HOW DATING APPS KILLED LOVE IN LONDON

On an epidemic of Bad Romance

Image

In London, love is dead.

Tinder killed it and Hinge is dancing on its grave. If the classic romcoms were set here today, When Harry Met Sally would be called Sally Never Met Harry (because she swiped right past him). Likewise, Bridget Jones’s Diary would be the tragic tale of a single woman who dies and ends up half eaten by Alsatians (as Darcy’s search filters were set to ‘non-smokers only’). Meanwhile, William Thacker wouldn’t be able to afford a cup of tea in Notting Hill let alone the rent on a bookshop that movie stars wander into — and even if a starlet was standing right in front of him, asking him to love her, he’d be too busy on Bumble to make eye contact.

The impact of dating apps on romance in the capital couldn’t be more catastrophic. If you see someone you like the look of in a bar or on an overcrowded Tube carriage, the absolute last thing you do is strike up a conversation. Being rejected — especially publicly — is not an option for a generation who grew up hiding behind computer screens and you don’t want to be accused of MeToo-ing anyone. Now when you lock eyes with a bona fide sex god/dess, all you can do is hope to God that Happn’s location services will pick them up and they’ll match with you. In London, the best-case scenario, romantically speaking, is to be  asked for your Snap so you can ‘chat’. Hardly a kiss under the clock at Waterloo station. 

In theory, online dating sounds so glorious. With a population of nine million, any single person in the capital should have thousands upon thousands of beautiful strangers whose hearts they could pierce with OKCupid’s arrow. But in practice, it’s bloody horrendous — dating apps don’t facilitate love, just lust. They’re like Deliveroo for satisfying our sexual appetites, so much so that ever increasing numbers of us now see staying celibate while spending more time with our mates as the most desirable thing on the menu — as far as our souls are concerned. For the whole of my 30s, I’ve been ‘benched’, ‘breadcrumbed’, ‘catfished’, ‘cuffed’, ‘curved’, ‘cushioned’, ‘fizzled’, ‘ghosted’, ‘haunted’, ‘stashed’, ‘submarined’ and ‘zombied’.

Last year, I was dumped — not once but twice — by a man I met on Hinge who I had (silly me) become terribly keen on. Maybe I should write and thank him. After murdering whatever hope remained within me that I’ll ever find a man to adore me who I’m matched with by algorithm, at least it meant I got a hell of a lot done. 

On the face of it dating apps are incredibly popular. In the UK, six million people are expected to use them this year. Then, every eligible Londoner will have at least three on their phone. The monopolies of Grindr and Tinder — which moved fastest and broke dating in the early 2010s — now seem out of date, responsible for a hook-up culture which has spread like a contagion from New York to London.

Meanwhile Bumble, Happn, Hinge and all the rest bill themselves as modern matchmakers each with their own gimmick in the game. On Bumble the woman must message first (it’s billed as ‘feminist’ though I can’t see how forcing one sex to make all the effort helps in the slightest.) Happn shows who you crossed paths with; Hinge’s ad campaign says it’s ‘designed to be deleted’ once you find your match. But of course you can always download it again if things don’t work out. And that’s all that happens. You get a bit excited, meet a guy, two days later, you’re like: ‘Oh, never mind.’ Again and again and again. 

After seven years of binge and bust, I no longer know what the hell the point is and like most long-term singles, I suffer in silence. And I’m not alone. About 56 per cent of adults view dating apps and services either ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ negatively according to one online survey, with 36 per cent of Brits claiming they’d prefer to meet their next partner face-to-face.

While researching my next book, Love In Late Capitalism, I collated a chorus of complaints about dating culture today. Everyone I spoke to who’d come off apps had reached their breaking point — whether they’d contracted a sexually transmitted disease from someone ‘who ghosted me while I was waiting for the test result from the doctor’, because all their ‘dates were just so, so, so dismal’, because ‘I’m fed up of always being flaked on at the last minute’ or because ‘you talk for several years and they never want to meet up at all’. It’s the feeling that it’s a complete free-for-all that most gets daters down. One woman became hopelessly dispirited after she agreed to two dates on one day and the men concerned turned out to be living together and that was a hashtag too far’s worth of awkward. ‘Dating apps suck balls,’ concludes my 31-year-old BFF who has never had a boyfriend but not for want of wanting one. According to him, heterosexuals have it easy. ‘In 2016 alone I went on 146 dates… Three stood out as men I could have imagined building a life with but as ever, they just weren’t that into me, and who can blame them? Who wants to have their cake and eat it when they could have the whole bakery?’

