Lean in, Swipe Right: On Tinder and the Politics of Singledom
Bridget Read Considers the Future of Sex, and Emily Witt's Future Sex
In 2008, I attended my own practice wedding, also known as a debutante ball. My sister and I flew from our respective colleges to the Southern California town where we were born, outsiders who had grown up in a city on the opposite coast, who didn’t know how to curtsy. Our mother charged us only with procuring our shoes and our gloves for the event. On the day of, we drove to David’s Bridal and bought plastic white heels that immediately cut up our feet. We found polyester white gloves at a magic shop that were too tight on our arms, making us chunky and flammable. A woman sprayed makeup on our faces with a tiny airbrushing tool, leaving a light orange spackling on our necklines. The bartenders were kind and snuck us drinks.
In 2016, I opted to read some dating advice online and learn how things really work in virtual dating. I have a Tinder profile. When I’m bored at work or lying on my bed or waiting in line for the bathroom at a bar, I tap a red flame icon in my iPhone and swipe through men aged 27 to 35 within four miles of my location. I have several hard rules governing my decision whether to swipe left for no or right for yes, including but not limited to: no DJs, no flip flops, no babies, no film quotations, no recent arrivals, no guns, no mentions of whiskey, coffee, adventure, or exploration. If I do swipe right, I can meet a person for a drink, and after I can go to their apartment or go with them to my apartment or go home alone. I can peruse Tinder profiles while my current date pays the tab or while he’s putting on his pants.
Online dating looks sort of like freedom. The term “online dating” itself feels like an outdated descriptor, given that an app like Tinder untethers the user from even a computer chair, and requires little to no “dating” at all. On the surface, being a woman and interacting with a dating app inverts the choreography of a debutante ball, in which female participants become content through spectacle while the observing parties act as users, empowered by choice. In 2016, I’m a user, albeit a non-paying one, and the algorithm treats me like any other person in Brooklyn who is looking for fun, free drinks, kink, affection, etc.
The ostensible progress embodied by my Tinder profile falls in line with the progress that I’ve been told to look for lately as a single woman in the United States. It’s a sentiment I get from music that bristles, “No, I ain’t your mama”; yoga poses designed to make me feel “badass” and “superhuman”; a presidential candidate that little girls reportedly stay up late to watch on TV. “We’ve arrived” is what they all seem to say.
In the literary world, I perceive this notion of arrival in recent nonfiction from several women writers who see proof of it in themselves and in the lives of their peers. While their taking up of issues like paid parental leave, abortion rights, equal pay, and access to birth control indicates an ongoing fight, these writers seem to have been delivered to the front lines by the demystification of marriage. The rise of the single woman marks the impending success of third-wave feminism in the 21st century.
The ostensible progress embodied by my Tinder profile falls in line with the progress that I’ve been told to look for lately as a single woman in the United States.
It makes sense that independence would be their chosen frontier, the pursuit of solitude their manifest destiny. The ability to be alone has long been the provenance of the brooding male author, Wordsworth loping around the Lake District. Susan Sontag—even Susan Sontag—worried in her journals that it was her fear of loneliness that kept her from doing her best work. Being single, then, remaining unmarried or unattached, has been the rallying cry of feminism for women who are working writers, like Rebecca Traister and Kate Bolick. Or it was, until they weren’t.
Vivian Gornick has described marriage as “the terminus of psychic development” for women in modern history. How schizophrenic, then, to have one’s psyche opened out and expanded by the proposed dissolution of the limiting institution, yet only in the sense that sex is now somewhat separated from it. What books like All the Single Ladies and Spinster have made me feel is that I’m supposed to be empowered now, with my little red flame icon and my swipe-induced carpal tunnel. Or, if not empowered, optimistic: progress has been made, and I’m part of the generation that will inherit even more of it, that is inheriting it right at this very moment. And yet, even at 26, contemplating my single life and its hypothetical infinity feels intensely vulnerable. This feeling arises from a disillusionment with the current cultural and political identities of the single woman when the world has found them extremely marketable.
Like Gornick, the writer Emily Witt, in her new book Future Sex, describes anticipating in her twenties a future “terminus” at which her sexual and romantic experiences will culminate—only she envisions hers like “a monorail gliding to a stop at Epcot Center.” That Witt uses the same word Gornick did in 1978 reflects the fact that, despite Taylor Swift and Hillary Clinton, we are still contending with the same end of the same line. In Witt’s work, I found relief in marking that disappointment.
The imposition of marriage still holds women in America captive—single, straight women especially—no matter how many of us are talking about how little we believe in it. The politics of mainstream liberal feminism have not yet delivered on the structural changes that might make alternatives to traditional marriage viable. As Jessa Crispin lamented in her review of All the Single Ladies, “Singlehood is presented as merely an interlude before marriage . . . No radical societal reorganization is required if the assumption is that entry into a nuclear family will in time bring these women the stability and security they need.” That recent work celebrating the single woman often ends with the author getting a boyfriend or a husband underscores this feeling, like we’ve extended our half-lives but we’re still in decay. “Even as I settled for freedom as an interim state, I planned for my monogamous destiny,” Witt writes of her twenties. Same.
