Friday, November 22, 2013

‘You can heal yourself with my cuddles’ – my weekend on Tinder, Part 1

A few weeks ago, the fabulous Stella Young started a discussion about Tinder on facebook. Tinder is the dating app du jour, and has been touted as the Grindr for straight people – a hook-up tool, basically. In her post, Stella, who is single, wondered what the Tinder experience would be like for herself, a wheelchair user, but could not quite bring herself to give it a go – she was too worried to attract creeps or to ‘bump’ into someone she knows on Tinder. This is possible, because Tinder matches you with people who are within a certain radius from each other, and, as you use your facebook profile to log in, also shows you mutual facebook friends or facebook likes.

As a newly-wed who isn’t that bothered anymore how many creepy guys are out there, or about guys who might reject me because of my disability, I decided to act as a guinea pig for Stella. One of my PhD chapters focuses on disabled burlesque artists, after all, so I am very interested in attitudes towards sex and disability. Way back when I was 14, I met my first boyfriend in a chat room (gosh I’m old) so I had some experience in online dating. I remember vividly how my-teenage self was in anguish every time I revealed my disability to a guy online – often after weeks of talking. Tinder is hugely different to those chat rooms: You get to flip through lots of pictures of the sex you are interested in, and press ‘like’ if you find someone attractive, and ‘nope’ if you don’t. If you want to, you can also read the person’s ‘tag line’ (quite often something very impersonal, such as ‘Don’t be shy, talk to me’ or ‘Your move’) or see additional pictures, but in reality you only engage minimally with those people at this point, and quickly move on to the next person. If you ‘like’ someone and they have ‘liked’ your picture too, you get a notification that there has been a match, and you get the option to start chatting. If someone does not ‘like’ you, you are unable to contact them and vice-versa, so in theory Tinder is very efficient and does not make you feel rejected. As all your matches live or work relatively close to you, it is then quite easy to arrange date, if you wish to do so. But how does Tinder work for people who are disabled? I was determined to figure it out, and so I spent a weekend on Tinder – with permission from my husband, of course.

Friday: I carefully choose the pictures to set up my Tinder profile. They have to fulfil three requirements: a) not make me look like a troll, b) show that I’m in a wheelchair and c) not have my husband in it or show me in a wedding dress. This proves to be difficult. I want it to be obvious that I’m in a wheelchair, but at the same time I don’t want the wheelchair to be the primary focus. Eventually I find three I can use – in all of them parts of my wheelchair is visible, but they also show off my face, my hair and my, erm, cleavage.
My Tinder profile picture
As I am flicking through the first 20 pictures or so of guys, I am positively surprised how attractive most of them are – this clearly isn’t an App for the desperate. I make sure I ‘like’ a wide spectrum of guys: Ones I find genuinely cute or interesting looking, and also ones that seem creepy, desperate or funny, judging from their picture. Within seconds I have about 10 ‘matches’, and I find it amusing and strangely addictive to flick through dozens of pictures, but I’m a bit confused – if all those guys like me, why is no one talking to me? I decide to be bold and say ‘Hi’ to two of them. Nothing. Stella informs me that her Tinder-savvy friend ‘NEVER’ makes the first move but waits for guys to talk to her, so I flick through some more pictures, ‘like’ another 50 or so (about half of the guys who come up), and then do something else for a bit.

Tinder is set up like a game – after you have been matched with a guy, you get the option to either start chatting, or to ‘continue playing’ – and what you play with are the profiles of other people, and their pictures. Tinder is extremely objectifying, but I wonder: As it only allows someone to approach you who you have objectified too, reduced to their profile picture, does this make it somehow okay?

I have a brief moment of 'uaaaaargh' when I come across the profile of an ex-boss of mine. His profile picture is a bare-chested selfie, where he is sporting his usual smug grin. His wife and children are not in the picture, of course. With some other guys I seem to share a mutual facebook friend here and there, but it doesn't bother me. I wonder whether it would bother me more to come across aquaintances if I was on Tinder to actually get a date, not just as a social experiment. I guess the same principle applies here as does to Grindr: The people you come across on it have engaged in the same act as you have, so you should feel equally ashamed, or both not ashamed at all. I also don't see why there should be so much stigma attached to it - Tinder seems like a relatively safe way to engage in what thousands of people do in clubs and bars every night. If anything, I think the facebook connection add a false sense of security - if I can, at least in theory, easily look this person up, and if this guy even is friends on facebook with that lady I once met at a gig 3 years ago, how dangerous can he be?

After about half an hour, I have about 5 guys talking to me. One of them greets me with the words ‘you are exquisite, Nina’. So far, the tinder experience is certainly soothing for the ego. Two of the guys I am talking to seem very eager to hook-up and suggest a blind date during the weekend. Both of them are roughly my age and fairly handsome. Dan* works in the city and our talk mostly consists of sexual innuendo, disguised in a conversation about coffee. Unfortunately he does take it all a bit too far when he compares his love-making skills to an extra-shot latte. Good luck with that in the future, Dan. I initially agree to meet Dan, and also agree to meet Josh, who is roughly my age but a bit taciturn. But all of this seems a bit too easy – neither of them has mentioned y disability with a word. Has our society changed so much since I am not on the market anymore? Am I that old? Has dating turned into a level playing-field? Become crip-indifferent? When guys have approached me in real life to chat me up, in at least 50% of the cases my wheelchair or disability comes up within the first 15 minutes, and I tend to be reduced to my disability. On Tinder I get reduced to my face (which apparently is 'nice' and 'sweet', according to some generous Tinderers), and my hair, specifically my fringe, which apparently classifies me as a 'vintage bird'. Oh brave new world, where my hair and my disability are of equal interest!

Another picture on my Tinder profile
Unsatisfied with the results of my ‘research’, I ask both of them: ‘Do you not mind that I’m in a wheelchair?’, and for a very brief moment, I feel 14 again. This bittersweet moment is interrupted with a message from Dan, saying: ‘No I am presuming that doesn’t inhibit coffee drinking, or anything else other than walking/stairs? ‘, and a minute later Josh informs me that he hadn’t noticed, but that he still wants to meet me, and am I free tonight? I rejoice at these indifferent attitude towards my disability, and dutifully inform them that I am married, on here for research but really grateful for their time. Both of them take this, as well, incredibly easy and wish me a nice evening or good luck with my research. During the next few hours, I have a few more contenders, and a remarkable amount of guys does not seem to register that I’m in a wheelchair. One guy stops talking after I ask him whether he minds my wheelchair, while two more ask me more or less directly whether it inhibits sexual activity, and when I answer in the negative, they are as keen as ever.

A very different experience I have with Conrad, who is 52 (and certainly not in the attractive/interesting looking category): Almost straight away, he tells me how great it is that I don’t let my chair ‘cramp’ my ‘style’. When I ask him what he means, he waffles on, saying that ‘it would be easy to let it define’ me so ‘it’s great’ I don’t ‘allow it to!! Thumbs up, smiley!!’ When I tell Conrad that his view is slightly ridiculous and offensive, he doesn’t get it, just as he doesn’t get the irony of what he says. Whatevs, on to the next one – Mike, 33, who greets me with a simple ‘Wow!’. At this point I am starting to feel strangely addicted to Tinder, so much that my husband, who is usually the most patient, sweetest guy in the world, is getting angry and tells me off, so I shut off my phone for the night. Grumpy husband aside, I really like Tinder and the ego boosts it seems to offer so far.

Check back for Part 2 of my Tinder experience in a few days! Have you been on Tinder? If so, how do you like it?