To any woman who has whiled away an evening texting friends screenshots of sordid chat-up lines and unsolicited explicit pictures, the news that Tinder is a breeding ground for sexism won’t come as much of a surprise. After all, for every fairytale romance and long-term relationship the four-year-old app has spawned, you can bet there’s a group of tipsy singletons in a pub swapping unsavoury Tinder stories and declaring romance dead.
A new study from Manchester University has reached much the same conclusion, deducing from their research that straight male users of the app feel let down when a date is not as attractive as they had expected, and thus feel entitled to “use [her] as they see fit”. In short, Tinder is a hotbed of objectification and entitlement based on conventional beauty standards. Now tell us something we don’t know.
This research and the media’s reporting of it follow a predictable pattern in the social media age, in which we’re regularly told that our new favourite app is, in fact, a danger: dating apps are responsible for an increase in STIs; Uber is leaving us all vulnerable to sexual assault; it’s Snapchat’s fault that revenge porn is on the rise. If these reports are to be believed, the rise of social media has brought with it a rise in misogyny.
The fact is, though, that while it’s convenient to blame technology we don’t fully understand for misogynistic and predatory behaviour, these apps are quite simply new platforms for very old attitudes. While it’s true that Tinder’s niche is in snap judgements based on appearance, it’s hardly realistic to suggest that prior to its inception we were all stumbling out of nightclubs with someone who wasn’t our type looks-wise, but whose soul we had seen in the last half hour over neon shots and a WKD. Likewise, Uber vehicles may well form the backdrop for some of the country’s thousands of annual sexual assaults – but before its invention there were still plenty of women being sexually assaulted, on some occasions by the drivers of fully licensed, regulated taxi cabs. The situations that play out in the digital sphere are, in short, a symptom of a misogynistic society rather than a contributing factor towards one.
It’s not just frustrating to see efforts focused on a tiny corner of a huge problem, though, but potentially worrying for those on the receiving end. It’s not hard to imagine these statistics forming the basis for another victim-blaming narrative, for instance. Tinder date a bit pushy? Well what did you expect, wearing that skirt and meeting people on an app known for its salacious conversation. Raped in an Uber? If only you hadn’t drunk so much and had waited a while for a reputable company.
On a national scale, too, pointing the finger at mobile apps for gender inequality while women nationwide are being objectified by their workmates, assaulted by their friends and killed by their partners seems derailing at best and irresponsible at worst. It’s scary to admit that the problem reaches beyond the glare of our laptops and phones, and accept that dealing with it requires challenging the very roots of society. We ignore that the other common factor, aside from technology, is the misogynist men using it to dispense what they already believed in anyway. But it’s easier to talk block buttons and enhanced terms and conditions than to admit that these solutions largely just move the problem from one outlet to another.
Of course, web developers and app designers have a duty to ensure their products are accessible to disadvantaged groups, including women, who in fact make up a majority of their audience. Twitter and Facebook have rightly faced criticism for their inconsistent handling of abuse on their platforms, while previous updates of Tinder have included improved safety information and a more sophisticated reporting system for abuse. For those responsible for the development of digital platforms, curbing how societal inequalities play out within them should very much be a priority. But for the rest of us concerned about tackling gender inequality and violence against women, laying the blame solely with technology is misguided.
Instead, we need to face the fact that misogyny is not the product of the app store, and that in the ongoing blurring of physical and digital life, what plays out in our offline lives will inevitably be replicated online.
The problem, in other words, is with the men who embody these attitudes and behaviours, rather than the platforms they choose to spread them on.