In 1860s Manhattan, young men and women in search of some excitement could duck into a little stationery shop uptown, open the unmarked notebook on the counter, and scribble a message to all the other strangers who were in on the secret. When the New York society writer George Ellington managed to get his hands on the book, he opened it to find page after page of people talking about themselves in the third person:
“Miss Annie B—, a young lady of high family (fourth floorer), probably highly accomplished and of a sweet temper, desires to exchange cartes de visite with a ‘nice’ gentleman.”
“S.J. A—, a handsome young man, but full of fun.”
“Blanche G—; a very pretty girl, aged twenty; full of fun. Object in corresponding, fun, and to gratify a curiosity as to how many gentlemen will be foolish enough to answer this.”
“James P—, a very homely gentleman, of thirty-five, wishes to correspond with a blue-eyed, light-haired young lady. Must be tall, not younger than twenty-five nor more than forty. A homely person preferred to a beauty. Must be stylish.”
Beneath each note, the author had scribbled the address of the nearest post office. Now any man who found himself smitten with the writing of Blanche G. or Annie B. could send the girl a private note to the post office, where her father couldn’t intercept it. Like many men of his era, Ellington did not trust women to send or receive mail. Every delivery was a new opportunity for a nefarious man to ensnare an innocent girl in the “evil of clandestine correspondence.” This postal personal-ad operation, Ellington sneered, could only appeal to “a certain class of people of the metropolis—more particularly the classes known as the demi-monde, the fast men and the women who are inclined to a rapid life.” Ellington hardly deemed these men worth mentioning, but he filled a 650-page volume with opinions on the women he believed were destroying the moral fiber of society with their whoring. Though these women “outwardly appear to enjoy their various midnight revelries,” Ellington diagnosed their private condition as “blasé and tired of everything.” He called the book The Women of New York.
Nearly 150 years later, another New York society writer discovered another dating network that’s again enabling young women to ruin America by having sex with terrible men. It’s called Tinder, and as Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales tells it, the app’s tens of millions of users are hastening the “dawn of the dating apocalypse” with their every swipe. In this smartphone-enabled hellscape, young men and women interact exclusively through distended text conversations that culminate in one serving of drunken “porn sex” with a side of early-onset erectile dysfunction. In order to paint this picture, Sales waves away a nationally representative, peer-reviewed study showing that millennials are having sex with fewer partners than previous generations, and instead leans on the opinion of one psychologist who believes that after “gorging” on Tinder’s sex partner buffet, young men have developed “a kind of psychosexual obesity” that prevents them from not acting like jerks.
Today’s personal ads may be saltier than before—one OkCupid dude recently opened with the line, “Do you think you would like to get choke-fucked, tied up, slapped, throat-fucked and cummed on?”—but the underlying sexual and technological panic looks remarkably similar to the Victorian version. On Sunday, the New York Post’s Naomi Schaefer Riley endorsed Sales’ Tinder takedown in a column that expertly channeled Ellington’s fervor: “Tinder is tearing society apart,” Riley announced. Hetero coupling has hit “a new low.” Soon the American dream of a “good education, good job, marriage, [and] kids” will be obliterated by “10 years of swiping for sex.” Media oracles have been warning about this coming romantic apocalypse since the first marriage proposal ticked across a telegraph line in a flurry of dashes and dots. But after the telegraph, the telephone, the computer dating service, and PlentyofFish all failed to destroy the heterosexual coupling ritual, I’m betting that come 2025 we’ll still be living in a world of families with kids. We’ve been through this. So why do new technologies still manage to push the same old sexual panic buttons?
For starters, our cultural memory is lousy. When Sales asks, “Could the ready availability of sex provided by dating apps actually be making men respect women less?,” she seems to have forgotten how little men respected their sex partners at every other point in American history. Yes, it’s gross that in 2015, a Tinder user compared hookup apps to ordering food on Seamless, but it was also gross in 2002 when an Internet dater compared dating sites to ordering toys on eBay. In her 1988 book When Old Technologies Were New, communications scholar Carolyn Marvin reports that technophobes tend to fear that the “electric romance,” once sparked, can never return to a “slower and more innocent state.” They’re right—mostly because that time of innocence never actually existed.
