Graphic by Dylan Petrohilos

Mom, Dad, This Is My Boyfriend. We Met On An App For Casual Sex.

Gabrielle, 22, joined Tinder as a joke. The punchline is, that’s how she met her boyfriend.

It’s all very modern, it’s totally fine, it’s not weird at all, except for the part where she had to explain Tinder to her parents.

By then, Gabrielle and her boyfriend been dating for four months. They’d met in Greenville, South Carolina, where Gabrielle is from, and though she didn’t know it at the time, she would eventually move to Chicago and they would stay together long distance. So it was time to have the talk. The Tinder talk.

“Well,” she remembers starting the conversation. “There’s this app.”

Her mom asked, “What do you mean?”

Gabrielle jumped right to, “Some people do it just to hook up with people.” Immediately, she thought: oh, crap. Because then she had to explain what “hooking up” meant.

Her mom listened, then clarified: “One night stands?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle said.

“I can’t believe you!” said her mom. But she came around. “Well, I guess that’s how it is for kids these days. You’ve got to do it somehow. I went to bars, and I guess this is the equivalent of going to a bar.”

“She was kind of mellow about it,” Gabrielle says now. “My dad just doesn’t understand.” The technology confused him—“You go on and swipe?”—and he found the whole notion of judging a potential date solely on someone’s face to be callow and superficial.

Gabrielle told him to Google it, “and that was a terrible idea,” she says. “Because lots of awful things came up.” He somehow bypassed all the bad press about Tinder’s behind-the-scenes operations, but he couldn’t miss the main event: people in college using Tinder as a hook-up app, as its creators always intended.

Gabrielle has friends who just lie about using apps, like one girl who has been in a relationship for seven months with a guy she met on Tinder. “I don’t think she has any thought of telling [her parents] how she met him,” she says. “They just keep up the ruse that they met at a party or met at a bar.” But she wanted to be honest with her parents, and she expected them to press her for details. “I knew that they would ask me, ‘how online, how on an app, what are the specifics?’ So I just flat-out told them.”

She was more nervous about her boyfriend’s mother than she was about her own. “I thought she might think less of me,” she says. “Like I’m some dirty tramp on an app trying to pick up her son.” And in truth, “She was kind of put off by it. I think it was mainly just the hook up culture [aspect].”

“She’s never said anything to me” to suggest that Tinder is a problem, Gabrielle says. “I just always feel extremely awkward around her.”

This time of year is already rife with potentially tense encounters. It’s home for the holidays season, which brings with it in-laws who don’t mix, siblings who can’t share space without fighting, the divorced-kid schlep from one parent to another—or, if you’re spending Christmas with a spouse, from one parent to another to another to another. Family time is so famously fraught, websites like this one issue guides on how to “survive” basic conversations about current events.

On top of all of this—the star on the tree, if you’re so inclined—is romantic love. If you want to introduce your significant other to parents who live out of town, this is your moment, unless you want to wait until the next office-sanctioned vacation time, which is easily five months away.

Introducing your boyfriend or girlfriend to your parents is stressful enough if you met in an analog way: in school, at work, a party, a bar. Even online dating, well established as the foundation of many a marriage, is relatively easy to explain. (Think of how many people sponsor their children’s JDate or Match account, in the hopes to nudge long-single millennials toward the altar) But the apps are in a category unto themselves. The apps require translation. The apps ostensibly exist to facilitate casual sex. Even though plenty of people use them for purposes both more frivolous (“let’s send a weird message to this person and see what they say”) and serious (actual dating) than that, the reputation of “hook-up app” remains.

Tell Mom and Dad you set up an online dating profile in the hopes of meeting a person with shared interests, goals and religion: no big deal. Tell Mom and Dad you signed up for an app that was built to be “Grindr, for straight people” that relies on snap judgments of how hot someone looks in their Facebook profile picture: bigger deal. And that’s before you have to backtrack and explain what Grindr is. Add in one of the most dreaded parent-to-kid conversation topic of all time—sex, the pursuit thereof—and you have everything you need for the most awkward intergenerational interaction of your year.

Everyone in the online and app dating scene seems to agree on two things: One, there is no reason for there to be a stigma around meeting your significant other this way. Two, there is definitely still a stigma.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

According to a 2013 Pew study, “Online Dating & Relationships,” one in ten Americans have used an online dating site or mobile dating app; when you just look at people who identify as “single and looking,” that number jumps to 38 percent. The most likely demo to check out the Matches and Tinders of the world: American adults ages 25 to 34, 22 percent of whom have used dating sites or apps. A whopping 23 percent of online daters say they’ve met a spouse or someone with whom they had a long-term relationship through an online dating site or app.

