Forbes and Fifth

Gender Dynamics in a Digital Era of Mobile Device Dating Applications


With the introduction of social distancing and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, mobile device dating applications and social media platforms are becoming increasingly popular communication vectors. Characteristic of contemporary feminism is the affordance of synergizing digital technologies and feminist sentiment to strengthen collective feminist activism by “bringing people together and promoting connections that would not be possible outside the virtual realm” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 3). While both mobile device dating applications and social media platforms afford users agency and interactivity, a unique part of the dating application process concerns the safety of women when transitioning from virtual connection to physical interaction. “Women are more worried about the ‘real life’ interactions that occur as a part of the online dating process than they are about online conversations” (Pruchniewska, 2019, 102). However, the primary concern by women for their safety in ‘real life’ interactions is due to patterns of sexist behaviors within the male-female polarity that is established in society. Therefore, I argue that dating applications influence gender imbalance and reinforce gender hierarchies, drawing attention to the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment experienced by women. Additionally, in order to implement my background as a biological sciences student, I will describe how several ecological and psychological concepts in the context of human social relations guide the development of mobile device dating applications.

This feminist rhetoric is shaped and motivated by my lived experience as a woman and a user of different dating applications. Furthermore, the prevalence of a “problematic entitlement some men feel they need to exert over women in general” has inspired this research to focus on what it is like to be a woman on dating applications from a binary gendering perspective of male-female interactions (Tweten, 2014). In this paper, I do not intend to exclusively name or compare between specific mobile device dating applications’ interfaces as being “better” or “worse” for meeting users’ needs and expectations. However, it is important to keep in mind that the female perception of dating applications and their motivations for using the application may have perceived differences from the male point of view (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 2). Moreover, the efficacy of dating applications varies based on the user’s purpose for using the app, which often is not mutually exclusive and ranges from finding friends to finding sexual partners, both short-term and long-term (8).

Development of Dating Applications

            A fundamental factor for creating a mobile device dating application that promotes safety and gender equality involves considering the concerns and priorities of dating application developers. If the digital technology industry is dominated by men, then the patriarchal and capitalist power dynamics of application developers pervading the dating application experience and interface design must be considered. For mobile dating applications to be a space for women’s empowerment and gender equality, women must be involved in “the development of the interaction and interface, as users, as thinkers, and as developers” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 10). Since there are various mobile device dating applications all with similar and dissimilar features in their interface design, I will speak broadly about how certain aspects of the graphical user interface-designed interactions are involved in either reinforcing or challenging the traditional gender dynamic.


            Most mobile device dating applications are location-based. This concept is significant because a benefit of using dating applications is not only the convenience and efficiency to establish connections. But also, the intention of transitioning from a virtual conversation to an in-person interaction for both sexual and nonsexual relationships is another important factor. Creating a profile requires providing a name, sexual identity, and sexual preference. This aspect allows fertile ground for dating applications to challenge the traditional concept of the gender binary and heterosexual and monogamous relationships (Pruchniewska, 2019, 20).

            The superficiality and liquidity of relationships in connection with the “disposability of people” on dating applications arguably inheres “in the interface itself (not in the match system) of being excessively simple and based on appearances only” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 9). “The liquidity of relationships refers to the ease of connecting to and disconnecting from people”, which is afforded by the abundant availability of connections through dating applications (9). Although dating applications can seem “fun and playful for some users”, the concept of liquid love is exacerbated by the act of “picking or discarding people” rather than “choosing” within the match system (9).

Mate Choice Copying

Mobile device dating applications can offer an extensive preference setting and filtering system beyond the basics of age, location, and gender. By tailoring profiles to be based on a myriad of attributes such as height, education, work, hobbies, religious beliefs, etc., this additional information provided by both users presumably limits, but also contributes to the efficiency and convenience of the dating application process by increasing the likelihood of finding a compatible person. When considering preference settings and filtering options, an insightful concept that comes to my mind is mate-choice copying. Mate choice copying is a strategy that women use to acquire information of male traits that are difficult to assess through facial cues alone (Waynforth, 2007, 269). By copying the mating preferences of conspecifics, females indirectly assess male suitability for long-term relationships through observing the physical attractiveness of the man’s female consort. Hence, “copying patterns may reflect female mate-choice requirements that transcend cultures, such as the need for male investment in offspring” (269). Furthermore, women associate masculine facial structures with good genes and “high testosterone levels which promote mating effort” (269). On the other hand, “women prefer feminine male faces when not in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle and when they express interest primarily in long-term sexual relationships” (269). Further research into the identification of readily accessible “specific traits sought through mate choice copying” can be implemented. By which, this research can work in tandem with not only the preference settings and filtering options of dating applications, but also with everyday in-person interactions (270). However, unless dating applications incorporate other features such as an audio or video option in users' profiles to “support the presentation of the self”, then users are “mostly defined by appearance and interests” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 9). An aggravating factor of the objectification of women is if filters are based on mostly physical attributes, which can worsen the superficiality of dating applications. (9). The presence of filters reduces diversity and promotes a stereotypical standard of beauty in which women are taken as an object of uncontrolled male sexuality.

