How Dating Apps Researchers Tend to Study Women’s Experiences in Large Surveys

There are now thousands of studies on how people use, experience, and are even changed by their use of dating and hookup apps (hereafter: dating apps). I read hundreds of these articles, reports, and white papers that focus on or mention lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans*, and sapphic (LBQT*S) experiences in order to design my imminently launching LBQT*S Dating and Hookup App research survey. In this research, I unsurprisingly found the following trends in large surveys, even more recent projects:

  1. studies of “LGBTQ” people’s use of dating apps or studies about the experiences people from the LGBTQQIA2+ community tend to focus on gay men, almost exclusively assuming these men to be cisgender
  2. studies of women almost exclusively assume their research participants are cisgender, and often assume they are or focus just on heterosexual women
  3. dating app studies in general focus on the experiences of cisgender people, usually assuming that research paricipants identify as cisgender

In fact, a recent review of LBQT*S dating app studies records only 21(!) qualitative studies of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women’s dating and hookup app experiences. Compared to research about LBQT*S people’s dating app experiences, there is a comparatively plentiful literature on women’s experiences and gay men’s experiences. (Unsurprisingly!, said the trans masc butch dyke.)

This structure of academic research around dating apps—which doesn’t at all differ from most mainstream media representations—leads me to some questions. If you’re reading this, I bet you have some too!

  • Since we know that LBQT*S people tend to make community, spaces, and a sense of self differently than cis-heterosexual people and cis gay men—how might studies of cis-heterosexual women and cis gay men inform studies LBQT*S dating/hookup app experience? 
  • How can LBQT*S-based research in other fields help ask the right questions to understand more about our own world making? 

In my post today, I want to into get at some of the trends in how women’s experiences of dating apps are studied and discussed. Most large studies of (again, presumably cisgender) women’s experiences on dating apps often obscures lesbian, bisexual, and queer experiences entirely, and sexuality surely matters in these studies. For example, I downloaded a study regarding sexual coercion within and among meetups that result from using dating apps because it mentioned the word “lesbian.” But the small number of LGBTQ respondents led them to discount lesbians in their study for a focus on heterosexual concerns, which happened in other papers as well. Another paper analyzes the design and product elements that endorse a sense of an anti-rape app fails to mention lesbians at all. Even with little data, assuming all women—as broadly and self-defined as this term is and always has been—work the same in regards to their sexuality can create false assumptions. I wouldn’t expect all studies to attend to these concerns, but noting these differences is paramount.

As you may have guessed from the research topics I just mentioned, there is a tendency in studies of women’s experiences of dating apps to focus on the harassment, assault, or lack of safety that women experience. This fixation on the violence women experience—rather than, say, their joy, agency, sense of self—is no different than the assumptions researchers have about women in cities. I was inspired to launch the research that became my book A Queer New York when I read study after study from the 2000s that researched women’s fear in cities, often in public parks. At the same time, I read paper and paper about queer empowerment in public cruising, often in public parks and using “queer” to describe a practice more prevalent among cis gay men. Positioning women as unsafe in public and men as powerful and radical in their public sex lives plays out again and again in the literature (and I’ll talk more about how this shows up in studies of gay men’s experiences of dating apps in my next post). Notably, this trend around women’s fear is used to sell apps to users. For example, part of Bumble’s success relies on its positioning as a women’s “empowerment” app, or what researchers describe as a sense of “forced empowerment” awarded to women if they adhere to heterosexual gender scripts in their dating and desires.

Studies of queer women’s experiences of dating apps also examine their harassment. However, these studies also seek to study, examine, and do discuss the positive affordances of making possible connections, self discovery, and other experiences. Similarly, a study of trans people’s positive and negative experiences found that dating apps can be both “places of emancipation” while also perpetuating “the exclusion mechanisms experienced offline” (side note: this study is otherwise deeply problematic in its assumptions about trans people). 

We have a lot to learn about LBQT*S dating app experiences! Beyond social media and with very few spaces labeled for lesbian or queer women, let alone bi, trans, or sapphic spaces, I expect that dating and hookup apps are a key social space for LBQT*S people in many ways. We will find out through the data soon enough! And this is also why I’m working on a book on dyke bars! Ah, so much to learn from, by, with, and about lezbiqueertrans-ness. How glorious.

In future posts I will yammer on about gay men’s experiences and those studies that do address LBQT*S concerns, among many other cool things I’ve found. If you care to read those thousands of studies on dating apps, let me know what you find! If you do plan to take the soon launching LBQT*S Dating and Hookup App research survey—and then perhaps share your email to also join in interviews—I hope this post sheds light on why I ask the questions I do!

Gayme on.