Yet while attitudes toward online dating are more positive than ever, a significant minority of the public views online dating skeptically.

Gabrielle has certainly heard from “people who think you can’t find normal people on Tinder, that people are weird, or are looking for one-night stands… that there’s no way you can get a normal, decently attractive person and be in a relationship with them.” She tells those people that she and her boyfriend “met at a party.”

Rachel, 25, lives in Washington D.C. and met her boyfriend through Hinge, the app that connects users through mutual Facebook friends. “Once things got serious, it started to cross my mind,” she says. “How am I going to tell my mom? Or, God forbid, my grandma?” But right around Thanksgiving, the two sat down to coordinate a “tell the parents” game plan, in anticipation of spending some of the December holidays at each other’s’ family homes.

Rachel opted not to tell her parents that she was using any dating apps. “I doubt they know they exist,” she says. And there’s only way she can picture this conversation working: “Literally, I would need to show them the app itself… I would need to start from the beginning and sort of walk them through it, and show them that I wasn’t being reckless.”

Because apps like Tinder and Hinge are “so non-traditional,” Rachel says, “I think [my family] would be worried that somehow the relationship itself lacked something… I think they would question the legitimacy of the connection… despite the fact that that’s how we met, and we’ve been dating for months, and everything else has been normal from that point forward.”

Friends can be as judgmental as family. “People hear, ‘We met through an app,’ especially Tinder, and it’s like you were on it to hook up with someone and just fell into this other thing.” This, even though Rachel says “I actually don’t know a single person who is using it as a hook-up app.”

Most of the couple’s friends are in the dark about how Rachel and her boyfriend got together. “The idea that we met our current significant other on a dating app is a little weird for both of us.” They both see themselves as “pretty traditional people,” Rachel says, which she thinks is why “I’m still hesitant to 150 percent put it out there that this is how we met. Our line, so far, has been that we met through friends of friends—which isn’t a lie, because that’s how Hinge works. But we still don’t feel 100 percent comfortable.”

For some, the reputation of Tinder as an app for screwing around actually works in their favor. Zach, Gabrielle’s boyfriend, says most of his guy friends claim to use Tinder for casual sex but secretly hope a serious relationship will come out of all that swiping.

“My best friend, who has been on it quite a bit, he’s seen a few girls, but he’s a little bit too macho to admit that he’s actually looking for something serious,” Zach says. “He tries to downplay the seriousness of pretty much all of his relationships. And when you add it the social networking or online dating app, that doesn’t help the situation, admitting that, ‘Oh, maybe I couldn’t do this on my own, just going out and meeting someone at the bar.’”

Why do people always ask couples how they met? Romance is weird, the internet is still new-ish, but everyone likes to think love is a code that can eventually be cracked. The people who ask that question aren’t really asking about the other couple; they’re asking about themselves. It’s market research for their love life. It’s as if people think they can craft their own ideal endings if they spend enough time studying other people’s beginnings.

We have a cultural obsession with how couples meet. Romantic comedies rely on the perfect — or perfectly imperfect — meet-cute. There are television shows constructed entirely around the premise that how parents find each other is the most compelling love story of all; about how mismatched duos match up after all; on how workplace romances spark even when said sparking is strictly prohibited.

Stanford psychologist Michael Rosenfeld, author of the study “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” knows pretty much everything there is to know about how couples meet and why couples care so deeply about their origin story.

“The story of how they met is a story that has been rehearsed and practiced and repeated,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s like the national founding myth, with George Washington and the Boston Tea Party. These are stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Couples have no issue sharing this story, he said. “The only real problem I had when I do the survey is some people wrote so much that it didn’t fit in the box.”

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

Why does this moment — one that arguably gets less and less important the longer a couple stays together — carry so much significance? “I think it’s a story about who they are,” he said. “It’s a reassuring story that reaffirms not only the value of the relationship but that first moment, that love at first sight, that first inkling that they had. I think that’s something that generally, in couples, they want to bring out and highlight because it reminds them of something powerful and important that has led them to where they are.”

Margaret, 24, lives in New York City. When it comes to dating, she and her dad “have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” But he happened to call her while she was on the way home from a Tinder date. He asked; she told. “At that point, he was probably just shutting down internally.”

Conveying the interface of Tinder isn’t too tricky, she says, and she can sell her folks on the idea, generally speaking, of technology as a dating tool. “I think maybe the weirdest thing for them to grasp [is that] online dating [like] Match and eHarmony are set up with the purpose of meeting someone for a long-term relationship and possibly marriage. So the hard thing is to explain, ‘This is a casual thing meant to introduce you to new people, that it’s low-commitment and fun.’ There’s a lower barrier to entry.”

