Dating in your 20s is weird isn’t it; its full of awkward fumbles, misread texts and very possibly, an online date or two. There are now over 91 million people using dating apps worldwide and 18-24 year olds make up the largest cohort using them.
Unlike for our parents, apps like Bumble are at our disposal at all kinds of “defining” moments in our lives; from when we pop our cherries, to our first heartbreak. Understandably, many of us aren’t looking to tie the knot just yet, so perhaps our use of dating apps is not just about finding our match made in heaven, but also finding ourselves, discovering our sexuality - or as Kylie Jenner might put it, ‘realising things’ along the way.
While the string of matches flashing up on your phone on the reg may make you feel sexy and free, given that only one third of people on online dating platforms actually go on dates, you’d be forgiven in thinking that dating apps’ powers of realisation stop there.
Lily, 21, was initially sceptical of dating apps, telling me that, “I know it’s silly but with catfishing and that, I was terrified of being chopped up and put in someone’s freezer.” This is why she chose to use Bumble, an app which requires all users to validate their identity by taking a selfie on the app, which is then checked against their profile photos on the app.
She tells me, “Bumble’s definitely enabled me to do things. I realised I was at the stage where I did wanna have sex, not in a peer pressure way just I knew I was ready to and yeah, I met this guy who I felt really comfortable with and that’s how I lost my virginity.”
Lily says she has always been shy and is often unsure how to approach boys, “I’m more apprehensive initially with people in real life… I just always think it could be awkward to flirt or whatever but Bumble just gets rid of that awkwardness,” she continues, “I don’t actually think I would’ve had sex without it.”
A number of studies have shown that people feel more confident when interacting online, psychologist John Suler labels the ‘disinhibition effect.’ While the breaking down of our inhibitions can result in greater honesty, it can also facilitate rude or hateful language online, something Bumble are also combatting in their partnership with the Anti-Defamation League.
Dating expert Suzie explains that, “dating apps certainly help people who are socially timid gain the confidence they need to make those first moves and find love,” but she also warns that, “they will eventually have to go offline and meet people in real life so their online confidence can only take them so far.”
Lily tells me that since then, she’s been really feelin’ herself on and offline, “it made me feel more assured in my body and my sexuality, I’ve had sex with a couple of other boys since then and it does give you confidence to chirpse and hone your skills.”
Dating apps have not only had a role in heteronormative ‘losing your V’ stories, but also in many people’s first queer experiences. Anna, 23, explains that dating apps enabled her to re-think her sexuality: “I think I had always been bi-curious but there were no girls around me that were openly gay and that’s where Bumble came in. I met this girl on Bumble and with her was the first time I’d kissed a girl sober; we kissed in the cinema and at 8am in the morning at a bus stop, this was all new to me.”
Anna’s bi-curiosity might not be so rare, there are several studies suggesting that over 80% of women are sexually aroused by both sexes. What’s more, Pornhub data has revealed that women are 186% more likely to search for lesbian videos than men - although this may be more to do with the hyper-masculinity of the porn world than women’s sexualities per say.
Journalist, presenter and trans campaigner Paris Lees agrees that dating apps are increasing people’s openness to new things, “I’d imagine there’s be a curiosity for people to change their settings and think, ‘hmm…what would it be like to swipe on someone of the same sex’, you know, if you’re heterosexual.” This curiosity is augmented by the effortlessness of an app, Lees adds: “its easier for people to just download an app isn’t it than to walk into a gay bar which is how people would have done it back in the day.”
The sheer amount of profiles that the average app user swipes through per day means that you can’t not come into contact with people from diverse backgrounds- allowing us to step out of our, often limited, friendship circles. Emily, 24, who met her girlfriend on a dating app, tells me that she thinks they are fundamental to LGBT relationships, “it’s just a much smaller pool of fish in the real world…. I feel like you can’t always just come across gay people and especially gay girls, there’s always this game of like ‘is she gay’, ‘does she like me’, on so many levels.”
The overt categorisation of an app means its possible to avoid these uncertainties - and the inevitable embarrassment you’ll feel after shamelessly flirting with someone who’s straight (just me?). While we’re young, the ability to experiment without embarrassment is vital to working out just what we’re into.
Anna says that her experience “really opened up a window” for her: “that was two years ago and since I’ve had experiences with a number of girls and would definitely describe myself as bisexual, maybe one day I will end up with a woman.”