Is Dating Really That Hard Right Now?

The dominant picture right now is an apocalyptic one, but some women are still finding love and companionship, online and off.

by Magdalene Taylor
An illustration that depicts dating apps (Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble) as bouncers forbidding entry.

Everywhere they look, women on the dating market are being told to either give up on sex and love entirely or resign themselves to a series of bad dates, mistreatment, and unfulfilling hookups. We’re seeing videos of women crying about how difficult it is to meet someone go viral on TikTok, and celibacy has become a hot trend among not only celebrities like Khloé Kardashain and Julia Fox but also everyday girls in the prime of their dating lives, too. Ads from apps essentially beg us not to delete them: Last month, Bumble launched a series of billboards targeted toward women with messages like “You know full well a vow of celibacy is not the answer” and “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun.” The backlash to the ads on social media was swift: The apps are blaming us for no longer wanting to put up with the conditions they and men created?

Of course, these women were right in their anger, but there remained some truth to Bumble’s message. There’s a reason vows of celibacy and life in a convent are relegated to only the most devout — it’s not meant to be for everyone. Plenty of women still want to date and have sex — even casually! Sure, the message is that it’s all pretty dire, but what about the rest of us who want something in between solitude and disrespect? Is it really the end for us, too?

To be clear, there is evidence that nearly everyone, men included, find dating harder these days. In May, Tinder released a study of 8,000 straight men and women across the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom, revealing that 91% of men and 94% of women reported that they felt dating is more difficult in 2024 than it was in 2020. And just about everyone agrees: The apps have made dating more laborious. They once seemed as though they’d come along to cut through all the drama by laying out all the single people at our disposal, paired with a selection of their best pictures and a profile describing their lifestyle and interests; instead, many of us are swiping through an even larger pool of assholes than we’d ever meet in real life. Plus, as I wrote for The New York Times in the spring, the apps themselves have become anecdotally more difficult to use than before, thanks to algorithmic shifts and paid subscription tiers.

“Dating absolutely feels like more work than it used to back in the day, because it is,” says Alyse Freda-Colon, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York. It isn’t simply that managing the apps, the matches, and the messages itself practically amounts to a full-time job, but that they’ve knocked all the mystery out of dating in a way that makes it feel a whole lot like work. “There is a purposefulness and a singular focus to online dating,” she says. “In the past, maybe you’d go out with friends and happen to meet someone by chance, but with online dating, there is no ‘chance,’ there’s no ‘happen to’ — you either work to match with someone or you don’t.”

Even beyond the technical component, the apps have changed how we encounter people in real life. Many of the recent tweets and TikToks about the poor state of dating are from women who are actively trying to meet men without the apps and struggling. Now that dating apps are the primary way singles find one another, making an approach offline is unusual, and working up the courage to do so is increasingly difficult. See someone cute on your morning commute? Ah, well, maybe you can find them on Tinder, and if not, there’s probably a hundred other people on there just like them.

It’s not just a problem for straight women — the decline in dating app quality has affected queer people as well. “Currently, I download apps and then quickly get frustrated and delete them over and over,” Bella, 25 tells me. “I have a couple people I’ve found off Tinder who I plan on meeting soon, but I’m typically really picky. I only like dating queer people, and it’s difficult to filter through all the straight people,” she says. In the past, she’s dated more straight men but grew discouraged with how quickly possessive they became. “I feel like people don’t want to just f*ck anymore!” She’s tried more queer-centric apps like Her and Feeld, but says the experience is limited unless she pays up for premium features. Meeting women in person is a struggle, too. “There are [around] 30 lesbian bars left in the U.S.,” she says. “There aren’t really lesbian spaces, and it really feels like a sexism issue as men are centered in every dating space.”

Ariela Basson/Bustle; Shutterstock

But that doesn’t mean that everyone is having a bad time, even if it seems like it on social media. There are plenty of young people still managing to find what they’re looking for both online and off. Even that depressing Tinder survey suggests some are being overly pessimistic: 69% of women surveyed believe that men on Tinder are only looking for casual hookups, while only 29% of male respondents said this is what they want. (Meanwhile, Tinder’s latest ad campaign centers on teaching men how to demonstrate “green flags” and “new age chivalry,” rather than shaming women for not wanting to deal with shitty behavior.)

Nomi, 29, tells me she’s been navigating the apps well. “Dating is hard, and especially for women, there are safety considerations, but I don’t think it’s awful,” she says. “But maybe that’s just because I kind of like meeting new people whether or not we end up dating seriously.” She’s had decent luck on Raya and Hinge, in particular. “I’ve had a number of first dates, and they’ve all ranged from fine to great,” she says. “I think the key is to just be super discerning on the apps.”