It’s a conversation that, depending on the proclivities of your parents, may be tougher for daughters than for sons. For a guy to tell his parents he wants to date around is one thing; for a girl to say she wants to date, and maybe/probably have sex with, multiple guys before settling into a relationship, even in 2014, is typically a more sensitive matter. Research has shown that “women face more negative judgment than men when they are known to engage in casual sex,” a double-standard that is likely heightened when the people doing the judging are an individual’s parents.

What Margaret has tried to do “is create my own Tinder narrative for them.” She’s “skirting around” the fact that Tinder started as a hook-up app “by never mentioning that aspect to my parents, and they are unaware that that’s what it is intended to be.”

“I try to be forthright with [my parents], at least in terms of my own experience, and that’s really all you can do,” she says. “It’s a delicate balance of telling them what I’m up to and what’s going on, and also glossing over parts of it that are less savory.”

Speaking of less savory: a look at the corporate side of all this coupledom.

Like most things that seem fun, reckless, and youth-driven, Tinder is part of an elaborate business strategy. Tinder is owned by IAC, which also owns Match.com, OKCupid, and How About We. (Most of the “niche” dating sites, including JDate and Christian Mingle, are owned by Spark Networks; eHarmony is privately held.) Match and Tinder aren’t in competition with each other. Just the opposite; they’re designed to get users to make a lifetime commitment—to dating apps. Their dream: you’ll start on Tinder as a teen and sign up for Match when you outgrow that swiping.

How big is the Tinder business? Some stats, from a recent Forbes story on now-former CEO of Tinder, Sean Rad (he was ousted from his post in early November and now serves as president and board member):

Tinder, which has logged 600% growth over the past 12 months, has been downloaded 40 million times since it launched in 2012. The 30 million people who have registered collectively check out 1.2 billion prospective partners daily—that’s 14,000 per second… Tinder is now facilitating almost 14 million romantic matches every 24 hours. As originally planned, Rad then confidently revealed the idea for the premium service, as 1,000 tweets shot across the Internet heralding the news… Sources put Tinder’s monthly active users near 18 million (about half its registered base) and daily users around 9 million.

That’s swell for IAC, except for one thing: they haven’t monetized Tinder yet. Get excited for a future full of Tinder Premium, which Greg Blatt, chairman of Match Group, said in the IAC’s Q3 2014 earnings call, “is going to monetize in three ways, effectively the same as all the rest of our products do, which is a combination of what I’ll call subscription revenue, a la carte revenue and advertising revenue… My instinct is that Dating continues to be a category where even in the ‘freemium’ model, there is real value to certain features and there is a meaningful number of people who will pay extra for those features.” So the things people love most about Tinder—how it’s easy, low-commitment, and free—will likely disappear soon.

tornaments

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

A conspiracy theorist could suggest that these apps and sites are, in fact, constructed to fail. That is, they are good enough to keep you dating, but deliberately bad enough to prevent you from ever meeting your OTP, so you continue to need their services well into adulthood. Bolstering this narrative is the fact that 32 percent of internet users polled by Pew agreed with the statement that “online dating keeps people from settling down because they always have options for people to date.”

Another unromantic tidbit about Tinder: co-founder and former marketing executive Whitney Wolfe sued Rad and co-founder Justin Mateen in July, claiming they harassed and verbally abused her, discriminated against her, deleted her title and contributions because of her gender, and generally were despicable human beings. Wolfe reportedly settled for “just over $1 million” about a month and a half ago, within a week of Rad stepping down from his CEO spot.

When Kate*, 25, was with the boyfriend she met on Tinder (they’ve since broken up but were together for five months), they agreed: no telling the parents, no telling friends.

“We were kind of, I’m not going to say embarrassed, but we’re more traditional,” she says. So the party line was, “We met through friends in D.C.”

The lie became “a kind of inside joke thing.” Whenever someone would ask how they met—“Unfortunately, it’s one of the first questions that you get”—they would “always giggle and look at each other really quick.”

“But,” she says. “I actually dreaded that question every single time.”

Kate is “still kind of unsure about the online space” and says she would probably “stick with some alternate story” even if she met a significant other on a more established site. “I think I still have that very idyllic and picturesque view of how I’m going to meet the person I’m going to end up with, and I guess that is the old-school, traditional way I was raised.”

Kate has even thought through what she would tell her kids, in the event a Tinder-boyfriend became her Tinder-husband. “I would have let it out of the bag later on. After your friends get to know them, and your family gets to know them… they’re such an integral part of your life, so at that point, I think it wouldn’t really matter.”

