An Exploration of Self, Secular Society, and Sexual Ethics in the Tinder Lothario
By David Metcalfe
January 5, 2019
In evolutionary psychology, human behavior is predicted almost entirely by what the individual thinks will result in survival and reproduction. When it comes to dating, this means that males and females assess and interact with each other with the sole goal of passing on the best genetics possible.
Males have very little long term investment in sex, as they can simply have intercourse and be unaffected. Females have a lot of long term investment in sex, as after intercourse there is a chance of becoming pregnant, and therefore severely incapacitated, for several months. In assessing potential mates, males will look for characteristics that signify developed reproductive ability, such as: breasts, wide hips, and youth. Females will look for characteristics that signify ability to provide for them during their pregnancy, such as: wealth, commitment and physical strength.
For this reason, large breasted, curvy, young females can get any man they want, and strong, committed, rich males can get any girl they want.
But we know that’s not really true, don’t we? Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, famously called humans a bunch of “DNA propagating machines”. But we’re more than that, aren’t we? Aren’t we also a collection of thoughts, ideas, emotions, dreams, ambitions, happiness, sadness, fear, confidence, intelligence, and an infinitely large number of other things?
But it’s not like evolutionary psychology was pulled out of thin air. It’s been tested and applied to a variety of groups and situations. What they find are tendencies; tendencies that predict some but not all of mating choices. People may have sex with each other for a variety of reasons, and often times, ones that are quite far from what evolutionary psychology would think. And more so, romance is about a lot more than mere sexual reproduction. That’s because humans are not machines. Humans are an entirely unique entity from all other living and non-living things. That’s why humans are the only thing that we can study in biological, psychological, sociological, historical, and philosophical context.
What I wish to share with you today is not a reduction of humanity to its most convenient explanation, but to acknowledge its vast expressions that make the human mating experience the complicated yet meaningful mess that it is. It is somewhere in this mess that I’ve found myself: philosophically devoted to celibacy, biologically devoted to heterosexual expression, sociologically devoted to my relationships with friends, family and community, historically devoted to the Greek, Christian and secular forces that formed Western society, and psychologically devoted to my desire to feel important, valuable, and most of all, loved.
I usually preface my articles by letting the reader know that they are not comprehensive. Not this time. This is comprehensive (to my level of current knowledge).
There are 8 sections:
1) The Self, Socially Situated
2) The “Online Self” in Social Communities
3) The “Online Self” in the Tinder Process
4) Modesty and Promiscuity
5) Tinder and Modesty Messages
6) The First Date: Transitioning the “Online Self” to the “Real Self”
7) The Sociality of Secular Sexuality
8) The Sexual Ethic: Is Celibacy For Losers?
And then I wrap it up with a conclusion.
1) The Self, Socially Situated
There are many versions of self-concept, but I think there are three important aspects to consider:
1) Self Identity– The way and degree to which someone connects themselves as a person by associations and disassociations of self with people, ideas, or activities.
People- ex. I am a father, Ideas- ex. I am a Democrat, Activities- ex. I am a musician.
2) Self Esteem– The value a person believes they have, including positive or negative evaluations of self.
Negative- ex. I am ugly, Positive- ex. I am beautiful.
3) Self Efficacy– Belief in the ability of the self to be successful at a given thing in the face of potential obstacles.
Negative- ex. Even if I study, I will still fail this exam, Positive- ex. If I study, I will ace this exam.
The best state of self-identity for a person is to have positive, strong associations of identity with things that bring them authentic fulfillment. For example, if a person does not enjoy playing hockey, but is pressured by their parents to join a hockey team, they may identify as a hockey player, but the lack of authenticity means they will be unfulfilled in their identity.
The best state of self-esteem for a person is to believe that they are innately valuable, independent of circumstance. For example, when people are rejected for a job they wanted to get, they may feel that the employer did not deem them valuable enough of a person to hire. This results in lower self-esteem. However, if the person believes that they are valuable independent of the employer’s opinion, they will maintain self-esteem. Self-esteem does typically require outside influence, but ideally the individual will develop it independently, and thus produce a more stable, high self-esteem.
