The proliferation of dating apps and the incursion of the logic of capital into our private lives have killed sexual desire. Will Tinder leave our cities barren?
Driven by flows of desire, the New Yorker in Emily Witt’s Future Sex (2016) navigates a revolutionary map of diverging sexualities brought about by online platforms. It’s the early 90s. People are turning to the internet for sex—using Craigslist, OK Cupid, or opting for cybersex. These new interfaces for human intimacy are also beginning to function as new vectors to explore the city. Narrating how one of her friends is appeased by the knowledge that “she would always find someone who would want to have sex,” Witt appears to have sketched the beginnings of a revolution in potentia. Online dating technologies would not only enable a revolution of the female body, finally liberating us from the slut stigma and allowing us to freely shape our sexual desires, but they would also revolutionize our experience of urban space.
That is, if only these new technologies actually meant that we were having more sex. The proliferation of dating applications has, instead, culled sexual desire. In the relatively affluent West, people are starting to have sex later in life, which leaves us to wonder: is Tinder actually killing that which it is supposed to facilitate? Why, when we finally have the technology at our disposal, do we desire to desire less? And what if both the decline in the age of sexual onset and decline of the birth rate are expressions of the same symptoms?
In The Right to the City (1968), Henri Lefebvre declared the death of the city. Killed by consumerism and its focus on the individual, the city would no longer provide us with what Lefebvre considered to be our anthropological, complementary and yet opposed, needs: security and adventure; labor organization and play. And sexuality. Instead, the homogenization of urban space has only been strengthened by the growing number of privatized public spaces, making it virtually impossible to creatively engage with, and appropriate, the urban landscape.
These non-places have become the cosmopolitan norm—invading even the parks and squares of major cities and imposing upon them their rules of civilized conduct. These rules—and the financial cost of living in the world’s metropolises—inevitably lead to the homogenization of the population. People become what sociologist Saskia Sassen refers to as “a global corporate subject.”
Tinder, Grindr, Hinge, and other dating apps could have diversified our sexual and urban lives. They could have pointed a way out of a world dominated by capital. They could have allowed us to re-appropriate what is ours, between the sheets. They could have helped us overcome the feelings of non-belonging wrought by globalization. They could have helped us reclaim our right to the city.
Housework and production
It is clear that we’re in need of a revolution emerging from the home and, specifically, in relation to the female body.
Indeed, Marxist feminism has long recognized that traditional Marxist analysis overlooks capitalism’s dependence upon housework—which is typically performed by women.
In Capital, Marx explains the ins and outs of how the machine of capitalism works. The owner of a factory spends money on raw materials, machines, and wages. But at some point, the factory needs to turn a profit—or generate what Marx calls “surplus value.” Only the worker—or what Marx refers to as labor power—can create something new by transforming the raw materials. But to be profitable, the capitalist cannot simply pay for the actual labor that is carried out and which creates surplus value. This would result in all profits going to the worker. So, under capitalism, workers have to be exploited. They need to perform unpaid hours of work so that surplus value greater than their wages is generated.
In Marxism and the Oppression of Women (1983), the Marxist feminist Lise Vogel argues that Marx overlooks this process’ reliance on the unpaid labor of women. Cooking, cleaning, and washing are fundamental activities allowing for the restoration of the workforce. But they are of no concern to the capitalist, as these activities are performed in the realm of the home. Production, Marxist feminism holds, is not only dependent upon the free housework that women perform, but also quite literally on the reproduction of the exploited class—through procreation. Bearing and raising children is of course again a task that women are expected to carry out without receiving any compensation. This body of critical thought is generally referred to as social reproduction theory (SRT).
Vogel’s initial observation that Marx overlooks the importance of reproductive labor had been given nuance by, for example, Martha E. Giménez. To question whether Marx took women’s work seriously enough is perhaps of little importance. It is beyond doubt that non-remunerated reproductive chores still systematically fall on the shoulders of women. But, by analyzing the dynamics between labor, sexuality, gender, and race, SRT has opened new frontiers in a neglected debate in the Marxist tradition.
The problem, when looking into the question of subversive sexual behavior, however, is that STR was founded on the premise of capital’s dependence upon the human body.
