Hooking up: Sex in the age of the Tinder and free pornography

How is technology changing our approach and attitudes towards sex, intimacy and relationships? Henry Oliver talks to psychology academic (and TEDxAuckland speaker) Pani Farvid about sex, intimacy, gender, pornography and Tinder.

Dr Pani Farvid is senior lecturer in psychology at AUT. Her research and academic career has centred around the intersection of gender, power, culture, sexuality and identity – largely focusing on how heterosexuality plays out in domains such as casual sex, online dating, mass media and the New Zealand sex industry.

Her current research is focusing on mobile dating and how technology is (re)shaping intimate relations in the 21st century. This week she will give a talk at TEDxAuckland about rethinking the binary gender model we have, questioning where it comes from, and exploring alternative approaches to gender and new possibilities for the future.

We asked how the internet (and its endless pornography) and Tinder (and its endless sources of possible partners) are changing sex, intimacy and relationships.

Dr Pani Farvid

You’ve done a lot of research into the way casual sex operates in our society. What impact do you think technological changes, broadly in terms of the internet and more narrowly in terms of services like Tinder, had on our attitudes towards sex?

There are a lot of different layers to that. There's the access to sexual explicit material, that's definitely changed over the last 20 years and it can't not have some ramifications with how you people learn about or understand sexuality.

Mainstream heterosexual porn tends to mostly be pretty sexist, misogynist and racist, and if that's what young people are using as sex education – boys and girls – before they're embarking on their own sexual experiences, I think that's quite alarming. Not all porn is the same, and not all porn is problematic – I have no problems with depictions of sex, sexuality or erotica – but it's the nature of the porn that's most popular, most heavily distributed and most accessible. Not only is porn heavily produced to look a particular way, because of camera angles, and all sorts of stylistic requirements of porn historically, it doesn't display what you might consider 'real sex' or what sex on the ground, between two people who are getting it on, might look like.

And the motifs that it tends to take are getting more and more extreme and more and more derogatory, things like spitting on the face, slapping, double or triple penetration, hair pulling, there's lots of domineering acts towards women. A lot of people are not aware that very mainstream heterosexual porn can be quite derogatory, and certainly geared towards portraying a very unequal view of sexual interaction and sexual conduct. It's filmed from the man's perspective and for the hetrosexual male user  - the male actor being the focal point and the female actor the person he does things to. 

Is that increasing extremity connected to increasing ease of access to pornography online?

Sure. The more noisy and cluttered the marketplace becomes, the easier it is to make porn and to download free porn, the more extreme the production gets – to get more attention. Anecdotally, looking at the history of porn, it's just progressively got more extreme and things that used to be considered niche or unusual have slowly entered the mainstream arena. And that has something to do with broader societal trends and the sexualisation of culture and a more focused emphasis on sex, sexual topics, sexual technique, sexual fulfillment, and the notion that everything goes as long as there's two consenting adults. But I would always consider under what conditions this happens and what are the choices available to us? Who are the actors and how much power do they both hold in society and then within the bedroom.

So with something like Tinder, do you think that's had an effect on the way sex operates at the moment or is just a new tool that facilitates the same behavior?

I think technologies like online dating, Tinder, other similar platforms, are mediating relationships and intimacy in a particular way. And with new technology, our society often either has a moral panic or think it's our salvation and lead us to liberation, and what I always find when I research these things is that even something like Tinder offers both.

Tinder offers increased connectivity in a fast-paced digital world where it's hard to meet new people. It gives you access to others nearby, so it can reduce loneliness, it can reduce that sense of disconnect that a lot of people associate with the increase in technology use.

So I think it has possibilities and potentials for creating freedoms, creating connections and intimacies, even if you're just after sex. But what I see within that particular arena, because of the social and cultural context we live in, broader power relations, and broader cultural norms also seep into that. Tinder doesn't exist outside our society. It's part of the culture that exists. So you so see sexism play out, you do see the victimization of women, you do see dodgy or bad things go on. And you also see gendered patterns.

