LFP Article

‘Sticky, sexy, sad’: Western researcher shares dating app experience

As a researcher into sexuality and a single woman looking for dates, Western University professor Treena Orchard looked forward to joining the popular dating app geared to women called Bumble.

London Free Press Feature

Western researcher Treena Orchard has written a blog and book on the Bumble dating app. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)
As a researcher into sexuality and a single woman looking for dates, Western University professor Treena Orchard looked forward to joining the popular dating app geared to women called Bumble.

She signed up and waited with excitement for the dozens and dozens of dates she was about to have.

“What I ended up with in many regards was a whole lot of nothing,” Orchard said.

Not so many men, perhaps.

But Orchard did get a look into how technology is affecting sexuality and enough experience to create a blog, think about new avenues of research and take a break from her academic books and papers to write a personal account of life as a Bumble bee.

Her account, in manuscript form and excerpted on a blog, is called Sticky, Sexy, Sad: My Five Months Inside the Bumble Hive.

Orchard already has presented papers on her experience for two sexuality conferences and she lays it on the line:

“Bumble castrates fleshly sexual desires and expression,” she says in one paper. Bumble was “a strangely sex-less, wildly objectifying place where meeting people is a distant aim.”

Bumble is a dating app for heterosexuals, launched by Whitney Wolfe Herd in 2014, with financial banking from Russian entrepreneur Andrew Andeev.

The company has an estimated worth of more than $1 billion and more than 20 million users worldwide.

One of Bumble’s attractions to women is its promise to level the dating field.

“Bumble was first founded to challenge the antiquated rules of dating,” its website states.

“We’ve made it not only necessary, but acceptable for women to make the first move, shaking up outdated gender norms. We prioritize kindness and respect, providing a safe online community for users to build new relationships.”

That’s the kind of thing for which Orchard was looking when she signed up in August 2017. She hadn’t planned on writing anything for the public, but her professional training and her personal experience changed that.

As an anthropologist, she has studied women in sex work, people with HIV/AIDS, Indigenous communities and diverse gender populations.

“However, this time it is my life on the page, which I use to make sense of how this app is reconfiguring the ways that we think about and experience sex, gender and ourselves in our tech-driven world,” she writes in one paper. “The book captures our current social moment, where dating apps are ubiquitous but poorly understood in terms of their broader impact on our lives…where many of us want to connect but often struggle to do so.”

Orchard has authored and co-authored two academic books and dozens of academic papers.

She still is working on the manuscript, making it less academic and more reflective of her notes on her experience.

“I’m pretty sure I’m little more than a phone sex operator,” she wrote after fielding questions from men.

Her description of tweaking her profile seven or eight times in the first two weeks reflects the effort and paranoia of using a dating app. Sunglasses, her cat, a baseball emoticon, photos to show she’s a cool aunt, what would work? She wondered.

Orchard admits her account is her personal experience. But she said when she’s shared those experiences with other women in her classes or at conferences, she heard similar stories.

“It’s not really that easy. It’s not really empowering,” she said.

The best way to get responses was to post sexually suggestive photographs, and there’s pressure to keep updating a profile when men stop texting or unmatch you, Orchard said.

“It pictures empowerment, you go girls! But you are also being critiqued and it turns into this whole thing of self-surveillance and that’s not very empowering for us women to be blaming ourselves.”

She also questions the ways dating apps turn dating upside down, or cold.

Orchard stuck with the app until January 2018. In five months she collected 2,371 unique matches, men who were interested in connecting.

She initiated 113 conversations, and of those men, 67 responded, about 60 per cent. After conversations by text, she met a grand total of 10 men. A success rate of nine per cent.

“They want to connect, but they don’t all want to date and they don’t all want to meet and they don’t even want to have just sex. They just want to text about sex,” she says. “I couldn’t ignore that it meant something.”

Meanwhile, Bumble kept encouraging her to gather more matches.

“It’s about volume and you are constantly making decisions and you are constantly objectifying. You are constantly being objectified.”

In the old days, about four years ago, meeting a person was the first part of dating and expectations were limited, she said.

With dating apps, the meeting for a date comes much later and is laden with expectations, Orchard said.

Bumble’s “ubiquity kind of makes it under the radar. People accept it as the status quo. It’s so messed up in so many ways, as well as fascinating.”

Her experience may turn into academic research on dating apps, sexuality and technology at some point, Orchard said.

“It has become a natural trajectory for my own life. I couldn’t not write about it. And I know enough to know I’m onto something.”

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