Since joining Hinge in the fall, 26-year-old Isabella has had two multi-month connections filled with “fun, a lot of good sex and chemistry, and romance, and holding hands, and dates.” Things didn’t end up working out with either guy, but regardless, “these experiences were very real and thrilling,” she says. Isabella is familiar with meeting men the old-fashioned way, too. Last year, she had a fling with a friend of a friend — one of the most common ways people used to pair up pre-app. “That was very sexually fun and had teenage levels of giddiness on both our parts, but it ended rather badly because… he ghosted me! Which has never happened to me before!” Although she’s not spared from the stress and heartbreak, she still doesn’t quite connect with the overarching narrative going around that dating is just so terrible. “I just think dating has always been hard… Watch a show like Sex and the City, and many of us can relate to the dating hijinks back then too.” Even on Sex and the City, the ladies dealt with getting ghosted — they just didn’t have that word for it yet.

Dating is hard, and especially for women, there are safety considerations, but I don’t think it’s awful.

It’s true: Dating has never really been easy. It can be fun, straightforward, deceptively simple even — but all the energy spent around meeting people and getting to know each other as potential romantic partners isn’t exactly effortless. Before we took it online, there remained the stress of waiting for a guy to contact you, not wanting to seem overeager, wondering when to define the relationship. Maybe you didn’t find out about a fundamental deal-breaker until you’d already invested three dates. Today, that deal-breaker might be listed right on their Hinge profile. A little Googling can tell us whether the guy who calls himself an “entrepreneur” is legitimate or not, or whether he’s been very publicly arrested. The benefits of the digital shift aren’t merely a practical matter but one of safety, too.

And yes, men often do suck! At the core of the Bumble backlash and much of the recent celibacy discourse is the assertion that it’s not necessarily that women don’t want sex, but that they don’t want sex with men who don’t treat them well. Unable to find that, they’d prefer to go without. It’s quite possible that men generally have gotten worse, emboldened by the lack of strings attached that the apps offer or the continuous creep of men’s rights ideology into the mainstream. But here again Sex and the City, which ran from 1998 to 2004, is instructive: They had plenty of jerks then, too. Rather than men writ large deteriorating in quality, it’s more likely that both the apps and social media have overexposed us to the bad ones — and even if there are a few more men out there who treat women poorly, that doesn’t mean they represent the lot. A recent survey in the United Kingdom found that 16% of Gen Z men believe feminism has done more harm than good, compared to 13% of men older than 60. The data might show that attitudes are worsening, but it also shows that 84% of men are probably somewhat decent.

Even so, it’s normal to want to tap out for a bit. This, too, is something women have been doing long before the contemporary celibacy trend, although there is something new and troubling about treating it as a “trend.” In doing so, we’re encouraging women to sign on to what is ultimately a radical lifestyle, formerly the exclusive purview of religious groups and the most staunch separatist feminists, while using the same language as, say, buying a new hair accessory. Depriving ourselves of pleasure and possibility (if we desire them!) only continues to place the responsibility and burden to change dating conditions and men’s behavior back on ourselves. Why should we be the ones who have to pay the price?

Ariela Basson/Bustle; Shutterstock, Getty

We’re right to be pessimistic toward the apps. Nevertheless, we’re doing ourselves an injustice by writing off sex and dating entirely because of it. Sure, quit the apps! But don’t relegate yourself to a life of solitude. All those viral TikToks of women crying over trying to meet someone offline may speak to their experiences, but they won’t necessarily speak to yours. After all, it’s not like a TikTok of a woman talking about what a good time she had going out with her friends on a Friday night and flirting with guys at a bar is going to gain as much traction. As Freda-Colon suggests, focus on having fun, whatever that means to you. “Maybe you make a rule that you only do fun things on dates — even first dates,” she says. “So what would that look like for you? Is it taking a walk? Is it seeing a movie? Do something on a date that you would enjoy doing regardless, so that if the date ends up being a dud, you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time.” If you’re off the apps, take a similar approach: Pursue the activities you enjoy, and maybe you’ll meet someone in the process. If not, you still did something positive for yourself, regardless.

Perhaps all of this cynicism is simply marking a breaking point. It seems like something has got to give, and it will. Even if many do continue to pursue celibacy, the way the rest of us date is changing. These recent dating app campaigns are evidence that the brands themselves are trying to adapt. Either they’ll improve, or eventually, people will once again figure out how to meet in the real world again. Regardless, we can still figure out how to have sex and have fun.