“Coming out of my cage, and I’ve been doing just fine
Gotta gotta be down, because I want it all
It started out with a kiss, how did it end up like this?
It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss”–The Killers, “Mr. Brightside”
Hey, my kinky, polyam peeps! Welcome to THE LAST POST of 2022! I feel like every year since the start of Pandemic, for me personally, things have been getting at least a little better. 2020 saw the start of quarantine and the difficult end of one relationship. In 2021, I lost a close friend and mentor, but I started this blog. 2022 brought the end of another romantic relationship, but I will say I feel like I’m in the strongest place I’ve been in nearly three years. Hardship will always enter our lives, but each stumbling block has been less difficult than the last. Most importantly, all that hardship has given me some new self-confidence that whatever life throws at me next, like any cat, I’m gonna land on my feet.
This piece has been “in the hopper” for quite some time. It needed to be because it’s one of the most researched pieces I’ve put together in terms of time, and probably effort. If you recall, this past March I posted a piece on my undercover work on FetLife. I wanted to see if all the stories I had heard from the femme-presenting people in my life were representative of what I might experience if I were in their shoes. As October and November is traditionally “cuffing season”, I thought, let’s repeat the experiment, but this time with dating apps.
I make no secret about my distaste for dating apps. While everybody most likely knows somebody who met their current partner on a dating app, the vast majority of people I have spoken to (including myself) have had experiences that range from, at best “a mild disappointment” to, at worst “a steaming dumpster fire”. As it had been several years since I actively used a dating app (while I don’t know how long, I do recall it was prior to Pandemic), I felt it was time to revisit them to see if my suspicions still held true.
Before, I discuss my findings, like any good scientist, I need to discuss my methodology. If you recall from my Bratfishing article, as this was an experiment that was essentially treating other human beings as unwitting lab rats, I wanted to make sure I was conducting it in a manner that was as ethical as possible. Fortunately, unlike the Bratfishing article, I didn’t need to hide my identity, so this immediately freed me up in a way in which I could be as honest and open about my intentions as possible. When conducting the experiment, I set forth a list of “ground rules”.
First, I was going to present myself, not some secret identity. I used my own photos in my profile, and I tried to pick ones that were relatively recent, and by that, I mean taken in the last three months. While I did not disclose in my profile that this was part of an “investigative piece”, I was open about my intentions. I stated that I was looking for connections, and that included both friendships as well as romance. While I’m not actively looking for new partners, I became involved with each of my partners without actively looking for any of them, and I believe that keeping my heart open for connections, romantic or platonic, is something that’s important. Bottom line, I prefaced that I was simply looking to “meet people” and that I had no expectations of where that relationship may or may not go. I also disclosed my status as polyam and my gender and sexual orientation as “a cishetero man”. This last part was super important because, under my preferences, I asked the dating apps to show my profile to people of all genders. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible and see if I could notice any trends on who would be reaching out to me.
Second, I was going to be intentional in my “swiping”. The days of scrolling through numerous profiles at once are gone. The format today is “Swipe left, swipe right”. While I would be generous with who I would swipe right on, I wasn’t going to sit there and swipe right on every profile that I see. Also, any profile that I matched with, I was going to try to at least initiate a conversation with that individual and show genuine interest.
Finally, for those few individuals that I would have an opportunity to have a conversation with, I was going to be both open and curious. A typical opening question I would pose would be “What brings you to [insert dating app name here]”, or “What kind of connection were you looking to make”. This would show that I wasn’t necessarily committing to something romantic, but also open to any direction the relationship might take. Also, while my polyam status was in my profile, I would make a point to disclose it in private conversation at the first available opportunity.
In total, I used five dating apps. As I already had dormant profiles on OkCupid and Tinder, I logged in and spruced both of them up with my most updated information. I also signed up for Bumble, Hinge, and #Open, as these were three relatively newer apps that seemed to be getting a lot of attention. #Open specifically interested me as it was designed with the ENM community in mind. I even went so far to plop down $75 for one-month premium memberships to Tinder, Bumble and #Open. The purpose of this was to facilitate matches as it allowed me to see who swiped right on me even if I had yet to view their profile.
Since I’ve spent many hours on dating apps in the past, I thought I had a pretty reasonable expectation of what I would see. As a cishet man, you typically don’t get a lot of matches and conversations, and when they do happen, tend to fizzle out pretty quickly. I would say there’s a lot of ghosting, but is it really ghosting if you only speak to the person for half a day before they cut off contact? What drove the majority of my interest would be how my experience would be affected by opening my profile to all people of the gender and sexuality spectrum. After about a month of swiping, reading profiles, and engaging in conversation with other users, I was able to draw what I believe are some evidence-based conclusions.
