How Tinder’s Stopping Us Having Sex

We are having less sex than our parents' generation, could dating apps like Tinder be to blame?

How Tinder's Stopping Us Having Sex

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

It’s been a bad year for dating apps. In August, Vanity Fair writer and Bling Ring author Nancy Jo Sales wrote of the perils of Tinder in her think piece Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”. She reported that heterosexual young people today – in particular, men in New York – were using dating apps solely for ‘wham bam thank you mam’ style soulless one night stands.

Dating apps when you’re gay are a whole other ball game, but when it comes to straight couples and how they interact, is she right?

The last five years have seen a dramatic change in the way we find people to have sex with, particularly since Tinder arrived in 2012. Cue moral panic: on-air news discussions and a zillion think pieces about how dating apps have ruined dating for everyone, brought out the absolute worst in humanity and caused the end of love and intimacy (which would be quite a feat if it were the case).

As Dr Bernie Hogan, researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, points out, ‘Obviously the moral panic around online dating is expected. It’s a new technology, a new way of arranging relationships and if you’re not participating in it it’s a new form of uncertainty.’

He points out that, ‘This was the case when video came along, the same when Facebook came along.’

To put the panic in perspective, let’s remember that every generation reserves the right to say that ‘everything has gone to the dogs’ once they get a bit older and a new wave of hedonistic youths take over at the coal face of culture: drink, drugs, sex and rock n roll.

And, sex has been a favourite subject for moral panic since the dawn of time (the irony here being that it’s one of the few things that we all have in common). When all the men went off to war last century, panic. When the pill was invented, panic. When the sexual revolution happened, panic.

So, while there is certainly some truth in Sales’s report that dating apps do facilitate crappy and potentially hurtful one-night deceptions, as anyone who’s gone on a date with a serial swiper can attest to the bigger picture actually suggests something quite different.

Millennials and Sex

The latest research suggests that young people today are actually having less sex than their parents’ generation – in fact, the frequency with which 16-44 year olds are getting it on has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades. And, according to the last poll by the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles62035-8.pdf%20){href='' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'} the number of times we’re having sex each month has dropped from five to three.

Millennials might lose their virginity earlier and have twice as many sexual partners before marriage than our parents but we’re actually having less sex. The most recent study shows that men and women on average have sex just less than five times a month – 4.9 for men and 4.8 for women. However, our parents were at it far more frequently – 6.2 times a month for men and 6.3 times for women.

So, while we might have more sexual partners, which potentially means more one night stands, it seems as though we are having sex less regularly and less sex on the whole than ever before.

Of course, this is likely to be because fewer of us in our 20s are married or in stable relationships than a generation ago. But, you’d think the flip side of that would be that we’d all be out there making the most of the opportunities offered to us by dating apps and the liberal attitudes towards casual sex which were hard-won in the ’60s and ’70s. We aren’t, so could there be more to it than that?

After a long-term relationship recently ended I decided to dip my toe in the digital waters of dating apps. What I found was surprising. Far from swimming in a sea of dick pics (thankfully), being propositioned repeatedly or meeting guys who were trying to lure me into bed so they could have their way and never call me again (as some of Sale’s interviewees admitted to doing), I found myself having multiple wholesome WhatsApp conversations (note: very different to multiple orgasms) with guys who told me about their jobs, book, film and music preferences and asked, at length, about mine.

This would go on for days on end before any of them even asked me if I was up for meeting them in person. It felt like an interview. My female friends reported the same back from the dating front line, some expressing frustration because they were searching for a quick shag and didn’t understand why they were getting messages about what a stranger was having for lunch.

It seemed like the (somewhat sexist) stereotype that all men are predators, hiding behind Tinder on their phones in order to trick girls (Tinderellas), who are naively and hopefully swiping through in search of Prince Charming, might not actually bear any resemblance to reality.

This not only goes against everything we have been led to believe is happening as a result of the dawn of dating apps but, also, what we’re being shown in pop culture. Phrases like ‘don’t go catching feelings’ litter rap and RnB songs as though emotional connections and attachments are a disease.

Everywhere you look, on screens big and small, it seems like everyone’s having loads of mad/dirty/dark sex. Gone is the bawdy titillation of a show like Eurotrash. Gone are tender Cruel Intentions style virginity loss scenes. Today we’re one click away from hardcore porn online, we watch sitcoms like Skins and This is England, barely flinching, shows like GIRLS depict sex in all of its messiness (making Sex and the City look tame) and gritty blockbusters like Shame captivate us.

But despite being exposed to more sex than ever before, it seems like the youth of today aren’t actually doing it all that much. Despite the fact that we’ve got the tools at our fingertips to get it if we really want, the old saying ‘nobody’s having as much sex as you think they are’ seems pretty apt.

Could it be that dating apps are actually stopping us from having sex because we’re all too busy messaging, trying to work out whether we’re compatible with someone we’ve never even actually met in real life?


In terms of why these apps don’t necessarily mean we’re all having more sex, Dr Hogan says, ‘They facilitate both more and less – some people are actually getting more than they would but other people are not bothering.’

Basically, if you were the kind of person who had a lot of one night stands before the dawn of dating apps then you’ll use them to facilitate that. However, if you were a serial monogamist before, the likelihood is that you’ll still be one. What we do with dating apps, as with all technology, is just an extension of what we were doing anyway.

I asked a few of the guys I was chatting to from Happn, Bumble and Tinder whether they thought apps could be partly responsible for the fact that our generation isn’t actually having all that much sex.

