Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

March 26, 2020   5 mins

Even as we are distracted by the pandemic panic, some things continue unabated. Romance, for example. We may not be getting up close and personal during this time of self-isolation, but people are still writing about it. It is one of our universal preoccupations. I have noticed something new, though, about more recent dating pieces — they are all accompanied by a hum of existential anxiety. Is online dating too superficial? Is it OK to approach someone in a bar any more? Has gender politics ruined it all?  There was always an element of angst to the dating game, but it really has been turned up to 11.

Zoe Strimpel, one of UnHerd’s writers, tracks this evolution in her fascinating new book, Seeking Love in Modern Britain. She aims to put the contemporary dating scene and all its tribulations in a historical context to try to better understand “the modern British single”.

Contemporary dating has, Strimpel acknowledges, “attracted extreme analysis”, when, in fact, Britain has a long history of mediated dating that stretches far back before the invention of smartphones. It’s typical of modern daters that they can’t see beyond the successes and failures that pepper their own personal sex-dramas, but from Lonely Hearts ads to personal agencies, dating services have enabled  “growing numbers of people without the community or other social and personal bonds to meet a partner” since as long ago as the 17th century, with a rapid upsurge in the early 1970s.

Dating is changing once again, largely thanks to smartphones — though at present it has been turned upside down by the coronacrisis. As isolation and lockdown prevent most people from going on physical dates, the dates themselves are migrating online. My roommate, an avid user of Tinder, will have his first virtual date over Skype this week. A surge has also been reported in the number of people (overwhelmingly men) viewing webcam sites, as people swap dates and hookups for pornography.

So as more and more attention is paid to modern dating and its discontents, it is fascinating to read about its sociological antecendents.

The rise of mediated dating has occurred against a backdrop of increasing singledom. As Strimpel notes: “Single people categorised as neither married, divorced nor widowed, accounted for 21% of the population of England and Wales in 1970, and 30% of it in 2000.”

As our lives have increasingly revolved around work, we have become keener to outsource the search for romantic felicity. In the Eighties Strimpel’s “busy Thatcherite professional” was someone with little time to casually peruse the singles market in person. So instead, they outsourced matchmaking to a new generation of entrepreneurs and dating experts who promoted their services with an incongruent mix of booming sales rhetoric and romantic idealism.

But while the professional side of the dating game may have changed beyond recognition, the human side hasn’t. As is shown by some of the responses to personal ads that Strimpel relates. One female user of personal ads said that “most” of the men she met:

“Were not working and hadn’t for a long time yet they told me they had really good jobs when we talked on the phone. Several turned out to be married. Two were alcoholics, one had been in prison for a long time and finally one of them stole my car as he turned out to be a crack addict.”

The book is peppered with interesting insight as it moves through the years. Who hasn’t “finessed” their online profile today?

Strimpel uses her examples to unpick the psychological effect of the dating scene, which is also shared over across the decades. She describes “a new type of emotional pragmatism” that has “normalised failure”, contextualising the grievances of some of contemporary dating’s malcontents. In other words, in order to function effectively in the new dating economy a person must detach the ego from rejection and accept it as a part of the game.

But this was always true of dating to some extent. In an offline setting — let’s say a bar — one reason that most men are incapable of approaching a woman (men are still expected to initiate these things) until they’ve consumed a vast amount of alcohol is the fear of rejection. The fear this prospect generates among men — referred to as ‘approach anxiety’ by men who study the dynamics of dating — is vastly disproportionate to the potential downsides: the worst that usually happens isn’t even rejection but indifference.

Yet ‘rejection’ threatens the ego’s sense of self. To be summarily dismissed by a woman may mean that a man can no longer view himself as attractive to women in general or a ‘catch’. Or put another way and from a woman’s perspective, “to find Mr Right you have to meet a lot of Wrongs first,” as one of Strimpel’s interviewees puts it pragmatically. This can be avoided in an offline situation by embracing a passive idealism that views romance as a question of predestination: one day you will meet ‘the one’ without the need to walk through the fire of repeated rejection.

Contemporary online dating is — to some extent at least — a rupture with this. As Strimpel puts it, the onus is on the individual — male or female — to “[reshape] the courting self as a self-fashioned product that would succeed or ‘sell’ based on the effort — emotional, psychological, physical — put into it”. In other words, rejection is ubiquitous so one had better get used to it.

This is especially true for men who are far less sexually selective than women — even popular men’s profiles on Tinder get far more rejections than matches (many men regularly report getting no matches at all). This predates the Tinder age and is rooted in biology. As Strimpel writes of the response to personals ads that appeared in Time Out magazine: “Female advertisers, particularly young ones, were ‘inundated’ with messages, while men received far less attention.”

Romance, like religion or political ideology, is a story, an illusion we foster in order to give life meaning and make it several degrees more tolerable. It is an evasion of the absurdity and ultimate futility of existence. There is no unconditional love — love outside a close family is always conditional — just as there is no nirvana, paradise or classless society.

Indeed, one reason contemporary online dating seems to make some people uncomfortable is its exposure of the inherent inequality of the ‘sexual market place’. As Strimpel writes: “Mediated dating, in exposing the context of love’s production, was not compatible with the retention of romantic idealism.” Contemporary dating has brought with it a greater degree of opportunity for some, yet as I noted in a recent article on involuntary celibates, this abundance of theoretical choice has merely entrenched a sense of scarcity for others: the opportunity to meet new people has in practice translated into an opportunity to fail harder and suffer rejection repeatedly.

Yet amid this ruthless perusal of the catalogue of potential matches, romantic idealism continues to purr away in the background like the hum of a refrigerator. “The mystery of the balance between pragmatism and destiny in contemporary approaches to love remains unresolved,” writes Strimpel.

I would argue that it is unresolvable. Online dating exposes the ruthless underlying dynamics of sexual attraction and, in the process, invariably strips away the idealism. One can become cynical about the need to ‘market’ oneself in order to outmanoeuvre fellow suitors, or one can embrace the potential for self-improvement that comes when one realises that one’s destiny is in one’s own hands, so to speak. Of course, for some this is easier than for others.

Everything in today’s world feels more uncertain, transitory and individualistic. Dating is no exception. The world of singledom is, much like the free-market economy, “inherently full of potential, and redolent of failure”, as Strimpel writes. One can reinvent oneself and develop strategies to succeed. And yet, as Strimpel notes: “In buying the chance to rifle through a range of options, the [modern] dater … also became one of many options to be rifled through and potentially dropped”.

The transformation in our dating lives thus loosely mirrors changes that have occurred in other areas of society in recent decades, most notably in the economy. If you are a winner then the rewards are potentially astronomical. If you are one of the unlucky ones however — conventionally unattractive, disabled, poor, elderly — this new abundance of choice can merely exacerbate existing feelings of personal failure. The fact that others appear to be thriving in this new reality makes the sense of not measuring up even harder to bear.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.