The man deficit is real, but Tinder is not the (only) answer

Has swiping right replaced Mr. Right?
Has swiping right replaced Mr. Right?
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In his recently released book, Date-onomics, Jon Birger explains why college educated women in America are so dissatisfied with their love lives. He writes: 

What if the hookup culture on today’s college campuses and the wild ways of the big-city singles scene have little to do with changing values and a whole lot to do with lopsided gender ratios that pressure 19-year-old-girls to put out and discourage 30-year-old guys from settling down?

What if, in other words, the man deficit were real?

(Hint: it is. According to Birger’s research, there are 1.4 million fewer college-educated men than women in the US.)

Birger’s theory—that today’s hookup culture is a symptom of demographics—assumes that today’s young, single men and women are all bouncing around in a box like hydrogen and oxygen molecules, waiting to bump into each other, form solid droplets and fall into solution. 

By the numbers, those left behind in their unmarried, single state will be primarily female.

His hypothesis is based on research done by Harvard psychologist Marcia Guttentag in the 1970s. Her work was published posthumously in 1983 in Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, completed by fellow psychologist Paul Secord. While Birger gives a perfunctory head-nod to Guttentag in the second chapter of his book and a shallow treatment of her work in his third chapter (he cites from her research: a high ratio of men to women “‘gives women a subjective sense of power and control’ since they are highly valued as ‘romantic love objects’”), he skims over the exciting and groundbreaking theory Guttentag formed before her death: that an overabundance of women in populations throughout history has tended to correspond with periods of increased progress toward gender equality. 

Instead of building on Guttentag’s research, Birger focuses on the distressing state of dating that college educated women participate in. He claims “this is not an advice book, per se,” but goes on to explicitly address heterosexual women, even providing his own suggestions in the final chapter—a list of five steps to game the lopsided market: 1) Go to a college with a 50:50 gender ratio, 2) Get married sooner rather than later—if you can find a guy who’ll settle down, 3) Choose a career in a male dominated field, 4) Move to Northern California—where real estate is more expensive than in New York these days, and 5) Lower your standards and marry someone with less education than yourself.

You’ll notice that this list is really only helpful if you’re a heterosexual girl choosing a college or a career. God help us if this advice replaces traditional high school and college counseling. Girls (and boys for that matter), go to a college that fits your financial needs and academic goals. And choose a career that challenges you and makes you happy. (I spent three years of my time as an undergraduate taking male-dominated science classes before I switched to English and had the best year of my life, both romantically and academically.) 

Since most people thinking seriously about relationships aren’t 18-year-old college freshmen, let’s talk about the reality of modern dating for young adults in America: Tinder, and other mobile dating apps. 

In Too Many Women? The Sex Ratio Question, Guttentag and Secord draw their theory from the historic effects of gender imbalances in sample populations and suggest it may be applied to describe behavior in future populations. But it’s not that simple.

Reviewing the study in 1985, sociologist Susan A. McDaniel called their hypothesis “the rudiments of a theory, which links macro-level ratios to micro-level behavior.” Then she quotes directly from the study, in which Guttentag and Secord admit that “the path from demography to social behavior is not well marked, and some turns are uncertain.”

As with most attempts to explain away complexity with a single theory, the cracks begin to show.

“The simple elegance of their causal models is confounding to sociologists and demographers schooled in multivariate explanation,” McDaniel writes of this oversimplification. 

In a day and age in which one in five people aged 25-34 uses dating apps and platforms, its effect on Guttentag and Secord’s theory is an important variable to take into consideration.

While Tinder doesn’t operate on a surplus of females in the population—in fact, more Tinder users are male than female—it creates a mentality that has a compounding effect on the man deficit: the commodification of people as interchangeable love interests, or sex partners.

“The way Tinder works is the way people tell us they see the world,” Tinder’s Chief Executive Officer Sean Rad told Bloomberg back in 2013. “They walk around, they see girls, and they say in their heads, ‘Yes, no, yes, no.’ ” 

The heightened visibility of a seemingly endless pool of singles of the opposite sex is a symptom of the internet. Online dating, which was originally responsible for hawking love through a website, inspired dating apps like Tinder.

In a 2012 study of the pitfalls of online dating, a group of psychologists found that looking through dating profiles creates a “shopping mentality” that encourages the objectification of potential mates.

“There’s the potential for online dating to produce a hesitance to commit to one partner,” Dr. Paul Eastwick, a psychologist who worked on the study, wrote to Quartz in an email. “I’d expect that it’s because people feel that there are a lot of options out there.”

In addition to the potential effect of a lopsided gender ratio, this mentality is undoubtedly at play in today’s dating culture. The effect of this type of dating extends beyond those who choose to date online. 

Susannah (not her real name), a 35-year-old single woman living in New York City, told Quartz, ”When I moved to New York 16 years ago guys would ask me out everyday—in the subway, in a coffeeshop. Now, that never happens. Guys can just go on Tinder on their phones where there are tons of women and there’s no fear of being rejected. It changed the dating scene.”

“It’s almost like you have to use a dating app now,” said Molly (also not her real name), a 21 year old student who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. “Everyone I know is on them.”

While Susannah’s experience of a drop in real-life propositions since the rise in online dating is likely compounded by the fact that fewer men her age are single—the median age for first marriage on the East Coast in the United States is around 30—in the case of under-30-year-olds like Molly, perception seems to matter more than the actual number of single men and women in the dating game. 

So long as one believes they are bouncing around in a box in which there are seemingly endless potential mates, mankind’s propensity to see the grass as greener will dissuade most people from staying together when the initial excitement of hooking up is gone. Hence the rise of hook up culture—and a good reason to get out of the box. 

Of course, just as it’s simplistic to attribute a cultural change in the dating landscape to a gender imbalance, it’s an over simplification to say this is all because of dating apps like Tinder. Americans are waiting to get married until later in life today. According to a 2011 report on marriage in the US, 84% of 25- to 29-year-olds had been married in 1960, whereas only 42% were in 2010. “The same trend has taken hold in most other advanced post-industrial societies,” the report says. This likely has contributed to an increase in hook up culture, as more people are spending more time dating now before thinking about getting serious.

But for those who are looking for a long-term relationship, it may be more important to get away from the objectifying “market mentality” perpetuated by Birger’s book and by dating apps than it is to move to Northern California, if you’re a heterosexual woman, or New York, if you’re a heterosexual man. Putting in the time and effort to look for relationships in ways that may not have the quick pay-off of Tinder, but that may have deeper rewards, is still an option. 

Alternatively, today’s young, college educated women can embrace the sexual freedom won by the “surplus” of women of the 60s and Tinder away, focusing on career development, equal pay and participating in the feminist progress Guttentag once ascribed to “man deficits” in populations throughout history.