‘The fact is, most dating apps are not designed to be deleted,’ says Nichi Hodgson, author of The Curious History Of Dating. ‘Instead they want to retain you as a user for as long as they can muster, with around two years being the goal for many. In that time they expect you to date several people you meet through the app — returning every time each encounter sours to look for the next person on whom to pin your hopes.’ 

Even I’m not immune. About once every three months I succeed in stewing my brain in enough vodka to block out the memory of whatever-the-last-one’s-name-was and tell myself in the mirror: ‘If you don’t try you’ll never meet anyone.’ I then download Bumble (for the 387th time) and send message after message to any man who has a kind face who’ll disappear from my phone forever if I don’t talk to him within 24 hours of ‘liking’ each other.

Increasing desperation exacerbates the problem. You start to notice how, in the capital, romance has been annihilated. Say you do get a date. Are you enthusiastic about it? No. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results. Are you really supposed to believe that, if you keep at it, Mr Right will appear if you’ve spent 20 years of your life encountering endless Mr Wrongs? I always get confused when married people say they’re going on date nights. I can’t think of anything lovelier than never, ever having to go on one again. 

If your next big birthday’s 40, most of your dates go like this: you turn up, take one look at each other, something inside you says, ‘nah’, and it’s over in two drinks. You know you’ll have a better night if you take an early bath. 

That’s if you’re being polite, however. My last date wasn’t. The second he saw me the spark was extinguished in his eyes. Mid-way through staring at Helen Sharman’s space suit in the Science Museum, I realised he was standing at a distance from all the exhibits with his arms crossed. ‘Do you want to get something to eat?’ I suggested, as he steered us towards the exit. He did not. 

Not so long ago, you could assume that you were in some sense special. That the person you met would treat you like a human being with thoughts and feelings, not like an instantly replaceable avatar in this never-ending game they’re playing on their phones. But today, searching for love in London isn’t the way it used to be. A decade ago if you wanted to be treated like a piece of meat you could go to some sweaty club and snog someone random. But if you were seeing someone you had to be nice to them. Usually you met them in your local pub, they were a friend of a friend, you worked together, or shared something in common: like a bus route or a building. This meant you couldn’t just get rid of them on the click. If you acted badly there would be consequences, social opprobrium or a sense of shame. 

But now, the second someone does something ‘a bit off’ the whole situation gets snuffed out. Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about what I do wrong and the trouble is I’m insecure and send batty texts when I get nervous. Once upon a time a mutual friend, relative or co-worker would have been on hand to say: ‘Oh yes she’s mad as a coot but terribly sweet if you get to know her.’ In the age of the app, there’s no one to vouch for me. 

It isn’t just the men who are behaving badly; women can behave terribly, too. Forty-three per cent of all daters admit to lying online. If a date is a bit dull you can always spice it up with: ‘What’s the worst date you’ve ever been on?’ Everyone you meet will have a litany. The most appalling story I’ve ever heard was from a gorgeous man I batty-texted into submission who said he’d once gone on a date and the girl got so drunk she started racially abusing a waiter in an Indian restaurant and insisting he didn’t deserve a tip on top of the bill she wasn’t paying. 

While a man would never write on his dating app profile, ‘must be nine stone or lighter’, women rarely think about how awful it must be to read height requirements that basically equate to: ‘Don’t even talk to me if you’re short.’ One man I met admitted he never usually got anywhere because he was bald. 

