Swiping and Dating Preferences
Gender divides in sex and relationships
Earlier this year, the American Perspectives Survey collected data from a representative sample of more than 5,000 U.S. adults aged 18 and older. Here I’ll go through and share the results and some thoughts. Some of the findings are predictable. Other results are surprising.
The survey found that women care a lot more about height than men do.
56% of women say they would be less likely to date a man who is “much shorter” than they are, while only 32% of men say they would be less likely to date a woman who is much taller.
In other words, men are generally okay with dating a woman who is much taller than themselves but women really don’t want to date a man who is much shorter than them.
Marriage and Happiness
The report notes that “No change has altered the fabric of American life so profoundly as the decline of marriage.”
One reason for this is the rise of cohabitation. The number of Americans cohabitating with their romantic partner has more than doubled over the past three decades.
Interestingly, a recent survey found that men in cohabiting relationships are just as satisfied in their relationships as married men, but women in cohabiting relationships are much less satisfied than married women. Much of social progress was supposedly intended to benefit women and instead ended up benefiting men.
Women used to report having higher well-being than men. Over the past several decades, though, this has reversed. Women’s self-reported happiness has plummeted. Today men report higher well-being than women.
More Young People are Single
About 6 in 10 young men (18-29) are single.
Among young women, a little less than half are single.
This appears to be a noticeable increase from just a few years ago.
In a Pew survey conducted in 2019, about half of men aged 18-29 reported being single, and for women the figure was 32 percent.
From 2019 to 2023, singlehood among young men increased from 51 percent to 57 percent. For women, singlehood increased from 32 percent to 45 percent.
There is a large disparity in dating interest between single men and single women.
More than half (52%) of single men say they are interested in dating, compared with only 36 percent of women.
Forty-three percent of young women say they have no interest in dating, compared with 34 percent of men.
This is consistent with other survey data indicating that the majority of women now say that dating has gotten harder in the last 10 years, compared with only 39 percent of men.
Casual Sex and the Dark Triad
These findings might also be explained by general sex differences in response to casual sex. Relationships used to begin with courtship, meeting families, spending lots of time together, etc. and then finally sex. Today, relationships among young people commonly begin with sex, then turn into a “situationship,” then “seeing each other,” then perhaps a discussion about monogamy (“are you seeing anyone else?”) then maybe exclusivity. But a lot of relationships don’t even go that far. They get stuck in a holding pattern of casual sex, which guys often enjoy. Girls don’t want to seem vulnerable so they don’t bring up the possibility of commitment and hope maybe the guy will like them enough to raise the topic themselves.
As the author Louise Perry has written, “we see young women advised to work on overcoming their perfectly normal and healthy preference for intimacy and commitment...Guides with titles like 'Here’s What to Do if You Start ‘Catching Feelings’ and 'How to Have Casual Sex Without Getting Emotionally Attached.’”
A 2022 study found that after casual sex, women, on average, report high levels of loneliness, unhappiness, rejection, and regret. Conversely, men report higher satisfaction, happiness, contentment, and mood improvement.
All this being said, I know several young men who have disclosed that they too often experience remorse and loneliness after casual hookups. And some guys have told me about the bewilderment they have felt after being ghosted by women after what seemed like a pleasant date followed by sex. My guess (only a guess) is that some of these women have been mistreated in the past and have now adopted the same behaviors and patterns. Emotional coldness, ghosting, concealing signs of vulnerability or neediness, and so on.
Here's a sketch of what might be happening: Men high on the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) use dating apps. They might make up 10-20% of users. They go on a rampage, sleeping with lots of women, playing games with them, leading them on, ghosting them, lying to them, etc. Dark Triad men are excellent impostors; they are good at mimicking desirable romantic qualities, and are thus able to procure lots of sex partners. The women they sleep with become disillusioned. These women begin to behave in psychopathic and narcissistic ways to protect themselves from emotional vulnerability and pain, and perhaps as a way to even the score with “men” as a category. They learn to avoid Dark Triad men and exploit normal men. These men become confused and upset, and begin to treat other women the same way to “get even.” In short, Dark Triad men mistreat women, who then mistreat ordinary men, who then mistreat ordinary women. Bad behavior drives out the good. A system tailor-made for psychopathic males (dating apps facilitate anonymity, superficiality, and deception) predictably gives rise to a defect-defect equilibrium. Eventually, you have a situation where everyone adopts Dark Triad strategies of emotional coldness, unfeeling callousness, and calculated duplicity to obtain sex and avoid getting hurt.
Most normal people, especially normal women, want no part of this. So more and more are choosing to opt out.
Two years, ago I spoke with Jordan Peterson and shared with him research indicating that people high on Dark Triad traits are more likely to use dating apps. Jordan suggested that in addition to attracting people with Dark Triad traits, dating apps were also cultivating these traits in people.