The best state of self-efficacy for a person is to have a realistic “sense of self” which is a product of “self awareness”. It is not beneficial for an individual to have self-efficacy beyond what is reasonable. For example, if a person believes that they deserve to make one million dollars per year, they may remain perpetually unfulfilled in their career. A healthy self-efficacy would be to believe they can get a promotion or reasonable pay raise based on their ability (Rogers, 1959).
2) The “Online Self” in Social Communities
People have various approaches to socializing, and I don’t think there is one approach that needs to be taken. I do think, however, that it is generally best for people to be authentically integrated into a social community in which they are able to express and fulfill individual desires, as well as contribute to and benefit from a variety of relationships that take the form of mentorships, friendships, and, of course, dating relationships. Common facilitators of social community include schools, workplaces, churches, bars/clubs, sports and parties.
But in our increasingly online world, real world meeting places are not the only way to create social community. Online social networking replaces and supplements real world interaction on a mass scale across every age group, socioeconomic status, and is, oddly enough, not dependant on real world integration (people with real world popularity still rely on social media for social community).
The problems with seeking social capital in online communities are many. Firstly, they lack authenticity, since one can easily create a “deceptive self” that portrays how they want to be viewed; not how they really are. Secondly, they streamline and simplify the social interaction so as to rob it of its depth. For example, a couple may get engaged, and instead of calling each of their family members individually, or visiting them in person, simply make a Facebook post about it, saying a generic message that would apply to any couple (“I’m so excited to marry my best friend”, “He makes me so happy”, etc.). Images and words are carefully selected by the individual and fail to show the range of emotions, experience, and thoughts that underlie them. Thirdly, online relationships often fail to create real world value, resulting in a cognitive dissonance between the “online social self” and the “real world social self”. Someone may, for example, have one million followers on Instagram and still feel quite lonely; the “online social self” existing as a momentary façade.
3) “Online Self” In The Tinder Process
Tinder takes advantage of a culture of young people who are socially starved, seek instant gratification, and desire validation and affirmation of self (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016). Those three things describe me quite well, at times. And due to the fact that nearly three quarters of American college students now use Tinder, I think we can assume I’m not unique in that regard (Henderson, 2018).
I remember once getting on a train from Kingston to Ottawa very early in the morning. There was almost no one on the train, so I had several seats to myself. I noticed that a ways across from me was a young lady about my age. I looked at her and smiled a little bit. She looked at me and smiled back. I wanted to go over and talk to her, but there were a lot of unknown variables that held me back. Would she want some random guy sitting next to her uninvited? Would she feel like I was hitting on her? Is she taking this train to visit her boyfriend? How do I even know she’s heterosexual? What if I go and talk to her, and she says, “stop bothering me! I’m trying to have a peaceful train ride by myself!”?
But at the same time, how do I know she’s not thinking, “oh, that guy looks really cool, I hope he comes and talks to me!”? Or perhaps, she herself is thinking of coming and talking to me, but is held back by her perceptions of how I might react.
I stayed in my seat and never talked to her for the entire ride.
Tinder removes the questions. You look at a profile for 5-10 seconds and make a snap decision as to whether you should talk to them. You swipe right, and if they swipe left on you, you don’t get notified, so there’s no chance of feeling rejection. But if they swipe right on you, you get a match, and it’s an obvious invitation to talk to them. The entire rejection/acceptance process is based around “ghosting” or responding. This means that after you get a match, the person will never say, “no thanks, I’m not interested.” If they are not interested, they will simply not respond. This makes it very easy to reject and be rejected. And it doesn’t feel like they are rejecting your “real self”. It feels like they are merely rejecting your “online self”. The more deceptive and inauthentic the “online self” is, the farther away it is from your “real self”, resulting in less feelings of rejection.
