Lots of desire but little love

December 23, 2018

What Tinder reveals about dating in Pakistan

Lots of desire but little love

Once you get past the lewd, misogynistic comments and the dime-a-dozen types who go silent after a handful of messages, it’s hard to sum up what trying to meet people through Tinder is like in Pakistan, but here’s an attempt. You’re 34 and you match with someone who seems perfect -- goal-oriented, well-travelled, handsome in a rugged way: he says he wants something serious and you spend two hours talking the first time you meet, but when you rave about him to a friend, she looks him up on Facebook and finds a picture of his wedding. You’re 23 and in a relationship that isn’t going well -- you download the app because someone you met while couchsurfing told you to, not knowing that you’ll swipe right on a man you’ll marry within a couple of years. You’re a 20-year-old woman who swipes right on another woman, but after talking for a while you figure out that it’s a man posing as one. You’re 27 and swipe right on someone with a book you love listed in his two-sentence bio -- you have dinner, once, and spend the following afternoon in your neighbour’s house because they’re away for a few months and left you the keys. You’re 21 and swipe right on a boy who is home for the summer from another city -- it lasts until he leaves to go back, after which he stops answering your calls. You’re 26 and someone you have matched with comes over late at night -- when you’re done he says you’re the first man he has ever been with and asks to pretend like you don’t know him if you see each other in public.

Stories like these are in no short supply as a rapidly growing number of people (particularly in the country’s biggest cities) are downloading and using Tinder, a location-based dating app through which you swipe right/yes or left/no on people after a quick flick through a handful of their photos. It’s worth mentioning that Bumble (different because women have to send the first message in heterosexual matches) is also becoming popular, but it doesn’t yet have the traction Tinder does.

People liken these apps to a catalogue of faces, but I see them as a sort of digital bar or nightclub -- spaces where you can check out and chat up strangers -- particularly in cities that don’t have physical versions of either. To put things into perspective: just a couple of months ago, newspapers ran a report that police on patrolling duty in Karachi had finally been instructed not to harass couples in public spaces for their marriage certificate. Despite how common it is becoming to meet someone on your own terms, the freedom to date is still far from guaranteed to everyone. Even in circles where it is, public displays of affection are viciously absent and it would be downright radical for an unmarried couple to cohabit. When, under such thick surveillance, a free app appears through which you can find yourself alone with virtually anyone -- and where your desire is announced without your ever having to actually proclaim it -- it is a privilege both thrilling and dangerous.

The sorts of millennials (the generation born in the 80s or early 90s and who range in their 20s and 30s now) you find on Tinder represent a cultural shift between generations: they’re uncomfortable with the idea of arranged marriages, adamant to choose their partners for themselves, and are increasingly okay with making mistakes along the way. They are a diverse lot and the range of their values are reflected neatly on Tinder: if you’re a woman, for example, you’ll encounter some men who want to get straight to business without even meeting for coffee first, and others who say they’re just looking to make new friends. "I found out that you can wield the app -- the way you can wield pretty much anything -- according to your comfort zone. If all I wanted to do was just chat with somebody, or just socialise, or just have a good time without getting into anything physical, I could," says Zahida, a 27-year-old lawyer based in Lahore. "I felt badass using it, perhaps because I was taking charge of my life." But for other women, the malleability of what the app can be used for is exhausting. "Dating is a complete fail on this app," says Naz, a 28-year-old fitness instructor based in Karachi. "A lot of people are not honest and clear about what they want."

The sorts of millennials you find on Tinder represent a cultural shift between generations: they’re uncomfortable with the idea of arranged marriages, adamant to choose their partners for themselves, and are increasingly okay with making mistakes along the way.

For yet others, Tinder is somewhat of a last resort. "Honestly, I was going through a weird, dark phase after a bad breakup," says Nina, a 32-year-old writer based in Islamabad. "My mother’s friends kept asking why I don’t want to settle down. That’s unfair, I do. The question is how." Meeting the right person anywhere in the world is hard, but for a Pakistani woman determined to live life on her own terms, it’s a little bit harder. In theory, Tinder promises an endless expanse of new people to tackle the problem of tiny, incestuous social circles. But realistically, in a society where the movement of women is both so limited and so charged with potential danger, going out alone to meet a complete stranger is a risk few are willing to take.

Even that, however, seems to be changing, particularly because Tinder isn’t just being used by millennials. It’s also quickly being adopted by Generation Z-ers (the generation following millennials, born in the mid-90s and after) -- and 18 to 22 year olds are far more blasé about using it than twenty-somethings. Perhaps because they came of age online, they are bolder about the idea of meeting people via apps like Tinder, and less nervous about admitting it to their friends. "People are more comfortable expressing their desires online, because their screens are a mask they can put on and hide behind," says Nadir, a 21-year-old film student based in Lahore. Long before Tinder, he used Grindr, a location-based dating app geared towards gay and bisexual men. "In Multan, where I grew up, I didn’t have any friends who were gay. Grindr really influenced the way I saw myself. I never felt like I didn’t belong, because there was a whole other world of people who were just like me."

