Have you ever felt frustrated, alone, anxious or depressed while using dating apps? Or wondered why swiping has led to a lot more swiping than actual dates? If so, you’re far from alone and there are reasons for all of that. Take it from Nancy Jo Sales.
In her new memoir, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, the famed Vanity Fair writer, journalist and bestselling author shares her own experience using the apps and investigates the impact of Big Dating, asking: Does Big Dating really want us to find love, or just keep on using its apps?
I was honored to interview Nancy Jo for the latest Girl Boner Radio episode, especially after recommending one of her previous books, American Girls, to so many people.
“The Dark Side of Dating Apps with Nancy Jo Sales”
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio transcript
I wanted to be very real in this book and say things that, you know, were not typically allowed, as women, to say even in 2021, you know? I feel like there’s still a lot of silencing of women, silencing of our stories, silencing of our experience.
Things like –
…just all the ageist things, being 50-something years old and enjoying having sex still with people who are quite a bit younger, like maybe in their 20s. So all these things I just wanted to be real about because I saw this ageism and sexism around women my age.
That’s Nancy Jo Sales, famed Vanity Fair writer, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World.
The book she was talking about there is her latest, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno. It’s a memoir about coming-of-middle-age in the midst of the online dating revolution. Through personal experience and loads of research she explores this question: Does Big Dating really want us to find love, or just keep on using its apps?
By Big Dating, she’s talking about the big corporations at the head of it all: Tinder, Bumble and so on. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by swipe culture or frustrated by online dating, you are so far from alone. And there are many reasons behind these challenges. Nancy Jo explores pretty much all of them in her book.
She also delves into some of the roots of the problems that Big Dating can both reflect and exacerbate, including ways kids who are socialized as girls are objectified from the get-go.
She told me she herself was “very sexualized from an early age” and that that “harmed and affected her entire life until now.” She also recalls being a sexual being, as we all are, from early on. And she pointed put there’s a huge difference between being a sexual person, having sexuality as part of our identity, and being sexualized, which comes from others.
Like many of us, Nancy Jo recalls having normal sexual feelings as a child.
For example, I knew that I wanted to kiss boys from a very young age. And I knew that my heart kind of fluttered when I watched James Bond movies with my dad. [laughs] I’d go to the theater to see James Bond, see Sean Connery take his shirt off, and just be like, Ooh, I like the way that looks!
I wanted to be real about the fact that even when we’re very little, we have sexual feelings and we’re getting input from our culture, from our parents, from our siblings, from our peers about what is okay, what is not okay, what it means if you feel these things and so forth.
So what I found out very early on as a little girl, I guess, to put it in such terms as we describe it these days, is I found that I was straight and liked men and boys and that I wanted to have a boyfriend. And I had thoughts like what do I do to get one? Even as I got older, into like middle school and high school, I wanted to know well, how do you do that?
So how is that different from sexualization? I often describe it like this: our sexuality comes from within us; it’s an inherent part of who we are. Being sexualized is when we’re forced to be seen as sexual or treated in sexual ways without our consent.
Nancy Jo is a renowned expert on this topic; her American Girls book is just wow. I’ve recommended it to so many people. She told me sexualization plays out in so many ways for girls:
In almost every aspect of our culture, even now to this day in movies, TV, music, music videos, video games, toys, everything you can possibly think of that a girl engages within culture, social media, for sure.
What it means is that a girl is taught that her value is through being sexy, basically. And that’s basically what it comes down to, her value. What gets her likes on social media, what gets her attention, what gets her validation is sexiness.
One study showed that during one year, school age kids may take in as many as 80,000 “sexy girl” portrayals in TV programming marketed toward kids. Sadly, kids are also sexualized in programming and media aimed at adults. Research has also shown that girls as young as 5 aspire to look “sexy.”
So how does that affect us into adulthood? I can’t even imagine counting all of the ways or thinking about all of them. It’s a lot. Sexualization of girls is linked with poor body image, eating disorders, depression, heightened stress and anxiety – to name just a few problems.