Even one-night stands are too much commitment; Londoners are fond of the ‘half-night stand’. When I was promoting my first book, I was invited on to the Millennial Love podcast in which listeners wrote in with their dating stories. One young woman complained that she’d had a man over, bought him a pizza, given him an orgasm, paid for his Uber home, and thought this was all perfectly fine — until he couldn’t muster the manners to text her to say thank you. Something inside me screams, ‘We can’t go on like this!’ It is madness to treat people with so little respect. For me, apps don’t work. So I am now concentrating on meeting people the old-fashioned way and being much more patient. Trying to build up friendships first. Since I always sabotage by text, I write emails. When I get invited to parties, I don’t stand in one corner, I do as Jane Austen advised and take a turn about the room. A friend of mine asked everyone she knows to set her up on blind dates. She’s met a lovely man and is taking it very, very slow. 

Finding true love has always been hard, Hodgson insists. ‘When it comes to finding love, remember that modern dating apps are a capitalist enterprise focused on solving not the love problem, but the money problem,’ she advises. ‘They have commodified love like never before, and commodification is the killer of romance, which needs genuine attention, vulnerability and then just an ounce of calculated dare to thrive.’

In my 20s, before dating apps had been invented, I had boyfriends. Real ones. Not pseudo sort-ofs who pop up once a year, dangle the prospect of boyfriend-hood over my head like mistletoe and then scarper three seconds after I’ve slept with them. I try not to blame myself, say, ‘It just wasn’t meant to be,’ but I won’t be downloading dating apps again. Frankly, I’d rather be off them and die alone. There’s more dignity in that.

What Would Bridget Do?

IMG_4387.JPG

When I was young, I thought Bridget Jones was a joke. Ha, ha, I thought, what a load of bollocks, as she chain-smoked her way into Colin Firth’s boxers. But ever since I turned 30, to my horror I realise it is all true – with added déjà vu – because it is all happening, right now, to me.

Every man you meet is an emotional fuckwit. (If they were ever in the mood for love, they’re taken already.) Your boss will try to sleep with you. (And you lose your job afterwards.) Old friends, post the Pinterest perfect wedding, at which you got unacceptably drunk, are now smug marrieds and treat you as if you have a disease you might transmit to their husbands. You spend the whole Christmas period having to explain to everyone back home why you are still single – as if it is your fault and you have done it on purpose to spite them. And in reply, you never have come up with a line better than there are so many single girls nowadays ‘because beneath our clothes, our bodies are completely covered with scales.’

The only difference between Bridget and I, really, is that Bridget had hope whereas I can’t recognise the meaning of the word. If you’re single, aged 35, everyone seems to think you haven’t tried hard enough. Whereas what you’ve done is tried so hard for so very long you’d rather curl up and die than face a date with yet another Tits-Pervert.

Sometimes, when I’ve cracked open the prosecco at 3pm on a Tuesday, I get to thinking I might cheer myself up by buying that card they used to have in Scribbler which reads: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.’ That could be my motto. Why does no one recognise this as a signature achievement? Akin to being crowned runner-up in the Great British Bake Off. Or winning bronze in a bout of synchronised swimming.

It seems as if, every week, I lose another comrade to pregnancy. You’ve always shared everything so now she’s holding forth on the state of her discharge, intent on becoming a baby-making machine for 2019, and limbering up to breastfeed in public with great gusto. She gained a ‘hubby’ and lost all sense of proportion. Soon, she’ll stop speaking to you. Because you stop calling her. You’re so grossed out by the updates on the ‘quality’ of her cervical mucus. 

Yes, you like babies too. But have no means of begetting them. And seized by that strange lust, feel a desperate urge to smoke. When you’re so asthmatic that’d be suicide. You keep wanting to write to Helen Fielding and demand: What Would Bridget Do? For it is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Darcy is nowhere to be found on dating apps – so what on earth…?

I need such advice because the worst thing about being the reincarnation of Bridget Jones is feeling so alone. Socially – and culturally too. We have no single icons – save Fleabag – who is the married person’s wet dream of what single girls really are, underneath (so desperate and demented they’d do anything up to and including fucking their BFF’s man.) And Lena Dunham – who, I maintain, despite many howls to the contrary, just isn’t funny. And I read the whole of ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ so I know what I am talking about. It was no doubt Lena, and all her indepth accounts of the inner frothings of her vagina, that created the fashion for such grotesque confessions.