She says even her peers can be condescending about her use of Tinder. “Some people I talk to are like, ‘You’re on Tinder? Don’t you know what it’s for?’” Not that she thinks this assessment is fair. After all, she points out, Tinder “is a bit more of a legit way of meeting somebody than a drunk frat house makeout.”

Just thinking about telling her parents that she met her boyfriend on Tinder makes Amy*, 25, deeply uncomfortable. “How do you explain something to someone that doesn’t have any context for it, who didn’t grow up in the age of online dating?” she asks.

That challenge is exacerbated by the fact that all the media coverage of Tinder “portrays it in the extreme. It seems very negative and shallow,” Amy says. “You don’t want your parents to think of you that way. So if they know anything about it, it’s starting from behind. You’re competing with that reputation, because there’s nothing out there that’s like, ‘Tinder’s great!’”

She is worried that her dad already has the wrong idea, that he thinks Tinder is “seedy.” He’s read articles about the app “and he thinks it’s deplorable,” she says. “He thinks [it’s about] judging someone’s face and their physical appearance… I don’t want him to associate me with the gross side of it.”

While she knows people who take detours around the Tinder talk—straight-up lying about how they met, using euphemisms like “we met online,”—Amy, who lives in New York City, doesn’t want to avoid the issue. “I feel like, if you’re going to be on it, you kind of have to own it. And by telling my parents, it puts me in control, and that makes me more comfortable. I can say: ‘This is my experience. You might read other things.’… If there was any sort of initial judgment, I just want to diffuse that.”

Lying, Amy says, ends up creating a problem where one doesn’t need to exist. “You’ve told them to be ashamed of something” that doesn’t need to be shameful.

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CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos

“I work in an office with a lots of young, single women, and to hide that—if I was in the opposite position, and there was someone I was friends with at work [and] she told me she met her boyfriend on Tinder, it would make me feel better about that service. So I just think, why hide it? People are going to think what they think. You can only control yourself.”

Besides, that question—“So, how did you meet?”—is not the be-all end-all for her. “You can still have a romantic comedy kind of meet-cute,” Amy says. “But if that’s not working for you, or if you work from 8:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night, if you’re open to online dating, I think people have become more comfortable with meeting that way. I know some people say they wouldn’t want to meet someone online. And it’s like, if you want a better ‘story’ than meeting someone online, there doesn’t seem to be any depth behind it. Maybe they think it’s embarrassing. But if you meet online, it’s a real person. I think some people forget that.”

“There is no disadvantage for couple longevity for meeting online,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s not true that people who meet online in general have a more casual or superficial thing going than people who are, say, introduced by your mother. I think the idea in the past is if you’re introduced to your partner by somebody who is really important to you, say your mom who knows their mom, that relationship is going to have more longevity because you’ll have more connections. But the truth is, your mother doesn’t actually know that much about this other person. She is not that useful a font of information about who might be desirable to you. She just knows another adult her age with a child your age. So it seems perfect! But the truth is, you’re in a better position to know what you like.”

The anxieties that couples who met on Tinder have, the fears of judgment from parents — that mom and dad will think, if you’re on Tinder, you must be slutty or shallow and so is your Tinder-girlfriend — just don’t jive with the science. Parents, Rosenfeld said, actually do just want you to be happy (though there is some self-interest involved). “In this day and age, parents have less and less input over their adult children’s romantic lives. There was a time fifty years ago when most single young adults were living with their parents, and parents just had a lot more leverage over who you dated. If you’re in a serious relationship with somebody, generally the parents are usually loathe to object, because young people readily choose the partner over the parents, because they’re independent from their parents. They don’t need their parents to put food on the table. And the parents realize that. So I don’t see parents making a lot of frivolous objections.”

Though much of Rosenfeld’s research predates the advent of Tinder and other dating apps, he said, “Anytime we have new technology, there’s always a little bit of anxiety about the way the new technology might create problems. There’s always an anxiety about how the new technology affects our social lives. The internet and smartphone, those technologies reach into our lives in a lot of new and interesting ways, so I think it’s natural for people to feel a bit anxious about it… But from all the evidence I can see, technology plays a really useful role, and one of the things that it does really wonderfully is put people together. Putting people together answers a pretty important human need, and if the technology can do that for us, it’s a good thing.”

And what if all your family knows about Tinder is its origin as an app for casual sex? “Tinder is like the bar, but we’ve always had the bar,” he said. “We’ve always had places where people went to meet people and pick them up. And even Grandma knows about that.”

*First names changed upon request. All last names withheld upon request.

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