Hookups, sexting and unwanted threesomes: first-time dating in the age of Tinder

Dianne hadn’t been on a date since 1978. Satinder met his last partner in the mid-90s. What’s it like looking for love when so much has changed since you were last single?

One cold mid-March night, I walked up a stranger’s cobbled path and knocked on his door. I was wearing my gym kit; I hadn’t showered; in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I’d taken two tubes and a bus in the rain to get there. He looked apprehensive. We’d never met, but had chatted for a few weeks on Tinder. Neither of us was sufficiently interested to go on a proper first date, but one night after the gym, I had agreed to go over to his; I suppose you could call it a hookup.

In January, my 10-year relationship had ended. We had got together three months after my 18th birthday and love had felt like fresh-churned cement being poured inside my shell; it oozed into every nook and cranny, then set. For my whole adult life, that relationship fortified me from the inside out. Then we broke up. So that’s how I ended up knocking on a stranger’s door: “dating” for the first time in my adult life.

In the decade I’ve been off the scene, the advent of Tinder (which launched five years ago this September) has prompted, to quote anthropologist Anna Machin, “a wholesale evolution in the world of love”. Working within the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University, Machin has dedicated her career to studying our most intimate relationships, assessing everything from familial bonds to the sociosexual behaviour we engage in when looking for The One. “Tinder has simplified the mode in which a whole generation finds a partner,” she says. The app’s founder, Sean Rad, reduced the complex business of mating into a roll call of faces: swipe right on the ones you like the look of, left on the ones you don’t. A thumb-swipe has become an act of lust – and a lucrative one: this year, Tinder was valued at $3bn.

In 2015, in a Vanity Fair op-ed that spawned a thousand counter-argument pieces, Nancy Jo Sales called the advent of Tinder the “dawn of the dating apocalypse”. Two years on, though, the opposite seems to be true; far from a biblical, end-of-dating-days scenario, we are spending more money and time on wooing strangers than ever. “Most crucially,” Machin says, “Tinder has made the pool of potential lovers available to us innumerably bigger. The impact of that can be felt in everything, from our attitudes to commitment to the expectations we have of others.”

These new expectations have facilitated some fairly interesting encounters for me. There was the plaintive 33-year-old San Franciscan who waited until we’d winced through a vat of second-least-bad wine to tell me about his girlfriend. “You could, like, join us?” (This has now happened a few times: the male element of a “polyamorous” couple posts a profile as if he were single; it isn’t until we meet that he explains he has a girlfriend, that she has vetted me and they’d like a threesome.) We had a pleasant conversation about polyamory (“we talk a lot”) and snogged outside the tube, but that’s as far as it went.

There was the one who lied about his age (43, not 38): “I set it years ago, and now Facebook won’t let me change it.” I didn’t ask why he made himself five years younger in the first place. A lawyer with a flat in Chelsea, he turned up in a crisp suit, bought a bottle of merlot, then held the label up to the light and said it was “expensive”. He talked a lot, mainly about the “crazy bitches” he’d taken back to his place in the past. I sank my second large glass of expensive merlot and left.

One, I matched with on Bumble. Founded by ex-Tinder employee Whitney Wolfe, who sued the company for sexual harassment, Bumble is often hailed as the feminist antidote to Tinder’s free-for-all. Like Tinder, you swipe and match; unlike Tinder, the first message has to be sent by the woman. After I messaged, my Bumble match seemed very keen to meet. Unlike Tinder, Bumble has a feature that allows you to exchange pictures; when I next looked at my phone, I found a picture of his penis. It had been taken in a toilet cubicle, his suit trousers puddled around his ankles: “29, financial adviser” it said on his profile; he liked techno and swimming. There were no words to accompany the photo. The irony, I thought: a hard-won sexual harassment case led to the creation of another gateway through which dick pics can flood.

There was one guy who informed me during our first date that he was into BDSM. He’d gone to one of those boarding schools famed for producing prime ministers and perverts. He seemed to think of himself as the latter. “No judgment,” I said. And I meant it. So when, later, back at his, he slipped a leather belt around my neck and asked, “Is this OK?” I nodded and allowed myself to be pulled off the bed and into the living room. Naked. It was OK. But I felt more like a keen observer than a sexual plaything. The next day, I had a bruise that looked like teeth marks; it flowered a livid purple on my inner thigh. I didn’t remember being bitten.