Sexual Selection

            A differentiation between how men and women use dating applications is arguable that women are more selective than men. In sexual selection, it is true that females are usually more highly selective (Pruitt, 2020). It is important to keep in mind that although less common, males can be equally or even more selective than females, particularly when considering factors such as parental investment, long-term commitment, life expectancy, ejaculate limitation, etc., (Pruitt, 2020). Consider the following example: on dating applications, there is abundant availability of connections, and therefore, females can afford to be more selective but also, female selectivity occurs when the consequences of making a mistake are high. The “consequences” that women experience on dating applications entail sexual harassment and non-consensual sexual advances. Consequently, on dating applications, women’s selectivity is motivated by their feeling of needing to “maintain their comfort and safety – and being selective in swiping is a way of avoiding men who could potentially be harmful” (Pruchniewska, 2019, 91). While a verification feature on some dating applications can help ensure users are not being catfished, this feature mainly confirms compatibility based on attractiveness and does not indicate whether the user may be sexually explicit without consent or aggressive (92). As a result, the verification feature does not do much for women’s safety. Discerning key characteristics of users’ profiles such as their types of pictures or biography content can provide insight into their personality, particularly their “proclivity towards sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances." And, they serve as indicators of other relevant traits such as intelligence, narcissism, and social status that help to aid the efficiency of the overall mobile device dating application process (91). For example, a vegan or vegetarian filter may be desirable because “for some people, even diet counts because it is for them a matter of conscience” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 9).

Multimodal Signaling

            In inter-sexual selection, females favor a multi-modal form of communication because it makes it more difficult for an incompatible person to fake appearing compatible (Pruitt, 2020). For example, the multi-modal signaling that female birds look for in potential mates is visual, auditory, and tactile cues due to the fact that evolutionary pressure in courtship leads incompatible males to try to forge all cues in order to appear compatible (Pruitt, 2020). Just as birds have identified cues to expose an imposter, in human interactions males, and females can similarly discern cues to look for in both virtual and “real life” interactions. Determining the most reliable cues to consider, are usually the ones that are hardest to forge.

Adaptive Behavior

            Women demonstrate adaptive behavior through both consciously and unconsciously learning how to avoid experiencing sexual harassment in uncomfortable and dangerous situations. This issue is analogous to a predation concept called aposematic coloration, in which certain colorations or markings serve as a warning to potential predators that a species may be poisonous (Carson, 2020). Experimental studies have shown that predators learn to recognize the color patterns of unpalatable prey (Carson, 2020). Thus, aposematism presents a role reversal in terms of the concern of safety experienced by women on dating applications in male-female interactions. Apart from this, mimicry is when species mimic color patterns in order to avoid predation. These species benefit from learning the experiences of predators with unpalatable species and thus, species avoid predation by adopting similar warning colorations in order to resemble other unpalatable species (Carson, 2020).  Although mimicry varies by region, when species become nearly identical in appearance, looking at behavioral traits becomes crucial. This ties back to the concept of mate choice copying and the ultimate challenge of identifying perceivable traits that can indicate the qualities of a compatible person. When aposematism is applied to human interactions on dating applications, some “warning signs” may be the types of pictures in someone’s profile such as gym pictures, low-quality pictures, group pictures, or even tattoos can be an aversion or possible indicator of whether the person is a compatible match or, more importantly, whether the person may be sexually aggressive (Pruchniewska, 2019, 91). For example, in profile pictures where men wore sunglasses, “sunglasses were deemed to be not trustworthy because you could not see the person’s eyes” (92). To summarize, both men and women take part in “weeding out the wrong types of” people (92). Therefore, both males and females can adopt these strategies and take precautions by considering a myriad of indicators in a user’s profile and in everyday interactions, which help to prevent negative experiences.

Classical Conditioning

            The concept of classical conditioning governs the matching mechanism of many mobile device dating applications. Classical conditioning is when “the body learns through repetition how to be rewarded” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 8). In the cases of match systems involving “liking” or “swiping” on users’ profiles, the matches that result from a mutual “liking” represent “a positive reinforcer that would incite users to keep swiping to get more rewards” (Lopes and Vogel, 2017, 8-9). Mobile device dating applications that do not show if someone “liked” a user until that user rates the profile him or herself, providing user privacy and an increase in user confidence and self-esteem by avoiding direct rejection through a positive feedback cycle.

