Is Technology Making Us Sluttier?

People are worried Tinder is making us more promiscuous, just as people have worried about every technology ever.

Dec 4 2015, 1:00pm

Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr

Over the summer, Vanity Fair ran a feature naming hook-up app Tinder as a catalyst for the "dating apocalypse." Not long after, noted fearmongers AIDS Healthcare Foundation began running ads implying that use of Tinder leads to an uptick in STIs. The implication here is clear: as an app that connects users to a theoretically unlimited supply of willing sex partners, Tinder's transformed its users into remorseless sexbots interested in nothing more than securing their next hook up (and, apparently, too lust-crazed to remember how to use a condom).

It's easy to understand the appeal of this simple argument, which may explain why the same argument has been used so many times before, for so many different forms of sex-related tech.

A decade ago, Pamela Paul's Pornified argued that the then-nascent online porn industry was ruining our ability to enjoy committed relationships. Around the same time, Ariel Levy was similarly convinced that a rise in raunch culture had created a generation of "female chauvinist pigs." It's worth noting that a mere two years before Vanity Fair was wringing its hands over Tinder, the magazine was equally concerned about the destructive powers of social media-enabled sexting.

As a culture, we tend to be terrified of the perceived dehumanizing potential of both technology and sexuality. Social media and smartphones, we're told, are robbing us of our ability to forge genuine in-person connections with other human beings—to say nothing of computers, television, and telephones, which have all inspired their own degrees of tech panic.

Image: Margot Bowman for 15 Folds

Likewise, too much access to sex will supposedly render us into shallow, pleasure seeking simpletons incapable of making any kind of commitment to true human intimacy. And when tech and sex combine forces, we can't help but convince ourselves that the end result will be disastrous—presuming, of course, that you view having a lot of sex with a lot of different people as the definition of disaster.

Yet so much of our conviction is more about gut feeling than fact. We "know" that an app with the potential to enable a bacchanalian evening of endless anonymous sex will inevitably bring out our basest selves, so we're convinced we see that effect, even when it's not actually there.

And even if we are somehow more promiscuous than we used to be (and the jury is still out on that for now), there's no real way to tell if Tinder (or sexting, or online porn, or any other manner of tech) is actually the real root cause. As Dr. Debby Herbenick, a Kinsey Institute-affiliated sexual health educator, told me over email, "There is no real way to look at how 'technology' has changed partner sex [number]... since lots of things change all the time."

As smartphones have enabled discreet and easy sexting, and mobile dating apps have enabled on-demand sex, a number of other factors have changed about our daily lives as well. Which might influence sexual behavior? Herbenick cites changes in travel, relationship structure, population demographics, and public health as possible contributing factors in our ever-shifting relationship to sex.

Giving users access to to a number of potential partners doesn't automatically generate a sexual free-for-all

For instance: as the average age of first marriage has increased for both men and women (up three to four years since 1990), it's not surprising that the number of sexual partners we each have might increase. More time spent single could translate to more time spent playing the field, especially as social mores get more relaxed and liberal (the aforementioned changes in population demographics). But since it's extremely difficult to examine any one of these factors in isolation, it's hard to definitively conclude how big an impact any single one of them has had.

Which is not to say that technology or social changes don't have a direct effect on sexual behavior. It's just that the clearest correlations occur when those changes are directly connected to the sexual act itself, and not merely the more nebulous notion of potential access to more partners. As the founders of lesbian social app Her know all too well, just giving users access to to a number of potential partners doesn't automatically generate a sexual free-for-all. People who are interested in securing an endless succession of semi-anonymous sex partners usually find ways to do that with or without a smartphone (hello, bar pick ups); and those of us who are more monogamously wired won't suddenly become Lotharios simply because they suddenly realize more than one person might be willing to have sex with them.

But when the actual risks associated with having sex change, that's a different story. There's no denying that the invention of the birth control pill, which gave women the ability to control their fertility and engage in sex without fear of unwanted pregnancy, had an effect on sexual behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, the HIV panic of the 80s and 90s, which made casual sex a much more terrifying prospect for many people, had a chilling effect on some of the freewheeling behavior of the more sexually liberated 70s.

In fact, if there's any sex-related tech that's truly enabled the "hook-up culture" we've been bemoaning for over a decade, it might actually be the medications and treatments that have changed HIV from a terrifying death sentence to a manageable chronic condition. In the same way that mid-century antibiotics and contraception helped kick off the sexual revolution, better HIV treatments (as well as Gardasil, more advanced contraception, and that old standby, the condom) might encourage more libertine behavior by making sex feel safer than it did during the panic of the 1990s—but granted, that doesn't really make for the most compelling of Vanity Fair screeds.

Of course, none of this is to say that Tinder, or sexting, or online porn, or whatever libidinous technological advances are coming down the line don't have an effect on anyone's sexual behavior. The effect is just far more likely to be on the individual, rather than societal, level.

"What I see with my (college) students is that certain things—for example, Tinder or Grindr—radically change sexual behavior for a very tiny number of people but, for most people, likely have zero effect on their sexual behavior," Herbenick says. "So is there an effect? Sure, for a small [percentage] of people some of the time. But a large-scale population effect? Likely not."

A handful of anecdotes about slutty Tinder users contracting chlamydia might be enough to form the basis of a wide-eyed, hysterical trend piece. But let's not confuse that with an actual trend.