In Revolution at Point Zero (2010), the prominent Marxist feminist Silvia Federici sees sex as having been fully harnessed by the market. Sex, she says, is either “the duty to please” male workers or “a license to ‘go natural,’ to ‘let go,’ so that we can return more refreshed on Monday.” Logically, if sex and procreation are governed by capital, any deviation from previous norms would be a form of resistance. Indeed, Federici holds that “the collapse of the birth rate and increase in the number of divorces could be read as instances of resistance to the capitalist discipline of work,” or should be taken as “women’s ‘strike’ against procreation,” and thereby against capitalism itself.
Following this thread, we could read the increase in the age of sexual onset in the Netherlands and growing rates of celibacy among young adults in the United States as signs of rebellion against capital. Over the last 10 years, the number of North Americans reporting that they did not have sex for at least a year rose by 100 percent. In the Netherlands, taking into account all forms of sex, including masturbation, the age of onset has increased between 1 and 1.5 years since 2012, a trend that applies across the European Union, as noted by the World Health Organization in 2016.
The collapse of the birth rate and the increase in divorces could also be seen in another way. In Liquid Love (2003), philosopher and sociologist Zugmunt Bauman argues that online dating websites have facilitated the commodification of love. Long-term relationships and overall social skills are undermined by “the dominant consumerist life mode, to treat other humans as objects of consumption and to judge them after the pattern of consumer objects by the volume of pleasure they are likely to offer, and in ‘value for money’ terms.” The swiping function on most dating apps was indeed designed to mimic a deck of playing cards. The intention, as Tinder founders Justin Mateen and Sean Rad admit, was to make dating less serious.
Although the gamification of love might seem to be the ultimate stage of its commodification, Tinder would in fact reverse the negative effects of the commodification of the urban condition. It would enable the introduction of more playfulness into our sex lives, facilitating the discovery of a great diversity of people with no strings attached. Independently of the decline in sexual activity among young adults, dating applications have made it easier to exercise more control over our sexuality—even as capitalism has robbed us of free time.
In a study carried out by Mitchell Hobbs, Stephen Owen, and Livia Gerber, users said that dating apps made their intimate lives and search for potential partners more compatible with their busy schedules. Unexpectedly, Tinder tends to reproduce traditional mononormative relationships instead of, as Bauman suggested, the normalization of casual sex.
As Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality reminds us, the opening up of a field of possible new terrains for the exploration of sexuality does not necessarily imply its liberation. When considering sex as constitutive of and constituted by power, what appears to be going on today seems a lot less like a revolution. There’s a hope and a desire for the repetition of the habitual relationship structures combined with falling rates of sexual activity. The perceived efficiency of dating apps enables us to rationally have less sex: I optimize my time knowing that my desires could be satisfied in the future, and I have less sex as a result.
The desires of market liquidity
New technologies are clearly not the problem—they merely digitize desires that long predate the emergence of mediated sex and dating. The undoubtable value of Marxist feminism and SRT is its clear illumination of the relationship between production and reproduction—work and sex.
As Foucault showed, this interrelation between partnership, sex, and the economy was already self-evident in Ancient Greece. The economic realm of the household had a determinant effect on sexuality, the latter being completely governed by the temporal dimensions of the family, or the role it played as the prime site of the material production and reproduction of life. Of course, the word economy being derived from the Greek word οίκος (household) and νέμoμαι (management), it is exactly the management of the house that the Greek economic order implied. The maintenance of the oikos relied on an intergenerational temporality—the handing down of knowledge and know-how.
As SRT shows, the dynamics between sex, production, and reproduction are fundamentally temporal. Certainly, material life imposes fewer constraints on our sexual and intimate lives than was the case in Ancient Greece (leaving aside the question of the reduction of women to the confines of the domestic sphere). But it still dictates the terms of our sexualities. Regulated by the rhythm of wage labor, Federici describes the need for women to distance themselves from their sexual partners—the morning after—to be a profoundly painful experience. Indeed, the fact that sex is not a valid excuse to come to work late every now and then is an almost too obvious example of how the temporality of production still determines that of our sex lives.