Sexual Entitlement and Sexual Harassment

            The positive feedback that a matching system provides through reciprocity combined with an unlimited number of “likes” to give out, can result in a high volume of matches. This idea foreshadows themes of rejection such as petulant and derogatory comments, harassment, and even violent threats when a user does not respond or responds with rejection. This response exposes “a broader societal issue of gendered misogyny and entitlement” (Shaw, 2016, 2). In addition, a fixation on the objectification of the female body is “motivated by ressentiment”, which leads “to the desire to exert power over others” (5). At the root of disregard for consent and consequently “an increase in the likelihood of sexual harassment, assault, and rape” is the concept of sexual entitlement (2). Sexual entitlement is the “(conscious and unconscious) beliefs shown in behavior and statements that one feels they are entitled to sex” in which both men and women can experience (2). Since “harassment specifically in the form of sexual advances from strangers is a gendered phenomenon: women, particularly young women, experience online sexualized abuse much more frequently than men”, I will specifically be discussing male sexual entitlement (Pruchniewska, 2019, 79). 

        Men display no concern for consent by sending unsolicited sexually explicit messages such as “dick pics”, as well as threats that notion rape and assault (Shaw, 2016, 4). This behavior highlights an increasingly common problem of gendered vitriol being “legal because it is online” (5). To not only help deter sexual harassment and to close the gap between what is considered “a crime in person, but not online”, in 2019, Texas became one of the first states to criminalize sending unsolicited nude pictures on several platforms including dating applications, text messaging, and emails (Closson, 2019). Furthermore, “women are arguably being made into sexual objects while being simultaneously denigrated for having sexual agency and the ability to choose, reject, or not to respond” (Shaw, 2016, 5). This lack of respect for women prompts the need for dating applications to adequately assess and enforce harassment policies to provide a safe space for women.

            Dating applications that only allow women to start a conversation after matching can be perceived as women’s empowerment by also inverting the “strongly-held cultural assumption” that men should make the first move (Bennett, 2017). This feature affords women more control in their interactions with men. In addition, “because a woman reaches out first, the man doesn’t feel rejection or aggression – he feels flattered” (Yashari, 2015). However, the “woman messaging first” feature only mitigates initial harassment and spamming messages that women could otherwise receive if anyone could message first (with and without first matching).

            Since dating platforms are available to anyone, even convicted criminals and sexual predators, this emphasizes safety concerns. When transitioning to “real life” interactions, women take precautions such as meeting in a public place, having pepper spray, or telling friends who they are meeting and where they are planning to be. Whether users that are reported and blocked are banned from the app is at the discretion of the dating application’s developers. Yet, “blocking these men is just a short-term fix to this phenomena” (Shaw, 2016, 5). To maximize the chances of finding a compatible person, people can use more than one application at once. This practice is evident through seeing an overlap of the same profiles across different applications. Therefore, the unmatching, blocking and reporting options are less effective when users can easily make another account either on the same application or a different application to continue their harassment. Dating applications can serve as mediators to help women maintain their safety by monitoring reports, listening to feedback, and providing an interface design that encourages gender equality. But can safety ever be guaranteed in a system that plays “matchmaker”? Ultimately, the onus disproportionately falls on women to maintain their safety through a series of choices they make in their everyday lives to minimize the risk of harassment and assault.

            For women “to navigate existing inequalities, to resist subordination in a patriarchal society, and to, practically, stay safe in their day-to-day lives”, using social media platforms to share experiences of sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression on mobile dating applications is a strategic every day feminist practice (Pruchniewska, 2019, 14). For example, the feminist campaign on Instagram, Bye Felipe, is a space for intensification that displays a collection of discourses to demonstrate a repetitive discursive pattern of sexual entitlement and harassment that women have received from men on dating applications (Shaw, 2016, 2). By making the scale of gendered and raced aspects of harassment in mobile dating applications publicly visible, common threads of misogynistic and entitled behaviors can be discussed by both men and women in the context of contemporary feminism.


In summary, mobile device dating applications can reinforce and reproduce sexist patterns, which are evident in how women experience discomfort and harassment in male-female interactions in dating applications and in everyday in-person interactions. Interactions afforded by the interface design on dating applications are shaped by society and also in turn shape society. In order to form a more holistic understanding of how dating applications are used as an extension of traditional gender dynamics and also women’s empowerment, it is important to also explore the male perspective as well as non-heterosexual interactions. This notion also requires a deeper understanding of people’s preconceived ideas for using dating applications, such as their motivations, expectations, and concerns, which can vary across different cultures and genders, particularly underrepresented groups which include women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, etc., (Pruchniewska, 2019, 27). It would also be insightful to further explore campaigns similar to Bye Felipe, which cultivate “a space where contemporary anxieties about safety and risk, publicity and privacy, and individual and collective shaming play out” (Shaw, 2016, 2). Overall, the affordances of mobile dating applications and social media platforms serve as extensions of gendered behavior which can be strategically challenged by both men and women in order to promote the development of equality. 






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Volume 19, Fall 2021