We are way past the 'hook-up era': Dating trends during the pandemic

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Researchers reported that during the pandemic, people got lonely, and reassessed what they wanted from relationships. (Image: Element5 Digital via StockSnap)

If like me you’ve been using dating apps for several years, then you’d concur that there used to be certain rules of dating. Some courtesies were followed in the traditionalist world of dating—taking it slow, having engaging conversations, checking on each other, etc. Though these courtesies remained unregistered on some apps, like Grindr, if not all, in 2020, when the pandemic broke out, like everything else, experiencing intimacy and forging relationships on dating apps also changed.

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While The Guardian finds that the “unspoken rules of dating went out the window,” Tinder reports that Gen Z was already “redefining the rules of dating before the pandemic.”

What were the ‘norms’ before the pandemic? And what changed them? Can these changes be undone? Are some old-fashioned concepts in dating making a comeback?

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Dating trends: Tinder’s global findings

Taru Kapoor—General Manager, India, Tinder and Match Group—says that Gen Z, the app’s majority users, haven’t let the pandemic redefine “dating, flirting and social discovery”; instead they’ve “set their own pace and [they] make their own rules about love, dating, life and everything in between.”

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Tinder’s 2020 report supports this claim. It reveals that the word “boundaries” showed more (up by 19%) in Tinder bios, and there was also a “2X increase in mentions of ‘long walks’.” Most first dates were about “activities than icebreakers,” while 50% of Gen Z members had a video chat with their matches before meeting during the pandemic. This, Kapoor observes, is unlikely to change, as those who “tried digital dates saw it as a low-pressure way to get a sense of someone, and 40% of Gen Z Tinder members say they plan to continue using video chat.”

Meanwhile, in response to the pandemic, Tinder made its Passport feature, which allows anyone, anywhere in the world to match, available for free in April 2020, helping the organisation register 1.4 billion matches in a single day, breaking their previous record of the highest matches per day with 55 million. It also launched unique avenues to match by adding “Passions, Prompts and Vibes” and “Swipe Night” experiences, letting you match with others based on the choices you make.

People know what they want

Generally speaking, people have always known what they want. It’s a matter of providing them with the app that allows them to be, says entrepreneur Sunali Aggarwal, who built and launched As You Are (AYA), especially for the queer population in India, in the middle of the pandemic.

Though it wasn’t strategically planned to be launched in the pandemic, Aggarwal foresaw the growing need of people to have a “network of people or friends you can be yourself with, online.” She adds that this gained increasing acceptance as the world got locked down, and when people were forced to be with each other—some reluctantly and others forcefully, costing them their personal space. Aggrawal says that this changed the dynamics of relationships, and people who didn’t already have meaningful connections felt that “there’s a need [for them] to have a long-term relationship now.” This interestingly happens to be one of the findings of Match.com’s annual survey “Singles in America”, too.

According to the study, which is in its 11th year now, “With a focus on stability, casual sex has become a lower priority for singles than in the past, with more [58% of app daters] focusing on emotional connection.” And this is not just a “temporary blip”, Justin Garcia, executive director of Kinsey Institute, says. He notes that we are way past the “hook-up era” and “people are now focusing on intentional relationship-building in the present and into the future.”

A sociology professor at the Appalachian State University and the author of The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, Ellen Lamont also observes that “people got lonely and had this period of time [the pandemic] where they reassessed their priorities and what they really wanted from relationships.”

This is the reason why Aggarwal believes that on dating apps now “just looks won’t do.” “People are becoming more careful with their choice of partners” more than ever before, she submits. Which is why she strongly felt that a no-pressure dating app like AYA was needed in the market.

How to make dating apps safer?

However, while some sets of people are more vulnerable than others, going online to find love comes with its own disadvantages for everyone. It takes a toll on their mental health, and if it goes unchecked, it could end up turning them off the online space, ostracising them further and/or increasing their anxiety to find ‘the one’.

Tinder’s Kapoor says increasing safety has been a key area of concern over the years. Offering insights into what they’ve been doing for increasing protection of their queer members, Kapoor says: “When LGBTQ+ members travel IRL (in real life) or use Tinder’s Passport feature to swipe in a country with laws that penalise their community, they are alerted via our safety feature—Traveller Alert, a feature designed to protect and inform members of the LGBTQ community from the inherent risk of using dating apps in the nearly 70 countries that still have discriminatory laws effectively criminalising LGBTQ status.”

Sharing a string of safety features that the app introduced—photo verification, Consent 101, block contacts—to “reduce anonymity, increase accountability”, Kapoor adds that Tinder launched “a dedicated in-app Safety Centre for India that centralises dating safety tips and offers resources with local NGOs relevant to the well-being of members.” A one-of-its-kind and much-needed support system.

Not only does Tinder employ restrictive measures to make queer people safe, but it also increased engagement and socialised the “many moods, experiences, and complexities of queer dating” by launching the Museum of Queer Swipe Stories in partnership with the Gaysi Family. And further strengthened its resolve to support queer people by launching Queer Made—“a platform for LGBQTIA+ entrepreneurs and business owners to support and amplify business and products made, owned, and/or run by India’s LGBTQIA+ community,” in association with Gaysi Family and Little Black Book.

Though representatives from only two dating apps—one established and one newly developed—agreed to share their viewpoints, their findings and business goals were almost the same. Now, with hook-ups and casual sex gone, not entirely though, it remains to be seen what holds for dating in the future—pandemic or no pandemic.

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