. Chemistry is not something you can ever predict. The magic of love and dating and romance is the chemistry that you feel for someone you might have never even expected. Now, some people say, “Well, you can do that on a dating app, too. It’s so random.” It’s not random. There’s nothing about it that’s random. It’s all algorithms. The algorithms are not random.

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They have Chispa for Latinx people, and they have BlackPeopleMeet for Black people. But I’ve heard from people who use these apps that there are also a lot of white people on there being racist.

One thing that really shocked me when I read your book was that minors are on these apps, and the apps are just not addressing it.

Yes, that’s been a problem from the beginning. … 2013 is when I did my first story about girls and social media. I went to the Grove in L.A. and started talking to this girl, and she told me about Tinder. The app had just come out. She took her phone out of her purse and started to show [Tinder] to me, and she started swiping, showing me how it worked. She was 16, and she was talking to 30-year-old guys. Because at that time, 13-to-17-year-olds could be on the app. They were only supposed to be talking to each other at that time, but still, if you are a parent or a teacher, or anyone who deals with kids, you know that 13-year-olds should not be talking to 17-year-olds. That’s a big difference. They could jump over and talk to older people too. Plus now, to this day, they still make fake profiles and go on these apps. And to this day, you have rapes and sexual assaults.

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Finally now, there is some kind of congressional investigation about it. That sounds good. I hope that they really hold these apps accountable for this … because there needs to be age checks. The apps don’t want to do it, because it will cost them more money. But they have to have some way of verifying the ages of people on these apps. You cannot have underage kids and children on these apps. It’s just too dangerous. And it’s not just that they might get raped, but they might be drawn into some really inappropriate conversation, or have things said to them that are harmful or hurtful and make them feel bad or make them question things in a way that they shouldn’t have to confront at this stage of their lives.

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