When you take these factors into online dating, where so much of it is about photos and stats, it’s, well, complicated. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be sharing sexy photos of yourself or expressing your sexuality in whatever ways you see fit. I want to make that very clear. Nancy Jo, too, is very much about not blaming women or femmes for any of this.
No matter your gender, you get to decide what feels right for you as far as your sexual expression and there should be no judgement. I just think it’s important to recognize that none of this stuff happens in a bubble. And introspection, making informed decisions and examining our beliefs are important.
So Nancy Jo knew a lot about these cultural factors and ways they were impacting the dating spheres when she decided to try dating apps herself, at age 49.
What happened was that I had a younger man in my life, and I kind of got my heart broken.
So I was sad. And so I went to Sake Bar Satsko, my place where I go, and there’s this bartender there named Mike. And I just was like running along the river and I felt like I was having a heart attack. And I was not having a heart attack, but I might have been having something like a broken heart, which can feel like a heart attack. And I told all this to Mike and he said, “Why don’t you just fuck somebody on Tinder? Why don’t you just go on a dating app and fuck somebody because that’s what I always do…you know, just fuck away the pain.”
I was like, I totally don’t want to do that. These dating apps, from everything I’ve heard, just seemed awful. And I know all these young girls have had these terrible experiences on them but there I went, wandering into the wilderness, like the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. In the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, he says he’s in midlife, and he wanders into the wilderness. And then he starts to see and experience all of these horrible things.
In her book, she wrote: “Dante’s Inferno begins: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, For I had wandered off the straight path.’” That was me, stumbling into Tinderworld.”
Soon it was time for her first date via app. She started chatting with a man on OKCupid. After some back-and-forth, including a booty call attempt from him, he agreed to meet her at a wine bar. And she did get some sex, as her bartender friend had suggested, but not quite the therapeutic kind that dissolves pain.
Well, that was bad sex… It was it was some of the worst sex I have ever had in my entire life. And this young man—I call him in the book Jack, the Skateboard Boy—he just had this kind of snide, sort of condescending kind of thing.
By the time we were ready to have sex, I had him saying things to me like, “I’m actually having a good time.” [imitates male voice and laughs] I was like, “Well, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do on a date?”
Nancy Jo told me she has heard from people in all different parts of the U.S. and the world who say they feel like there’s a contest in today’s dating culture to see who can care less about the experience—what happened to having fun and making each other laugh and feel good? She won’t romanticize dating of the past, she said, which had its own obvious problems. But she said in her 40 years of experience dating? It’s actually worse now.
What we should really be doing, she asserts, is caring more. In her book, she said the Pretenders got it right with this lyric: “‘Now the reason we’re here / As man and woman”—or however one so identifies— “Is to love each other / Take care of each other.’”
Anyway, Jack the Skateboard Boy seemed to be coming from the opposite, this idea of caring less is cool.
He was one of those people who’d fallen into that unfortunate mode, but then I, you know, cajoled him out of it and…we were having a good time. We’re talking, we’re laughing, we’re drinking beer.
After a bit, she told him she was tired. She walked him out and guided him to her building nearby, then into the building’s little dark gym. There, he pushed her against a wall and they started kissing.
She said he was a surprisingly good kisser, but she just wasn’t feeling anything. In fact she started to daydream. Then he dropped to his knees, pretty suddenly, to go down on her. As he did, she felt the same boredom she had felt while they were texting.
And I didn’t even really know why I was doing it. I guess it was just like…it’s not just me, lots of women, I think, have had this experience where you’re having sex. It’s not really good. You don’t really like it, but you just go through with it because it’s like, sort of get it over with kind of thing? And just like, make it make it stop.
And then when it was over, he said, “Yeah, I had fun. Um, you know, um, I might call you. I might not, but nothing personal if I don’t.”
And that is where her book title, Nothing Personal, came from.
I don’t know about you, but I really felt sorry for both of them, listening to that. These ideas about caring less and women being sex objects hurt men, too. They leave men feel like they aren’t allowed to be vulnerable or take their time or be kind, and as though there’s something wrong with them if they don’t want to have sex at any given time. It’s just so hurtful and unrealistic.
