Casual Sex On Tinder
Hooking up, sex differences, and emerging research for a changing landscape.
Posted May 08, 2017
Everyone knows that lots of people use apps like Tinder for meeting partners for casual sex, or "hooking up." Data from a recent survey (Carpenter and McEwan, 2016) of college students shows that in this sample, the top three reasons for using dating apps were, in order: entertainment, dating, and sex (a close third).
If you browse through Tinder, which I have, it's quite the menagerie. A panoply of human splendor, if you will, but often poignant and lonely. At times reminiscent of a stroll through Amsterdam's Red Light District, not in terms of literal financial transactions, but in the sense of a candidly sexual department store window display—mass objectification.
One gets the subtle hint that it is easy to find a lover, take-out or delivery. At other times, it seems like folks are looking for something durable, the vaunted secure attachment perhaps, with admonitions to "swipe left" if looking for a hook-up, and frank inquiries—looking for a life partner, 40-something with "eggs on ice."
Human sexual behavior has been shifting for decades, if not centuries, and with the advent of internet dating and changes in social mores, notably more open attitudes toward sex, hooking up has become a "thing." While many young people (64 percent) reported ever having engaged in a hook-up, the majority (51 percent) said that they did so with thoughts of starting a romantic relationship, men and women alike (Garcia and Reiber, 2008). More recently, research has found that men are more likely to use Tinder for casual sex (Carpenter and McEwan, 2016), and are less selective in their choices than are women (Tyson et al., 2016). I know... hard to believe.
More recently, researchers sought to clarify what ingredients go into hooking up on Tinder (Sevi et al., 2017), pinging 163 Tinder users in the United States using an internet survey. Survey respondents were 56 percent women, average age 27.9 years old, and 88 percent heterosexual. Prior research has looked at factors including feelings of disgust regarding sexuality, attitudes regarding sexuality ("sociosexuality," similar to the popular notion of "sex positivity"), and motivations for using dating apps, including: casual sex, love, ease of communication, self-worth validation, the thrill of excitement, and trendiness.
In this study, researchers measured disgust using the Three Domain Disgust Scale, rating items from "not disgusting at all" to "extremely disgusting." An example of a sex-related item is "hearing two strangers having sex," and a conventionally non-sexual item—"stepping on dog poop." Different people have stronger or weaker gross-out reactions.
Sociosexual orientation was estimated using the Revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory, using subscales for Behavior, Attitude, and Desire: e.g., "With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse on one and only one occasion?"; "Sex without love is OK"; and "How often do you have sexual arousal with someone with whom you do not have a committed romantic relationship?" respectively.
Finally, they estimated different motives for using Tinder with the aptly named "Measure of Tinder Motivations," looking at the aforementioned factors of love, casual sex, ease of communication, self-worth validation, the thrill of excitement, and trendiness. Thrill and trendiness were excluded from the survey because of insufficient statistical reliability.
Overall, they found that both sexual disgust sensitivity and sociosexuality predicted motivations to use Tinder for casual sex. However, analyzing the data for men and women separately, an interesting difference emerged: They found that for women only, sexual disgust sensitivity was directly insignificant; only sociosexuality directly predicted Tinder use for casual sex. Notably, for women, lower sexual disgust predicted higher sociosexuality, but only as a secondary effect—when they controlled for sociosexuality, the difference in sexual disgust was not significant.
Disgust is thought to serve an evolutionary role. In the case of sexual behavior, disgust may improve mate selection and reduce risk (e.g., sexually transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, bonding with unsuitable mates). Men are, on average, higher risk takers than women, and it makes sense that higher levels of disgust would be associated with lower motivation for casual sex.
Why then in this sample, for women, did sexual disgust not directly predict using Tinder to hook up? The study authors hypothesize that women who use Tinder may have lower sexual disgust sensitivity in the first place, leading to a biased sample.
In other words, the authors wonder if women on Tinder are on average less disgusted by sex than women in general, suggesting that Tinder users may be a self-selected sample of women who are less disgusted by sex, and consequently more sex-positive—and in turn, more likely to engage in casual sex. Another factor may be how attractive one's photos are—men take more risks when shown more attractive photos, and online dating users are inclined to post their "best" (most attractive) photos.
At the end of the day, online dating remains the cyber-sexual equivalent of the Wild, Wild West. Evidence-based dating sounds funny to the ear, but more and more research is coming to inform the way dating apps work, and this is the advent of big data.
Real-time dating apps like Tinder intensify the interpersonal dating situation by rewarding impulsive behaviors, given the expectation of immediate gratification (delivering casual sex quickly and geographically conveniently). They are essentially rewarding impulsivity, which can be functional and dysfunctional. Since disgust is great at putting the brakes on impulsivity, the absence of disgust as a main factor in this sample of women on Tinder suggests that there may be less hesitation to engage in a hookup.
Alcohol and other drugs, often a part of casual sex as well as traditional courtship in many cases, further reduce impulse control and play a role in hookups. If you are looking for casual sex on Tinder, you might consider reducing your sexual disgust sensitivity and increasing your sociosexual comfort level—otherwise, you could end up with a bad hangover, emotionally and possibly literally.
People looking for an entrée to a long-term relationship may do better on less immediate, traditional online dating sites, though transitioning to a "real" relationship still isn't very easy or likely. If you are looking for something more enduring, meeting at social events, and via friends and family, are still the main ways that people meet and stay together.
While it is easier to go online in some ways, and it can be entertaining and interesting, putting in the effort upfront to meet people traditionally will improve the odds of finding love. Regardless, for your own peace of mind, be clear about your own motivations and desires when dating—whether using traditional or real-time dating apps or meeting in person.
In particular, if you want to make the best decisions possible regarding sex and dating, it helps to know how much you are looking for casual sex and how much for a committed relationship, whether you are trying to use sex to establish a relationship, how much sex disgusts you, and what your attitudes are about sexuality. You can then make informed choices about how to position yourself (no pun intended) and what avenues to use to meet folks to achieve your relationship goals best.
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Carpenter CJ, McEwan B. (2016). The players of micro-dating: individual and gender differences in goal orientations toward mirco-dating apps. First Monday: Peer-Reviewed Journal on the Internet, Vol. 21, No. 5, May 2. downloaded on 5/7/2017 from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6187/5469#author
Garcia JR, Reiber C. (2008). Hook-up behavior: a biopsychosocial perspective. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. downloaded on 5/7/2017 from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ebs/2/4/192.html
Tyson G, Perta VC, Haddadi H, & Seto MC. (2016, November). A first look at user activity on tinder. Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining (ASONAM), 2016 IEEE/ACM International Conference on (pp. 461–466). IEEE.
Sevi B, Aral T, Eskenazi T. (2017). Exploring the hook-up app: Low sexual disgust and high sociosexuality predict motivation to use Tinder for casual sex. Personality and Individual Differences, April 22.