Mark**, 26, from south London told me, ‘It depends on if it’s in your nature to have one night stands anyway. For me, personally, I was never someone who slept around so it doesn’t really appeal. I know a few people who use it for that reason but I’m not in it for that – I wouldn’t put in the effort and time of getting to know someone and talking to them if I was.’

He’s looking for a relationship and he’s invested in the conversations he’s having even though he has never met the girls IRL. ‘You know I sit there imagining what kind of voice you will have, I build it up in my head. It’s always disappointing when you’ve invested in someone, spent loads of time messaging and getting to know them and then you meet up and for some reason there’s just nothing, so you walk away.

‘It’s a weird no man’s land actually. There’s no tangibility to it.’

Another guy, Edward, 27, from north London confirms this. ‘I personally think apps are really good for certain friends of mine. It’s allowing them to meet more people and have more confidence in the early stages of talking to them over message. Some people can use them in a manipulative way, but I think that’s rare. If you’re a romantic in real life, you’re still a romantic online,’ he says.

And what about old-fashioned British reserve? My new American flatmate, who’s recently arrived from New York, laments how difficult it is to meet people in London: ‘People don’t talk to each other, they don’t chat each other up. There isn’t as much of a hook-up culture as in the US.’

Could this be that while there is now an app for most things, there are still some things we can’t recreate or simulate on the internet? What makes you attracted to a person, what makes you want to have sex with them is not, actually, a tick box compatibility quiz.

Do they like the same books/music/films as me? Do they work in a similar industry? Are they really good at texting? Are they always on point funny in their messages? This is all important, of course, but when you meet someone in person there’s body language, smell, the sound and tone of their voice, their mannerisms and, of course, a whole load of hormones flying around, which even science hasn’t fully figured out.

If we understood it somebody would have bottled attractiveness by now, and we’d all be buying it and popping it in pill form.

The Biology Behind Attraction

Daniel Davis, author of The Compatibility Gene, tells me that, ‘The fundamental biology seems to suggest that the way we pick partners is very complicated and it’s quite a difficult thing to study.’

In recent years scientists and biologists have been looking into something called the Major Histocompatability Complex. This, essentially, is a set of encoded genes and the theory goes that we’re attracted to people who have different immune systems to us so that our children will be healthy.

The way this manifests is that the scent of another person determines whether or not you are attracted to them. That’s right, according to science, you can sniff your perfect partner out, so it’s no wonder that for all that swiping on Tinder and messaging you still might not want to rip their clothes off.

Daniel says, ‘There’s some evidence, which is on the cutting edge of science, that suggests that the immune system genes we inherit play some role in attraction and this is certainly an example of what’s lost when you’re using an app. It’s one aspect of the way we communicate with each other that’s lost in an app.’

So, while this science is very new, could it explain why dating app dates are often unsuccessful? Why the online dating revolution hasn’t sparked a second sexual revolution which has seen us all at it like rabbits with total Tinder strangers 24/7? Perhaps, but there are, of course, other factors at play as well.

As Dr Hogan explains, ‘It’s not a simple case of comparing online dating in its forms – from the very beginning of Tinder and threesome hook-up apps – to all of offline dating. There are a variety of cues that we pick up in person that we don’t in online dating, of course. But all of the sites and apps are asserting their own perspective on what’s compatible and how compatibility works – from E Harmony’s psychometric data base to Tinder’s ‘I like the look of this person and here are people we have in common’ set up.’

However, he adds: ‘We know that computer media communication is very shallow – this is a key fact. I mean there aren’t a lot of cues – you can’t tell voice, intonation, smell online – we read into this communication. We throw in our hopes and ideas’ imagining what a person will be like in real life.’

He also points out that we ‘don’t have a script’. ‘That’s the reason reason everyone is talking to me is because people want, from a researcher a clear set of norms.’

Ultimately, then, it seems we’re in unchartered waters in terms of both this new way of interacting and finding partners and when it comes to understanding attraction and compatibility. Nobody really knows exactly what draws two people together, it’s a combination of different things that make you want to jump into bed with someone and/or decide whether this is the love of your life whom you can never be apart from.

But now we assess whether we want to meet people IRL based on what they say, what they do and who they seem to be over text, and not how they actually are – have we got the dating game backwards?

When you meet someone in a bar, or sense them across a party there are all sorts of invisible signals that you’re picking up on. You can usually tell within a few minutes whether you’d like to sleep with them or not, let alone see them again. That feeling has very little to do with what they had for lunch that day or what books they’ve read. You might kiss them for the first time and you know instantly whether you feel ‘that thing’ or not.

You can’t replicate that moment, that intensity, that feeling and you certainly can’t predict it. It’s chicken and egg. First, you need to know whether you’re physically attracted to someone to decide whether you want to have sex with them or not.

Second, you need to work out whether you have mutual interests, similar world views and a compatible sense of humour and/or taste in trainers before you can decide whether or not you want to keep having sex with them on the regular. You just can’t do the first one sat in front of your laptop/phone.

Perhaps, this explains why we might have one night stands and not go back, or why we might meet up with someone after weeks of anticipation and find, inexplicably, that we don’t fancy them in the slightest.

Maybe if we all started approaching each other in person again we’d learn who we’re actually attracted to and find ourselves having more sex – and having better sex.

Some things are just better IRL.

** names have been changed

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Tinder’s Dating ‘Apocalypse’ Isn’t Quite Done Yet

The Debrief Date Night: How Did It All Go Down?

What To Do When You’re Catfished On Tinder

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us