Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People, speaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the third of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page.
‘“Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive in New York. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”’ This is a quote from ‘Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse”’ a 2015 article from Vanity Fair, and it is both a good example of modern attitudes towards sex and the media’s love of headlines that capitalize on them. But is it true that the way young people are forming relationships now are apocalyptically bad, or is this just a lazy stereotype?
Michael Castleman in Psychology Today claims that ‘every generation comes of age in a burst of sexual exuberance that includes casual sex their elders find unsettling’ arguing that semantics are the main generational difference when it comes to dating and relationships. Castleman lists how the expression “a roll in the hay” came about in the early twentieth century to describe the practice of couples using barns, then the “wine, women, and song” became the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll” of the sixties. So is there anything unique going on here?
‘I was always very shy, and I felt scared to walk up to someone I was interested in… that was when the idea started. How can we figure out who likes who, or who around me likes me, without having them put themselves out there? You save yourself from an awkward moment.’ Believe it or not, that courageous statement comes from the co-founder of Tinder Sean Rad.
One way that the dating landscape definitely changed was with the advent of online dating, followed by the dating app. Tinder is the app dominating the conversation around modern dating and it has a simple methodology. Their site describes it in three words: swipe, match, chat. You are presented by a photo and profile of someone nearby, you swipe right to like or left to pass, if two people swipe right it is a match and then the messaging can begin. Sounds harmless enough right? With its fast pace and social media style design, Tinder has become huge, used in over 190 countries seeing 1.6 billion swipes per day, 1 million dates per week and over 20 billion total matches since it came on the scene in 2012.
As Rad puts it, this formula does do away with the awkward moment, even the question of ‘do you want to go for a drink sometime?’ and therefore with the potential for early rejection. Also, as it can affirm physical attraction upfront being based on photos, its reputation has become that it is an effective tool for quick ‘hook-ups’. This speed to the dating scenario is new and Simon Sinek believes it plays to the normalisation of immediate gratification among younger people. ‘You want to watch a TV show, binge. You don’t even have to wait week-to-week-to-week … You want to go on a date? You don’t even have to learn how to be socially awkward on that first date. … Swipe right – bang – done!’
Another element Tinder brings to the dating world is that of gaming. On matching with someone the app tells you to either send a message or ‘keep playing.’ When speaking to the founders of Tinder, Time Magazine discovered that they had, ‘modeled the original stack of potential matches’ faces after a deck of cards. When playing with physical cards for inspiration, their natural urge was to interact with the top card by throwing it to the side. Thus, the iconic Tinder swipe was born. “Nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something,” Rad said. “They join because they want to have fun. It doesn’t even matter if you match because swiping is so fun.”’ If the medium is the message then this is likely the reason why the app seems to summarise ‘hook-up’ culture, in its overt messaging and in its inception, Tinder has always treated dating foremost as a game.
The declining rate of marriage is news to no one, but in recent years we have seen the never married younger generations overtake the married which is a fairly game changing. Dr Paula England, a Professor of Sociology at New York University who compared data from the U.S. Census 1950-2000 and the American Community Survey 2001-2015 concludes that ‘the change started about 1970. In that year, 80% of 25- to 34-year-old Americans were married. By 2015, only 40% of this age group were married.’ As the figure shows, by 2015 the never married population of this age range outnumbers the married by 10%.
There are many arguments as to why this decline is happening among young people, economic hardship being a big factor. However, Dr. Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas puts forward a compelling argument that the easier it becomes for younger generations to find sex, the less they are drawn to marriage.
In ‘Cheap sex and the decline of marriage’ for the Wall Street Journal, he writes, ‘These forces have been at work for more than a half-century, since the birth-control pill was invented in 1960, but it seems that our norms and narratives about sexual relationships have finally caught up with the technology. Data collected in 2014 for the “Relationships in America” project—a national survey of over 15,000 adults, ages 18 to 60, that I oversaw for the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture—asked respondents when they first had sex in their current or most recent relationship. After six months of dating? After two? The most common experience—reported by 32% of men under 40—was having sex with their current partner before the relationship had begun.’’
