HOW DATING APPS KILLED LOVE IN LONDON

On an epidemic of Bad Romance

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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.

The Hookup #10

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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

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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

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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…

ES MAGAZINE: Is Scientology, the world’s most controversial religion, having a second coming?

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ES Magazine

In the days following the Grenfell Tower fire, when its blackened shell first stood out like a rebuke to the London sky, many victims took refuge at the Westway Sports Centre. Nearby, Scientologists dressed in yellow T-shirts pitched trestle tables and a huge yellow tent bearing the slogan of the Scientology Volunteer Ministers, ‘Something can be done about it’. They were offering massages to survivors.

‘I tweeted it because I was appalled,’ recalls The Guardian columnist, Dawn Foster, whose photograph of the scene went viral. ‘They had a lot of leaflets and were offering personality tests. People were shouting, “Why are you here? You’re parasites.” And, “Get out — pack up your tent”. I was there for about 10 minutes and saw about 20 people come up, all of whom told them to leave or shouted at them to f*** off. They were trying to defend themselves saying there are lots of Christians and people from the mosque, why shouldn’t we be here?’

But while other organisations offered food, cups of tea and clothes, at the Scientology tent victims were given not just water but leaflets, facemasks and a massage — delivered with one finger. Sarah Harvey, senior research officer for the Information Network on Religious Movements at the LSE, explains: ‘Part of what they were doing with the “massage” is what’s called an “assist”.’  This, she says, is ‘about their understanding of the human spirit’, which is at the core of the belief system developed by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1952. The Scientology Volunteer Ministers’ website, scientologyhandbook.org, claims these ‘assists’ can ‘help a person confront physical difficulties’.

Turning up in this way may sound like a desperate attempt to recruit new members — but the church’s involvement at Grenfell is something the media relations department for the UK church is proud of. It says that a team of 50 Scientologists were on the scene for more than two weeks. ‘We sorted many mounds of donated clothes, toys, etc, boxed them up and transported several tonnes of such boxes to storage facilities for distribution later,’ writes a Church of Scientology spokesperson, going on to add: ‘We gave out gallons upon gallons of water. We sourced hundreds of facemasks… Leaflets were on display describing free online courses on tools for helping others and specifically giving disaster relief training.’ A list of individuals who were ‘helped’ with ‘assists’ (including a Catholic nun) was also provided.

In fact, says Harvey, this is ‘something they’ve done for a long time’. In the wake of the 7 /7 bombings, for example, Scientologists offered police constables tea and biscuits outside Aldgate Tube station. But the headlines caused by their sudden appearance at Grenfell are not the first that the church has attracted recently.

Earlier this year, the Evening Standard revealed that 35,000 schoolchildren had been exposed to lectures inspired by Scientology, in the form of anti-drugs talks by an organisation called Narconon. At the time, hosts — including Camden School for Girls and Brecknock Primary School in Camden — said that they were unaware of the link to Scientology and that teachers supervised the talks, which focused entirely on drug awareness. Noel Nile, president of Narconon UK, rejected criticism, saying, ‘We’re in the business of saving lives. The lectures are not concerned with religion. They’re popular and successful because they communicate a clear message which is easily understood by young people.’

But Narconon is not the only Scientology front group apparently targeting young people. In July, The Underground Bunker, the website run by  American investigative journalist Tony Ortega, published an article claiming Scientology is shifting its strategy to make it all about ‘kids, kids, kids’. It pointed to a new website and social media platform allegedly set up by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an organisation affiliated with the church whose website describes its purpose as ‘providing information that a multi-billion dollar psycho/pharmaceutical industry does not want people to have’. Called fightforkids.org, the new platform promises to ‘use innovative technology to create a global movement of advocacy and engagement for the love and protection of our children’. A spokesman for the church said he was not familiar with the platform.

Last year, the head of the church, David Miscavige, 57, unveiled Scientology Media Productions, an ‘advanced, multi-platform, totally reinvented and restored motion picture and television studio’ in Hollywood. The church’s website describes SMP as ‘the nerve center spreading the church’s message to the world’. And according to The Times, in 2015, he also promised to make Scientology texts readable by more than five billion people.

