The good old days? Photo: Getty.
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Technology isn't ruining modern dating – humans are

Dating apps don't change what we want, they just gives us better access to it. 

The internet is ruining everything, right? It ruined teenagers. It ruined sex. And now, according to a big feature in this month’s Vanity Fair, it’s ruining dating

The piece, by investigative journalist Nancy Jo Sales (best-known for her writing on the Bling Ring) opens on a savage vista: a Manhattan bar, where “everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening”. A financial worker tells Sales he hopes to “rack up 100 girls” in bed per year, and has slept with five in the past eight days. “We don’t know what the girls are like”, his friend chips in. They just sleep with them. 

Sales' piece is headlined “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’”, and from here on out she inextricably links these woman-hating bros and their ilk with the rise of dating apps. The piece’s most convincing point centres on the "easiness” of online and app dating, a word that crops up again and again in Sales’ interviews. This easiness, David Buss, a psychology professor, tells her, changes the nature of demand:

When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift towards short-term dating. Marriages become unstable. Divorces increase. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy."

(As Sales points out in the piece, Buss’s gendering of his theory seems a little unnecessary – the effect works both ways.)

As striking as this point is, it, and the piece’s underlying assumptions, are worth re-examining. My initial reaction while reading the opening lines of Sales’ piece was: “Well, it is Manhattan.” Sales’ two main groups of case studies are visitors to a bar in New York’s financial district and college students, neither of which have ever been known for their taste in mature, long-lasting relationships.  

This raises the suspicion that dating apps' effect within these communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy. At its base, technology is a revolution in logistics, not in psychology or sociology – it gives us better access to the things we already lust after; it doesn't change the nature of the lust itself. 

In a piece for the Guardian on the psychology of online dating, business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes (emphasis mine): 

Like any successful internet service, Tinder enables people to fulfil some basic evolutionary and social needs… we tend to overestimate the impact of technology on human behaviour; more often than not, it is human behaviour that drives technological changes and explains their success or failure.

Technology is created by humans to meet existing desires, otherwise it wouldn’t be profitable, and, as any Silicon Valley investor knows, profitability is all.

Twine, a new dating app, will inevitably cause controversy at launch, because it allows daters to select openers from a pre-written list based on your match's interests ("Would you agree that George Michael is fab?" is one excruciating suggestion). "These apps have stripped us of our ability to converse!" commentators will, inevitably, cry. But if the app takes off, it'll be because icebreakers, and even sexual relationships light on conversation, are as old as humanity itself. 

Sales' piece really investigates hook-up culture, not dating apps, and her choice of apps as a root cause seems like a mix-up between causality and correlation. Clickhole’s “What The Rise Of Hookup Culture Means For Everyone But You” excellently parodies the way hook-up culture is constantly pushed in front of us as a source of moral panic, despite the fact that those uninterested in it are unlikely to be affected by it. One study carried out by dating site PlentyOfFish.com found that anyone who included the word "love" in their profile was more likely to find it than other users – they weren’t sucked into a disposable hook-up culture, simply because they weren’t interested in it. 

I asked several twenty-somethings in London (who, by the way, were not financiers or students) whether apps had changed dating, and most focused on how apps have changed the logistics of dating. One Twitter user argued that people date “with more frequency now” as a result of dating apps, but, referring to Sales’ slimy male interviewees, “emotionless preening dick-drones exist in every era”.

Matt*, 22, told me:

Dating apps have changed the pace of dating and romance. Everything is sped up, and things are expected to progress more quickly. If not, you've probably missed the boat, and your digital beau might have moved on to the next right-swipe that ticks their boxes.

Anna*, 26, however, argues that apps change something fundamental in the way we view our dates:

People have become less real and more disposable to each other – apps have dehumanised dating to a certain extent, with people falling for a virtual version of each other that can be easily replaced by countless other people at the swipe of a thumb.

This is convincing, especially as dating profiles are notoriously unrepresentative of the person behind them. However, it’s also true that in any fast-paced dating scene – among young professionals in any major city, say – the same effect is surely at play, as the next date could be waiting at the next party or bar. 

Take these two scenarios: in the first, you give your number to someone in a dark bar after a short conversation, then message for a while, and meet up for a date. In the second, you see a few badly lit Tinder photos, message for a while, and meet up for a date. Are these really so different that they could fundamentally change the way we interact with that person? 

One of Sales' particularly unapealling interviewees, 25-year-old “Alex” tells her: 

Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault. They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.

Do we really think Alex would have been a sensitive romantic if he'd been born 50 years ago? As with any other aspect of technology that has inserted itself into our daily life, it’s tempting to attribute social trends to the mode of dating, not the people doing it. But that’s giving technology too much credit: if people want a disposable dating culture, they’ll seek it out, with or without apps.  