Witt’s alternative frontier in which to explore alternative destinies is California—more specifically, San Francisco, eight hours from the East-of-downtown, founded-by-white-Midwesterners, tailgating, Republican-voting Los Angeles suburb in which I debuted into society. She begins her investigation in 2012, after deciding that, at that time, “San Francisco was where the future was going to be figured out, or at least it was the city America had designated for people who still believed in free love.” A testament to the marginally-focused methodological core of her exploration is that online dating is the least revolutionary expression of sexuality that she studies, where her journey through the fringes of sexual experimentation merely begins. Online dating, in fact, could be just another stop on the Disneyland monorail, as Witt sees it—her analysis of Tinder’s pared-down, brightened aesthetics reveals it to be more of a “clean, well-lit place” than a sordid, free love paradise. At best, it is a learning tool for women overcoming fears that sexual activity must be tied to monogamy, or that it excludes one from monogamy. So we might be more comfortable with our bodies—but what about our futures? “The technology itself promised nothing. It bought us people, but it did not tell us what to do with them.”
A salient thread running through Future Sex is our problem with language—and that as language falls away, opportunities multiply. In chapters on polyamory and orgasmic meditation, Witt describes Americans who are creating a new lexicon for pleasure and sexual partnership in order to make them more malleable to a freer way of being. The frank logistics of OMing, the practice of a woman being brought to orgasm (hopefully) by a series of genital strokes administered by a fellow OM participant, sound favorable to the mangled parlance of more typical sexual encounters, a pigeon tongue of new and old vocabulary, verbal and physical. I once tried to kiss a man on the dance floor of a sweaty bar, only to have him decline with “Not tonight, I’ll take you to dinner.” I didn’t know his name and he didn’t know mine—and I didn’t want dinner, and yet he felt obligated to offer. Another man, a friend declining an implied sexual encounter, once responded only with a gentle red balloon emoji symbol. I use it now when someone I’m texting and I find ourselves at a semiotic impasse, precisely because they don’t know what it means—that is to say, it means nothing.
Inadequate language can trap you in the conventional narrative of one evening or one lifetime. Yet the underside of Witt’s work hints at elements of attachment other than its cannibalizing forces. One of the most poignant relationships in her book is that of a traveling webcam performance duo, whose pageviews pay for their cross country road trip. They are young people who have abandoned low-paying jobs in cities with few resources for the underclasses. When their van breaks down in Mexico, the viewers who flock to their cam site to watch them in various sexual exploits pay for their trip home.
In her incisive critique of Traister, Crispin notes that the championed single woman is likely more able to celebrate that status if she is white, college-educated, and upper-middle class—namely, if she is not directly impacted by the gaping inequities of our American political-economic reality. Similarly, Witt’s Burning Man saga toward the end of her study casts doubt on the notion of pure, unadulterated individuality as the solution to traditional marriage’s shortcomings. The Burners she meets, upon leaving the event, “wouldn’t argue for the decriminalization of the drugs they had used; they wouldn’t want anyone to know about their time in the orgy dome . . . to protest these things in everyday life bore a huge social cost.” If anyone, the webcam couple actually offers a model of a new kind of welfare state to replace the one on the decline in America. This mode of relating is digitally born and graphically exchanged. And it occurs almost entirely outside of the purview of the government.
Gornick, who married twice, has argued that love is not damned completely by the rotted institution of marriage. There could be a “free, full-hearted, eminently proportionate way of loving,” if we could rid ourselves of ritual. This task is much harder than figuring out what we don’t want or what we no longer need, which presupposes a lack of need in the first place. There is something mildewed and familiar about the idea that freedom is achieved solely through autonomy—it seems designed to benefit those for whom a network of loving people is not required for survival, those whom capitalism protects. An ex-boyfriend once asked me as we broke up, “Do you think you’re good at being alone?” The implication was clear: “being alone” was a skill that I didn’t have. In the aftermath, I typed things into my Notes app in impassioned capitals like, “I AM NOT HERE TO TIE YOU DOWN.” But I didn’t eschew partnership—I knew I wanted it, but in what capacity and with how many people in my lifetime, and when, I couldn’t say. I felt caught in a binary of extreme self-reliance and co-dependence, toward neither of which I felt naturally inclined, and neither of which I felt gave me the agency I craved. Solitude as a means to achieve total individuation is a time-honored masculine vocation; to merely adopt the principle as a woman takes an old idea and paints it pink. It causes feminists to tweet things like, “On this day, women were able to vote for the first time,” forgetting that, on that day, only one kind of woman could. Progress, as our history defines it, can be relied upon to exclude.
“America had a lot of respect for the future of objects, and less interest in the future of human arrangements.” That’s as conclusive as Witt gets in describing the way we live now. As for the future, it is “a discomfiting cultural story, and difficult to discern.” The interrogative rather than declarative direction of Future Sex breaks it out of the conventional story of a woman’s sexual and romantic life more than others, simply because it reaches no terminus. The fadeout, the ellipsis is comforting and (forgive me) empowering because it does something actually radical: it doesn’t envision an ending. It is frank about the ways that the promises made by feminism, the sexual revolution, and the internet have been undermined by failures in our prevailing economic and political systems—and at least that’s a place to begin envisioning something better.
For all the hand-wringing in other first person accounts of women negotiating a somewhat weakened patriarchal state with a desire for human connection, the feeling of having arrived, of being finished is something we are used to being made to strive toward. Whether it’s a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a wedding, or some progression of these things, there is a distinct narrative line of progress, a walk down some kind of aisle. The real story of women in America is much more winding in shape—in one among millions, the daughter of a woman who supported herself as a journalist in the 90s, herself the daughter of an immigrant mother who did not work, finds herself in a white dress and gloves at the behest of her mother at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and sleeping with men from the internet in the second. An honest and imperfect state of affairs, if too long for a Tinder profile.