There are significant gender differences, as pointed out by Dr. Martin Graff in Psychology Today last year. Men get matches on less than 1% of their right swipes, while women get matches on more than 10% of their right swipes (Graff, 2017). This is consistent with evolutionary psychological theories, as well as social and cultural norms, of males being the initiators and females being the responders, and therefore, the deciders. Men will have sex with almost any woman in their age group, but women are much more selective in which men they will have sex with. A high number of sexual encounters is correlated with positive self-esteem in men, but negative self-esteem in women (Schmitt and Jonason, 2014). Whether this can be attributed to biological, psychological, or sociological gender differences is not clear, but is likely influenced by all three.
4) Modesty and Promiscuity
Conventional wisdom suggests that women who are less modest are more sexually promiscuous. This has been countered by certain feminist movements that object to the judgement of a woman based on the way she dresses. This has been valuable in reducing victim blaming in sexual assault cases. However, the rhetoric sometimes extends beyond victim blaming and into an absurd and impractical assertion that the way a woman dresses has nothing to do with her sexuality, and that men should not respond at all differently to women based on how they dress.
Clothing is a means by which individual and social values are expressed and communicated. In places seeking conformity and teamwork, uniforms are typically worn, such as sports teams, workplaces, religious institutions, or in the military. Clothing can be representative of a certain task or activity to be performed: gym clothes, hospital gown, rubber boots, hard hat. Clothing contributes to self-identity: athlete, farmer, goth, white collar professional.
Objectification theory says that female bodies are more scrutinized and evaluated for sexual purposes than male bodies. As such, in social environments where chastity is considered a virtue, female modesty plays a significant role in communicating those values; Islamic societies, Catholic nuns, and Victorian Era England exemplify this. In social environments where chastity is considered undesirable, female immodesty plays a significant role in communicating those values; strip clubs, pornography films, and night clubs exemplify this.
There are social environments in which chastity is not being overtly promoted or discouraged. This results in modesty having ambiguous and relative communications and interpretations. At the beach, for example, American women commonly wear bikinis, and they are not considered or thought of as sexually promiscuous. However, if they walk even 10 steps off the beach and into a public place, they will be viewed as sexually promiscuous if they do not wear more clothing. But even in the context of a beach, sexuality can still be interpreted. Bikini beach related pornography is consumed in significant amounts, and is frequently used by the Kardashians and “Sports Illustrated” to convey what is obviously sexualized content.
In examining the cognitive processes involved in the social psychology of modesty, researchers have found that women who dress immodestly tend to be viewed by men, and think of themselves, as objects. There is a different form of mental processing between looking at an object vs a human. One of these differences is in “theory of mind” or the ability to empathize. Humans cannot identify with the emotional state of a rock, but they can with a human, for example. But when one group of women wore sweaters, and another group wore bikinis, men’s unconscious cognitive processes were shown to significantly reduce empathy towards the women wearing bikinis (Gervais, et al, 2011). Women also performed significantly worse on math exams when wearing bikinis vs wearing sweaters, since their self-efficacy lowered as a result of self-objectification (Fredrickson, et al, 1998).
All this to say, modesty does communicate important messages about sexuality, and while it obviously never justifies rape, does contribute to it through the objectification and resulting lack of empathy that the man has for the woman (Awasthi, 2017). Women have the ability to communicate messages with their clothing, which can result in biological arousal, psychological objectification, or sociological assumptions in men.
5) Tinder and Modesty Messages
Tinder is commonly thought of as a “hook up” site, which facilitates casual, non-committal sexual encounters. Researchers have found that only about 20% of users use Tinder mainly for the purpose of casual sex (Ranzini and Lutz, 2016). Among men, the most common reasons for using Tinder was casual sex, travelling and relationship seeking. Among women, the most common reasons for using Tinder was validation and friendship. The thing that is especially interesting, when examining Tinder sexuality, is the relationship between women seeking validation and men seeking casual sex.
Since men are primarily seeking casual sex, they are going to tend to swipe right on pictures that are sexually enticing or arousing. Since women are primarily seeking validation, they are going to try to have pictures that get right swipes…you can see where I’m going with this. This means that women who are not seeking a sexual encounter will still post sexual pictures for the purpose of getting validation from men, even though they have no intention of having sex with them.