There does seem to be a gradual recognition of the limitations of dating apps. Podcasters Louise Perry and Evan Riggs have been organizing matchmaking mixers. Anecdotally, young people have told me they want to meet someone in person. Things could change.
Relative to men, a larger percentage of women say that “not being able to find someone who meets their expectations” is a major reason they are single.
Interestingly, college-educated women are more likely than non-college graduate women to report difficulty finding someone who meets their expectations. This is perhaps, at first glance, the opposite of what you would expect. Women with only a high school diploma have, generally speaking, a far more limited pool of quality men to choose from. You’d think they would report greater difficulty finding a suitable man.
But as I’ve written elsewhere, as women become more successful, their standards for an acceptable romantic partner tend to increase.
As young men continue to drop out of education and the workforce, educated and successful women will find it increasingly difficult to find a decent male partner. And once the sex robots/hyper-realistic VR arrives, forget it. At that point, even a lot of the smart and talented men in your life will straight up disappear.
Respect and Realistic Expectations
The survey also collected some qualitative data, and shared quotes from participants. Here is one from a 22-year-old woman:
“Pretty much my biggest thing is respect. . . . If we’re in a relationship, you shouldn’t have any dating apps on your phone at all. Like, I don’t care if we met on one or anything like that. We are in a relationship. I don’t need you going and looking at what’s on the market.”
Sadly, the qualities that a particular woman finds attractive in a man are typically qualities many other women also find attractive. A man who is able to attract a particular woman is usually able to attract plenty of other women as well. Today, with the rise of apps and the decline in social judgment, it is easier than ever for an attractive man in a relationship to find side partners for casual sex.
Relatedly, men are more likely (57%) than women (49%) to say their experiences with dating online have been positive. College-educated men are especially likely to report enjoying online dating—64% say they have had somewhat or very positive experiences.
College-educated men are becoming more and more scarce, so naturally they will have a lot of options.
The woman from the survey continues:
“We ask for simple things, you know, remembering things that we talked about in conversations. You know, flowers occasionally. Date nights. Every once in a while, just to have that reassurance that our relationship is worthwhile and feeling like we can spend really great quality time together and share special moments.”
In her superb new book, Hidden Genius, Polina Pompliano shares research from the psychologist John Gottman:
"If you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time...you need to make an effort...to make a good thing even better, and act."
If you are a typical male in a relationship, don’t just do what comes naturally. Which is probably nothing, or close to nothing. You have to battle your own nature and go out of your way to pretend to be a decent and caring human being. This might not come naturally. But you’ll feel better if you do it, because you’re making your romantic partner feel better.
The survey quotes another woman, age 27:
“A lot of women I have met, a lot of my own peers who are the same age and still are unmarried . . . they’re out there looking for Mr. Perfect. He’s got to be over 6 feet. . . . He’s got to make so much money each year. His family has to be perfect. He has to agree with all of my own personal beliefs. And you know, I mean men are human too. They’re not going to meet all of those expectations.”
In the U.S., only 14.5 percent of men are 6 feet or taller, but one survey found that 33 percent of U.S. men self-report that they are at least 6 feet tall.
Regarding personal beliefs, there is an interesting paradox here for men and women. Most women today are liberal, yet women are also more likely than men to desire committed relationships. Men who are liberal are, on average, far less interested in committed relationships than conservative men, who are more likely to be interested in marriage. If you don’t date conservative (or “moderate”—a joke I’ve heard is that any man who calls themselves a moderate on the dating apps is a Republican) men, you’ll probably be on the dating apps for a long time. There’s already a scarcity of college-educated men. If you rule out everyone who is right of center, then your dating pool will be very small indeed.
The survey authors write, “For most interviewees, dating expectations reflected more basic needs of feeling valued, appreciated, and respected by their partner.”
Sex Differences in Dating Preferences
Employment status is important, but it is especially crucial for men to hold a job.
81% of women, compared with only 56% of men, say they would be less likely to date someone who did not have a job.
Being productive and resourceful is critical for a man’s self-image and social standing. Most (though not all) men implicitly understand that they are only valuable insofar as they bring something to the table (literally and figuratively). In Suicide: The Social Causes of Self-Destruction, the sociologist Jason Manning reports that people who lose their jobs are more likely to kill themselves in the subsequent year than those who have not lost their jobs. This effect, though, is particularly strong for men: those who lose jobs are 2-3 times more likely to have killed themselves.
Interestingly, only 54% of college-educated women say they would be less inclined to date someone who did not attend college. This is consistent with some recent research indicating that assortative mating based on education is far less prevalent than assortative mating based on income. Basically, if you’re a man who did not go to college but have relatively high income, you won’t have much difficulty pairing with a college-educated woman. I’m not sure it works the other way—my guess is a college-educated man with very low earnings would probably have a tough time on the dating market. This is assuming that he is not in medical school or in a position where potential partners understand that his future earnings will be much higher.