He goes on to hypothesise that without the practice of earning a sexual relationship by bypassing the process of dating, younger generations are growing up in a culture that does not encourage self-sacrifice. He posits, ‘Many young men and women still aspire to marriage as it has long been conventionally understood—faithful, enduring, focused on raising children. But they no longer seem to think that this aspiration requires their discernment, prudence or self-control. … They (women) are hoping to find good men without supporting the sexual norms that would actually make men better.’
So bypassing dating or starting a relationship after sex may have normalised, but that is not to say that the traditional date has disappeared. In fact, when they compared their extensive 2005 data to their 2015 data OkCupid coined the phrase ‘casually conservative’ to describe the cultural shift that they detected. They found that ‘People are 19 percent less likely to consider sleeping with someone on the first date compared to ten years ago, with significant drops in every gender and orientation. Only one in four straight women said “yes” compared to almost 50 percent in 2005 … At this point, we’re wondering how in a culture where casual sex is commonplace, online daters are less interested in it.’
The same survey however revealed a rise from 30% to 48% of people no longer believe that there is such a thing as too many sex partners. This led them to conclude that ‘people are more conservative when it comes to sex just for sex, but less so when it comes to number of partners. Call it casually conservative or conservatively casual, we’re refining ourselves.’
But could this actually be caution rather than conservatism? In response to Dr Regnerus’ cheap sex hypothesis for the decline of marriage, Rose Hackman of The Guardian countered strongly ‘watching half of our parents’ generation get divorced was probably not the biggest advertisement for marriage.’ Another detail that OkCupid unearthed was that there was an 11% rise in people who thought you had to sleep with someone before marriage, again indicating a cautiousness around the long term commitment actually countered by being sexually active with your partner before hand, perhaps in a kind of insurance mentality.
This conservatism or caution is also affirmed by an unprecedented study into adolescents in recent times called, ‘The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016’. Jean M. Twenge and Heejung Park, the researchers behind this study drew from ‘seven large, nationally representative data sets (N = 8.44 million) that have surveyed U.S. adolescents (ages 13–19) since the 1970s ,1980s, or 1990s and into the 2010s, allowing the comparison of several generations of young people.’ The scale of this work unearthed that, ‘in recent years, fewer adolescents engaged in activities rarely performed by children and often performed by adults, such as working, driving, going out, dating, having sex, and drinking alcohol. The declines in these activities were relatively recent, primarily appearing since 2000 and were considerable’.
In detail, they found that, ‘By the early 2010s, 12th graders went out less often than 8th graders did in the early 1990s … Twelfth graders in the early 2010s went on dates about as often as 10th graders did in the early 1990s. Having sex went from being the majority experience for high school students (54% of 9th–12th graders in 1991) to the minority experience (41% in 2015; see Figure 3). The declines in having sex were largest for 9th graders and smallest for 12th graders.’ The decline in these adult activities were found across all demographics leading the researchers to conclude that these trends ‘a broad-based shift over time.’
These results are in keeping with what is known as life history theory, a theory that dichotomies the development of adolescents into fast life strategy and slow life strategy. Fast life strategy would be doing adult activities, maturing and becoming independent sooner, slow life strategy the opposite. It also proposes that ‘exposure to a harsh and unpredictable environment during child-hood leads to a faster developmental path; conversely, a more resource-rich and predictable environment leads to a slower path.’ Essentially, tough lives make people become independent and mature faster. The study went on to ultimately conclude that the majority of the upcoming generations are more comfortable in material ways and so are slower to start taking up the practices we associate with adulthood, notably in this context, dating and sex.
