'What will people say?' Female empowerment and positivity in the dating app era
Tech has introduced dating apps, which have come into the world like a whirlwind of possibility, of wonder, of so many things we always wished for but never acted upon.
Suddenly, love isn’t an abstract, elusive fantasy. It’s here, a swipe away. Companionship isn’t the end of a long journey. It’s something in the palm of my hands, something as real as ordering in a meal.
All kinds of nurturing - that of the heart and the stomach - has become, more accessible (although still as difficult to feel my way through).
Yes, the ‘easy sex’ jokes were made (and the said sex was had), but these apps represent something very special. They represented a tangibility of what the amorphous, vague idea of ‘empowerment’ that we grapple with.
Women’s bodies, their sexual pleasure, the choice to actively look for it have been policed by not just active intimidation, but passive, insidious reminders of ‘log kya kahenge’ (what will people say?).
The shame, fear and confusion women have been conditioned to conflate their own desires to has created a paradigm ripe for exploitation. It’s easy to control someone by terrifying them into disowning a vital part of themselves.
It is this specific status quo that dating apps like Tinder have helped shake.
By allowing women to be active stakeholders in their own pleasures, for giving a structure to their desires, and by creating a framework in which they can demand respect and care on equal terms, these apps have created a lively, fast-evolving lexicon of human interactions.
By creating a brand new dictionary of how we choose to find companionship, these apps have created a fertile ground for empowerment.
Words have power, and simply the fact that a woman has a right to ‘swipe right’ for someone and choose them as they choose her is a powerful reminder of how far we’ve come.
I love the kind of empowerment they imply but it’s important to recognise it’s not a silver bullet. For every time I’m confident of making the first move, there’s a man sending me an unsolicited d**k pic.
For every fun, respectful date I’ve been on, I’ve had multiple people who I didn’t swipe right on tracing my social media accounts and harassing me.
For every truly wonderful conversation that’s left me warm and fuzzy, I’ve had to tolerate the brunt of how casually cruel people can often be.
‘Empowerment’ and ‘freedom’, while used as synonyms very often, mean different things. While dating apps empower women to make their choices, do women have the freedoms and protections required to execute these choices safely?
I’d say we’re not there yet.
Dating apps fit very neatly into the same roadblocks sex positivity often crashes into. The onus of being ‘forward’ lies with women without the environment around them being conducive.
Be frank about your wants and desires, and you’re labelled a s**t. Be reticent, or don’t make the first move, and you’re asked if you’re even a feminist.
Choice, at least for now, exists despite the world surrounding it, not because of it. Yes, some of us are better equipped than others to navigate this particularly treacherous terrain, but it doesn’t change the fact that apps operate in the same toxic structures that have already existed.
Technology has brought us closer, but it hasn’t questioned the chasm of caste, class, and conditioning we bring with ourselves to the said technology.
It is easy to say that this isn’t the problem dating apps are trying to solve. They are, admittedly, only mediums with little control over how they’re used.
However, I’m certain that unless dating apps force themselves to facilitate the larger, far more uncomfortable conversation about how they relapse into the patterns they emerged in retaliation to, they will not bring about the change they’re capable of.
All desire is deeply political, and dating apps, as the new guardians and facilitators of desire, will have to look beyond immediate realities to become pioneers in this deeply complex journey we, as people, now find ourselves on.
It’s a strange, unknown terrain - these apps have created the basis of an interrogation of all the status quos generations before ours couldn’t have imagined questioning.
All we have to do is to let them weave their magic. Love deserves to exist in its happiest, most gentle form. Maybe it takes a Tinder to light that particular fire.
Harnidh Kaur is a policy aficionado, poet and budding VC investor, She's an incoming Schwarzman Scholar at the Tsinghua University, Beijing.