Politics of Dating Apps

Lik Sam Chan is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Previously, he was the George Gerbner Postdoctoral Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His research takes an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and mixed-methods approach to examine the intricate relationship between digital media, gender, and culture. His new book, The Politics of Dating Apps: Gender, Sexuality, and Emergent Publics in Urban China, explores dating app culture in China, arguing that these popular mobile apps are not merely a platform for personal relationships but also an emerging arena for gender and queer politics. For the book, he conducted interviews with 69 dating app users in Guangzhou, China of various gender and sexual identities.

He focuses on the concept of “networked sexual publics,” which he defines as a network of people united by their shared position in the patriarchal and heteronormative world and connected by dating app tech-- a space where a multiplicity of interpretations and relationships are possible for the public. The five features of networked sexual publics are: (1) resistance and dominance; (2) multiple users having multiple interpretations; (3) strong regional specificity; (4) multiplicities of relationships; and (5) the price of being connected. In the talk, he discusses two of these features.

Feature 1: where there is resistance, there is also dominance. The straight women Dr. Chan interviewed feel that dating apps, such as Tantan and Momo, are a space where they can exercise agency. Meanwhile, Gay dating apps, such as Blued and Aloha, have allowed gay men to find partners anytime and anywhere. This is especially important in cities like Guangzhou, where the gay scene is generally underground due to societal perceptions of homosexuality. While these apps provide an escape from the patriarchal, heteronormative world, they also help perpetuate heteronormativity and patriarchy. On Tantan and Momo, straight men often feel emboldened to objectify women, with one interviewee referring to the apps as, “the centralized management of the back palace,” a direct reference to imperial concubines. Likewise, gay and lesbian apps perpetuate heteronormativity and gender binaries through their rigid gender classification system, asking users to define themselves as more masculine, more feminine, or in between. This assumes that users have stable gender identities, which is often not the case, and projects the oppressive dominant social structure onto these queer spaces.

Feature 2: the meanings that users attach to dating apps cannot simply be reduced to psychological motives. Gratification theory suggests that users actively select dating apps to satisfy their needs, such as seeking sex. However, it treats sex seeking as homogeneous across demographics when, in reality, the act carries different meanings for different groups of users. Straight women interpret sex seeking on dating apps as a way to learn about sexual desires and fantasies, figure out how to separate sex from romance, or discover that sex without love isn’t for them. Straight men, on the other hand, describe their dating app usage as a means for fulfilling the psychological need of sex, rather than self-actualization. Queer women note that lesbians talk for a long time on dating apps far before sex comes into the equation, making communication more important than the act of hooking up itself.

There is still much research to be done on the role of dating apps in China, but there is a lot to take away from Dr. Chan’s research. The networked sexual publics created by dating apps allow for self-discovery and have the potential to create a more equal and freer world for all genders and sexualities. From dating apps, new forms of publics will continue to emerge, in which the possibilities for personal and social development are virtually limitless.

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