Another interesting finding: While roughly equal numbers of conservative men (45%) and conservative women (47%) say they would be less likely to date someone who didn’t want to start a family, there was a large divide between liberal women (43%) and liberal men (34%). Liberal men are the odd man out here. Conservative women, conservative men, and liberal women are all about equally likely to avoid dating someone who doesn’t want a family. Liberal men are more okay with this.
God is important for many people. About half of Americans say they’d be less likely to date someone who didn’t believe in God, and this was especially pronounced among conservative women, three-quarters of whom say they would be less likely to date someone who didn’t believe in God. If you’re an atheist or agnostic male who wants to date a conservative woman, you might have a tough time.
The political divide is where things really stand out. Sixty-five percent of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they would be less likely to date someone of the opposing political party.
Interestingly, conservatives are less willing than liberals to date someone with “extreme” views, even if they are on the same side of the political spectrum. 45% of liberals say they would be willing to date someone who was “extremely liberal,” while only 26% of conservatives would date someone who was “extremely conservative.” Liberals are more open to dating extremists than conservatives.
Being a feminist is more of a liability than a benefit. Forty-two percent of Americans say they would be less likely to date someone who is a feminist compared with 15% who say they would be more likely to date a feminist.
Interestingly, both women and men view dating a feminist more negatively than positively. 39% of women say they would be less likely to date a feminist, compared with 21% who say they would be more likely to date a feminist (the rest said it made no difference). If you’re a single man who wants to attract a female partner, you’re better off not being a feminist.
Young women have stronger attitudes about abortion than older women. Nearly half of young women say it would be impossible (24 percent) or very difficult (22 percent) for them to date someone whose views on abortion do not align with their own. My guess is that because most young women are liberal, this means most young women would not want to date someone who is pro-life.
Overall, though, strong opinions about abortion are held by young women because young women are the most likely to get pregnant. Therefore young women who are pro-life also hold this view more intensely than older women who are pro-life. The stakes are higher for young women.
My sister recently explained to me that her friend from college was dating a guy for about 6 months. Somehow the topic of abortion came up and the guy (who was a 30-year-old college graduate with a good job) told her he “wasn’t ready” for a kid and said if she were to get pregnant, he would help her pay for the abortion. She was horrified and immediately broke up with him; her reasoning was that any man who would encourage an abortion was not a reliable man. There is something peculiar about a 30-year-old man in a committed relationship who would encourage his 28-year-old girlfriend to abort her pregnancy.
How People Meet: Mostly In Person
Interestingly, despite the growing popularity of apps, most people still meet romantic partners through family and friends and personal social networks.
From the survey:
“Young men are most likely to report meeting their current partner through an online dating app or site. Twenty-eight percent of young men report meeting their partner this way. Young women are half as likely (14 percent) to say they met their partner online. Conversely, young men are the least likely to rely on their network of friends and family; only 13 percent say they have met their partner this way.”
This makes sense. Women generally have more friends and are more tuned into their social lives. They also go out of their way to check in on friends in a way that I seldom see with men. Generally, men are more likely to be loners or have relatively fewer friends than women, and are thus more likely to turn to dating apps to find a romantic partner.
Choice Paralysis in the Modern Age
On the topic of dating apps, the survey shared interview quotes from their participants.
A 26 year-old-woman:
“People think that they just have a million options. It’s like when you want to watch a show and you put on Netflix and like, you literally find yourself not being able to decide for like an hour and then you wind up not watching anything.”
A 28-year-old man:
“Anytime a person, man or woman, has limitless options all the time, there is this perception, and most of the time it’s a false perception, that who they’re with now isn’t good enough. That’s why no one has patience with each other anymore, because they could get something better.”
This is choice paralysis. Previous generations didn’t have many options so they stuck together through hard times and made it work. Now, abundance (or its illusion) has led people to feel less satisfied. People are now more anxious about making a choice and less certain that the one they made was correct.
One classic study found that consumers were more likely to buy a jam when they were presented with six flavors compared to 30. And among those who did make a purchase, the people presented with fewer flavors were more satisfied with their choice. When presented with a lot of options people are struck by uncertainty, constantly wondering “Did I make the right choice? Is this really the best I can do?”
When my late adoptive grandparents met back in the 1950s, after about 2 weeks, my 21-year-old grandfather proposed to my 18-year-old grandmother. She replied that she had 3 requirements for him: stop smoking, stop drinking, and stop gambling. My grandfather agreed, immediately dropping all 3 habits (and never returning to them). Today, it is laughable to imagine such a scenario occurring in the U.S.
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