All dating apps (or, frankly any apps) have done is give us easier access to what we wanted all along. If the results are unpalatable, that’s our problem, not Tinder’s.

*Names have been changed to protect respondents' online dating reputations. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Age verification rules won't just affect porn sites – they'll harm our ability to discuss sex

Relying on censorship to avoid talking about sex lets children down.

The British have a long history of censoring sex. In 1580, politician William Lambarde drafted the first bill to ban "licentious" and "hurtful... books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works that promote the art of lascivious ungodly love". Last week, the UK government decided to have another crack at censorship, formally announcing that age verification for all online pornographic content will be mandatory from April 2018.

It is unclear at this point what this mandatory check will entail, but it's expected that you will need to submit your credit card details to a site before being allowed to access adult content (credit cards can’t be issued to under-18s).

The appointed regulator will almost certainly be the British Board of Film Classification who will have the authority to levy fines of up to £250,000 or shut down sites that do not comply. These measures are being directly linked to research conducted by the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner and the University of Middlesex in 2016, which surveyed more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds about viewing online pornography and found over half had accessed it. 

Digital minister Matt Hancock said age verification "means that while we can enjoy the freedom of the web, the UK will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world". And who can argue with that? No sane adult would think that it’s a good idea for children to watch hardcore pornography. And because we all agree kids should be watching Peppa Pig rather than The Poonies, the act has been waved through virtually unchallenged.

So, let’s put the issue of hardcore pornography to one side, because surely we are all in agreement. I’m asking you to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just children who will be censored and it’s not just Pornhub and Redtube which will be forced to age check UK viewers. This act will potentially censor any UK site that carries adult content, which is broadly defined by the BBFC as "that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal".

I am a UK academic and research the history of sexuality. I curate the online research project www.thewhoresofyore.com, where academics, activists, artists and sex workers contribute articles on all aspects of sexuality in the hope of joining up conversations around sex that affect everyone. The site also archives many historical images; from the erotic brothel frescoes of Pompeii to early Victorian daguerreotypes of couples having sex. And yet, I do not consider myself to be a porn baron. These are fascinating and important historical documents that can teach us a great deal about our own attitudes to sex and beauty.

The site clearly signposts the content and asks viewers to click to confirm they are over 18, but under the Digital Economy Act this will not be enough. Although the site is not for profit and educational in purpose, some of the historical artefacts fit the definition of  "pornographic’" and are thereby liable to fall foul of the new laws.

And I’m not the only one; erotic artists, photographers, nude models, writers, sex shops, sex education sites, burlesque sites, BDSM sites, archivists of vintage erotica, and (of course) anyone in the adult industry who markets their business with a website, can all be termed pornographic and forced to buy expensive software to screen their users or risk being shut down or fined. I have contacted the BBFC to ask if my research will be criminalised and blocked, but was told "work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website". No one is able to tell me what software will need to be purchased if I am to collect viewers' credit card details, how I would keep them safe, or how much this would all cost. The BBFC suggested I contact my MP for further details. But, she doesn’t know either.

Before we even get into the ethical issues around adults having to enter their credit card details into a government database in order to look at legal content, we need to ask: will this work? Will blocking research projects like mine make children any safer? Well, no. The laws will have no power over social media sites such as Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope which allow users to share pornographic images. Messenger apps will still allow users to sext, as well as stream, send and receiving pornographic images and videos. Any tech savvy teenager knows that Virtual Private Network (VPN) software will circumvent UK age verification restrictions, and the less tech savvy can always steal their parents' credit card details.

The proposed censorship is unworkable and many sites containing nudity will be caught in the crossfire. If we want to keep our children "safe" from online pornography, we need to do something we British aren’t very good at doing; we need to talk openly and honestly about sex and porn. This is a conversation I hope projects like mine can help facilitate. Last year, Pornhub (the biggest porn site in the world) revealed ten years of user data. In 2016, Brits visited Pornhub over 111 million times and 20 per cent of those UK viewers are women. We are watching porn and we need to be open about this. We need to talk to each other and we need to talk to our kids. If you’re relying on government censorship to get you out of that tricky conversation, you are letting your children down.

The NSPCC report into children watching online pornography directly asked the participants about the effectiveness of age verification, and said the children "pointed out its limitations". When asked what intervention would most benefit them, this was the overwhelming response: "Whether provided in the classroom, or digitally, young people wanted to be able to find out about sex and relationships and about pornography in ways that were safe, private and credible." I suggest we listen to the very people we are trying to protect and educate, rather than eliminate. 

Dr Kate Lister researches the history of sexuality at Leeds Trinity University