Since the dawn of apps, there have been rumblings about tech gamifying our lives. As technology writer Roisin Kiberd recently pointed out, Tinder has a “subtly dehumanising effect… it turns relationships – already fraught with neurosis – into a transactional game played by the atomised and lonely”. Its latest iteration takes it up another notch: Tinder Gold, which launched in August, is a paid-for service that strips away anonymity, allowing you to see who’s swiped right on you. Within days, it became the highest-grossing app on Apple’s App Store. “Far from facilitating more relationships,” Machin says, “studies have shown that apps encourage us to keep searching. If there’s always the possibility of finding someone better, if they’re just a swipe away, why bother sticking with the one you’ve got?”

Obviously, we’re not all looking for long-term love. But how do we judge Tinder’s success if not on the number of relationships it generates? Matchmaking is an ancient industry, traditionally judged on how many setups end in marriage. Perhaps Tinder’s business model offers a clue. It doesn’t rely on how many of us have swiped right on The One, but on how many engaged and active users it has. “Part of its business model is to sell premium features,” says Mirco Musolesi, a reader in data science at University College London. “Another lucrative potential business model is the collection, mining and sharing of data. And, for this, the longer someone stays on the app, the better it is for the company.”

Of course, the longer we stay on the app, the less likely it is that we’re in a relationship. Is it possible, then, that we’ve fallen for a model of matchmaking that was never really about making matches?

Maybe it’s just me, because I’m hollowed out, but perhaps this is why – alongside funny, weird, macabre and ridiculous – this kind of dating feels empty. Dating fatigue might seem the ultimate first-world problem, but the more people you meet, the more your faith falters.

My housemate – Sophie, 29, single for a year – deleted all her dating apps in June: they’re oddly quiet over the summer anyway, but she is resigned to having to download them again. “There are no other ways to meet people, really. No one talks to you in bars – if anything, people think it’s weird if you approach them. Most people who approach me seem like scumbags or creeps, but maybe that’s because I wouldn’t expect anyone ‘normal’ – whatever that means – to come over.”

And my post-gym hookup? We drank G&Ts in his room, and he was disarmingly open. He told me all about his parents and his disappointments in love. He was handsome and sweet, but we didn’t have much in common. I slept with him, but never saw him again.

I’m seeing someone I met at a wedding now. He was one of three single men there, and I liked his face. I was just sober enough to slur, “I’ve seen a man with a face” to my friends. Our circles overlap: same age, same-ish upbringing, same groups of friends. I’m not sure either of us would reach for the L-word, but we get on. So I guess, for all those tech-upgrades, the old cliches remain.

‘It’s harder to read the signs

Satinder Kumar, 49, lives in Brighton. He has been single for six years and dating for four.

Like most people, I entered this new arena full of hope. I used to wonder about the line “no time-wasters please” – it seemed so sour. But, over the years, I’ve come round to that way of thinking.

I met my last partner in the mid-1990s, when we were both working as academics at Southampton University. We ended up together for 14 years.

When I was last dating, it was all based on activities. You’d slowly grow your relationship by making time for each other, going to concerts together, making sure your values aligned. But now we live in a more immediate culture, and the way we date reflects that. I think I benefit from it in a way: I’m a doctor, my job is incredibly demanding and I’m often working 12-hour days – so it’s good to be able to log on, look around, see who’s out there, all within the space of a train journey. I’ve used Guardian SoulmatesZoosk and Elite Singles. I just want to find someone with whom I could potentially build a life. I’ve recently retreated from online dating, however, and I’m not sure I’ll go back. Having been single for a few years, I started messaging someone last year and that lasted for five months. He’d just come out of a long-term relationship, so wanted to take things slowly, but ultimately he was very reluctant to meet. I think he needed a sympathetic ear, and I provided that, but came away from it feeling like my time had been wasted. I didn’t need a pen pal. Looking back, I should have read the signs, but it’s harder when it’s digital: the human mind is a powerful thing, and there’s a romance to receiving daily messages from someone where they’re being open and unguarded. Your imagination ends up filling in the gaps.