When I mentioned this to Nancy Jo, she told me about a conversation she had with a friend of hers, a jazz musician who’s in his 60s. [jazzy saxophone crooning] They went to dinner recently and they started talking about her new book.
This is somebody with a lot of soul. And he was talking about what you’re saying, about how bad all of this is for men, because he also has students, he says, young men who are his students,
And my friend was saying, “This is so bad for men, too, because they are not learning intimacy. They’re not learning the pleasure that they will get out of being able to give pleasure to women. They’re not learning how to be intimate with a woman in a way that will lead to real relationships. Intimacy is not just about sex, it’s also about having real relationships.”
He was just so sad for the men, for the young men. This is an older guy, like a dad figure, saying, “Oh god, this is not good for them either.” And it’s not. It’s inculcating them into the worst aspects of toxic masculinity that there are. And it’s robbing them of the pleasure of knowing and loving women.
Nancy Jo acknowledges that dating apps are often different for anyone who is not straight or interested in a heterosexual relationship. In her HBO documentary, there’s a great scene where she interviews gay men who said they’re so grateful they finally have a way ot easily meet people to date or have sex with.
She also realizes there are exceptions to the yuck experiences. We’ll get to some of that in a bit here. But first, another one of her dating experiences. As a heads up, it’s an especially dark one that involves violence and nonconsent. It also ends on a better note.
It involves someone she calls in her book, “The Choking Boy.” She described him as “big and beefy like a football player.”
I match with him on—I think it was Tinder—and I was in Louisville, Kentucky where I was filming some stuff for my documentary. I match with him. We met in the like the hotel bar. We’re laughing, we’re joking. We’re talking. It’s really, really fun. And we’re getting along. And, yeah, we came up to my room.
We start having sex, and he starts choking me. This is not BDSM. This is not like a mutually agreed upon act. This is his big, beefy ham hock hands and his big, like, hammer of thumbs, against my throat and me feeling—and very tight, and while he’s really pounding away, and me thinking, Oh, my god. He’s gonna kill me.
So I take my big, strong, Jewish peasant woman legs, inherited from my grandmother, and I put them up on him and he went fly-ing! It was like a cartoon. Like he went fly-ing across the room. I wish I had a video. It would have been like kind of funny, actually. He just went flying across the room and landed on his butt. And he said, “What did you do that for? What’s wrong with you?”
And I scrambled up off the bed. I thought he was maybe a murderer. And there had already been Tinder murders. So I scrambled up off the bed. I was looking for a weapon. And I was like, “Don’t come near me.”
He’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, what? What’s wrong with you?” And I was like, “What’s wrong with you? You’re choking me.” And he’s like, “But girls like to be choked!” And I said, “Why do you think girls like to be choked?” And he’s like, “Well, they always like it in porn.” He says, “I want to show you.”
He opened his laptop and started showing her the vast amounts of choking videos on Pornhub. There are so many choking videos in mainstream porn, Nancy Jo, said, that research shows that many people, especially young women, have been led to believe that choking is a standard part of sex – whether they’re into it or not. But as Nancy Jo pointed out:
You don’t have to like choking, if you don’t like choking.
So this does not feel good to me. I did not want to be choked and I felt like I was gonna die. So I told him this.
It was a really amazing conversation because I think we both learned something about each other. And then we wound up having really great sex that same evening, because we had talked about what we like and don’t like. And we had had a conversation and we had communicated and we started to be more intimate through sharing with each other.
Nancy Jo wrote about that conversation in her book and it’s pretty striking. They went from talking about choking, consent and feminism to slow, sensual touch and mutual orgasms.
At a certain point while dating through apps, Nancy Jo did find someone with whom she developed a relationship she described as “really close, intimate, sexual, exciting and sweet.” It was with a man in his 20s named Abel. He came from very impoverished circumstances and had grown up without internet or cell phones.
He wanted to be a musician in New York, and he came to New York and got a job. And he was lovely, just really lovely. And we were lucky in the sense that. We clicked and had a lot of fun together.
They had what she described as a situationship – no labels. He was seeing other people, and so was she for a time.
While she didn’t think of Abel this way at the time, later on and in hindsight, she said he became almost like a case study.