1. Cis Men Aren’t Even Trying
I had heard of the stereotype of cis men who sit on dating apps and just indiscriminately swipe right, not even looking at what they’re doing. They don’t read profiles and I doubt they even look at pictures. I didn’t swipe right on any men because, while my profile said I was open to friendship, I wasn’t going to kid myself into believing that any man I matched with wanted just that. Rather, I used my premium membership on Tinder, Bumble, and #Open to see which, if any, cis men matched with me. Let me say that I was probably getting 50-75 matches per week on those three apps and MAYBE three of them were women or femme-presenting folx. As I never got to engage in a conversation with any of these men (because I refused to swipe right on their profiles), reading the content of their profiles was enough to give me the insight I needed.
While most of the profiles seemed relatively innocent in their content, it was quite obvious that they weren’t reading anything I had written. The first statement in my profile describes me as a “cishetero polyamorous man”, yet I received numerous matches from men looking for hook-ups and sex, and the few that wanted a romantic connection were specific about monogamy being important. Were these men thinking they could persuade me, or maybe that when I said “cishetero poylamorous”, I was willing to make exceptions? Possibly. I find it more believable that they just kept swiping right on anything they saw without taking time to read about who they might be matching with, which brings me to my next point…
2. It’s Not Just Heterosexual Men Who Are the Problem
In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought this indiscriminate swiping behavior was exclusive to cishetero men. I think I made the same mistake I caution so many others against, which is assuming my life experience is typical of other’s life experiences. I’ve met more than my fair share of cishetero men who treat women as a means for sex and little more. On the other hand, all of the queer men I’ve met, at least in my eyes, have come across as caring and compassionate individuals who treat relationships with the deference they deserve. It’s natural to associate with people who share the same values as you, which does make me wonder why so few of my friends are cishetero men, or more specifically, why more cishetero men don’t have a more compassionate attitude.
Regardless, of the dozens of the swipes per week I was receiving, nearly all of them were from gay, bisexual and pansexual men and masc-presenting folx. While it’s difficult to say how many of these individuals were looking for friendship and not something romantic or sexual, the simple law of averages states that, more likely than not, romance or sex was the impetus, which is interesting, because, again, the first sentence in my profile was “cishetero polyamorous man”.
Many of these individuals weren’t hiding their intentions either. I ran across more than one profile that stated they were looking specifically for straight men or men who were closeted and looking for discreet hookups. I ran across one profile which read as an individual, only later to discover it was actually two gay men “looking for a third”. I was so excited, I immediately messaged Vixen. “I found some gay Unicorn Hunters!!!”. To me, this behavior was something I expected exclusively from my cishetero brothers. If this piece has taught me anything, it’s how naive I can still be.
3. The catfish are out in force
My first day of using Tinder’s premium service, I got a match with a young woman who was CLEARLY out of my league. Of course, I swiped right, you know, for science… I reached out to this person and we struck up a conversation. She stated she was new to the U.S. and had recently moved here from Vietnam. Shortly into the conversation, she asked if I had a WhatsApp account and asked if we could switch to that because she “doesn’t check Tinder very often”. My next move was to Google “Tinder WhatsApp scam”, because alarm bells started to go off in my head. I discovered that catfish and scammers will ask to use WhatsApp as a communication tool because it’s easier to mask their actual location, but there wasn’t any risk in using the app itself, as long as you didn’t hand over personal information such as home address, social security number, or banking information.
In total, I ran across three catfish. The woman from Vietnam quickly tried to sell me on cryptocurrency, the second woman from Thailand gave up on me when I wouldn’t give her my Instagram handle, and the third woman from Italy gave up on me after a day, which is for the best, because I can only assume she was a chatbot. I understand non-native English speakers may struggle with our language, and her communication sounded more like it was coming from a fembot than a human being.
The most puzzling part of the catfish experience was the verification tool. When I signed up for Tinder, it gave me the option to “verify” my profile. It was put in place to keep users from using photos in their profile that weren’t actually of them. The system is pretty basic and simply forces you to take a photo of yourself with your phone’s camera, which it then compares to the photos you uploaded. All three catfish passed the verification process, so obviously it could use some improvement.
4. Women are still pretty gun-shy.
As I stated earlier, I was only going to swipe right on people I was open to having a conversation with, and sure enough, I wound up matching with more than a few women. On Bumble, only women are allowed to initiate a conversation, even after a match is made, and sadly, none of those women reached out to me. On Tinder and Hinge, I was able to initiate some conversations and got a few responses.