Friends say I should be speaking to several people at one time. The most successful online dater I know is a friend who’s very techy. He’d treat it like a military operation and have several screens open on different sites, messaging any number of people. If he hadn’t met up with someone within three weeks, he’d block them. I was astounded when he told me, but he met someone and they’ve been together for two years. Talking about finding a partner in that way doesn’t sit well with me. Instead of growing closer to someone, it starts to feel more like you’re managing a project, or rather multiple projects across several platforms. I’d need an Excel spreadsheet to keep up.

Dating has come full circle for me. I’ve started to go to meetups that are a little like the LGBT society where I met my last long-term partner. It feels more organic, and at least I’m actually meeting people, rather than spending months having chats that ultimately lead to nothing.

‘Dating sites have been my lifeline’

K (she doesn’t want to give her full name), 72, has been single for three years since she divorced from her wife to live as a woman. She has been dating online for a year. She has four children.

Freedom, that’s what this modern way of dating means to me. You get to pick who you want to be with, for how long and how much of yourself you reveal to the other person. It’s not about what you look like, what clothes you’re wearing or even your gender: you can log on and find someone you’re compatible with.

The internet, and dating sites, have been my lifeline since I started living as K. I’ve lost touch with most of my family – they aren’t supportive of my decision to live as myself – and for a time I felt very isolated. I started to question whether I’d done the right thing; even if I had been living a false life, it suddenly seemed easier than going days without seeing a friendly face. I used to see those adverts on TV about how loneliness kills. I always felt so removed from them, because I’ve got a big family; then one day, about a year ago, I realised I was lonely. That’s what prompted me to consider dating again.

The last time I dated would have been the late 1960s. I don’t have to do the gentleman act any more. Everyone sees the 60s as a liberated time, but that depends on where you were. There were still fixed ideas about courting and what was expected and accepted behaviour. You could hold hands and maybe kiss someone. You could take them to the cinema. But there was less importance placed on getting to know them – if you liked them, and got on OK, then you’d get married pretty quickly.

Dating as a woman doesn’t feel too different. Maybe online dating looks different, but the feelings are real – when you find the right person, and you connect, it almost doesn’t matter that you’re doing it through a screen. I’ve been on eHarmony. I’d consider myself in a long-term partnership – there’s a woman I talk with every day. She’s also estranged from her children, and it’s nice to have someone who can share that unique pain. I don’t ask whether she has other people in her life, but wouldn’t feel bad if she did. Perhaps one day we’ll meet, but I’m not rushing it. People my age are quick to dismiss this way of finding someone; but I think we should be grateful that we live in a world where we can feel accepted at the touch of a button.

‘It’s good for my daughters to see me throwing myself into life’

Kirsty Jenkinson, 46, lives in London. Her husband of 13 years died suddenly in 2013. She started dating again in 2016 and has had one relationship, which has since ended. She has been dating again for three months. She has three children.

On the whole, I’ve found dating an incredibly positive, life-affirming experience. Before meeting my husband, I’d been in a series of long-term relationships and had generally met people through work. My husband, for instance, had been my boss. But now I work part-time and I’m often in an office on my own, so the chance of meeting new people is fairly small.

If bereavement has taught me anything, it’s that I should strive to have as many exciting, positive and new experiences as possible. I also think it’s good for my daughters to see me throwing myself into life and being brave. Grief fundamentally changed me as a person. I think it made me stronger. And, in a way, online dating gave me the opportunity to find and connect with people who would only ever know the new, stronger me.

There’s an element of escapism to modern dating. I turn the process of matching and messaging into a game. I use OkCupid, where my name isn’t listed, and often give people clues to see if they can guess what it is. I’ve always been attracted to wit, humour and intelligence, so, for me, getting to talk to someone in a no-pressure environment where you can verbally spar for a little while feels an ideal scenario. And I’ve certainly had some interesting experiences. I went for cocktails and then went geocaching at midnight all over London (it’s like a treasure hunt, where an app directs you to different locations in a city). I had my first kiss with one date in the middle of an immersive art installation. I don’t think I’ve had any really bad dates, but I once met someone I hadn’t messaged very much before: he said he preferred to just meet in person, rather than waste time on lots of chatting. He was very softly spoken and shy, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but we also had nothing in common. He would talk only if I asked him a question, so it felt a bit as if I was interviewing him for an hour. At least it was only a coffee.