The lexicon used by this demographic is different than that used by millennials. "During a Tinder spree, you swipe madly and add lots of people on Snapchat," says 22-year-old Nafisa, who is from Karachi and is currently in her final year of university. "And then you ghost them when you start vibing with one person." The casualness with which she -- and others her age -- use the term "ghosting" (abruptly terminating contact with someone, without providing an explanation) suggests that it is becoming commonplace. "For all its supposed benefits, I’m simply not sure Tinder and its ilk is good for us in the long run."

The fundamental truth here is that Tinder bestows an intimacy we are simply not prepared for -- it catapults a society (or in the case of Gen Z-ers, a demographic) that doesn’t have a pre-existing framework for dating onto a platform with a global reputation for casual sex. If people continue leaning on apps like these in the absence of other viable options for meeting people, what we risk being left with is a massive swathe of people with grossly skewed ideas of what dating etiquette should be -- and this is particularly alarming when it comes to men.

I spoke to a couple dozen people for this article: around 70 percent of them were women who identified as straight. Most of them said they had seen profiles of their friends’ or acquaintances’ husbands, or their brothers’ friends, all of whom were married with children. Many of these women also shared that they had matched with men they didn’t know were married and who explicitly lied about their marital status. Other problems: men trace women from Tinder to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, even LinkedIn, and harass them there until they are blocked. And of course, crude messages: "They’ll just go ahead and start making comments about your body," says Naz, the 28-year-old fitness instructor. "And if you try to say, hey slow down, or we’ll get there in a few dates, or I just need to talk to you first, or I need to get a little comfortable… it won’t go down well."

There’s a prevailing belief that men who would be respectful if they met women in more traditional ways -- say through friends, or at a party -- behave differently on Tinder. Because of the connotation the app carries, it brings with it what one man called ‘a presumption of promiscuity’. It’s a deeply unfair double standard: men swipe away on Tinder without fear of being judged, but they presume that women on Tinder are a certain way -- and then punish them for it by being disrespectful in ways that are unjustifiable in every imaginable context.

It’s an attitude that keeps many women off Tinder. There are a seemingly never-ending number of men on the app that you can swipe through without ever running out, but the number of women remains relatively conservative. "I don’t think that Tinder is a particularly safe app -- not in a physical sense, but in a sense that’s very important in our society -- it’s not safe for your reputation," she said. "People love taking screenshots of women who are on Tinder and sending them around, talking about how awful it is that a girl is on Tinder. They will say you’re loose or desperate, so it’s never too great an image. However, I do try to own it as much as I can."

It’s abundantly clear that for most heterosexual men, women are either or: either commitment or casual, either bring-home-to-your-parents-material or take-out-and-have-fun material, either wife-potential or hookup-potential. One of the many things this binary propagates is a culture where women have two extreme options, both built on warped ideas of what a woman’s role in a man’s life should be. What seems to be missing is a framework where men respect women to the extent that they let them dictate the terms of what they want. Farah told me horror stories of men reading her independence as an opportunity to speak to her crassly, an opening to hook up with her. "When I was younger I thought I was asking for it," she said. "But now I’ve grown up and realised people can be casual and still respectful of each other’s time and energy and effort."

Until men learn to see and treat women differently, the opportunities Tinder offers women in Pakistan to take control of their own so-called "love" lives are blighted. "I’m not sure what meaningful possibilities there are for women to feel empowered within a heterosexual framework, especially in our context where the balance of power is so severely skewed," says Zareen, a 32-year-old artist based in Karachi. "Tinder has increased my access to sex to an extent, which has been great, but I’m not sure I can say that it has empowered me in any meaningful way. In some ways it makes me more vulnerable -- to being hurt emotionally or physically, to that wide range of violences that men enact against women they come into contact with."

In the end, no matter what we claim we want, aren’t we all looking for the same thing? The kind of love (no matter how long it lasts) where another person sees us in all our flawed light, the full-throttle kaleidoscope of all our contradictions -- and soaks it up. I’m not sure why swipe apps, so fundamentally reductive in their design, have become our default to find something so multifaceted in its essence. This revolving rolodex at our fingertips makes it easier to delay deciding what we want, easier to treat people as if they’re dispensable, easier to keep searching for unattainable perfection rather than accepting the flaws of others -- and owning up to our own.

And it’s less a symptom of what is to come than it is a reflection of what has already arrived. On Tinder we make snap-judgments of people based on their photos, but on Facebook we type out a quick half-sentence of condolence to soothe the greatest grief of their lives, and on Instagram we swim through select and filtered versions of their days rather than live out the rhythms of our own. We live in fragments now, isn’t it natural that we’re at risk of loving in them too?

Of all the stories I heard while preparing to write this piece, there was one that particularly embodied the texture of the note I want to end on. Anisa, a 20-year-old arts student based in Lahore, told me about a girl she met -- and not even online. They met in the swish of bodies at a concert, but of course their lives were still wired, as all us urban dwellers’ lives are wired. We are all impacted, these days, by apps that we may not be using ourselves but that are still shaping the behaviour of the people we interact with. Anyway, Anisa got into the swing of talking to this girl for five hours a day, conversations that touched on every corner of their lives. But that’s all: they didn’t meet outside of that call, they didn’t text, and then she disappeared for good, without explanation, a serial ghoster. When they ran into each other half a year later, she recognised Anisa, but Anisa didn’t recognise her. "We talked and we exchanged our journals," Anisa told me. "She cried as she read mine."

Lots of desire but little love