Yuck, I grimace, with a savage shudder. In 2019, we still single bastards need a new Bridget for the Tinder age. And so perhaps it is time to imitate her real achievement: consoling herself by writing it all down. Sod it, since I am her, I may as well take control of my life. And start a diary.   

For more tales of Bad Romance come back on Sunday night or click here

BETTER TO START YOUR OWN MODERN FAMILY THAN WAIT FOR ‘THE ONE’

IMG_3053

When I was a girl, my mother stuffed my head full of fairy-tales and the most fantastic of them all sounded quite banal at the time. It was about how families are made. One day (she was quite adamant) I would meet a man and love him so fiercely I’d want to make a tiny version of him in the form of a baby. We would all live happily ever after. The End.

For the past 20 years, I expected that to happen. Never questioned that it would. But now I find myself on the precipice of 35, when (according to NHS Choices) my fertility begins its dramatic fall. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the very concept of a ‘soulmate’ is a hysterical joke played on the over-romantic and hopeful. It’s probably time to admit to the realities of the 21st century — where dating apps breed only casual sex, not screaming bundles in a crib. Like ever-increasing numbers of frustrated singles worldwide, I must get creative, joining the ranks of those creating new modern families.

Today, babies can’t always be made in the traditional way — for all sorts of reasons — but we are not admitting defeat. Some have enjoyed the full fairytale effect (falling in love, getting married) but with someone of the same sex, so a third party’s sperm or eggs are required to complete the domestic picture. For women, this can be relatively straightforward. Intrauterine insemination costs around £800 to £1,300 at a fertility clinic. It is successful only 22 per cent of the time, but lesbian couples have been making babies this way for decades.

For men, it’s much more complicated, because a surrogate is needed. The non-profit agency Brilliant Beginnings, which has helped create 800 families since it was founded in 2013, claims that £12,000 to £15,000 is ‘the going rate for UK surrogacy arrangements’. IVF is successful only 40 per cent of the time — and that’s among under-35s — so costs can escalate very rapidly.

As a result, many modern families try to incorporate the biological parent into the set-up — which is a lot less expensive, at least in a financial sense. Agencies such as Modamily facilitate co-parenting relationships with strangers, or some people reach more informal agreements with friends and family. In 2015, for instance, the TV presenter Mary Portas revealed that the child she was raising with her lesbian partner (the baby’s genetic mother) was fathered by her brother — meaning there was a genetic link on both sides.

One 31-year-old single, straight man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told me that he is setting out to become a ‘known donor’ for two old friends — one of whom he met at high school, and her lesbian partner of eight years. After joking about the subject for several years, they are quite set on the idea. The baby will very much have two mothers as parents — he does not intend to co-parent and compares the process he is now engaged in as akin to donating blood.

‘They’re going to be much better parents than I can imagine myself being,’ he explains. ‘The idea is that I’ll be a godparent/semi-uncle — involved in the way I would be in any of my close friends’ kids’ lives growing up.’ But if it is a boy, he adds, ‘maybe there’s going to come a time when he’d have questions from a male point of view’. To save money, the trio are adopting a DIY approach. ‘I’m synced with ovulation cycles so I’m going over there to the bathroom with a mooncup to make the donation. It’s not quite a turkey baster, but it’s not far off.’

It’s not just gay people who desperately want children and are casting around for such inventive strategies. It’s singles — particularly single women — in their thirties and forties too. In our twenties, we’d meet up and drink too much wine, discussing our troubles with lovers. Now we obsess about babies. How we want them. How we’re afraid we won’t be able to have them.

We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we are not mad or selfish. That it is very natural to want children. That it is OK to feel overwhelmed by the sudden fierceness of the need, because it is built into us to ensure our survival, like feeling intense hunger if we’re in danger of starving. That since the UK birth rate has plummeted from 2.4 children to 1.8 in recent years, it is even quite important that we do.

