This piece at Vanity Fair, based mostly on anecdotal evidence, has been making the rounds for alleging that Tinder is causing a “dating apocalypse.” And this person wringing their hands at NY Post represents a typical reaction piece, convinced as all conservatives are that young women having sex will doom us all.
It’s all bollocks. While dating apps help facilitate the hookup, they hardly invented it! Match.com, for instance, was invented in 1993. And meat-market bars have always been a thing. The only difference is, now, half the people are staring at their phones… but the end result is the same, walks-of-shame and all.
The VF piece did find it necessary to try to handwave-away the study from a few months ago that found that Millennials actually might have fewer partners than previous generations. That study does indeed damage 50-year-old writer Nancy Jo Sales’ kids-these-days harumphing about Millennials and their gosh-durn iPhones. Why back in her day, she had to find her meaningless hookups through bars or friends-of-friends, and had to walk to and from his place through the snow uphill both ways, and that’s how it should be, dangnabit! Now get off her lawn, you right-swiping punk kids!
But underneath all the stereotypical Millennial-bashing in Sales’ article lurks one truth about sex that pretty much nobody ever warns you about. Or at least, not until it’s too late.
“It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less,” according to one of the women interviewed by Sales. And here we get to brass tacks.
Schools (well, schools in blue states anyway) do an excellent job of teaching people about two of the main risks of sex: pregnancies and STDs. And the answer is always the same: Use condoms. As long as the Trojan Man is involved, you can do whatever you want with zero consequences. The sad person in the video at school is sad because he or she didn’t believe in condoms. In other words, condoms are to blue states what Jesus is to red states.
The problem is, no contraceptive can defend against the third main risk of sex, the greatest one of all: Caring. Attachment. Love. Taylor Swift Syndrome. Whatever you want to call it.
Completely independent of any other force, intercourse can lead the brain to bond to the other person. It doesn’t matter how uncaring the other person is, or how big of an asshole they are, or how much of a disaster they would be as a boyfriend/girlfriend. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve stated to them and to yourself how meaningless the hookup is. Sex can lead you to falling for them, and the better and more repeated the sex, unfortunately, the greater the risk.
The hormone oxytocin is to blame. The hormone is released in social settings, has relaxing and affective impacts, and is thought to induce feelings of attachment in the conscious and unconscious mind. Oxytocin is what you’re feeling when you get the “warm fuzzies” associated with friends and family. It is notably associated with breast-feeding, and the evolutionary advantage here is obvious: it’s better for the infant if the mother feels emotionally attached to it.
And, as you probably guessed, it is associated with intercourse. Orgasms in particular flood your system with the stuff, and if another person is involved, you may wind up emotionally attached to them whether you wanted to or not.
As the interviewee said above, this is believed to affect women more than men, at least in the popular imagination. It’s always supposed to be the girl who wants more out of her FWB situation; it’s always the guy who dumps her ass when she’s starting to care too much.
But how true is that, really? Girls know they are supposed to always pursue a long-term relationship, because otherwise, wanting attachment-free sex gets her branded with the dreaded S-word. So how skewed are articles like these? Similarly, guys hold up the unattached himbo who plows his way through five different girls a week as the epitome of masculinity. But how many guys could truly do that without falling for a girl? They certainly wouldn’t admit it in front of their bros, lest they get branded with the dreaded P-word. And I am personally incapable of attachment-free sex and have been kicked to the curb by multiple girls after starting to care too much because I’m pathetic like that. What does that mean?
It means that oxytocin affects different people at different degrees. I have no idea if there is a gender difference, but it would be idiotic to presume your partner — or more relevantly, you — will be post-coitally clingy or else aloof based on gender alone.
And what if you do fall for the wrong person off of Tinder? What do you do then? Well, if you are like most people in human history, you either get rebuffed/friendzoned or else you wind up in a deeply unhappy relationship with someone who is an asshole, a loser, an abuser, or all of the above.
Having sex with someone puts you at risk for caring about them, and some people are at greater risk than others.
And that is the evergreen truth of Sales’ article that underlies all her puffery about Millennials and Tinder. (Well, that and the fact that guys tend to fail at Tinder, but that’s a separate matter.) Hooking up is playing Russian roulette, only the bullets are Cupid’s arrows instead. Or Cupid’s bullets in this case. And you’re pointing it at your heart or something. Admittedly, that sounded more clever in my head, but stay with me for a moment because I’m trying to make a point: For some people, there are no bullets in the chambers and they can happily plow the earth forever, Leonardo DiCaprio style. For others, there is maybe one bullet and you never know when, or for whom, you’ll get it. And for sad people like me, there’s a damn bullet in every damn chamber and we can’t screw around without getting our hearts blown out of our chest every time. Cue the sad trombone.
It’s best to know what kind of person you are, how vulnerable to intercourse-induced attachment you are, before you download Tinder, or head to the singles’ bar, or meet that guy your friend Emily is begging to set you up with. Are you able to sleep with them without our old friend oxytocin driving you crazy? If so, more power to you; just please bring ol’ Trojan Man along for the ride, because your sex-ed teacher did actually bring up a few good points.
But if not, then best be as coy as a Jane Austen heroine until you’re sure of a relationship in the works. Better to be thought of as a prude than as that one crazy ex who fell in love after just a couple hook ups!
(update: here is Slate’s Amanda Hess with an excellent takedown of this sort of age-old fear of technology that is really just rooted in the ancient fear of women having sexual agency with zero parallel concern for men having the same.)