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Students, experts speak to online dating nuances in the queer community

March 19, 2024

Apps like Tinder and Hinge have taken dating to another level by providing users with almost immediate connections to potential partners. 

According to Michigan State University Psychology Associate Professor William Chopik, this has changed how people are making connections. Chopik, a social-personality psychologist, has performed lots of research on decision making in dating apps. 

"I think, recently, online dating surpassed other ways that people meet online for the first time in decades, it’s been growing," he said. "That’s how most people meet now, instead of say through friends or through work or through church."

These online apps can have positive impacts, such as connecting people who may not have otherwise met. However, they are also often tailored to heterosexual couples. 

"I definitely think that they favor more heteronormative values," social work freshman Dakotah Sosnowski said. "I’ve had a really hard time trying to date people besides men (on dating apps)."

Not only does the format of dating apps tend to favor heterosexual relationships, but it also forces queer people to take a multitude of precautions when navigating these apps. Social Work Associate Professor Tina Timm, a sex therapist, spoke to the added obstacles that come with navigating dating apps as a member of the queer community. 

"Because there’s more things to navigate when you are in this app and dating as a sexual minority," Timm said. "There are increased risks for both emotional and physical safety."

Pre-veterinary medicine freshman Madeleine Winer said she had a largely negative experience when using dating apps, and eventually had to delete the apps altogether. 

"I just got tired of the constant harassment," Winer said. "It was just too much and too negative to the point where I could just no longer be on those apps."

Queer people face dangers to their physical well-being when putting themselves into online spaces. Winer experienced attempts at sexual exploitation, as well as unwanted advances from people looking to take advantage of their sexuality. 

Since all interactions on dating apps are through online messaging, it can often be hard to tell if the intentions of people are good, Timm said. She noted it is important to take precautions before furthering your relationship with someone you meet online. 

Winer also encourages users to meet people in very public environments when moving from online to in person, as well as approaching it more as a "hang out" rather than a "date." 

Along with queer people needing to take additional measures to protect their physical safety, Timm said they face added risks to psychological wellbeing while using dating apps. 

"They might still be struggling with trying to identify their own sexual identity or gender identity," Timm said. "And so the internal stuff that comes up for people in those spaces is more difficult."

Dating, for people of all sexualities, is a vulnerable experience; Timm said being a member of the queer community while dating takes those challenges and ramps them up significantly. 

"It takes all the regular fears and insecurities of the dating world, and then puts this layer of LGBTQ+ insecurities that get in the mix," Timm said. "People personalize them and struggle emotionally in different ways that are more unique to their identity, and really painful."

Being authentic to what you want on dating apps can make it a more positive experience, Timm said, a truth similar to those present among heterosexual couples. 

"If somebody’s looking for a long term relationship and they’re not clear about that, and all they’re hooking up with are people that just want one night stands, it’s going to be a bad experience," she said. "I think that authenticity, and being more clear in your own head (and) on those apps is probably going to provide a better experience."

Dating apps can also provide a way for members of the queer community to understand more about themselves and their sexuality. For business freshman Ameena Babatunde, starting dating apps was hard because there was a lot she didn’t understand about what she wanted and who she wanted to be with. But using the apps was part of what helped her uncover this information.

"I kind of had to find out what I liked, what I didn’t like, who I wanted to date and who I didn’t want to date – so that was a lot of trial and error," Babatunde said. "But this semester, I know what I want ... so it’s been a lot smoother."

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Timm said the ability to find out more about yourself and your sexuality is one of the more positive impacts that dating apps can have.

"I like that some of those apps allow people to just kind of sink into that place where they're trying to be whoever they are without a lot of expectations," she said. "Or they find other people that are trying to figure it out too, and there’s safety in that."

There are also ways to use the vulnerability that comes with putting yourself out there to grow more. However, Timm noted, protecting oneself mentally as well as physically is important, and one way to do that is managing your expectations. 

"It’s important to be able to see those things that happen as knowing or expecting them to happen, and using it as a way of challenging yourself to grow and to be able to be vulnerable," Timm said. "To be okay that people may not like you for who you are (is) okay. That (doesn't mean) there's anything wrong with you, and it's not that you did anything wrong."

In addition to finding growth in online spaces, many are able to find community. Sosnowski said finding queer people is hard because it feels like they are far and few between, but having an online space makes that search easier. 

"Where I’m from is a small conservative town and I didn’t have any options to begin with, and here (at MSU), it still feels like there aren’t that many options," Sosnowski said. 

The format of online dating apps and the ability to select your preferences in terms of gender and sexuality is a one way for people to find others who are looking for similar things. And with certain features available, such as location, it also makes it easier to find potential partners near you. 

"What I find with my clients (is that) what they find most helpful about these apps is that this is a self selected population, where you can find people that would be extremely difficult to find in everyday life," Timm said. 

The ability to find those who match your preferences on dating apps can also be dependent on what dating apps you use. Babatunde said some are more centered around hookups, while others are focused on people who want long term relationships; similarly, there are apps that are better suited for queer people. 

"Tinder and Bumble are a little bit straighter, a little bit more heterosexual, so it really just depends on the person," she said. "But I know for me, I’ve had a lot more success on Hinge because I’m finding people who want to be in relationships and I’m also finding more people who are queer."

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