Tinder doesn't exist outside our society. It's part of the culture that exists. So you so see sexism play out, you do see the victimization of women, you do see dodgy or bad things go on. And you also see gendered patterns.

One of the things I find quite astounding is, anecdotally, hearing the way men and women talk about it, some men just see it as a really fantastic tool to just to hook up, where women are much more like 'I'm not so sure, I'm really open to anything – friendship, one night stand, or boyfriend’.

We did some piloting at AUT last year and what we found was with some young women, it was a multi-purpose tool in their life - if they'd broken up with someone, if they were bored, if they just wanted human contact or sex. What was interesting was that when they used it, these old-fashioned, gendered patterns seeped in. They might match with someone but they would wait for the man to message them because it seemed too desperate for the girl to message first. Some of what you may consider old fashioned or outmoded approach to dating still remained.

And with digital modes of obtaining intimacy, intimate contact or sex, the thing that's most salient to women is their safety. That’s definitely not what’s most salient to men! They are not thinking I might get raped or die if I'm not careful. They might be like, 'is her photo real, is she going to look different?' That sort of fear is definitely there for women in a way that it isn't for men.

Has Tinder liberalised the society's view of casual sex? It seems like you get media reports every once in awhile about the death of intimacy and the pervasiveness of meaningless sex, and then you get a report claiming that the rates of casual sex aren't any higher than one, two, three, decades ago. People have always had casual sex, they just met at a bar...

I see a lot of those reports like 'Oh my goodness, dating apps are ruining intimacy and everyone is having sex with everyone and somehow this is going to destroy the planet or destroy us as humans’. Those are problematic moral panics and what goes on on ground is much more complicated.

Online dating's been around since the mid-'90s and it's always carried a stigma of being for the lonely and the desperate. And that's slowly been changing over the last five-ten years. Tinder arrived in 2013 and it just exploded. And that's fascinating. There's something there that's working for people. I think it's the brevity, the interface, the lack of commitment – you don't have to fill in all these long forms and so on. But whether it's changing patterns of dating, relationships, or sex, it certainly can't not be having an effect. The effect is not as big as people might make out. We've just done some piloting to start looking at the numbers and the patterns, so I’m only speculating at the moment, but it is something we’re starting to look at AUT.

One of the things that has come through in our research is that Tinder has a uniquely hybrid status. It’s not seen as online dating and it’s not seen as a social media app, it’s seen as something in between. Young people saw online dating as for older people, more serious people, more desperate people, not saying that's true, but it’s not a social media site where it was people you already know, this was a place to make new contacts and there was lots of opportunities for what could happen with those contacts.

The thing that makes Tinder unique is that you can meet someone online that you don't know and within 30 minutes be with them and engaging in sexual activity if you wanted to. That's pretty new.

The thing that makes Tinder unique is that you can meet someone online that you don't know and within 30 minutes be with them and engaging in sexual activity if you wanted to. That's pretty new. Tinder tries to market itself as more vanilla and wholesome - it's friendship and love and everything in between. They don't want to be seen as a hook-up app but that's sort of what it's seen on the ground, even though a lot of people end up having relationships out of their Tinder dates. But it's definitely increased access and opportunity for intimate contact, much more so than any other technology for a long time.

Sometimes people wonder if it's changing the pattern of relationships – will it make monogamous relationships or marriage decrease and I think we still have to see where Tinder sits in the broader cultural context. I think we have a very traditional romantic ideology of the nuclear family that is so strong and so entrenched so it'll be interesting to see if technologies like Tinder could dislodge that because I think people still hold that as an ideal. And I don't necessarily think it's a good ideal, but they just delay the process. So they might have some fun – date or do some serial monogamy or have some casual sex, but there's this psyche of eventually settling down, and I'm quite surprised how strongly that maintains its grip. And maybe that's slowly changing, but there's a lot of pressure, especially on women, of eventually settling down, having a family, and having that very hetronormative, hetrosexual, romantic dream.