Nancy Jo Sales has a gift for communicating with young people. As a contributing writer for Vanity Fair, it’s been part of her job for years. Sales famously exposed Hollywood’s “Bling Ring”—a group of teens who broke into the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom, stealing millions of dollars’ worth of luxury goods. When her 2015 VF piece “Tinder and the Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” went viral, the world of online dating became her main beat. Her 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers and her first film, the 2018 HBO documentary Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age, are unsettling travelogues in which high-school and college students across America tell Sales how a new normal of social media and online dating impacts their lives, their self-esteem, and their views about sex and love. But in her just-published book Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno, Sales recounts a moment when her communication skills failed spectacularly: A “frat boy out of central casting” in Louisville, Kentucky, began choking her during sex without warning, and was mystified when she pushed him away in a fight-or-flight burst of adrenalized terror. “I thought you’d like it!” he protested. “All girls like being choked.”
This isn’t even the most harrowing anecdote in Nothing Personal, but it captures the challenge of navigating the generational, sexual, and affective gaps that offer the fiftysomething Sales both freedom (say, to have casual sex with a slew of younger, always-up-for-it men) and torment (most of these men have red flags that are visible from space). The book’s mix of gonzo journalism and critical analysis follows Sales’s descent into the bloodless heart of the dating-industrial complex exemplified by Tinder, whose swiping mechanism has become shorthand for a disconnected, objectifying economy of attraction. And it argues that what Sales calls “the corporate takeover of dating”—Match Group, which owns its namesake company as well as Tinder, OKCupid, Hinge, Black People Meet, Our Time, and more, has what amounts to a global monopoly on online dating—has little to do with helping people find sex, love, and companionship, and far more with behavioral conditioning. (Swiped includes footage from B.F. Skinner’s 1948 experiment in which the behavioral psychologist proved his theory of “operant conditioning” by training pigeons to peck for food that was delivered at random intervals, leading pigeons to connect pecking with reward; Tinder’s cofounder and Chief Strategy Officer Jonathan Badeen credited the experiment with inspiring the swipe.) The addictive results, Sales notes, doesn’t just power a multibillion-dollar industry; they feed an ever-growing problem of harassment, rote misogyny, and even violence—and not just the allegedly well-meaning kind Sales experienced with that frat boy in Louisville.
Nothing Personal packs a lot into its pages: a lot of good sex, a lot of bad sex, and a lot of statistics about both the emotional downsides of online dating and the very real dangers of it. A lot of tech CEOs avoiding accountability for the alarming rates of sexual assault that users of their products experience. And a lot of moments where a reader wants to invoke a timeless internet meme—Men is too headache—and log off forever. Bitch called up the unflinchingly honest, whip-smart author to hear more of what she learned from her time in the inferno.
I felt a kind of pre-emptive dread reading this book, because culturally we’re not even at the place where women can admit to loving and pursuing sex—much less older women who specifically pursue sex with younger men. So I really loved reading about it but I hated thinking about how it might be received.
One of the reasons I wrote the book was for my young women friends and the young women I’ve interviewed, knowing how alone they felt for the reason you just described—because you can’t be honest unless you’re with your girlfriends or your close buddies. Out in the world, you have to pretend you’re just doing great. You love the dating apps, you love the sex, you feel great about your body. But dating still sucks, and it’s even worse on these platforms. After I did Swiped, women were sending me emails and DMs saying “Listen to what happened to me.” And it wasn’t just young women, either. It was women [in their] 30s and 40s: “Listen to what happened to me. Listen to what this guy did.”
We like to think we’re so progressive and so open, but somehow it’s not translating to dating. [Dating] is where backlash exists right now in a big, big way. When I [wrote] American Girls, [the publisher] told me not to use the word “misogyny.” [Laughs.] They were afraid it sounded too harsh, so that word does not appear in the book. Now we’re saying these words, we’re talking about systemic sexism, systemic misogyny. But we’re still not talking enough about how [they] affect dating, and dating is not a trivial subject. “Dating” is not just going on a date. It’s sex, it’s intimacy, it’s relationships, it’s the basis for possibly having families.
And people just do not want to hear that older women have sex, especially older women with skunk streaks in their hair who are like 40 pounds overweight. [Laughs.] I shouldn’t say “overweight,” that’s fat-shaming myself: “Who weighs 40 pounds more than the acceptable societal standard of what is attractive.” There’s the weird sexualization of certain celebrities, like Helen Mirren—I had a guy say to me, “Betty White? I’d hit that.” But in general, people don’t want to hear it, and it’s unfortunate. Because you’re all going to get there. You’re all going to one day be me—or your mom.
You set your search parameters on the apps to include much younger men. That idea terrified me in the brief period of time when I was on Tinder. The fact that you had not just hookups but relationships and conversations, I found really heartening.
