Does online dating move too fast?

woman looking at a laptop in a restaurant and smiling

I’m not here for a hook-up: can’t we slow things down?

Most of us are long past the stigma that used to exist around online dating. Apps like Tinder and Bumble, or websites like OK Cupid and Match, are ubiquitous in the dating world. And with good reason: finding the right person in the real world can feel like a massive game of chance. Why spend hours attending social events or bar hopping in the hopes that you may just run into someone who is both your kind of guy and available when the Internet can bring the entire pool of potential prospects instantly before you?

But as anyone who’s dabbled in online dating knows, it comes with a huge number of pitfalls, not the least of which is about setting up expectations around sex. Yes, it’s great to be able to search through profiles until you find someone whose tastes and interests align with yours. But it can be just as discouraging to begin a chat with this person, only for it to become instantly obvious that they’re only looking for a hook-up.

Some dating sites have a reputation for being used primarily for just such purposes, and many of the users are aware of this. But where does that leave those of us who are looking for something long-term?

Sadly, with not a lot of space. Setting expectations around sex is a big part of online dating, and some platforms address this head-on by including questions about sex right alongside other questions about your tastes and interests. For instance, OK Cupid bases a lot of its algorithm for matching couples on how they answer questions, how their ideal partner would answer that same question, and how important the question is to them. This would be great, except sometimes the questions and answers are limited in the options they provide.

As an example, answers to the question “How soon would you be ready to have sex?” begin on a granular level: “On the first night,” followed by “After 2­–3 dates.” Then they suddenly jump from having sex “after 6 or more dates” to “not till after marriage.” That’s a huge leap! And when you consider how quickly a new couple can blow through the first six dates, this can easily boil down to the difference between “I’ll have sex with you now,” “in a week or two weeks,” or “not till after we’re married.”

Most importantly, where does that leave those of us who aren’t prepared to set a definitive timeline on our sexual availability? If we’d like to take things “slow,” does the “six or more dates” option put us on a timeline? What if the answer is “when I’m ready?” Shouldn’t that be enough?

We should set expectations with our partners: that’s a good thing. And if options on a dating platform help you do so, that’s also good. But it’s not good when the questions themselves and the options for answering them establish a standard, or make us feel like there’s a way we “should” answer them in order not to seem too prudish. Because even in the online dating world, there’s a lot of pressure to shift our desires and preferences in order to make ourselves into someone we think will be more appealing to someone else. When we’re not careful, we can find ourselves compromising on important issues, just because we’re anxious about what attractive strangers might think.

And that’s a real shame, because online dating offers us an excellent chance to be true to ourselves, and find the person who likes us for who we really are. Let’s embrace that.

Iris is the director of ArborWoman.