You know, a good looking young man who comes to New York City and he gets a phone, he gets Tinder.
In our city, there’s a lot more single women than men. And the women in New York City are amazing, just the most accomplished, cool women. I mean, women all over the world are fantastic, but New York has really some really cool, exciting women.
And, she said, they outnumber men.
And what dating apps do is provide unlimited access or what seems to be in the minds of men unlimited access. It’s perceived as unlimited access. And I watched this change him. And I watched his focus become very, very scattered.
So we were in sort of this inferno, like I call it in this title, or dystopia where we had our thing, which was sweet and lovely, but all around us there was the white noise of all of these other things going on and it was very hard.
Over time, Abel started lying to Nancy Jo about who was with and even when he was in town versus traveling. She found herself going through his phone the way another woman who stopped trusting him had.
Nancy Jo and Abel stayed friends and had sex off and on for some time, while the white noise she mentioned continued. Once she saw that he was labeling women in his phone by things like bra size, though, she was done. When she asked him about it he defended himself by saying, “She was just a piece of ass!”
That isn’t to say that Nancy Jo doesn’t believe you can find meaningful hookups, healthy relationships or lasting love on dating apps.
Of course true connections happen. I know this. We all know this. We’ve even seen marriages. And I never for a second would deny that it’s impossible. But I do think that whether you’re old, young, whatever, that all of this technology makes trust way harder and interferes with your ability to commit to each other and your ability to focus on each other. There’s even a word for it among sociologists. It’s called technoference.
Technoference. Even having your phone or iPad nearby—say on the table while you’re eating—makes you less likely to hear or focus on a person you’re with.
There are a bunch of studies about this. According to one, published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, “allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities, and time with romantic partners—even when unintentional or for brief moments” can send “implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships.” As tech use goes up, intimacy goes down.
On top of those issues, Nancy Jo talks a great deal about how Big Dating companies fuel racism, transphobia, misogyny and violence. She told me she has Google alerts set for dating app-related violence and deaths for her journalism work. One had just pinged before we chatted.
In response to her work, Nancy Jo often hears from people who feel defensive, who make comments like, “Well I found love. We met on an app, we’re married, it’s great. Tinder’s great.” I asked her how she responds.
This is what I would say to this person: I’m so glad that you feel that it worked for you. And I’m happy for you. But I don’t think that – It’s not a binary. Just because you got married to someone you met on Plenty of Fish doesn’t mean Plenty of Fish is good or that dating apps are good. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a problem with dick pics, rape, sexual assault, harassing messages.
Many people say that dating apps are like a bar. Nancy Jo rejects that comparison. She said it would only make sense if there was a bouncer at the entrance of the bar who divided people by the color of their skin, allowed racist slurs in profiles and groups people who fit societal ideas about physical beauty together and allowed them to get the most matches. That bar would also have to have models and actors hitting on people to represent the bots that many apps use to keep people swiping and engaged.
Oh, and also it would be a bar if there was 30%—and this is data from ProPublica—of women who go into this bar get raped or sexually assaulted.
So if that’s the kind of bar that you feel is like a good place for your friends to go, I don’t know who you are. Would you really say, “Go to this bar. It’s the most amazing place. Yes, it’s transphobic. And it’s racist. And there might be people in there saying racist things like people have on their profiles…really racist things that nobody should see.”
And I think those people should be slapped off that app immediately. But they’re allowed quote/unquote, to say them. I don’t want to repeat what they say. They are, you know, justified in some sense…like, it’s their preference or something. But these are racist things. These are Jim Crow racist things.
And forget about all these very dramatic horrible things that happen. There’s also the exploitive way that they take your money and take your data without your consent. They’re not open about the fact that they’re taking your data, which on dating apps involves sexual choices and preferences. I don’t buy that as a justification for for these businesses.
Since we’re talking about the dark side of dating apps, I shared with Nancy Jo a couple of messages that I and a friend of mine have received about their own challenges. They’re all from women who’ve tried using the apps to meet men. With their permission, here’s a short excerpt:
“Tinder has destroyed my self confidence. I can’t seem to stop, though. It’s the only way dating works now.”
