Sex by Wi-Fi: The New Frontier

The most recent issue of Vanity Fair presents an exposé on the "adult friend finder" app, Tinder. And the picture painted by writer Nancy Jo Sales is not flattering. Essentially, through a series of vignettes set in bars and other millennial generation hangouts, Tinder and similar apps are presented as the demise of Western civilization. According to Sales, male 20-somethings typically view these sexual hookup apps - let's call them what they really are - as part of an ongoing competition to see who can bed the most women, while female 20-somethings typically see them as, at best, a necessary evil if they want to date and eventually find a long-term relationship. It should be pointed out, however, that it does take two to tango, as depicted in this hilarious Tinderella video.

And yes, the good folks at Tinder have responded as any fully-fledged digital-age corporation (or 13-year-old girl) would - instigating a flame war on Twitter.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that this article arrives on the heels of a much-publicized security breach at Ashley Madison, where hackers allegedly acquired the names, passwords and credit card information of AM's 37.5 million members and threatened to release that information if the company did not immediately and permanently shut down. (In case you're wondering, AM is a hookup app that is very similar to Tinder, except is designed to help married people cheat on their spouses.) As of now, AM is still in business and the hack appears to be much ado about nothing, but still, we're talking about it, and the public as a whole (via mass media) is finally becoming aware of and therefore afraid of the ever-expanding digital hookup culture.

As a social phenomenon, I find this incredibly interesting, primarily because I've seen it before. For me, this began way back in the 1990s when my psychotherapy clients started telling me about their troubles with AOL chat rooms and online pornography. By 1999, I was seeing so much of this that I started speaking about it at clinical symposia. I even wrote a book that hardly anyone read. (An updated and expanded version, Always Turned On, was published early this year, and it's selling rather well.) So, despite my best efforts, the digital sexual phenomenon and its related problems remained largely underground until 2005, when I addressed the issue on Oprah.

With hookup apps, the latest digital sex craze, I'm seeing a similar time lag. After all, the first of these apps, Grindr (geared toward gay men), appeared in 2009. Since that time, hundreds of similar apps aimed at every demographic imaginable have followed. Tinder, the subject of the Vanity Fair article, launched in 2012. Unsurprisingly, I've been writing about and talking about these apps for several years, ever since my gay clients first told me about their use of Grindr. And, once again, the mass media has dawdled far behind. But now it seems we've reached critical mass and the hookup app seesaw has tipped from "underground" to "even my mom knows about this stuff."

Frankly, pushing these apps into the public eye probably doesn't mean all that much - except more people will start using them, and more people will start worrying about them. They will ask questions like the following:

  • Is my husband using these apps to cheat on me?
  • Is my daughter using these apps to have casual sex?
  • If I'm using these apps for hours every night, and having sex with a different person every day, does that make me a sex addict?
  • What should I do if I see my boss on one of these apps? Or my priest? Or my congressman? Or my grandma?
  • If I'm on one of these apps but I'm only chatting, not actually hooking up, am I cheating on my girlfriend?

In case you're wondering, the answers are: maybe, probably, possibly, run like hell, and yes. (I typically define digital age cheating as "the keeping of sexual and/or romantic secrets from an intimate partner.") Of course, the real question to ask is this: Now that the public is becoming fully aware of the existence, function, and ubiquity of hookup apps, how will people respond?

To be honest, I expect the general reaction will mirror, to a large extent, what we saw when information about sexualized chat rooms and online pornography finally broke big in 2005. Wives will start checking their husband's laptops, tablets and smartphones for evidence of cheating. Parents will leap to the worst possible conclusions about their kids' sexual behaviors. And a few people will develop problems related to their use of this technology - though the vast majority of users will incorporate these apps into their lives in healthy ways, just as predecessor generations healthfully incorporated the telegraph, the telephone, radio, automobiles, and the like.

Nevertheless, the media - like moth to a flame - is likely to report on only the bad elements of hookup apps (a la Vanity Fair). Lost in this shark-like feeding frenzy will be the fact that most people, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other factor, are using these apps to healthfully broaden their social horizons, to explore their sexuality, and maybe even to find meaningful intimacy with a long-term partner. In other words, the vast majority of the people who use hookup apps and similar technologies, as I wrote in my 2014 book Closer Together, Further Apart, will evolve with this digital tool, not only surviving, but thriving.

So, does this mean that I think hookup apps are the greatest thing since sliced bread and that everyone should use them because nothing will ever go wrong if they do? Of course not. I am simply saying that I remember the days when my parents thought TV and rock music were going to turn my brain into oatmeal. (I am happy to report that didn't happen.) In similar fashion, the hookup app fearmongering that we're going to see in the coming months and years, though not entirely without merit, will also be mostly sensationalistic and overblown.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. As a well-known expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among others. He is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships (co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information, please visit his website.