Several months after Leah separated from her husband, her younger sister told her about Tinder, the app that in a matter of a few swipes sets up perfect strangers for shameless hookups. “You shouldn’t be on it,” Leah’s sister said. Which to Leah meant: Of course she should.
Leah is 37. She has a busy job as a marketing consultant and a five-year-old daughter who lives with her in Arlington. It’s a lot to juggle, but after eight years of marriage—a “pretty bad” one, in her words—she was starved for some post-divorce action that would make her feel good and wouldn’t be a nightmare to schedule. So she signed up for Tinder and, in the app’s parlance, swiped right for Brett, a 33-year-old doctor. The two began sexting each other constantly, something Leah and her ex-husband hadn’t done in years. Brett “talked a big game about how great he was in bed,” Leah says, and by their second date they had booked a hotel room, eager to culminate weeks of torrid texting.
As it turned out, closing the deal didn’t go exactly as Leah had hoped. “It was difficult for us to get into a rhythm,” she says. “I stopped in the middle.” The two had drinks at the hotel bar, tried again (to no avail), and then Brett sent Leah home in a taxi because he said she was too drunk to drive. “The next day, I had to take a cab from work to pick up my car from the hotel,” Leah says. “I don’t even remember how I got my daughter to school; I think I Ubered her.”
The letdown of Leah’s first sexual foray on Tinder hardly mattered, though, because the app turned her on to a whole new side of herself. “I never did anything like this before,” she says. “It’s liberating to be like, ‘I’m going to tell you I want to have sex with you and, wow, you’re going to have sex with me.’ There’s a certain power to having that control over a guy.”
Also, it was easy. With Tinder, there was none of the awkwardness of a setup or a blind date, the way a woman of an earlier generation—such as Leah herself, the first time she was single—might have gone about looking for a rebound. The app also displayed tons more options than she might have if she were going out looking for guys the way she did a decade ago, before she got married. “The bar scene,” as she puts it, “sucks now.”
The promise of Tinder, on the other hand, is a straightforward transaction in which both sides know the terms up front and delivery is on demand. And while its image is as a tool for twentysomethings, the way it amazes older users jumping back into the dating pool says a great deal about how fast the scene has shifted. For example, one Tuesday night when Leah’s schedule unexpectedly freed up, she messaged a hot government worker whom she had originally agreed to meet later in the week. “Plans changed,” she texted. “I’m going to be home alone if you want to come over.”
He replied, “All right, you want to f—?”
She said, “Yeah, if you say it nicer.”
He came over, they had sex, and afterward they had their first real conversation.
• • •
When Tinder launched in 2012, its founders initially targeted sorority sisters, college kids at party schools, and twentysomething scenesters in the company’s hometown of Los Angeles: young adults who would naturally gravitate toward mobile dating apps because they were accustomed to using their phones for everything else.
Today Tinder still skews young—in DC, 84 percent of users are under 34—but it also has a healthy cohort of fans outside its early adopters in the iPhone generation. For divorcés looking to get lucky—in a dating landscape that has changed drastically from when they married 10 or 20 years ago—the app can have all kinds of appeal. It takes only a few minutes to set up your bare-bones profile with a photo, age, and pithy sentence of bio. When you’re ready to browse, the GPS-based app displays faces of other users who are currently nearby, within a designated distance of your choosing. You swipe left for no and the next eligible partner appears. If you both swipe right for yes, a chat box opens and the sexting can commence.
While the twentysomething users the app was originally geared for might take this type of instant gratification for granted, the ruthless efficiencies of being able to scan an array of potential mates so quickly (and weed out the less than desirable ones) aren’t lost on midcareer singles with kids who have far more responsibilities and far less free time. After a while, the convenience can even become addictive.
“I swipe all the time—in grocery-store lines, at work, when I’m watching Dora with my daughter,” Leah says. “Anytime I’m bored, that’s my go-to, even if I’m not doing it to meet anybody. It’s like Candy Crush or something.” The company says that users swipe 1.6 billion times a day and that one person’s usage can add up to an hour a day.
For those toting what some prospects might consider deal-breaking baggage, Tinder’s no-frills interface also means less risk of turning them off too soon. “On JDate or Match, where you have to tell your whole life story, you look for things that knock people out,” says Matt, a 38-year-old DC marketing professional. “Like, ‘Who loves Breaking Bad? Oh, she hates Breaking Bad—she’s out.’ ” On JDate, Matt’s profile listed him as divorced with a child, “so right off the bat, that’s going to scare a ton of people away,” he says. With Tinder, those weren’t the first details women discovered about him. He could weave his status into a discussion more naturally.
Another thing not every twentysomething Tinder fiend is likely to appreciate: the sheer ego boost that somebody newly removed from long-term matrimony-slash-monogamy can get out of a successful Tinder hookup.