In using Tinder for two months in Edmonton, Alberta, I spent time making note of the types of clothing (or lack thereof) worn by the women. With the free account, I was able to see about 100 profiles per 12 hours. Since each profile only takes a maximum of 10 seconds to look through, it only takes about 10 minutes to go through all 100. I only actually counted 400 times, but there were three “modesty criteria” I assessed: underwear, bikini, and breast/butt.
Approximately 1/6 of girls had at least one picture in underwear, about 1/4 had at least one picture in a bikini, and about 1/4 had at least one picture showing some amount of breast or butt (non-underwear/bikini). This means that in total, almost 70% of girls had pictures that had at least some ability/intent to cause male sexual arousal.
Despite swiping right on over 2000 profiles, I only matched with 34 women (1.7%). This is actually double the average match rate for men, which is possibly because I had high quality pictures of me at a resort, a waterfall in Banff, and in a suit at a wedding. It gave an image of me being wealthy, adventurous, social, and professional. One female Tinder user told me, during a first date, that most of the guys on Tinder are “basic bros” who are into trucks and hockey, which she has no interest in, and that my profile made me seem like a nice and intelligent person.
With all 34 women I matched with, I opened with the same message, “Hi, nice to meet you!”. Tinder experts often say you should say something witty, but I feel it is better to come across more authentic, like what you would say if you met them in real life. No one would meet someone and say, “Do you mix concrete for a living? Because you’re making me hard” or “on a scale of 1 to America, how free are you tonight?” (just two of the hundreds of Tinder first message suggestions on the internet).
Like I mentioned earlier, Tinder rejections are done by “ghosting” the person. Of the 34 women I matched with, only 16 responded at all, and only 11 agreed to a date. I quickly found out that none of them want to go for dinner the first time; they all want to go for coffee. So, after sharing basic info of what each person does for a living, studied in university, and a few hobbies, I extend the offer, “Would you like to go for coffee sometimes this week?” They all said yes to that. I then choose a day, place and time, and ask if that works for them (I’ve been told women like it if a man is decisive). Only one of them stood me up for coffee, but as I later found out, she had literally been taken to the hospital, so that’s fair, I’d say.
6) The First Date: Transitioning the “Online Self” to the “Real Self”
As previously mentioned, the “online self” is frequently a misrepresentation of the “real self”, so that one can try to make others view them as they wish to be viewed. This serves well in the initial “swiping” phase, but obviously, significant dissonance between the “online self” and “real self” will be socially awkward.
One woman I met had pictures of herself that made her appear about medium weight, but when I met her, she was significantly above average weight. After the date, I looked back at the pictures and noticed that they were all either neck up or with friends so close beside her that you couldn’t tell her actual weight. This was very likely intentional, as overweight women are significantly less attractive and would get less right swipes, especially when there are a plethora of attractive girls on Tinder with whom they are competing.
Another woman I met had several pictures of her with friends and seemed quite extraverted. However, when I met her, she was very shy. So shy, in fact, that I assumed she didn’t like me. But I requested a second date anyway, and she accepted. On the second date, as I asked her about her life, I realized that she didn’t have many friends, and was generally more introverted. Extraversion does tend to be an attractive quality that men desire in women, so she may have been consciously or subconsciously trying to depict herself as more extraverted in order to get more right swipes.
Pretty much all of the women I went on dates with did not look or act quite as good as their Tinder profiles depicted. I came to expect this, and was pleasantly surprised by a couple women who did match quite closely to their “online self”. As Ranzini and Lutz discuss in “Love at First Swipe”, both men and women who are looking for real relationships will have a more authentic “online self”, whereas men and women merely seeking validation or hook-ups will have a less authentic “online self”. This bore out in my experience, as both of the women who had authentic “online selves” were interested in going on multiple dates, talking about important things, and neither made any sexually suggestive offers or remarks. Among the approximately five women who were very inauthentic, three of them either invited me to their house or wanted to continue hanging out after 11pm, indicating a likely potential sexual encounter. I can assume that many of the women who did not message me back after having matched were also depicting inauthentic “online selves”.