“8 years of dating app BS was so traumatic for me… I have been in therapy dealing with all of that and still struggle even though I’m now off them.”
If any of that sounded like you, Nancy Jo wanted you to hear this:
Well, first of all, I’m so glad you said those things. Keep saying them. Because women are so judged on our relationships, on our on our quote, unquote, success in having relationships. And we’re sort of challenged from having success in relationships from the jump because we live in an unequal society where there’s unequal income and unequal labor and unequal, unequal childcare and we don’t have support as women.
So the first thing I would say is, it is not you. It is them. If you’re feeling traumatized by the guys you’re meeting on these apps, that’s on them, not you. That’s on this culture, not on you.
I feel you. I carry around so much trauma from so many things that happened to me over my life before online dating even ever started. It’s all because of these things. And that’s why I wrote this recent book, Nothing Personal, is because I don’t want to carry it around anymore. I don’t think that I should stay silent about it.
I am not ashamed of things that have happened to me or things I’ve done in the in the realm of sex and love and dating. I am not ashamed. And I’m not an angel. I’m not perfect, but a lot of this shit was not my fault. And I stood up for myself, and I’m standing up for myself now. And you should, too. And don’t blame yourself.
If you’re feeling addicted, watch my film “Swiped.” If you watch nothing else in the film, go to the 25-minute mark, and watch the next three or four minutes, which are all about breaking down to the person who invented the swipe. And Adam Alter, who is a social scientist at NYU and wrote a best selling book called Irresistible, about addiction and social media. You will see exactly how they get you addicted.
You’re not alone in feeling lowered self-esteem through all this stuff. And you’re not alone in feeling like you’re addicted because they designed it to be addictive.
You know, I had a young man that I interviewed become suicidal over it. And he went to therapy and the doctor that he went to said, “You have to find something to replace this. You need to get a hobby.” So he started swing dancing.
That’s not to say that everyone needs to swing dance, she pointed out, but having interests or hobbies, something you find fun or fulfilling is important, especially when you feel overwhelmed or consumed by dating apps. I think that doing so can help with the self esteem and body image challenges fueled by dating apps among all genders, too.
Nancy Jo found a new hobby of her own recently.
In the pandemic, I started playing chess online, and I’ve met all these people through chats. This is a lie that [dating apps are] the only way to meet people. If I can meet people through playing chess and my friend—he’s called “Alex” in the story, let’s call him Alex—can meet people through swing dancing, you can still take back the reins of your life. Take back your power.
There’s so much of this idea, taking her power back in Nothing Personal. It’s something she wants for so many others and something she worked hard for in her own life.
Near the end of the book she wrote:
“Walking along with the hordes of New Yorkers rushing home at dusk in Manhattan, it was as if I had disappeared completely. And it felt mystic and light. The street used to be a place where you thought you might be seen by some handsome stranger, someone who would make you feel you mattered even more. And I was always looking for that stranger, always searching for that someone who could make me feel that I had been seen. And now I was free from that thought.”
Nancy Jo told me she really put herself out there in this memoir and not everyone has understood why.
My doctor actually, he said to me, “Why did you write this?” He’s an older, white man, and he didn’t understand why a woman would do this: “Why? Why would you do this to yourself? Why would you tell people these things?”
Because I’m sick of pretending like they didn’t happen. I’m sick of pretending like I don’t feel this way. I’m sick of pretending like I have to hide parts of myself. I don’t. I want to share my experience so that others can hopefully resonate with it and feel like, you know, it’s okay to talk about.
Learn much more about Nancy Jo Sales and the pitfalls of Big Dating by purchasing Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, most anywhere books are sold. Find excerpts, reviews and a Spotify playlist for the book on her website, nancyjosales.com.
She told me loves reader photos. So if you read Nothing Personal, share a photo of you with the book on Instagram and tag her and she’ll share it on her book account. Her documentary “Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age,” is available on HBO and Amazon Prime.
Stream the full Girl Boner Radio episode, including a listener segment with Dr. Megan Fleming from someone whose girlfriend has never experienced orgasm, up above or your favorite podcast app!
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