Meanwhile, the church is investing heavily in real estate. This year alone, its website documents four ‘grand openings’ of vast Scientology buildings in Copenhagen, Miami, Auckland and the San Fernando Valley. According to the Emmy-winning HBO documentary Going Clear, between 2006 and 2011 the church bought 62 properties in locations across the globe. In London, outposts include an enormous church in the City established in 2006; the former office of its founder in Fitzrovia; and a shop on Tottenham Court Road, which could be mistaken for a palm reader’s from the outside but looks like a sleek airport store on the inside. It also has a luxury compound HQ at Saint Hill Manor in East Grinstead, West Sussex — once L Ron Hubbard’s personal home.

All this activity is notable since it hints at a revival after almost a decade of apparent crisis. In the UK, the church used to claim it had 118,000 followers. But during the last census in 2011, only 2,418 people described themselves as Scientologists — a figure dwarfed by the number who designated themselves Druids (4,189), Wiccans (11,766) and Jedi Knights (176,632). The church insists this number is misleading, saying: ‘Many Scientologists are also Muslims and Christians… Well over one hundred thousand UK residents happily receive our church magazines. So the census figure does not tell you very much — particularly when Scientologist was not even listed as an option. In the past year we have had more people attending our UK churches for services than at any time in our history.’

Yet, despite a starry following that reportedly includes Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Elisabeth Moss, star of The Handmaid’s Tale and Top of the Lake, recent years have brought a number of high-profile scandals involving allegations made about the church. In 2011, The New Yorker cited claims made to Florida’s St Petersburg Times about physical abuse allegedly carried out by Miscavige. At the church’s Gold Base compound in California, it has been claimed that senior members of staff were sent to ‘The Hole’ — a pair of trailers where they were made to confess day and night and fight over the right to remain. Previous claims of abuse had reportedly so concerned the US authorities that the FBI is said to have started an investigation into Scientology on grounds of human trafficking. Since religions and their practices are protected under the First Amendment, the investigation has since been dropped. The church has repeatedly denied both that any abuse has taken place and that ‘The Hole’ exists, insisting such allegations are unsubstantiated.

Then, in 2015, two films — Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and Going Clear — shone an unflattering spotlight on the organisation. The latter concentrated on the origins of the movement and the alleged experience of those, such as Oscar-winning director Paul Haggis, who have since left the church. It also focused attention on the mysterious creation myth at the heart of Scientology, which it broadly characterised as: 75 million years ago an evil extraterrestrial overlord called Xenu lured his subjects in for tax inspections, froze them, shipped them to Earth, stacked them up near volcanoes and dropped hydrogen bombs on them, transforming them into ‘thetan’ souls which now get into our bodies at birth. Only L Ron Hubbard’s teachings can help us master these. And that can be a costly business, as the money needed to buy his books and invest in expensive courses can rapidly mount up. Steve Mango, an actor, told Theroux that he had spent $50,000 on Scientology instruction between 2009-2012.

This last point makes the church’s appearance near the Westway Sports Centre all the more curious. The survivors were left so destitute they made unlikely marks for a religion associated with recruiting celebrities and raising money. The church insists its purpose there was ‘helping in any way possible to somehow alleviate the suffering by those affected and their friends and families’. Others suspect more cynical motives. ‘My view is it’s not something that they would want to do, other than the fact that it’s public relations and gives them a bit of kudos,’ says Graham Baldwin, a counsellor who has been observing the activities of Scientologists for the past 25 years. ‘It’s hard to see why they would do it for any other reason.’ For their part, the church stresses that ‘the only purpose of the Church of Scientology… is to help people.’

Certainly, if its aim was to generate positive PR, it failed. West Londoners were having none of it. ‘It’s actually a disgusting way to treat vulnerable human beings on that day,’ says Yvette Williams MBE, of the Justice4Grenfell campaign group. ‘It’s not the time and place for that.’