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'Vanity Fair' Doesn’t Understand What's Going on With Dating or Tinder

Economic forces, rather than technological ones, are changing the way young people pursue relationships.
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(Photo: instantvantage/Flickr)

(Photo: instantvantage/Flickr)

A Vanity Fair feature called “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” spent 6,500 words this week exploring Millennial dating culture only to ultimately conclude, once again, that smartphones ruin lives, young people are doomed by their access to instant gratification, and that Millennials are fated to being unceremoniously ghosted until they actually die and become ghosts themselves. In a scene seemingly ripped from American Psycho, young investment bankers Dan, Alex, and Marty compare setting up Tinder dates to dinner reservations and speak freely about their physically and emotionally superficial dating conquests. “‘It’s like ordering Seamless,’” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “‘But you’re ordering a person.’” (Emphasis mine but you can sort of tell that the author thought this was an absolute scandal of a metaphor.) I would forgive the author for the inclusion of this now boring cliché about application-based dating as a commodification of romantic prospects, but the piece also includes an inaccurate definition of “fuckboy.” So sometimes a woman has to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”

Fuckboy is not a dating style so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort.

The reality of relationship formation among Millennials is linked to technology that enables more choice, of course. Tinder’s Twitter account erupted in the wake of the article, suggesting that the abundance of choice was one of Tinder’s many benefits. The tweet storm was bellicose in its grandstanding about Tinder and turned out to be a public relations stunt, but data suggests that the use of such apps is hardly the scourge to romance that many accuse it of being. Pew Research found that 79 percent of people who use online dating services consider them “a good way to meet people,” while 70 percent believe they help people find better matches. Rejection hurts, yes, and discarding people unkindly is unacceptable. But the flip side of this is that people are not just settling. As of 2012, one-third of all marriages started online, so the abundance of choice hasn’t exactly killed the institution. And while swipe-centered apps were not yet popular, dating sites were still arguably dense with options.

Courtship and marriage are not treated the same as they used to be, but this is not because excessive choices have deranged our romantic compasses. Financial concerns, housing security, and shifting social mores make Millennial dating patterns more complex than Tinder rendering us sexed-up automatons, swiping until our fingers bleed, unaware of the world around us. Though stories of jobless youth returning to their parents’ homes have mostly receded from the headlines as employment has recovered, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 26 percent of Millennials live at home with their parents, an increase from five years ago when it was 24 percent. Nearly half of Millennials live with roommates. People don’t necessarily want to be forming relationships when they don’t live independently.

“Hook-up culture” might be thriving in the worried minds of older media writers, but, in reality, a lot of people just don’t feel ready. According to a Pew Research study from last year, “Three-in-ten [Millennials] say they have not found someone who has what they are looking for in a spouse. A similar share (27%) say they are not financially prepared for marriage. And 22% say they are not ready to settle down or are too young.”

With the average American wedding costing $31,213, the fact that young people don’t have marriage on their radars is sometimes because it is more pleasant not to think about that kind of expenditure than to actively pursue it. And despite much hand-wringing over Millennials not buying houses, they really want to. The International Research Journal of Applied Finance released a study this month that found college-aged Millennials would postpone weddings and honeymoons in order to pay for their own homes. The fact that young people aren’t prioritizing marriage doesn’t mean they aren’t carefully considering the question of whether or not to seek a partner and marry them; it only suggests that we have other priorities in the immediate term, particularly since our generation got off to a slow start during the recession.

But it is undeniable that the marriage priority has shifted too. Pew Research also found that 66 percent of adults under 30 said they wanted to get married at some time in the future. That’s a majority but not an impressive one. Only 36 percent of people in the same age group believe it is “very important” for people to marry if they plan to be partnered for life. Millennials have different social mores and expectations, and they’re also climbing out of a Hades-deep pit of student debt. Those that bemoan the decline of marriage are quick to cite studies like this analysis from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research that found co-habitating couples are often more disillusioned than couples that marry before ever living together. But those straight-to-marriage couples are also very rare today, meaning “less disillusioned” might actually be more accurately described as “uniquely blissed out because they have few other relationship models to compare their new marriage to.”

And finally, there is the issue of fuckboys. The article defines a fuckboy as “a young man who sleeps with women without any intention of having a relationship with them or perhaps even walking them to the door post-sex.” But this is both incomplete and inaccurate. Fuckboys are not always young, and there are plenty of fuckboys in long-term romantic relationships. Fuckboy is not a dating style so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort.

As I noted here earlier this week, a 2013 survey by Citibank and LinkedIn found that 79 percent of men considered “a strong, loving marriage” a requirement for “having it all” while only 66 percent of women had marriage as a requirement. But women still do the heavy emotional lifting of nurturing intimate partnerships: A study in Scientific Reports of cell phone records found that women overwhelmingly invested their social capital in male partners through time spent communicating with them. Men also overestimate attractive women’s interest in them, not an especially attractive characteristic to women who value self-awareness in a partner.

In short, many women have wised up to the fact that, despite the insistence of magazines and Princeton Moms, marriage is not the only way to spend your 30s and the rest of your life. As I put it delicately on Matter, “The truth is, sluts like me are everywhere on Tinder but we aren’t impressed by men who are positively beleaguered by the prospect of having to put effort into getting laid, nor do we like it when they mock the boundaries of our girlfriends who want to use Tinder only for traditional dating.” And so women keep swiping too.

If you’re going to write a story dismissive of young people and their social and romantic habits, you might as well do something silly like call it “Till Death Do Us Party.” Calling this shift a “dating apocalypse” dismisses the very real dates we are going on. Our courtship is just happening on very different timelines and at different volumes and commitment levels. If we’re going to be biblical, it might instead be called a “dating epiphany”: Our generation has learned some hard truths about relationships and expectations and money and we aren’t all totally sold on the idea. And so forgive our caution as we field financial insecurity and shifting expectations of relationships, and leave alone our God-given right to swipe left.

The Science of Relationships examines the sexual, romantic, and platonic connections that we all share.