What SRT and Bauman overlook are the specific temporal dimensions of financialization. Instead of asking how something gets produced and how profit is made, it is perhaps more surprising, in times of growing precariousness, that people still continue to mobilize themselves to fill the pockets of multinationals.
In Willing Slaves of Capital (2010), the orthodoxically-trained economist turned philosopher Frédéric Lordon argues that capitalism’s main priority in sustaining itself is to enlist its workforce. Building upon a Spinozist ontology and the notion of conatus, denoting “the effort by which ‘each thing, as far as it can by its own power [puissance], strives to persevere in its being’,” he conceives of bodies to be continuously affected by externalities, in turn affecting each other. The conatus is the energy by which every being seeks to augment its own power by being affected—building social power through the constant interplay of desires.
Under capitalism, my conatus is not affected by my own desires but by those of the capitalist, or what Lordon describes as the master desire [i.e. désir-maître] of the neoliberal mindset, management, and big enterprise.
Lordon explains that the reason we commit to the realization of the desires of others, or the projects of the capitalist, is because the only possibility to reproduce ourselves is now mediated via money. According to Lordon, consumerism profoundly distinguishes itself from neoliberalism, because the former still places objects of desire within a realm external to the aims of capital: consumer goods. But because of the financialization of the market, the conatus of the enlisted can only be mobilized if it is joyfully affected by work itself, no matter the precarious conditions.
Neoliberalism, then, seeks to achieve the full alignment of the workforce’s conatus with that of the master desire. For people not to perish in a financialized and unstable market, our desires need to correspond to those of management and big enterprise. As such, we are now the happy slaves of capitalism, mobilizing ourselves for the sake of the enjoyment of work and the well-being of capital. Capital’s power, in turn, is now primarily assured by market liquidity.
In Lordon’s work, it remains unclear what, precisely, triggers the passage from consumerism to neoliberalism in structural terms. While others, such as Cédric Durand in Fictitious Capital (2015), give economic explanations, Lordon sees the mutation of the market primarily as a shift in the conatus of CEOs. Financial liquidity, he says, is the best way for a CEO to augment their power, as it allows them to transform an investment into money at any given time: “liquidity is a promise of perfect reversibility offered to financial investors. It represents the minimal form of committing funds, since, in contrast to investment in industrial capital, where money-capital must be immobilized for a long while, the taking of a stake in the form of holding financial titles of ownership (stocks) can be instantaneously annulled by a simple sell order that returns the position to cash.”
If my only desire, and thus my whole being, is to be an efficient employee, I have to move with the rhythm of capital accumulation. I have to become liquid myself if I am to mobilize for capital. I have to always be available and always ready to respond to the fluctuations of the market. Tinder, then, allows me to function as the perfect employee in a liquid market. I can choose to have sex at moments that do not hamper me as a neoliberal being.
The sexuality enabled by Tinder, then, is constituted by the power of the financialized market. It is also constitutive of that power, as it maintains the enlisted mobilized, satisfies their fully aligned conatus, and sustains the current economic organization of life by affections that might or might not be experienced as joyful, but are generally represented as such, if only to fool us.
Perhaps some would argue that it all really depends on how the application is used. But the problem lies elsewhere. It is not because I consider myself a moral user—which would probably mean that I do not use the app to merely have sex and to be disrespectful towards the people I sleep with—that I avoid falling into the trap of financialized temporalities of existence. When using the app, I am undeniably part of a shared temporal financial milieu. The only way not to adopt that posture would be to swipe right for everyone. This would be a ridiculous thing to do. It would be little more than a reproduction of the party-goer in search of a hook-up on a Saturday night—thus making the technology itself redundant.
The popularization of Tinder in conjunction with our desire to desire less is a symptom of our conatus being fully aligned with the master desire of financialized capitalism. Dating applications graft themselves particularly well onto the financialization of the market—our temporal financial milieu. Dating applications could have other implications, but not when our drive is to become liquid. As their use grows, our sexual activity will only continue to drop. Material reproduction and desire itself being a growing impediment upon capital accumulation, the city will gradually be emptied of its libidinous energies—and of the reproduction of life itself.