Just ask Sara, a nonprofit worker in the District who’s divorced and 40. “In my twenties,” she says, “I followed everyone else’s pattern: Look for a boyfriend so you can get married.” She had met her ex in school and they’d dated for several years, then gotten hitched, having had “very few” sex partners. “The sex was great when we were young,” she says of her ex. “By the time we actually got married, it was okay, and nonexistent for the last three-to-five-ish years of marriage. I joked that I was a born-again virgin.”
After they split, having never had a random hookup in her life, Sara binged on Tinder with, as she phrases it, “a couple weeks of sluttiness.” The attention from guys—many of them 27, 28—was a huge charge. “Most of them didn’t have a problem with my age,” she says. “They were like, ‘It doesn’t really matter. If you’re hot, you’re hot.’ ”
• • •
There’s nothing subtle about Tinder, which is part of the point. But like every other virtual forum that doesn’t involve actual face time, the spoken word, and attendant gestures and intonation, there’s plenty of room—among novices especially—to miscommunicate, misread, or simply display unimpressive form.
When Sara first tried Tinder, one guy she swiped right for opened with “You look gorgeous. How soon can you come over here and sit on my face?” Grossed out, she blocked him, only to learn from more Tinder-experienced friends that “scary texts” like that were a common Tinder MO. For Matt, too, “there was a huge learning curve” compared with his pre-smartphone days of dating. “You have to have serious texting game. Most of the time, you never even have phone conversations with people.”
This is partly why you might walk into a bar in Chevy Chase or Fairfax and see women of a certain age huddling and Tindering en masse. That’s a thing now—divorcées long out of the dating scene do it as a way to figure out the subtle art of coy sexting, or to prevent each other from making booty calls they might later regret. Some swap phones to select matches for each other or set up group dates as a safeguard. Sara’s friends made up a game they call “Tinder roulette”: They each choose a handful of men within a mile radius and ask them to meet at a bar. If the guys are shady, the women leave and try again somewhere else.
But none of the older Tinderers I talked to had any major existential qualms about diving right in.
When Leah dated in her twenties, she told family and friends about each date: where she was going, the guy’s phone number, the number of the closest police station. Post-divorce, with the app, she took none of those precautions. Because her five-year-old daughter often slept with her after her ex moved out, Leah kept a “not at my house” rule for her first six months on Tinder. But otherwise, it was only her choice of a profile picture that felt somewhat fraught.
In her early days, she used a picture that included her daughter because she didn’t have recent shots of herself. But after thinking about it, she swapped that one out for a solo portrait. She lives in a small neighborhood, and “it started to freak me out that people would recognize us in real life,” she says. “I took the pictures of her down and started not telling people I had a daughter, because I thought it would turn guys off.”
On that score, Leah turned out to be mistaken. “Only one guy out of 50 said, ‘That’s not cool with me.’ ”
• • •
But it’s not as if things don’t ever get weird. Bonnie, a 47-year-old entrepreneur and mom in Rockville divorced for seven years, had a string of bad luck. Her first date was a jerk. Her second, a Potomac businessman, was in her age range and had kids—two pluses. He said he owned a company that was in turmoil and would tell her more. But the night of the date (which was good), he never mentioned it. So she looked him up. “I found out he had this well-known company that was allegedly running a Ponzi scheme and he owed millions of dollars. He had gone through bankruptcy and a bunch of other stuff. I was like, what the hell?” Bonnie gave up on Tinder after that.
One 35-year-old whom Matt met for a date revealed five minutes into it that she was a virgin (“Game on!”), then later explained that she had never progressed beyond kissing because of deep religious beliefs (game off). Another woman who was between jobs “spent the whole date laying out her résumé for me. I was like, is she networking with me? Is she trying to pitch me for a job?” For Matt, too “bizarre” to stick. After about 20 first dates and a few multi-month relationships, he left Tinder, too.
Bill, a Rockville financial adviser who’s 42, started using it after separating from his wife two years ago. His initial goal: to find “activity partners,” a.k.a. “upscale friends with benefits,” he says. “The rationale is you’re older, wiser, you’ve got money, and you want to go away for a weekend with somebody else.” But after 100-plus dates via apps, Bill says he uses Tinder differently now: “to find adults to hang out with and to get play dates for my kids.” The apps have been helpful at a stage of life when, as a divorced parent, he has “50 percent of the time off and most of my friends are married, so they don’t go out.”
Six months after her sister warned her off the app, Tinder was still a confidence booster for Leah. One day, she and a date were strolling through the Torpedo Factory in Old Town when they rounded a corner and saw her daughter with Leah’s ex and his girlfriend. “My daughter was like, ‘Mommy! How did you know I would be here?’
“The guy I was with was a total champ,” Leah says. “I totally lied and told my ex it was a guy I had been seeing a long time, not a first Tinder date. I wanted him to think I had something with somebody because he did. I gave my daughter a kiss, brushed her hair out of her eyes, and walked away, head held high.”
The names of people interviewed for this story have been changed.
Contributing editor Alexandra Robbins is author of “The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles With the Heroes of the Hospital.”
This article appears in our May 2015 issue of Washingtonian.