I was on OkCupid from November 2015 to June 2016, when I met someone through the app. We were together until three months ago. Though our breakup was my decision, I was shocked by how much it plunged me back into my grief. I signed up to the charity Widowed & Young to find others who might have been through similar situations. Lots of people assured me that revisiting your grief is normal, and it’s nice to have others with whom to share my feelings.

I’m back on the app again now, and recently had my first date since the breakup. Truth be told, it wasn’t great. The final nail in the coffin was when he asked me to look through his night-vision goggles while waiting at the bus stop. I’d forgotten all the things I’d realised last time around, that you shouldn’t let your expectations get too high. We’d had such fun chats beforehand, that it made the disappointment even more intense. I feel like I need to build up that armour again.

‘Lots of guys swipe right on everyone and see what comes of it’

Technology has forced us to become more efficient daters. Tinder doesn’t really match people; the only criterion is locality. So it’s just a numbers game: swipe right and match with enough people, and you’ll find one you like: that’s why a lot of guys will swipe right on everyone and see what comes of it. If you’re in a situation where you have to introduce yourself several times a day, though, you do end up using the same stock lines, otherwise it just takes too long. But when it’s so rehearsed, it’s like you’re not meeting a real person; it’s completely artificial. And relationships are supposed to be the opposite of that – intimate.

Tinder has a reputation for being a hookup app, but I’ve rarely come across anyone who’s interested in just that. It can make people more bold, though – and even that can feel like an added level of artifice. I matched with one woman who started sending me nude photos before we’d even met. At one point she was out for dinner with friends and ducking into the toilets to send me pictures of herself topless. I found it intriguing, but when we met, she was incredibly shy and self-conscious. We didn’t really have a spark.

It’s not all bad. I met my last girlfriend on Hinge, which connects you with people with whom you have friends in common. She had posted lots of holiday photos. In one, she was on a beach and there were donkey rides. I opened with, “Nice ass.” Apparently, I was one of several who’d used that line. I have no idea quite why she looked at me a second time, but we ended up doing karaoke for our first date and being together for 18 months.

That relationship ended four months ago and this time I’ve chosen not to use dating apps. I’m not saying I never will, but at the moment I feel like the “good” people are perhaps the ones who aren’t on the apps. It’s not that the people I’ve met through them aren’t brilliant, intelligent, funny or attractive; it’s just that they are different from how you build them up in your mind.

For now, I’m trying not to think about relationships in terms of efficiency and numbers. I’ve been dating people I meet organically, through friends or work, because I want my heart to rule my head – and apps don’t really facilitate that.

‘I just wish people would be honest’

The first person to message me when I signed up to match.com three months ago was a 36-year-old. He said, “I just want to say you’re really pretty.” I replied, “I just want to say you’re really 36!” I’ve now fixed my age range to between 49 and 59. I haven’t gone older, because every guy on there who says they’re 58 looks about 70. I’ve also adjusted my own age – online, I’m 57, not 60.

The last time I dated was in 1978, when I was 22. In those days, you met people in pubs, and if you got some fizz going between you, generally the bloke would ask you out. If there was someone I liked, I’d worm my way under his nose, then, well, ponce about until he noticed me: peacocking. Now, it seems like you do everything on your phone.

People feel they can get away with a lot more because dating is so anonymous. I’ve had two experiences where I’ve chatted to people for a few weeks, then their profile has been mysteriously removed. It turned out they were scammers. I suspected something wasn’t quite right because their language was sometimes a little off – I remember, one of them called me “dear”. I thought, “No one really says that nowadays – how odd.” That knocked my confidence somewhat.

I was married for 34 years and don’t ever want to marry again, so it’s not as if I’m looking for all-encompassing commitment, but I’m often invited to functions – balls or charity dinners – and I always go on my own, while all my friends are there with their partners. It would be nice just to have somebody. Ideally, somebody fun and trendy, with good teeth.