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‘Mini-slot machines’: Inside a London woman’s journey into dating apps

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You might find love online, but dating apps are less about a romantic payoff than keeping you looking, Treena Orchard writes in a new book.

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Using dating apps for the first time, Treena Orchard figured she’d get a fair number of dates with the potential for a longer-term relationship or two.

Smart, funny, accomplished – surely, there were a lot of good men out there for her.

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Man, was she wrong.

“I was putting in a tremendous amount of energy and getting very little return. And it was such a shock to my previous dating experiences. Like, I really was completely a fish out of water,” says Orchard, an anthropologist at Western University. “I was equally parts frustrated and fascinated.”

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She began taking notes to “manage the chaos of the experience.”

“I wanted to try and capture some patterns in an effort to be more successful, because I found that I was failing so often and I didn’t understand why,” Orchard says.

Within a few months she had 60,000 words and the idea for a book.

That book, Sticky, Sexy, Sad: Swipe Culture and the Darker Side of Dating Apps, arrived in bookstores and online a few days ago, with an official launch Tuesday by publisher University of Toronto Press.

Orchard is known to readers of The London Free Press, and at Western, as a researcher who focuses on marginalized populations, including sex workers and others involved in street life. She has more than 60 academic publications to her credit.

“In a way I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and that can be very emotionally exhausting. And so I took my own life as a guide, as a way to explore something new to me,” Orchard says.

Her own life included a more successful dating experience earlier on, amid a battle with alcoholism. Sobriety began 12 years ago and an abusive relationship ended around the same time.

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“I was single by choice for a little while, and I wanted to get back into the dating game. I was curious about meeting someone new, and didn’t know how else to do it,” she says of her turn to dating apps.

Orchard began swiping on her phone in August 2017. In the first five months on Bumble, she had 2,700 matches but managed to meet only 10 men in person. “That’s a tremendous amount of energy to meet ten men.”

Over the next few years, through Bumble and other apps including Tinder, Orchard met about 40 to 50 men in person – one-third of the total number of men she’d connected with online and had been messaging.

By then, Orchard was already exploring different themes with her experiences. “So, the two sides of me are the woman who was curious, wanting to date, and the scholar in me.”

Orchard’s book is far more personal memoir than academic research, but she brings scholarly experience to the subject.

Treena Orchard
Treena Orchard (Randy Richmond/The London Free Press)

“I’m exposing things that so many people have experienced, but they haven’t thought about it in quite the same way. And they get an opportunity to sort of peek inside my life, and my foibles and my failures, but also to learn from the things I have gone through.”

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What she went through included a lot of ghosting and misogyny, dotted by a few good relationships.

For sure, dating apps introduce people to others they might not otherwise meet, Orchard says. But the addictiveness of swiping, and the objectification of people that hundreds of swipes can bring, deflate the potential of finding love, she found.

“Because people will vanish, even after you make really meaningful connections with them,” she notes. “Even just mentioning the word relationship seems to send shivers up the spines of many, many people.”

The apps don’t want us to find love, they want us to keep using the apps, she says. “They are essentially mini-slot machines. They dole out successes intermittently.”

You may think you’ve found some good partners, but the apps keep messaging to keep looking, keep swiping, don’t “settle,” Orchard says. The more you swipe, the more everyone becomes an object and the less chance people will break through the shallow, one-size-fits-all exchanges the apps promote, she says.

“It dulls our interpersonal skills so that people seem to be very reluctant to exchange ideas, bodily fluids, romance with one another in the flesh,” she says. “It contributes to loneliness, it contributes to violence between people, it contributes to a lot of misunderstanding about what sexuality is and how we communicate with each other.”

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As more people use the apps, the more all our dating experiences become the same and, truth to tell, boring, Orchard says.

The bottom line: our love lives are suffering, she says. “Another reason why I wanted to write the book is a critique and a way to push back against this really cold-hearted industry that is not about love.”

The companies running apps are suffering financially, Orchard notes. For example, Bumble has been hit by layoffs, leadership changes and falling stock value.
Orchard sees that as a sign people are beginning to see the pitfalls of the apps.

But the apps do have the potential – with some changes, Orchard argues – to help people find whatever they’re looking for.

“They were invaluable for me to begin dating again, as a sober person. And, yes, I did fall in love with people and so in many ways, I’m grateful. People who maybe struggle with meeting people in real life, for whatever reasons, it can really create opportunities for intimacy, friendship, community, that are really hard to experience any other way.”

The apps could be improved by getting rid of the “bro culture ideology” and making the initial exchanges more interesting online, rather than the cut-and-paste format that’s used now, Orchard says.

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They could add safety features, such as online community rooms or bulletin boards where people could share their experiences, she adds.

Dating apps are changing who we are and how we date, without the promised payoffs of good dates, good sex and good relationships, Orchard says. That needs to change, she argues.

“Our love lives should not be suffering.”

rrichmond@postmedia.com


ABOUT ORCHARD’S BOOK

Sticky, Sexy, Sad will be launched at the University of Toronto bookstore Tuesday, May 7 and at an evening of sex talk May 30 at Another Story Book Shop in Toronto, featuring Orchard and fellow writers Tina Fetner (Sex in Canada) and Sheima Benembarek (Halal Sex), who will moderate the discussion.

The book is available online and in both chain and independent bookstores.

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