One friend is working so hard thanks to her recent promotion that she has no time to date and is looking into freezing her eggs. This strategy is so popular among high-powered career women that companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google offer this service as one of the perks of working for them. Another friend — a highly successful journalist — has given up on dating because she never meets eligible men and is talking through making baby plans with her very supportive mother. Two more friends — both in their mid- to late thirties — are going through the agony of failed cycles of IVF.

You might think that we are not romantic but we’re probably far more romantic than most. Despite the odds, we’re still holding out for the right man. We all tell tales of those who compromised their ideals in order to get married. Women who ‘want it all’ are frequently lambasted in the right-wing press.

But those who settled for half or a bit aren’t necessarily any happier. Two parents may well be better than one — but the ONS currently estimates that 42 per cent of marriages fail, and the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce isn’t an ideal atmosphere in which to raise children either.

In this context, co-parenting presents a possible solution. The Stork is a new agency that matches people who want to be parents for a fee that costs less than ‘a new car or a mortgage’ — or a divorce. It was founded by businesswoman Fiona Thomas to bring together those no longer prepared to keep gambling that if they only hold out long enough they will eventually find ‘The One’.

If you’re a woman in your late thirties, Thomas explains, ‘there are four outcomes. You can meet someone perfectly naturally and it’s all fantastic and wonderful. You can try to meet someone through an [agency] like mine and end up co-parenting. You can meet someone and it’s the wrong person — and you’d be amazed how many people do that; the large proportion of people on their wedding day who think, “I know this isn’t exactly what I want, it’s probably not quite right, but I’m doing it anyway.” And the fourth option, of course, is to do nothing. You get to 50 and you’re playing with your nephews and nieces.’

There are more single women alive today than at any point in history. And though we might have given up on men, we’re not all prepared to surrender our hope of a baby. The women who use her services, Thomas says, are bright, attractive and successful. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened for you doesn’t mean you’re some kind of freak or reject,’ she insists. ‘It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everybody’s got a story about why it hasn’t happened to them, and it doesn’t in any way indicate failure.’

The conclusion is that we can’t all have the fairytale endings. But that’s OK, because those creating new modern families know there’s an opportunity to change the narrative. Our stories aren’t over yet.

The Hookup #10

Style

I had been WhatsApping the hot American for a month when he finally suggested we meet for a modest cup of tea on Sunday (time and location TBC). He gave me seven days’ notice. As I’d let my work slip, I put my phone in a pot so I wouldn’t watch it. He didn’t message me. I didn’t message him. And I thought, sod this — I’m not bullying him into it. So we never met at all.

I should just move on and find some new and unsuspecting chap. But I’m fascinated by the fact that this hunk of a man expended so much time messaging me without any ulterior motive.

Carrie-style, I sit at my laptop, hair maddened with bewilderment, fingers flying across the keyboard, typing: “I couldn’t help but wonder, has the joy of sex been replaced by the thrill of text ..?”

The Hook-Up #9

Style

They say a watched pot never boils. I’ve never been bored enough to try it. But I can tell you for sure that if you stare at it, an iPhone doesn’t ding — no matter how furiously you do so.

I was hoping for a text message from a hot American I had been determinedly pursuing via WhatsApp. But it was not forthcoming. So I called Nichi, the dating guru who introduced me to the Inner Circle, the app where I’d found the American. She sidestepped the real issue — my sending an overaggressive text message demanding the boy meet me for a date or else — and instead invited me to the app’s après-ski party in Soho. “Bring your girlfriends,” she said.

So I called my only remaining single girlfriend and invited her along. Alas, my SG is even doomier about her prospects than I am about mine, so the moment she turned up she declared that every man in the entire vicinity was dressed like he was going skiing; that they were, therefore, all complete berks and we should just go home…

The Hookup #8

Style

After six weeks of wheedling and prevaricating like a teenage girl desperate to get out of PE, there’s nothing for it — I’ve started dating again.

So far it’s been like taking on an unpaid second job: the hours are long, the terms are bad and I’ve developed repetitive strain injury in my thumb from all the swiping right for yes and left for no. I swipe all day. I swipe all night. Even in my sleep, I swipe through my dreams…