Why economic structures of privilege and power matter in the world of online dating.
“So you’re saying I can fight ingrained prejudices AND have a better love life?”
When I started dating online a year ago, I thought that if I diversified my dating preferences, the benefits would reflect the same upside of diversification in the economy. I would date a greater number of people, and different kinds of people. Simple, right? People diversify their investments to spread the risk around—if certain prospects don’t pan out, you still have other options. This way you have the safest guaranteed return on investments. I felt the same way about dating. It’s hard to find “the one” that will give you a big payout, so I figured that if I dated around then on the whole I would satisfy my short-term goals—funny conversations, intellectual challenges, artistic inspirations, and sometimes free drinks—though not necessarily all from the same person. Even if I would technically be “lowering” or at least altering my existing standards, I would also be meeting a larger number of people, spinning the wheel more times for a better chance of finding someone with whom I shared that sought-after, gut-instinct chemistry.
But I found some surprises in my adventures in dating diversification—like in the wider economy, there are external factors that complicate the odds, and an uneven playing field that impacts the way we see our own choices. I was thinking of “diversification” quantitatively, but there are other types of branching out that would similarly improve my chances at finding what I was looking for. From my own experiences and the experiences of friends with different identities and backgrounds than myself (and from social science research), I learned that societal power structures—like economic status—are also often reflected in online dating. Here, like everywhere else in life, certain people have more prospects than others, some participants are over- or undervalued, and some are left with unfairly reduced opportunity for success.
It turns out that in the world of dating, many people have a pretty narrow view of what they want in a potential mate—we tend to reinforce certain “desirable” attributes over others, whether or not these attributes would actually make for a good partner. For example, a study of data from OKCupid found that people rarely respond to messages outside their own race. Black women in particular have the hardest time with online dating, especially with getting messages and responses. Studies have found that women have a distinct distaste for short men (and likewise short men experience lower pay in the economy). As I became aware of these trends I realized that my diversification plans were less diverse than I originally thought. I had been dating outside my “type,” sure, but I was still limiting my options unnecessarily, and I started to open my eyes to the dating privileges my own race and class afforded.
As Thomas Piketty demonstrated in his groundbreaking text “Capital in the 21st Century,” not all investments are poised to produce the same kind of returns. Based on your initial capital level and plain old discrimination, different people and institutions will get more or less for their investments. In “Capital,” Piketty showed that when you have a bigger endowment to start with, you have a higher rate of return per dollar invested. He argues that this is because of superior access to resources that become available to those with larger initial assets. The same happens not only because of endowment (in the case of dating, read: beauty, privilege), but outright discrimination against certain groups of people when they are seeking financial services. After the sub-prime mortgage crisis, there was evidence that white people were given better financial advice than people of color in the same financial class, landing non-whites with sub-prime loans when they could have afforded better arrangements.
These patterns that disempower certain groups in the economy are frequently replicated in dating. The standards of beauty that inform one’s theoretical “endowment” are informed by historical structures that privilege some over others, quite often along the lines of race. As shown in the studies described above, groups of people without access to financial markets also don’t have as great access to dating markets. And even beyond notions of physical beauty, social prejudices affect how people are perceived while dating.
I’ll use myself as a critical example. When I started dating, I saw myself as diversifying. There was a funny guy, a rich guy, a guy with lots of common interests, an intellectual guy, a drinking buddy, and so on. I wrote about this strategy for Dame Magazine, comparing this strategy to an economic theory by Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Looking back, there are some pretty common features among the men I dated: white, tall, masculine, and from an at-least middle-class background. Not only was I reflecting my own socioeconomic privileges, being white and middle class, but I also reinforced other common signifiers of social power, being tall and performing the traditional masculine gender roles or looks. It’s true, I love having a drink paid for and I love the masculine look of facial hair. And yet, studies show that once one ventures outside their own initial dating preferences (especially by race and class), they are likely to continue doing so. I was forced to consider that I was, in fact, spiting both myself and my search for companionship with unexamined prejudices.
(Not only that, but I was actually perpetuating the cycles that brought about these imbalances in the first place: When people look for a partner that matches their own background, economic status and the social status quo are maintained or enhanced by finding someone of similar education and earnings. One reinforces the other.)
Of course, the complicated, intersectional world of dating has idiosyncrasies that don’t exactly line up with the economic world. But the reason both dating and the economic world have these generally similar patterns comes down to the role of power in our society. As much as we’d like to think personal relationships are totally singular, and that people’s economic status should reflect their individual merit, larger structures of power permeate even the most personal aspects of our lives. When we swipe on Tinder, we might not think we are replicating a centuries-old power struggle in a rigged battle, but those are the outcomes.
As a woman, I am considered to be aging out of men’s ideal demographic at 31 years old. But given that I am white, middle class, educated, and reasonably conform to beauty standards I am still quite privileged. Even at 5 feet tall, I have to admit I judge a man’s online dating profile if I think he’s too short. But it is hard to move beyond these prejudices when they are reinforced throughout society. Perhaps, in realizing that we are taking part in this structure, we can at least do a double take before we swipe left or ignore someone’s message. We may think we’re just trying to find an attractive date—but we might be unwittingly playing into patriarchy and archaic racial and social norms. And by breaking these patterns and broadening our horizons, we might find something we didn’t know we were looking for. Just something to consider next time you judge someone’s selfie.