“We’d usually start off watching a movie and then fuck,” said Maria*, a College junior, of a woman she met online this summer. “we were always high,” she added. And the sex? “It was pretty good sex! She was a lot more aggressive than she looked.” Maria hasn’t seen the woman since the summer, though they’re not exactly incommunicado. “She still comments on my stuff on Facebook," Maria giggles.
If you remember the days when TV happened on a television set, you’ll also remember the abundance of commercials for eHarmony and Match.com, some of America’s most popular online dating services. It’s all about statistics: “One in five relationships start online” or “People who use our service are three times more likely to find a relationship.” For the long-term-relationship-seeking 30-somethings who sign up for these sites, online dating has become, to an extent, normalized. The same can’t be said for Penn students’ relationships to the services. The immediacy and connectivity that online dating offers should, in theory, be right up our alley; we’ve digitized practically all of our other social interactions, from birthday wishes to party invites. But despite the fact that we do everything else online, the idea of seriously someone who we meet on the Internet seems a little foreign, even taboo. This doesn’t mean Penn students are eschewing dating apps. We’re just not necessarily using them to date.
“I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m on OKCupid,” Maria said after taking a second to think. Maria signed up for OKCupid her freshman year. She arrived at Penn a newly out lesbian and was greeted by a campus whose community of queer women was not readily visible. While she her male counterparts settling into a vibrant gay scene, Maria got frustrating trying to find other lesbians. She laments, “I got [OkCupid] freshman year because it’s just so hard to find girls at Penn, and I just don’t know who’s gay.” OkCupid was Maria's attempt to identify with a larger lesbian community on a campus that seemed to be without one. Maria admits that she made a profile and would exchange messages with girls during her freshman and sophomore years, “but when it comes to meeting people, I usually don’t have time and I’m not going to go somewhere to meet up with them.” Perhaps it was more than the inconvenience of “going somewhere” that prevented Maria from meeting someone. The stigma that surrounds the use of online dating services is undeniable on college campuses. Penn is no different; filled with young, smart, libidinal undergraduates (and graduates for that matter), it is a veritable hotbed for hookup culture. So while picking up someone at Smoke’s every weekend doesn’t elicit more than an eyebrow raise, using the Internet to hook up is still murky territory underpinned with tones of desperation and danger.
It wasn’t until Maria lived in Los Angeles the summer before her junior year that she decided to give OKCupid another go. “In L.A., I used OkCupid not just to hook up; I didn’t know anyone there, so I [thought] ‘might as well meet some new people, and if we hook up, we hook up,” she says. It was a Penn alumna on OkCupid who invited Maria to a “Queer Ladies Hangout” in L.A., where Maria met a number of girls she’d been messaging on the platform; some even knew her friends at Penn. “I was surprised…it was such a small world.” She liked the seeming comfort of a community and was able to find a peer group of similarly inclined female friends, even if it was 2,600 miles away from Philadelphia.
When it came to hooking up with someone, Maria didn’t necessarily put a premium on this familiarity. She describes her first coffee date with the Australian actress-by-day-waitress-by-night whom she met on OKCupid with a chuckle: “We got along pretty well, we were both wearing plaid… typical”. Though this initial meeting was a gesture toward a first date, Maria notes it was a little contrived, “the whole time we knew that we intended to hookup.” This was made abundantly clear when Maria’s Australian friend invited her to smoke and “watch a movie” Maria added, using air quotes and rolling her eyes at the phrase. But all of this worked for Maria. She was in a new city for the summer and casually hooking up with someone was all that she really wanted or needed. Though OKCupid asks all sorts of questions of its users in order to find an ideal romantic match, she took a much more pragmatic approach to the service, not once mentioning any of the questions she was asked when finding her potential matches. For Maria, using OKCupid was “born out of necessity.” For some, the use of a dating app is far less deliberate and far more ambivalent.
Sarah*, a College senior, was a little drunk when she decided to meet one of her Tinder matches. Two weeks before, she’d downloaded the app on a recommendation from a friend. Now it was 3 a.m., Sarah was in Manhattan’s East Village and so was the attractive 20-something guy she was messaging on Tinder. The implicit “sketchiness” in meeting strangers on the internet was not lost on her. “What if I die tonight?” she had said to her friends before she left the bar to meet him, only half-joking. They were meeting somewhere near Sarah’s apartment. “If he’s weird, I’ll just walk home,” she thought. But the potential for an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, interaction wasn’t stopping her: “I definitely wanted to meet this dude, and go to his place and hook up.” Though Tinder bills itself as a “dating” app, it also acknowledges the fact that both parties find the other, on some level, hot. “We both swiped right…we both liked each other,” Sarah explains. A 3 a.m. Tinder message is today’s social media booty call.
“The weirdest part was waiting to meet him,” Sarah noted. More awkward still was the transition from niceties and introductions to discussing the implied purpose of the tryst: hooking up. Sarah’s AC–less, shared bedroom wasn’t the ideal venue, nor was the couch that her match was crashing on for the night, which happened to be his ex–girlfriend’s. “So we didn’t do anything and we just walked around until the sun came up, and just… talked, which was not what I was expecting. He was really nice and normal and smart and funny.” At the end of the summer, he was back in New York and slept over at Sarah’s. That was the last time Sarah saw the guy she met on Tinder and she’s fine with that: “I knew what it was; I was very fine with the way it ended.” Sarah and her match never had sex.
Part of Sarah’s attraction to Tinder was the perceived frivolity of a hook up: “It was fun because it didn’t have any consequences.” By the same token, Maria didn’t want a serious relationship during her stint in L.A., and using OKCupid to find an inconsequential friend with benefits was practical. The lack of mutual friends, overlapping relationships, flirting— all of the messy and often ambiguous extenuating circumstances that came with a typical hook up were essentially removed from the equation.
Ultimately, Tinder was not for Sarah. “Having such a rush from meeting this person to having him sleep over was very stressful for me, even though I enjoyed it on some level.” Then there’s the undeniable stigma. It’s rooted in some combination of the perceived desperation and the ever—present danger of catfishing (when someone pretends to be someone else on social media). Maria pointed to the deliberate nature of downloading an app for the sole purpose of hooking up as part of it. For Sarah, the distinction between real and online dating practices is not as clear–cut: “People are like ‘it’s so superficial’ or ‘so desperate,’ but so is going up and talking to someone who you think is hot at a bar.”