Dating apps are good, actually

I used to hate dating apps as much as the next person — which is to say, viscerally. A couple of years ago, I was having breakfast with a friend, and he challenged my dislike. I couldn’t think of anything original to say. So, I figured I’d put my money where my mouth is and give them a go: I’d probably hate them, but at least I’d get some stories out of it. However, as you can probably guess from the title, I instead changed my mind. Because, to be honest, you can’t really know until you try. You could have reasons against using them — such as a religious principle or already being in a relationship — but an aversion without trial is not the same as an opinion crafted through an informed assay.

While dating apps are generally a positive tool for the broader population, they are especially handy on a university’s campus. College is the canonical time to “discover yourself” and figure out what you want from life; relationships are no exception. While I previously wrote about the pressure of having romantic relationships, this time, I’ll focus more on casual, sexual ones. While I know people who have found their partner on Tinder, casual relationships tend to be more of the norm — particularly for younger folks.

Sure, it’s great to meet people organically — except when it isn’t, and your safety is threatened. The same is true of relationships initiated online — sometimes, boundaries can be violated. However, the immediacy of the apps provides the possibility of safer meetups. It’s no news flash that college campuses are hotbeds for sexual assault. Particularly in situations involving alcohol, consent can be a nebulous concept. Perhaps at Duke, more so than other institutions, we have a history of inextricable entwinement of drinking and sexual assault.

About a year ago, my best friend called me and told me to Google a pretend thesis made by a female Duke student in 2010 detailing her sexual escapades since his professor had mentioned it in class. This “thesis” gives a glimpse into what hookup culture here looked like a decade and a half ago — at least for one woman. While Karen Owens, the author, was perhaps a bit too far ahead of her time in attempting to chronicle her sex life in a parody of how men canonically discuss women, I was struck by how integral drinking was to her hookups. While this message may not have been so ingrained in our societal consciousness in the aughts, consent cannot be fully given unless sober.

She describes many of her hookups initiating at Shooters — often while drunk, if not close to blacking out. While that surely still happens today, it is (thankfully) not the primary way of finding casual sexual partners — though the particulars probably depend on any given person’s social affiliations. Going on a Tinder date with someone and having sex is likely going to involve more consent than going home from Shooters with someone. Sure, you can plan a date at a bar or another drinking venue. However, alcohol is not the required means by which a hookup occurs, and it’s easier to get to know someone in an environment in which you have more control.

Plus, the dialogue about each party’s expectations is more open when both people can opt-in to be seen in a dating pool. Your profile can display what type of relationship you’re looking for and you can discuss specifics before agreeing to meet up. Furthermore, if the other person is being particularly disrespectful, you can block them. Establishing expectations often makes the experience more enjoyable and less stressful. There will always be people you strike out on, but when you meet up with someone you matched with online, you tend to have at least an idea of what your interaction will involve.

Dating apps can be particularly important for people seeking relationships outside of societal norms. For example, Grindr — and other apps on which you can set gender preferences — gives queer people a selective filter for nontraditional relationships when it is not always clear in person what someone else is looking for. Whether it is a sexual or romantic orientation or just a current preference, you can find entirely sexual partners or entirely romantic, and every combination in between. Additionally, a desire for monogamy or lack thereof is certainly clearer upfront.

Even when looking for something more traditional, the confirmation of someone’s mutual desire can make things more comfortable. On a campus where if you don’t know somebody, you probably know someone who knows them, relationships can get incestuous pretty quickly. Matching with a friend of a friend or peripheral classmate on Tinder can lower the barrier to entry and give both parties a confirmation to move forward without worrying about making things awkward up front.

Whether you meet a partner on Bumble or on the bus, the crucial underlying thread is that you are learning more about what you want out of relationships. In my experience, the apps have made it vastly easier to do that. While I haven’t met anyone I’ve pursued anything serious with, I’ve discovered many things I don’t want out of relationships and, by nature, some things I do. I’ve met friends I never would have otherwise. I’ve explored relationships with people I wouldn’t have had the confidence to initiate without digital mediation. Sure, there have been some people that, in hindsight, I could have done without meeting, but at least I usually get a good story out of it, if not also an enjoyable evening.

I wanted to hate the apps, to bring some new, nuanced perspective as to why they suck. But, for me — and, admittedly, they do tend to work better for women — Bumble and Tinder have, on the whole, been a positive addition to my college experience. I’m not saying everyone will find the same success and enjoyment, but I think they are worth at least the old college try. It may take a couple of endeavors, but genuinely putting effort into meeting new people seeking similar experiences is rarely a waste of time.

Heidi Smith is a Trinity senior. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.