TEACHING VICTORIAN ROMANCE IN THE AGE OF TINDER

Tinder is not only easily combustible material but also the name of a very popular dating app, launched in 2012. Its use involves swiping photographs of possible matches on your cell phone: right for those you like, left for those you don’t. If someone swipes you back, then you can text each other, set up a date, etc. In an inspired feat of social engineering and personal psychology, Tinder does not communicate to you the rejections. The right-hand swipes, on the contrary, are duly noted which, I’m sure, must be a great ego-booster.

The rational behind this dating system is not only the classic chance to pre-select a date companion, already provided by any dating service, but the ease with which it can lead to a face-to-face meeting, as it also based on geo-location systems (you can see which Tinder users are close-by). As of today, Wikipedia informs, Tinder processes one billion swipes a day with twelve million matches–the actual figure for dates is unknown, but the phrase ‘Tinder date’ has already entered English. 50 million people all over the world use the service in 30 languages.

Why am I interested? Well, I am not. What called my attention was the article by Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair, “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” (https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/08/tinder-hook-up-culture-end-of-dating). So much so that I have decided to set my teaching next autumn of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) against it as background to discuss how human mating rituals have altered (recently). My point is that for my students to understand a novel from the ‘remote’ Victorian past first they need to be made aware of how the debate on similar topics stands today. Also, I need to explain to them that romantic fiction about love must operate within the personal, social and legal constraints of its time. Hence, I need to test what they know about those applying to their own generation. First, then, here are some points of Sales’ lengthy article–a piece which made me feel positively Victorian if not Jurassic.

Sales does not clarify how compulsory having a Tinder account is in the twenty something American urban middle-class culture she explores (Manhattan, basically). Reading her piece I got the impression that not having an account in this or similar dating services is little short of a social aberration, rather than a personal choice. She, subtly but firmly, exposes the persistence of the double sexual standard despite the apparent growth of sexual freedom (for this what Tinder is for–getting sex partners).

Although, obviously, hetero men could not get hetero girls to have sex with them via a Tinder ‘come on’ unless the girls were willing, the picture Sales draws is one in which men get all the (promiscuous) fun and the girls get constantly frustrated because a) sex does not lead to regular dates, much less a relationship and b) in the end the endless succession of lovers is unable to provide them with orgasms. Remember that in the Victorian texts I teach couples get engaged without even exchanging a first kiss (and in the girls’ case it is often the first kiss). Now try to make sense of this to the kids born in the mid 1990s.

Before I ramble on… Here are a few selections from Sales juicy report:
*a male Tinder user explains he’s organizing several dates at the same time as “There’s always something better” (call that the channel-hopping effect)
*the same guy adds that “You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day—the sample size is so much larger”. He aims at sleeping with 100 ‘Tinderella’ girls in a year. Hot ones.
*this serial Romeo further explains that although he clearly announces he is not into relationships, most girls accept having sex “expecting to turn the tables” (he might also be kidding himself rather than admit that girls see him mostly as a disposable sex toy)
*average texts from guys (i.e. total strangers) often include unsolicited photos of their genitalia or explicit phrasing such as ‘Wanna fuck?’ or ‘Come over and sit on my face’. And worse. Girls also send pics, boys claim, but mainly of breasts and bottoms, not vaginas.
*Tinder users highlight the similarity of the service with ordering food or shopping online. Or having a hobby. Or meeting for sport.
*the overall impression is that today men have the power to decide whether a one-night stand (or a one-hour stand…) can develop into a relationship, whereas women have the power to grant men sex (isn’t this old as the hills?)
*a college girl explains that for her generation the anxiety about intimacy comes from having “grown up on social media,” so “we don’t know how to talk to each other face-to-face”. Not even in bed.
*very restrictive dating rules have turned romance into “a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less”; nobody wants to appear to suffer for love.
*not only is the double standard real and inalterable; a guy claims he does not want to be in a relationship because “You can’t be selfish in a relationship” (his italics)
*afraid of giving girls the wrong idea, guys tend to be quite insensitive; a girl recalls a lover using Tinder while she dressed up after sex… Men are not, Sales writes, “inspired to be polite”.
*as a girl points out, despite the aloofness, “Some people still catch feelings in hook-up culture”–as if they were a disease.

Several caveats here:
*Sales does not take into account how Tinder works in different cultures and neglects to see the identity factors conditioning her informers.
*Second, as a man told me, if girls feel uncomfortable with any point of the Tinder-date process they just need to refrain from using the service, which, let’s recall, is not compulsory.
*Apps like these, as the internet did in the early 1990s, have opened up the potential number of sexual and romantic partners, yet most people still marry in fairly conventional ways and try to raise families.
*Neither the idea (for hetero women) that you need to sleep first with a guy or with many before you find love is new; it’s been around for decades now.
*As for hetero men, they seem to be imitating dating models typical of gay culture whereas a good number of gay men are vindicating monogamy (serial or otherwise) thanks to the legalisation of gay marriage.

In the end it’s the old story: men try to get as much sex as the personal, social and legal constrains allow while women are divided into those who want to follow genuinely a similar inclination, those who tells themselves they do but actually don’t, and the post-Victorian ones who value long-lasting romantic intimacy above sex. I’m not saying that this third vital stance is not attractive to many men. And I have not said a word about the bodily fascism of the whole idea of app or online dating.

A few years ago a group of eight Californian girls who enrolled in one of my classes, all beautiful and intelligent young women, told me that dating was over–and this was long before I-Phone and Tinder. Men, they complained, get too much sex and, hence, they make no effort to be in a real relationship. They were truly upset by this. All this leads me to wonder whether, unlike what Victorian novels suggest, men and women like each other at all. It seems that given the chance and at least until they decide to form a family, current young men and women are using each other mutually for sex but without true enjoyment in each other. The taboos on sex that the Victorians suffered have this advantage: you need to talk in order to communicate. Victorian couples (and many others more recently) might spend years this way in long engagements which possibly explains, to a certain extent, why sex mattered less to them than to us (this IS a sweeping statement, I know).

In all this I am commenting on here, what irks me most is men’s (alleged) aloofness. The guy using Tinder while still in the same bedroom with his new lover… Ugh… If, as it seems, misogyny is the basis of the ‘hook-up’ system then there can be no real progress–and no real fun no matter how many lovers a girl gets. And the other way round: I have no doubt that Anne Brontë’s hero Gilbert is erotically incensed to despair by Helen because she is not sexually available. Ah, the Victorians and their erotic unavailability… how hard they are to explain in the age of Tinder.

PS (added 13 September 2015). Here’s a very interesting piece with a man’s view of the article (judge for yourself what kind of man):
https://verilymag.com/2015/08/dating-apocalypse-hookups-casual-sex-modern-relationships-dating-tinder-commitment

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

4 thoughts on “TEACHING VICTORIAN ROMANCE IN THE AGE OF TINDER

  1. Hello Sara,
    I’ve just come across your blog and though I’d reach out and offer you some materials.
    Together with several friends we develop a flashcard app called VocApp. It’s mainly intended to be used with languages, but I’ve used it to compile a list of prominent American writers and their major works. You can find it here: https://vocapp.com/20th-century-american-writers-flashcards-200929
    Please feel free to share it with your users if you find it somehow follows the general line of your blog’s content.
    I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you!
    Wishing you a lot of inspiration for future blog entries,
    Camille

  2. Still reading around here; your blog is consistently fascinating in the issues you address and the perspectives you bring to bear on them, and the detail of the discussion. So, ongoing congratulations, and enjoy the summer while it lasts.

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