'I Became Addicted To Dating Apps'

I'd always thought of myself as someone who would be just fine with growing older.

In my imagined future, ageing was fun. What a relief it would be to just put on a flowery sack dress and some sensible shoes and be done with all the trappings of trying to look hot. But let me tell you: I had some real problems with that scenario once it was actually time for me to start using readers.

Readers! How I hated all the "old people" words. How I loathed the not-so-subtle signs I was shifting into a new age bracket. It seemed like every time I went to the mailbox after I turned 50 there was another upbeat letter from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), reminding me it was time to sign up.

I couldn't even admit that I was going through menopause at first. I would ask myself: Did I leave these jeans in the dryer too long so they shrunk? It couldn't possibly be that I had put on some weight because I was going through "the change," as my mother's generation called it.

At the same time, I was writing a book that was in part about how society puts too much pressure on girls to be sexy. I never imagined I was falling into the same trap. But I was. And I was being ageist against myself. I just didn't know it yet.

Adding to my plummeting self-esteem, I had recently had my heart broken by a guy I'd been dating (long story; we met through work). I was way more upset about this breakup than it made any sense to be—I hadn't been in love with him, and he had once brushed his teeth in his car while driving, which you'd think would have been an immediate dealbreaker.

"Why don't you just go hook up with somebody on a dating app?" asked a bartender I know, adding, "that's what I always do."

I had heard about the easy casual sex that was available through online dating—I'd even written about it. But I didn't think it was something I would ever be interested in. How impersonal, I thought, and how sexist. Heterosexual dating apps, in my opinion, promote the objectification of women, in addition to numerous other challenges and dangers.

Unsurprisingly, my problems with online dating only grew as I started using it and became more familiar with the many ways in which I believe these companies exploit users for gain.

But there was one thing I wasn't expecting about dating apps when I first went on them: the interest of younger men. I wasn't matching with other 50-year-olds—I was matching with guys in their 20s, often early 20s. I would get messages with winky-faced emojis from guys named Justin and Zack and Tyler who were born in the years after I had already graduated college, been married and divorced. In their profile pics, they were standing around campuses, trying to look cool and nonchalant; they were holding up fish they'd caught. They were saying things to me like, "What's a beautiful woman like you doing on a dating app?"

I knew their lines were corny, and I knew I hadn't suddenly blossomed into Elizabeth Taylor, but it didn't matter. I started swiping more and more—and more—trying to get another dopamine hit from a match or a message from another guy named Jared or Brandon telling me how cute I was. I would tell myself, I'm just going to do this for twenty minutes, but then twenty minutes would become an hour, and then two. I started to ask myself, with some concern: Am I getting addicted to these things?

I was. Dating apps are designed to be addictive. They tap into our deepest yearnings and desires. And in my case, I guess, it was the yearning to feel young again.

Over the course of about three years, I went on dates with more than fifty guys—first as a form of distraction from my mid-life crisis, and then as research for my new book. I went on dates with hipster dudes and Wall Street bros, college students and guys struggling to pay the bills. I went on a date with a guy who rode a skateboard to come pick me up; it had a horny devil emoji painted on it.

I didn't stop to think too much about what in the world these guys saw in an older woman like me. I took a basic psychology course in college, so yes, I knew one possible reason (calling Dr. Freud). I had a moment of sheer panic when one of them took off his T-shirt and I saw there was a tattoo on his arm that said: "Mama."

dating, dating apps, relationships
Nancy Jo Sales became addicted to dating apps during the three years she spent using them. Jayne Wexler

Over time, it started to dawn on me that some of these guys were actually attracted to the wisdom and experience that an older woman can offer. I'd been so conditioned by my society to think that getting old was bad, I couldn't even see the regard they had for me as a woman who had accomplished some stuff. When I did see it, it moved me, and made me feel tender toward them.

Of course, this didn't excuse how they made me crazy when they didn't show up on time or didn't text me back. It didn't make up for the ways that many young men today—and older men as well—use dating technologies as tools for disrespecting women through sending harassing messages. In a recent survey, 57 percent of women aged between 18 and 34 said they had received unsolicited, sexually explicit images while online dating.

Sometimes people do much worse. Dating apps have a real problem with issues of assault and unwelcome sexual advances. One 2019 study found that around 30 percent of women reported being sexually assaulted by person they had met through online dating. These frightening statistics are simply not discussed enough.

Sometimes, I would call out guys for their bad behavior. As an older woman, telling off a man who had offended me was suddenly much easier for me to do. I was experiencing a growing sense of power, which I also didn't expect. Menopause has its drawbacks, but it can also come with great rewards. And one of those rewards is a sense of strength. Strength in knowing more than you ever did before. Strength in having survived. Strength in suddenly not caring anymore about what anybody says. I was doing something completely new at the time, making a documentary film, Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, which I don't think I would have had the nerve to undertake as my younger, less confident self.

At 56, I'm looking forward to doing lots of other things I've never done. And somehow I have no doubts that I can and will do these things. Maybe that's why our society tries to make women feel so bad about getting older: because as we age, we become more and more sure of ourselves, and increasingly powerful.

I've learned to embrace that in myself rather than be worried about my looks, or my age. And I can't say that some of those young men I met back when I was on dating apps didn't help me with this. Thanks, fellas.

Nancy Jo Sales is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Her new book, Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, is available now. Sales directed and produced the HBO documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.