This shift has led to two camps, camp one stating that therefore new generations are more responsible and camp two which would say that they are simply more boring. However, the study addressed both camps saying, ‘these ﬁndings do not, on the whole, support the idea that adolescents have become more responsible, virtuous, or boring (and thus perhaps more like adults). Instead teens are engaging in fewer adult activities and growing up more slowly (and are thus less like adults). Crucially, life history theory argues that neither the slow or fast developmental path is inherently good or bad; instead, each is a response to the social context’.
Whether you call them casually conservative or a generation with a ‘slow life strategy’, it is clear that young people are not as “free love” as perhaps you would suspect. It is as if this generation is more aware of the consequences of committed relationships, and are hesitant of them.
As dating culture has shifted to be more immediate and less meaningful, the Christian ideal of self-sacrificial love shines all the brighter. To this end, Simon Sinek rounds off his point on gratification with a twist. ‘Everything you want, instant gratification. Except, job satisfaction and strength of relationships – there ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes.’ Even though Tinder would remove the uncomfortable and the opportunity for rejection, that is also where the self-sacrificial happens, and that is the greatest thing that we can encourage. We need to further model self-sacrificial love to people who at some point will want to move from dating as a game and sex for fun to commitment, but who have not been practicing the ability to give of themselves. That love is more than the emotional and the sexual, if it is to be sustained it has to be built on the habitual giving of self.
And even in this dating climate, love is still ultimately interesting to the human person and that has not waned. OkCupid found exactly the same statistics to the question ‘Regardless of future plans, what’s more interesting to you right now? Sex or Love?’. In both 2005 and 2015 it was a 25% Sex, 75% love split. The vast majority, in the present moment, are looking for love. In fact, Match, the parent company of Tinder, found in its 2017 survey of five thousand single Americans that ‘45% of singles who’ve been in a Friends with Benefits relationship have had it evolve into a real relationship.’ Nearly half. So when Aaron Rad claims that ‘Nobody joins Tinder because they’re looking for something. They join because they want to have fun’ he’s more than a little off the mark.
But this is not surprising if we understand the biology and neurology of love. Helen E. Fisher and her team of researchers at Rutgers University addressed the three chemical processes typical to relationships in ‘Lust, Attraction and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction’. In short, each of these can be characterized biologically by its own set of hormones: Lust (sex drive) – testosterone and estrogen, attraction – dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and attachment – oxytocin and vasopressin. Whilst Fisher acknowledges that ‘these emotion systems can also be expected to be closely interrelated and to work in concert with one another’ she also states that ‘During the evolution of the genus Homo, these emotion systems became increasingly independent of one another, a phenomenon that contributes to human mating flexibility and the wide range of contemporary human mating and reproductive strategies.’ However, that does not mean that we do not still yearn for the balance of those three elements, demonstrated by how so many causal relationships become serious, we were naturally made to attach ourselves to each other. But, as these are separate systems, this explains why ‘hook-ups’ can work independently but leave a dissatisfaction – the systems are not working ‘in concert’, we’re missing the attachment element… the violin section from our orchestra if you will (because violins are romantic).
In truth, the Church has had perhaps the most countercultural, prophetic voice on this topic for decades in St. Pope John Paul II’s ‘Love and Responsibility’ and ‘Theology of the Body’, preaching the ideals and the balance that we all search for. Whereas the word ‘chastity’ typically is a joke among younger generations, conversations around objectification and respect are surging in the wake of #metoo and the Church’s philosophical resources are increasingly relevant. Young people perhaps just need to hear that they have serious inherent dignity and that they are worth both commitment and self sacrificial love.
And for other further reading, check out the following links:
The Surprising Truth About Modern Hook-Ups by Michael Castleman M.A.
Lust, Attraction, and Attachment in Mammalian Reproduction by Helen E. Fisher
Cheap Sex and the Decline of Marriage by Mark Regnerus
Inside Tinder: Meet the Guys Who Turned Dating Into an Addiction by Laura Stampler
Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse” by Nancy Jo Sales
The Decline in Adult Activities Among U.S. Adolescents, 1976–2016 by Jean M. Twenge and Heejung Park
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