One trend that I noticed (and I call it a trend because it happened three times in less than a week) would be when I initiated a conversation, got through a few pleasantries, and the conversation and the match and conversation would both suddenly disappear. It was as if the person on the other end had either unmatched or blocked me. I wondered if maybe I had said something wrong, but in each case, the “block” came after I said something that I presumed was pretty innocuous, such as “What brings you to Tinder?” or “How are you doing tonight?”
While this behavior puzzled me, the only logical conclusion I could draw was that women still approach online dating with a certain degree of trepidation. If even half of the stories I’ve heard are true, I’m surprised women even use these apps. While it may have been nothing I said, it’d probably be easier to just unmatch or block someone than to “let them down easy” or ghost them. I’ve seen how some men handle rejection, and I don’t blame a woman if cutting off all ties makes her feel safer.
5. These apps were built to dehumanize us
I had a discussion with Vixen and the polycule about what types of expectations would be set if you chose to swipe right on a profile. What did it mean to the person who swiped right and what did it mean to the person who matched? The answer we arrived at was: basically nothing.
Using a dating app isn’t like going to a singles bar or even like using a dating website from ten or fifteen years ago. You don’t have the ability to browse and review each profile, think it over, and then decide “These are the people I want to talk to”. Rather, in order to see the next profile, you have to make a decision on that first profile, and that decision (unless you’re a paid, premium member) is irrevocable. If you swipe left, they’re gone forever, never to be seen again. If the only way to keep your options open is to keep swiping right, is it any wonder that’s what people do? It’s totally fair to say “I need more time, so I’m going to put this option to the side for the moment”. At the same time, that completely defeats the point of the app. The end result is a bunch of matches that you have very little if nothing in common with, and you’re really no better off than you were before signing up. The app treats you like a picture on a screen, not a person with feelings, and encourages users to do the same: to continuously swipe right because that’s the only way to meet someone, anyone, that you might match with.
So, after this month long experiment, what’s my final verdict? Well, I think we need to draw a distinction between online dating and dating apps. Online dating isn’t going anywhere, nor do I think it should. The Internet provides so many ways to connect with other people, and I believe the benefits of meeting people online outweigh the costs.
Dating apps, particularly the “swipe right” interface that they utilize, need a lot of work. It’s hard enough to garner information about someone through just a profile and a few pictures. Requiring the user to make an instant decision on how they feel about that person before they can see the next profile only leads to making hasty and ill-informed decisions. On the receiving end of that behavior, men, who may already feel entitled to an interaction, can interpret this “swipe right” behavior as an invitation to engage, and hence react dangerously when the person on the other end of the app doesn’t respond to their advances.
While improvements have been made to the model, such as Bumble only allowing women to initiate conversations, or Hinge’s unique use of ice breaker questions other than the standard “Tell me about yourself”, more needs to be done. Getting rid of the whole “swipe right” model is a great start. Allow users to view multiple profiles before deciding who they may or may not want to connect with. Second, the way these apps choose to monetize themselves only encourages this “throwing spaghetti against the wall” behavior. While these apps are free to use, by paying a monthly membership fee, these apps allow users to see who swiped right on them without having to view their profile first. Free users now have an incentive to swipe right on every profile they see in hopes they will show up on some paid user’s radar. By switching from this model to one where, say, users are charged for each e-mail they send, this will force users into being more discriminate and deliberate with their choices, thus providing all parties with better results.
Finally, and I’ve barely touched on this through the whole article despite the fact that this is a blog about polyamory, these apps aren’t very friendly when it comes to those exploring different relationship styles. Before writing this article, I went back and looked at my profile on all the dating apps I signed up for, and no where did it ask if I was single, married, partnered, monogamous, or polyamorous. While these apps carry no false pretenses that not everyone is on them looking for a traditional, life-long, monogamous relationship, even something as simple as being able to filter by relationship status will help people go a long way in making connections. For those of us in the broad ENM community, knowing whether someone is single, married, mono, or polyam can be a determining factor in whether we want to engage in a more permanent relationship, or even just a one-night stand. Some members of the community would rather not deal with a married person. On the other hand, swingers may ONLY want to deal with married individuals. No matter which way you slice it, given users this choice can only help them.
Long story short, “Are dating apps the dumpster fire I thought they were?” Yes. “Can they be fixed?” I think so. I will say it starts with us, the users, being clear and honest about what we want, and unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for better communication.
Until next time, stay kinky, my friends…
–The Bratty Cat