That Huge Dating Survey Missed a Couple of Important Points

A new study states that interactions on dating website eHarmony reinforce gendered interactions, but is that also true of more casual dating apps with younger user bases?
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
photos by Emily Bowler

Last week, the results of a major new study from Oxford University scholars surprised a lot of people. The experiment – carried out in partnership with eHarmony over the course of a decade – concluded that British online dating still falls back on traditional gender roles. One of the study's findings even stated that men were 30 percent more likely than women to make the first conversational move, and – perhaps more surprisingly – that when a woman did message first, men were 15 percent less bothered about replying (that is: they literally just didn't reply).


Whether or not this comes as a surprise to you will probably depend on who and how you date. It's certainly interesting data from a society that seems to consider itself progressive and equality-friendly, rightfully or not, but it doesn't really provide the full picture of the UK's dating landscape in 2018 – nor, I think, would it claim to.

This is because eHarmony caters to pretty specific needs. The site itself is plastered with images of gilet-clad hetero couples who look like brother and sister, and it describes itself as an "Online Dating Website for Lasting Relationships". While a lot of single people (including those who don't use eHarmony) certainly fit its demographic in terms of what they're looking for, many aren't actually looking to just say "fuck it", settle down, get a miniature schnauzer and buy a two-bed in Clapham – in fact, that's basically the opposite of what they want.

While it follows that a site like eHarmony – which seems to be set on feeding men and women hand-in-hand down the marriage meat mincer – would yield results that reinforce the status quo, we can arguably learn more elsewhere. Users of apps like Tinder or Bumble, for instance, who are generally much younger than eHarmony's, are probably a bit less likely to want to be married within the year (baby within two, no messing).

While more traditional dating websites like eHarmony – paid-for services used by people looking for serious, monogamous relationships, where they're matched with others via the compatibility of their answers to lengthy questionnaires – were always going to back up the regressive but sadly dominant ideals of western heterosexuality they actively promote, dating apps are a bit different. Free to use (and therefore low commitment), Tinder and its counterparts offer matches based less on shared philosophies and more on quick snap judgments about whether we think the people we’re swiping through are: a) fit, based on their photos; and b) bearable, based on whether we can handle the amount their bio makes us cringe.


This more casual approach means that, in some ways, dating apps have made dating a more habitual part of our lives – when else in human history have you been able to look through a catalogue of potential suitors while having a poo? – and, in doing so, they've also lowered the stakes, meaning it's less of a big deal for everyone. There's an argument to be made, therefore, that while most mainstream dating apps aren't exactly progressive spaces (look, for example, at the unacceptable experiences of some trans people on Tinder), they have made some subtle changes to how younger people approach gendered interactions as they date.

Some examples:

They've allowed women to share a casual approach previously reserved for men

While nobody’s saying dating apps have come along and bulldozed the playing field between women and men (kind of impossible, as women dating men always have to make the not-small consideration that men pose one of the biggest threats to our safety! Fun!), they have, as I say, made dating a far more casual endeavour in general. This was previously a privilege reserved for dudes, because of, haha, literally the manner in which we're socially conditioned from birth; but because people are using the same apps regardless of gender, there's generally the sense that we can all date casually – that is, with little or no commitment – without judgment, at least from our peers.

They've helped to normalise the idea of multiple partners

Again, I’m not saying Tinder has watered everyone's crops, cleared our skin and ended slut shaming, but by virtue of the fact that everyone on a dating app is, you know, also using a dating app, you kind of have to accept that the people you're chatting to are probably also chatting to other people. That's a good thing! Life is a delicious smörgasbord and dating should mean getting to sample the whole platter – every last olive! – should you wish. Obviously if things are progressing with one particular dish, then you can decide to stick to it, but in the early stages, dating apps give you an accessible opportunity to try things and people out, when without them you might have stuck to the same old thing. As long as everyone's looking after themselves, this can only be positive, especially for women who might elsewhere be met with more judgment for this sort of behaviour (and, to be honest, frequently are – what of our patron saint of dating Megan Barton-Hanson?).


The veil of technology helps with confidence

It's a known fact that millennials hate engaging with other people out in the world (if you disagree, ask yourself when the last time you voluntarily used a staffed checkout in a supermarket was, and then let me get on with my article), which means that unless we're three wines deep and have a friend physically pushing us towards our object of lust, most of us are pretty terrible at (respectfully) approaching attractive strangers. This goes for all genders, but I think women in particular suck at it, just because – as the eHarmony study confirms – women are basically socialised to be unsure rather than assertive. Dating apps, again, take a lot of the worry out of building yourself up to be confident enough to approach someone.

While the veil of technology certainly means that harassment can be prevalent (57 percent of women responding to a 2016 survey reported feeling harassed on dating apps), the low stakes on apps also make it less stressful for women in particular – but everyone, really – to try their luck at speaking to someone they're interested in. It also means that people of all genders are free to approach potential partners on an equal basis (unless they're using an app like Bumble, on which women speak first to circumvent harassment). That certainly doesn’t feel like the case out in the world, where men in general seem to have much less trouble with that than the rest of us.


They help form meaningful connections which don't always end up as romantic relationships

I've had a pretty mixed bag of dating app experiences, ranging from the fairly awful (some dude messaging me at 2AM, asking me to get me a colleague’s number for him, *Lady_Gaga_I_have_to_laugh.jpg*) to the quite good (that is, meeting people I've genuinely enjoyed dating). One of the best realisations I've had via dating apps, however, is that a romantic "connection" (why do I sound like a marriage counsellor called Sue) isn't the only aim; I've also made friends with people I've met via dating apps, and I'm really pleased about it.

Fostering a friendship with someone generally means that you're probably going to hang around each other's general lives and vicinities for a bit longer than you would if you dated for a month and kind of just let things fizzle out after an awkward date over a couple of Peronis. This is true for a lot of people who use dating apps, and it feels important – and, like, nice?? – to note that making new friends in your twenties and thirties is cool but sometimes difficult, and that apps like Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Happn and HER frequently facilitate doing so when not a lot else does.

I'm not sure that something like eHarmony, with its great big focus on great big exclusive relationships (and, let's face it, marriage), can offer the same sort of thing, because the way it encourages you to approach getting to know someone is so coloured by your supposed compatibility.


They've made it easier for everyone to explore dating a wider range of people

In general, dating apps are useful because they introduce you to a massive dating pool, which you’re free to swim around in. Please, take a backstroke. You'll meet people on these apps who you’d never come into contact with during your ordinary daily life, and that is, objectively, really cool. I think more importantly, however, dating apps where you can choose to interact with people of different genders can help people explore their sexualities where they might previously have struggled, which is obviously very valuable. While there's opportunity for same-sex dating on sites like eHarmony, the casual approach of an app offers a non-threatening way in for people who are genuinely questioning (I do not include the scourge of straight couples who tokenise queer women by hassling them for threesomes here, it must be added), which feels important at a time in which as many as a quarter of British people describe their sexuality as "fluid".


Obviously dating apps fall into a number of problems when it comes to gender – male entitlement and harassment are just as rife on many of them as elsewhere in society, and more can always be done to accommodate queer and gender non-conforming people. But when it comes to the sort of behaviour we expect from the people we swipe through, based on their gender, they have certainly levelled things out, offering an alternative to the depressing eHarmony marriage sausage chute for many of us.