7) The Sociality of Secular Sexuality
In Christian philosophy, which reigned as the prevailing measure of ethics for most of Western society’s history, the sexual ethic taught is one of repression, where all sexual desires are deemed sinful except those between a husband and wife. The sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s changed the general culture’s attitude toward sexuality; instead of seeing majority of it as sinful, people began to view much of it as an expression of self identity. Homosexuality was decriminalized, divorce was made easier, abortion was legalized, and people increased their average number of sexual partners (Greenwood and Guner, 2009).
But the lessening of Christian hegemony has not resulted in an absence of all laws, norms and values defining acceptable sexual practices. The secular ethic is an expressive one constrained by consent, in legal, social, and internal belief, among most secular people. But it is also constrained by a large variety of norms and values beyond just consent that constitute when an individual and community finds it suitable to have sex. For example, if two co-workers wish to have sex in the middle of the office during a work day, they will likely be fired. Any public nudity or sexuality is also discouraged (although in movies it is deemed acceptable).
Tinder users are typically non-religious, as devout religious members tend to practice endogamy within their religious community, and typically engage in less pre-marital sex. Of the 11 women I went on dates with, only three identified as having religious beliefs, and none went to church regularly. But Christianity has left a significant impact on society, and its cultural legacy reaches far into secular society. The goal for most secular people is still to get married in a church with a priest residing over the ceremony. The main difference is that secular people have more pre-marital sexual partners and often live with their partner before marriage.
As men typically have a stronger sex drive and have more positive self-esteem associated with promiscuity than women, men tend to initiate sexual encounters, to which the woman must respond yes or no. Different women have different criteria for having sex with a certain man. For example, sometimes a woman might be drunk and on the rebound, and wish to have casual sex with someone as a means of self-validation. But that is less common. The most common means of a man successfully having sex with a certain woman in secular society is for him to “impress” her, and give her positive emotional and relational feelings.
There is a popular concept called the “three date rule” where sex is deemed appropriate, or even expected, after the third date. However, in a study reported by the “New York Post”, men said they felt sex was appropriate after the fifth date, and women thought sex was appropriate after the ninth date, on average (NYP, 2017). Despite the supposed ubiquity of “hook up culture” it appears as though most secular people view sex as having significant relational meaning, and wish to engage in it only once some level of commitment has been established.
8) The Sexual Ethic: Is Celibacy For Losers?
Incels (involuntary celibates) are a group of young men (typically white and heterosexual) who are unable to find romantic or sexual partners, and basically go insane. They have online communities, where they express disturbing levels of resentment, misanthropy, self-pity, self-loathing, misogyny, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and even the endorsement of violence against sexually active people. They have committed at least four mass murders, and are growing in size.
Now, it’s not like any normal men are full on incels, but many suffer it in small capacities. I myself went insane after a girl broke up with me, and my self-esteem and efficacy shattered for a long time. Before joining Tinder, I was very frustrated that no Mormon or Christian girls wanted to date me. Their rejection of me defined my value in significantly negative ways, and I desperately wanted validation from young women. I felt better about my life when I used Tinder, because suddenly, there were girls who actually wanted to date me, and even suggested offering sex.
I thought that sex was what I wanted. After all, being 23 and still a virgin is considered pathetic by majority of society, and I began to see myself that way. I remember going on my first date with a girl from Tinder and thinking, “that would be great if this resulted in sex.” But when I met her and spent time chatting with her, I failed to see her as a sexual object. I realized that this was a young lady who desperately wanted to get approval from me. Every time she said something she thought might not be what I wanted to hear, she apologized instantly. I could see the lack of self-esteem, and I had a profound realization of the fact that casual sex with her would only make me feel bad for objectifying her, and her feel bad for the lack of commitment I was prepared to offer her. After our second date, she asked if I wanted to come to her place. I said I was tired so I would just head home, and she said to let her know if I change my mind.