When I first went on Tinder—which was basically exactly when it came out—the discovery only went up to 40. I was a very early user, and there were just not a lot of older people on the apps. Tinder actually got sued in California for charging more for olds [to sign up] than for youngs. I haven’t been on in a while, but my friend was telling me that in her grandmother’s retirement community, they’re all hitting each other up on [the app]. But most people I matched with were younger, 25 or even 23. Guys on these apps are absolutely fascinated by older women. They were fun to look at, and especially fun to look at naked, but they tended, overall, to be terrible in bed. I [cite] studies in the book that talk about how younger men are not only worse in bed [than older ones] but they are also more violent: Women talked to me about being choked, about [being] slapped in the face in bed. A lot of them are [just] led to think that they’re going to get sex because you matched with them, and not only that, they’re going to get the sex that they’ve seen in porn.
I [was sent] dick pics and harassing messages, [had] my pussy grabbed in a public place, was chased down the street and called a “whore.” I did have some fun with the guy I call Abel [in the book], but I also write about how difficult that relationship was because dating apps contributed to his transformation into a lying, cheating fuckboy. He was a troubled guy with addiction problems, and apps only exacerbated his addictions. My horrible experiences were not only my experiences; every time I spoke to anyone about it they would have something worse to tell me.
I saw lots of pretty people naked in my day. But I hadn’t seen them like that in a while, and that part [of online dating] was fun. But was it worth all the other stuff? No. I learned a lot; I had experiences that furthered my understanding of the world. But some of it really upset me and endangered me, and I did a lot of stupid things. I was using this whole experience as a way to avoid thinking about other stuff that was happening to me. I was not dealing yet, after 40 years, with the trauma of sexual assault, and I was doing lots of things to keep myself from fully thinking about myself.
It’s interesting how much you were writing contemporaneously with your actual experiences. That must be disorienting, having these experiences and not only processing them for yourself but presenting them for an audience that doesn’t necessarily know you.
That’s pretty much exactly what I wanted it to feel like. I wanted to replicate—or reflect—how it feels to not deal with yourself as a woman in the world. I never liked to think of myself as someone who had internalized misogyny. I always thought feminism was cool; anything that was about uplifting people was cool to me. But that’s really different from looking at yourself and what you do and what you don’t do. I would learn along the way, but I [also did] stupid shit, like get married. [Laughs.]
The thing that I never looked at, that now I’m trying to look at and trying to make other people look at in terms of dating and technology, is how much of it is internalized misogyny. I had never looked at it in myself, and I’ve been so heartened by some of my young women friends who I’ve sent the book to, or some of the Goodreads reviews, that say things like “I needed someone to say this.” That’s what I’m going for. There are people who want to judge and say “Oh, she just made shitty choices.” But what I’m trying to say is that we’re set up to make shitty choices, because we’re not really looking at what we’re doing. These apps don’t do anything to improve the user experience because they don’t have to. They don’t have to be interested in whether or not you get raped, or if you get married, or if you have good sex, because that’s not what they’re really for.
Swiped looked at the behavioral science at play with apps like Tinder—making it clear how much social conditioning and even addiction are literally built into these things.
I was very interested in showing how they’re designed to be addictive, because that really was never out there. When I [was writing] this book I started reading people like Jaron Lanier, and [realizing] that it’s not just that I’m addicted to these apps; they are making me addicted to behaving in [specific] ways. And that’s on top of the ways I’ve already been conditioned to do things. For example, I’ve been conditioned to please men, whether it’s by doing their laundry, giving them blowjobs, telling them how great they are, or trying to downplay my own achievements. The [same] way I’ve been conditioned to do all these things, I’m now, on the apps, becoming what my friend—in the book I call her Abigail—calls a “device wife.”
In this new dating culture, you don’t know when someone might actually respond to you. So when they do respond, it’s like the pigeons pecking, you get that little dopamine rush and it carries over into the other things you do. And you’re so excited: “Hello, person with penis, let me charm you and make you feel so good, emoji, emoji.” It’s like that movie Her. I’m acting like a device wife, even though I don’t give a fuck that you had a taco for lunch. So anyway, that’s what I started to think about: Here I am, I’m 50 years old, I’ve been conditioned to serve men, and now I’m serving an app—giving it my time, my money, and my data, which is in service of men as well. The whole thing started to feel very dark.
American Girls, Swiped, and now this book, are fascinating because they show that you can have a cogent critical analysis of the way social media affects your behavior even as you recognize your own growing addiction to it.
I talked to hundreds of girls for American Girls, and I was really struck by how many of them were aware that they were doing things in the service of sexualization. Some of them knew that word; some of them didn’t. There were girls in 2014 who would be like “What is feminism? Is that when a boy wants to be a girl?” But then [there were] some who were like, “Oh yeah, I know I’m sexualizing myself.” I actually just interviewed this TikTok star, and it was all about how she sexualized herself to become famous on TikTok, basically, so that she could become known so that she could become an actor. You get in this bind, and the more you struggle the tighter you’re bound.
A question I get all the time is [breathy reporter voice] “Well, it’s not all bad, is it?” Of course it’s not! The problem is that it’s mostly rich white guys making this stuff, and so much of it is based on this Rosetta Stone of Hot or Not, Fuckable or Not. And I’ve had people say to me “But men get [rejected] too! And what about the poor incels who never get swiped on?” And it’s like, are you going to tell me it’s the same, really? Are you going to say that the male gaze isn’t what this whole thing is about? I have gotten emails from and engaged in conversation with male incels who are angry about what I write and who say that I don’t think about their needs enough. But I don’t think any of this is good for them either!