As woman after woman attests in Vanity Fair, using Tinder sometimes means fielding gross come-ons and scary outbursts from strange men. But that kind of harassment isn’t new, either. The telephone operators or “telephone girls” of the early 20th century risked being stalked by male customers who showed up at the office to match the face to the voice. And when men flirted, the girls were often blamed; one phone company installed a “device to stop flirtations” that detected idle conversations on the line, then suspended or fired girls caught conversing. In 1968, one enterprising creep signed up for a bunch of early dating services, contacted a slew of women, then sold their contact info to weird guys. In 1970, a Minneapolis woman told the Times that after paying $495 for a computer dating service, she was “called by a man who propositioned her and made obscene remarks.” Another woman complained that her date “arrived wearing nothing but an overcoat.” And women have been banding together to fend off online creeps long before the viral sensation Bye Felipe started publicly shaming all the Tinder “dudes who turn hostile when rejected or ignored.” Telephone girls “improvised ways to protect themselves from unwanted attentions,” Marvin notes. Many of them assumed “the same privileges as men” in sharing “compromising information” about annoying or abusive suitors, in the interests of helping other working women fend them off.
Sexual and technological panics pair together so nicely because with their powers combined, they are so masterfully effective at controlling women. In 1905, the professional journal Telephony published a note from a parent who knew how to barricade the front door but couldn’t conceive of how he’d protect his daughters from the strange men who could now come in through the telephone line. Some patriarchs fought tech with tech. In 1960, the playwright Howard Teichmann wiretapped his daughter’s phone line and then published her private flirtations verbatim in the New York Times. Decades earlier, Marvin notes that another dad hid his new phonograph under the sofa to record his daughter cooing with her boyfriend, then replayed the recording over breakfast the next day. Other men relied on more traditional methods. Marvin relays the story of one shopkeeper who installed a telephone in his store, only to find his daughter using it to flirt with “strange men” right under his “very nose.” Police later arrested him on “a charge of threatening to blow her brains out.”
In his book, Ellington admitted that his central annoyance with the promiscuous demimonde women is that they insisted on leaving their houses all the time to … do whatever they wanted. They were always riding on boats, picnicking in Central Park, stumbling drunk down Broadway, and eating in restaurants—occupying the spaces that the 19th-century man believed belonged to him. Travel to Niagara Falls, and he’d find them standing right next to him, “admiring the grandeur of the scene”; head to the beach, and there they were, splashing in his ocean. “These women, like the poor, we have always with us,” Ellington solemnly concluded.
In a sense, the recent panic over men and women boning through Tinder constitutes an improvement. Just a few years ago, the media narrative around hetero dating apps waved them off as little more than a fantasy. Women would never get on board, commentators warned, because women require an emotional connection to have sex, or because they’re afraid of male predators stalking them, or because women already have a mechanism for figuring out when they’re in range of a willing straight man—he tells her. These naysayers sound like George Ellington waving women away from the mailbox. In both cases, women who want to play with a new gadget are told they’ll end up heartbroken or raped, and besides, they don’t need to learn the new technology when they have a more capable patriarch on hand to solve the issue for them. In 2011, the guys behind the pioneering gay app Grindr put those stereotypes to the test when they launched an app for straights, Blendr, that was careful to bow to “women’s sexuality.” Blendr positioned itself as an app for meeting new friends or starting serious relationships, and its design was focused “more on text and less on visual stimulation.” Women didn’t really bite. But when Tinder debuted one year later, emphasizing visuals so strongly that users couldn’t even chat before liking each other’s pictures, women gorged.
I bet the demimonde daters of the 1860s would have loved Tinder. James P.’s yearning for a stylish, homely girl would be easily satisfied by a trip to Brooklyn. S.J. A.’s one-line joke ad about his handsomeness is an acceptable tone for detached texting. Annie B. could live out her days as the annoying lady who claims to use Tinder for “networking.” Blanche said she wrote a personals ad because she thought it might be fun, just like the Tinder user who told Vanity Fair: “It’s, like, fun to get the messages.” To the Victorian eye, Tinder might have even seemed just a little bit romantic. In 1879, telegraph operator Ella Cheever Thayer made a splash with her prescient novel, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes, which centered on a pair of telegraph workers who fell for each other in Morse code. Thayer dreamed of a new device, one made especially “for lovers” to “carry in their pockets” so that whenever they’re apart, they “will only have to take up this electrical apparatus, put it to their ears, and be happy.” Imagining the smartphone, Thayer sighed rapturously: “Ah! Blissful lovers of the future!”