Emotional Health · Sex & Sexuality

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: Young Women, Dating Apps, and Sexual Hyperactivity

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

 

 

tinder-featured-470x360Image from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

 

Dear Dr. Ford,

I am really worried about my daughter. She is 31 and has probably had more than a hundred sexual partners. She is now on apps where she meets guys for “dates” and she sometimes leaves visits with her father and me because someone pings her on this dating app. I am terrified that she may be harmed by one of these men and worried sick about her exposure to infections. She has an IUD and I fear that she doesn’t always use condoms. I know about this only because she has let us know that she “dates” a lot and that it is common for “women her age to meet Mr. Right by kissing lots of frogs.”  

How do we find out if she has some kind of sexual hyperactivity? She was never abused sexually as far as we can know. Never exhibited any early interest in sexual activity. Was barely interested in boys in high school but then joined a sorority and became a frequent flyer at the frat parties  Since then she has done well at work but has no female friends and spends all her free time out on dates or working on her various dating sites.

Is this unusual? Is there anything that we can do?

Betty

 

Dear Betty,

I can understand your concern. There are so many levels on which your daughter’s behavior violates the rules of safety that have been ingrained in us, especially that strangers are potentially dangerous, and as parents we are always fundamentally concerned with this issue, no matter how old our children are. And yet much about the way men and women interact sexually these days seems almost purposely engineered to ensure that they meet as strangers.

If your daughter is 31, I am assuming you were born in the 1950s or ‘60s and things have changed a lot since then. The sexual “revolution” that began in the 1960s, ushering in changes in sexual mores and women’s liberation, was just the beginning. While casual sex became acceptable to many young people, it wasn’t until the advent of the Internet that people didn’t even have to actually meet each other to have sex. A recent article in Vanity Fair by Nancy Jo Sales describes the “hook-up culture,” which is facilitated by the apps your daughter uses, like Tinder and Hinge, described  in the words of one woman, as the “dating apocalypse.” 

Sales writes:

As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex. Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. “There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” he says. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet.”

I don’t know if this is the biggest change in 15,000 years or not, but it is definitely a new world, and few of the old rules apply. For one thing, it is doubtful that your daughter’s “busy” sex life is a sign of some kind of disorder like nymphomania. In previous generations having as many partners as she has had would have been a sign that something unusual, like hyperactive desire, was in play. These days, it is not necessarily so. Many young women feel that they are “entitled” to be as sexually unencumbered as men when it comes to these encounters. However, not all women are motivated by desire alone (or men either, in my experience) but by the sense that this is the way the “game” has to be played now. There is no “dating” anymore, in other words; if you want any contact with the opposite sex, you have casual sex and then you move onto the next person. That’s just the way it is. The recent film “Trainwreck” with Amy Schumer depicts this in a bittersweet scene early in the movie. The morning after one of these (routine) nights out the man calls her and she is convinced it must be a mistake because it is so completely unheard of for someone to call the next day or to want a second “date.” She thinks there’s something “wrong” with him that he does. Amy Schumer’s character has become so inured to the “once only” culture that she has convinced herself that this is all she wants too, though the script points to this as a defensive posture fortified by liquor and bravado.

This is played for laughs in the film, but there’s a subtext. The fact that sex and intimacy have become so “divorced” is bad for everyone, especially women, in my opinion. It is an intimate act we have somehow convinced ourselves is a casual act, but it leaves a lot of people feeling uncomfortable afterward. The fact that men don’t want to see women they don’t really know but whom they have slept with again may have more to do with this than lack of “respect”—being in such an intimate situation with a stranger is awkward for them too, just as it is for women.

Yet women are less able to “brush it off,” as they often left with a residue, quite literally, another reason why you are worried for your daughter. Many women report that men try as they might, it is hard to get their partners to wear condoms. Even mature, well-educated women who know better and have been warned by their doctors repeatedly take risks by engaging in unprotected sex. Since you think your daughter may be doing this, you should definitely confront her about the risks of her behavior, even if you have done so already. Be as straightforward as possible, focusing on the medical issues so she will not feel you are judging her. She may be more able to listen to your message that way.

Even though your daughter’s behavior is not necessarily unusual, it is part of a trend that is not positive for women, in my opinion. To quote one young woman from the Sales article, “It’s a contest to see who cares less, and guys win a lot at caring less.”  

Some of the men quoted in the article bragged about how many women they had slept with that week, and how little money they had to spend on each. (These men sounded like serious frogs, to use you daughter’s term—and whoever said it was a good idea to kiss a frog, by the way?). Another said he would never wind up seriously dating or married to a girl he met on Tinder, as if that were obvious. Just last weekend, I overheard three married men in their 30s discussing a male friend who had recently split from his girlfriend. One of their wives suggested he might want to meet someone new. No, the men, protested. “He’s swiping,” one said. When I asked what that meant, they explained that he’s on Tinder, “swiping” on his phone screen, looking for sex and not ready to actually meet someone, which is something else.

Sales writes:

Could the ready availability of sex provided by dating apps actually be making men respect women less? “Too easy,” “Too easy,” “Too easy,” I heard again and again from young men when asked if there was anything about dating apps they didn’t like.

Though some would argue with me, I don’t think it’s been empowering to women that their phones allow them to have sex with strangers. That the Internet gives people a wider range of opportunities to meet and share interests with others who might have previously been beyond their reach is generally a good thing and in many realms has been a force for positive change. But there’s a controversy raging right now about how social media, while helping people stay in contact with each other, may also be draining the intimacy from our lives (see the excellent book by MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other). I worry that your daughter’s behavior, rather than reflecting confidence and liberation, may be a sign of insecurity and unhappiness.

Another woman in Sales’ article said, “Sex should stem from emotional intimacy, and it’s the opposite with us right now, and I think it really is kind of destroying females’ self-images.”

I don’t know if it is possible for you to discuss any of these issues with your daughter directly or if you might be better off trying to have a more indirect conversation about her general level of happiness. Her activity does have an air of compulsiveness, suggesting there may be some kind of suffering behind it, and perhaps you should recommend counseling. Indeed, I think a great many young women are suffering today because of these trends. As I said, your daughter’s behavior is not unusual, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for her.

 

Join the conversation

  • LK December 3, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Are you sure she’s having sex with every “date?” Maybe she’s just meeting people!

    Reply
  • Douglas mcintyre December 3, 2015 at 7:10 am

    Well written, clear, and very well researched

    Reply