The internal struggle I felt that night was intense. I was racking my brain considering that if I have sex with her I am breaking my commitment to chastity and probably doing something for short-term gain and long-term pain. But then I figured if I didn’t have sex with her I might end up an incel, which is a state of mind that I had perhaps been drifting into in October, and after all, normal men have sex with women when they get the chance. I had trouble sleeping that night as I lied in bed thinking about it, but I never texted her.
The next date I went on was with a young lady who also, surprisingly, really wanted my approval. She laughed at or complimented everything I said, and was trying a little too hard to make herself seem interesting. We went on a walk and held hands, and there was something about a girl liking me and wanting to hold hands that was significant to me. I think that evening cured any bits of incel that were plaguing my mind. I realized that there are good quality young women who think I’m great and want to date me. I realized, however, that it seemed to only be secular girls who liked me. So, I kept going on Tinder dates, and that’s when I realized this was quite an interesting social and psychological study I was immersed in. I learned a lot.
I like to be able to go for dinner with a young lady and have good conversations, and I like to hold hands and cuddle while watching a movie, but I found there was something not quite fulfilling about it. I was going on casual dates with lots of different girls, and had no real substance to these relationships. I want substance.
Despite the predominant culture’s narrative of free sexuality, I want to repress my sexuality. Sex is powerful: it has the ability to form a powerful bond between two people, and even result in human life. But sex can also destroy lives: rape, addictions, obsessive fetishes, objectification of people to mere objects to be used for physical pleasure, etc.
I think that sex is so valuable, in fact, that it should be practiced in a way that is consistent with that value, and in a way that is not out of need for personal validation to make up for a lack of self-esteem, but out of desire for real, substantial love. And I don’t think the problem with incels is really about sex. I think it is about human connection. Incels don’t have sex, sure, but they also don’t have healthy relationships with females of any kind. I’ve found in my life that platonic relationships with female friends can be very valuable in helping me be a better man who respects women and sees them as valuable people. A date, here and there, is also a good thing, as long as you don’t base your entire self-esteem in it and get destroyed due to the potential rejection.
I talked at the beginning about self-concept and went on to explain how that manifests itself in Tinder users. But there is a strange thing our culture does that many other cultures have not and currently do not do: define ourselves by our sexuality.
We say “I am homosexual” or “I am a virgin”, etc. But is that really who you are? When we define ourselves by our sexuality, we reduce ourselves too much. Nikola Tesla was celibate his whole life, but how much of an injustice would it be if history textbooks merely said “virgin” under his name, instead of focusing on his amazing scientific achievements? Michel Foucault struggled with homosexuality and lived it out in some troubling ways, but how much of an injustice would it be to replace his volumes of philosophical writings with “troubled homosexual”?
Incels reduce themselves and others to “sexually active” and “sexually inactive”. But self-concept has so much depth, and it’s in that depth that we truly come to understand people, and in understanding them, we develop empathy for them. If people seek self-esteem in sexuality, they ironically end up lowering their self-esteem, and the self-esteem of others. Validation should be met by real, meaningful relationships with family, friends, mentors, and ultimately, should be achieved in a sense of self that recognizes one’s innate value.
Many forms of sexual expressions have been shown to dehumanize people and lower their self-esteem. Tinder users commonly seek validation from others through sexual means, even if they don’t literally have sex with anyone. Swiping through 100 women in 10 minutes (most of whom seek to incite male arousal), is clearly not recognizing their value as complex humans with emotions and deserving of empathy. We know there is a problem when men’s cognitive processes show the same response from an inanimate object as it does a human woman, and there is reason to believe that Tinder facilitates that type of response.
What lies ahead for my strange life remains to be seen, but whatever I do and however I live, I want it to be in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for all people. If I someday have the opportunity to marry a woman that I truly love and want to spend the rest of my life with, then I will have sex. But until that time, I will not. And I will not allow myself or our culture to define me by my sexuality (or lack thereof). If you walk away from these 5000+ words with only one thing, let it be that “all people are valuable, and we ought to do our best to figure out how to live in line with that.”
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