I have a friend who recently got kicked off Tinder. She’s kind of brassy, and I’m sure she told some guy to fuck off, and if [someone] reports you you get kicked off, they don’t even look into why. And she was so upset. I’ve known this woman since she was in middle school—she’s my best friend’s daughter, she’s one of my best friends too, and we’ve been talking about these apps for 10 years. She’s incredibly funny and smart, and she was so upset she got banned. I was like “Why do you care? We’ve done nothing but talk about how evil [these apps are] for years. Why are you upset that you can’t get back on?” And she thought about it for a second and said “I think it’s because it’s where I go just to have some kind of companionship, even if it’s bad.”
Because that’s how much [the apps] have taken over, not just Tinder but other apps as well. That’s how much they’ve taken over our social life, how we socialize. And with COVID…. even if I’m on Tinder fighting with some horrible bro and telling him what an asshole he is, or trying to get him in a conversation or sexting or whatever, at least I’m not alone.
That is a chilling statement.
David Bowie gave this BBC interview in 1999 about the internet, and said “The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable.” And the interviewer said to him—and what people still say to me—was “Well, isn’t it just a tool?” No. Absolutely not. They’re not tools, you’re the tool. When the platforms are used for good, it’s a powerful kind of good. But it’s important to me to talk about the harm. Because I don’t think the good outweighs the harm.
“Here I am, I’m 50 years old, I’ve been conditioned to serve men, and now I’m serving an app—giving it my time, my money, and my data.”
Your discussions with Hollywood people about adapting Nothing Personal quickly became about pathologizing you as an older woman seeking sex and companionship via dating apps. It was infuriating, if not surprising, to read about. What do you think is needed to change those cultural attitudes?
I was offered a big deal with a big outlet with very big people involved, and I was really shocked by their casual misogyny and their ageism—particularly since some of the women involved were in fact older. I couldn’t believe how judgmental and even downright nasty they were, sometimes, talking about the character like she was some kind of unbalanced, desperate whore—like a vampire who wants to feed off young men. If only they knew how excited those young men really were to be with an older woman! It’s like they couldn’t even conceive of that. The turning point came when I talked to my daughter about it. She’s a film buff; she has always loved movies and now she’s going to school for film. I told her “Every time I talk to them I feel terrible” and she said, “That’s because they’re slut-shaming you.”
I think for things to change Hollywood has to hire more women and put more women in positions of power, as creators, directors, showrunners. Things are starting to change, but it’s a glacial pace. When you look at older shows that were created and run by women, you often see something very different. The Golden Girls is a good example. There was a lot of slut-shaming of Blanche (Rue McClanahan); it was a running gag. But you also had her being so confident in her sexuality at age 60 or whatever, and that was very refreshing, even radical. Those characters were always going on dates and getting busy.
As someone who has dated in both the pre- and post-app worlds, what do you think people who have only used apps misunderstand about analog dating? On the flip side, what do you think is the biggest misconception non-app users have?
People who don’t use these apps sometimes think it’s all just hooking up and sex. In the early days of dating apps some of the male founders were frank about the fact that they had designed them for people (read: men) to get sex—they were called “hookup apps.” But when you actually use them, especially now as dating-app culture has evolved, you see it isn’t really like that a lot of the time. Many people use these apps out of boredom, for “entertainment,” to assuage some aching loneliness without having to leave their house (although studies say this actually exacerbates loneliness in the long run). Some people use them because they “like to judge” other people’s pictures—that’s a quote from someone I interviewed. Some people use them as a way to masturbate to someone else, someone they will maybe never even meet.
Dating before this technology was less exhausting. “Exhausting” is a word I’ve heard uttered hundreds of times by people I’ve interviewed about what the experience of online dating feels like. And it is exhausting, because it’s labor. We are laboring for the companies, providing them with valuable data. We are unpaid workers—sometimes we’re paying them to work for them. I don’t want to romanticize dating in the past; [it] was always fraught with frustrations and dangers for women. I never found it easy dealing with straight men in a romantic or emotional context; there was too much inequality for it to ever be easy. But it was more fun, because chemistry was involved. You were on a journey to get to know someone—it wasn’t all laid out for you in his curated images on Instagram. [There was] more choice, ironically enough, because you weren’t being herded into certain behaviors by algorithms.
Also, the sex was better. Straight men were not watching porn on a daily basis, so they weren’t as influenced by those images. You still had to show men what to do, but that could be seen as sexy—and there was a lot of music, like Barry White and Marvin Gaye, supporting the idea that getting a woman off was sexy. I don’t think anything about online dating today is sexy in the same way. This is one of the most awful things these companies have done—they’ve killed the magic. But again, I don’t want to glamorize the past. Misogyny wasn’t invented by dating apps. It was just weaponized by them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.