My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno
By Nancy Jo Sales
In less plague-y times, I loved taking in a midnight horror movie in Times Square. It’s great to be in a community of like-minded people shouting advice to imperiled B actors onscreen: Do NOT go into that basement. Unfortunately, reading Nancy Jo Sales’s latest, a fascinating but harrowing account of our relationship to dating apps, does not offer the same pleasure. Because this is real life — and worse, this is the author’s real life. I’ve just spent four hours staring at my Kindle, murmuring to no one in particular: Nancy, don’t text him, Nancy, honey, don’t do it, be strong, resist this one time, Nancy. … NOOOOOOO.
“Nothing Personal,” which is very very personal, explores what Sales calls “the corporate takeover of dating.” Apps like Tinder, Grindr, Bumble and OKCupid have facilitated or exploited (depending on how you look at it) the most basic of human needs: the desire to connect.
Or do they? Because that is the startling premise of this book: that apps are actually designed to keep us hooked, and hooking up, while preventing us from finding lasting love. The swiping, the likes, the pressure to have sex combined with the pressure not to appear needy — all are making us unhappy. This buffet of humanity spread out on our little screens is precisely what dehumanizes us: Even when we’re full, we keep eating.
Sales (who also directed and wrote “Swiped,” an HBO documentary on this subject) has taken a deep dive into app use, and the results of her research are not as pretty as that candid profile selfie that took you an hour to set up. To cite just one of dozens of examples, Sales connects a 2018 study on the rise in levels of loneliness among Generation Z and millennials to dating apps. And it’s not just the apps that are the culprits. It’s the phones themselves. Quoting the French philosopher Paul Virilio, who wrote, “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck,” Sales ruefully notes, “Smartphones were the ship and shipwreck of relationships. They had made it easier to be in touch, and yet more difficult to emotionally connect.”
Here, too, Sales joins the Hunter S. Thompson school of gonzo journalism, combining her rich reporting with her own dating app tales. She recounts adventures she insists are signs of her romantic nature, but many readers might perceive differently. There are many anonymous encounters, which Sales writes about sometimes hilariously and sometimes erotically (she has a gift for sex scenes, no small thing). Her lodestone throughout the book is Abel, a mid-20s hipster she met on an app. Raven-haired, sinewy, with some nebulous construction job for a fashion company, he spends the three years of their “situationship” drinking, smoking, disappearing, having nothing much to say, asking for money, and being great in bed. He reminds me of Pete Davidson’s Chad character on “Saturday Night Live”: an agreeable, horny doofus with no discernible personality whom everyone is always inexplicably falling in love with. Only on “S.N.L.,” that’s the joke: Chad is just a marginally attractive, tattooed guy that everyone can project their fantasies on. But for Sales, in her mid-50s, this is no joke. Abel appears to be the actual honest-to-God love of her life.
Sales constantly decries the price women pay for loving sex, and wanting plenty of it. At the same time, she is lamenting the lack of real connection and romance. After putting in her profile that she was interested in casual sex, she got inundated with X-rated pictures and come-ons. Her conclusion: “Exercising your sexual independence by expressing your desire for a casual encounter through the use of this technology could actually lead to more sexist behavior from men, many of whom would see it as an opportunity to treat you as an object.” The problem seemed to be that “women’s sexual liberation is far greater than most straight men’s; they have not caught up.”
Here’s another way of looking at it. Advertising for casual sex might mean that the people who answer are — wait for it — looking for casual sex. Your Katharine Hepburn is less likely to find Spencer Tracy than Matt Gaetz. Similarly, Sales blames the companies that produce these apps for not taking the threat of sexual assault seriously, even as apps like Tinder have invested in the equivalent of “panic buttons,” where you can alert the police in case you find yourself in a bad situation. She seems outraged that we live in a culture where you can’t enjoy risk-free encounters with strangers without fear of being hurt, and PS, don’t you dare slut-shame me for wanting this.
I don’t, at all. But I kept thinking: Pick a lane. Have sex with hookups, embrace the thrill, but accept that there’s risk, both emotionally and physically. There’s misogyny aplenty. There’s also misandry. Look to human nature, where people can be bad to each other and free of gender prejudice. In her interviews, Sales takes the complaints of women to heart, but not men’s. Women who want casual sex are free spirits; men who want casual sex are scumbags. Women who want real relationships are being cheated of them. And men who want them … where are they? Virtually nonexistent here.
Sales gets props for not whitewashing the story. After a denouement with Abel that is both utterly predictable (to everyone but Sales) and depressing, she pivots to concentrating on the joy of more time with her daughter, Zazie — “the true love of my life” — a wise, loving girl whom Sales chose to have as a single mother. I adored Zazie. You will too.
In the course of reading this book I was sending passages to my Tinder-happy 19-year-old son and asking him what he thought, expecting him to be as unsettled as I was. “Mom, this is just all normal,” he said. “It’s the way people meet today.”
Then he asked for Sales’s number.
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