Liefde in tijden van Tinder

Everything you need to know about love, sex, technology and relationships



In 2017 Elisabeth Timmermans received a Marie Sklodowska Curie COFUND LEaDing fellowship for her research proposal “Why are you swiping? An innovative approach to study motives, expectancies and (un)successful interpersonal interactions on mobile dating apps”.


I would like to introduce you to Lisa, a 25-year old woman who is looking for a romantic partner. She downloads the mobile dating app Tinder. She swipes right on men she could imagine herself dating. She matches with Frank, but abruptly ends the conversation when Frank says he and his friends would love to hear her best joke. Not much later she matches with Leonard, who tells her he is looking for female friends; he is madly in love with his boyfriend. Lisa is worried she will never find a partner on Tinder. How can I help Lisa have more successful interactions and attain her goal?

Recently, an expanding body of literature has investigated mobile dating applications such as Tinder. The majority of these studies have explored users’ motives, self-presentation and whether they facilitate casual sex. What has not been examined, however, is the online interpersonal process (or computer-mediated communication, CMC) occurring between two individuals after they match. While online dating sites often allow for online relationship development, the use of GPS in mobile dating apps minimizes the time between an online and offline encounter, resulting in an accelerated tempo of (short-term) interactions. Yet, several studies found that only a small proportion of matches between users actually lead to an offline encounter, suggesting that these online interactions are often not that successful in generating offline encounters. This points to the importance of studying online interactions. It is worthwhile to gain more information on the online interpersonal process in order to help users have successful interaction on mobile dating applications.


In October 2013 I started my Ph.D. at the KU Leuven under the supervision of Prof. dr. Jan Van den Bulck and Dr. Elien de Caluwé. In the second year of my Ph.D. I did a research stay at Purdue University (Indiana, USA). In September 2017, I successfully defended my dissertation.


Due to large societal changes, such as the detrimental increase in divorce rates and the increase in partner choice, young adults have become cautious about commitment. As more and more people become aware that relationships do not last forever, they are more likely to invest in themselves and quit relationships that no longer offer mutual satisfaction or personal growth. Casual sex gives young adults the opportunity to connect with and fully explore potential partners, resulting in contemporary dating practices that generally involve a high amount of sexual activity between dating partners before they move on to any form of commitment or exclusivity. Additionally, many aspects of people’s sexual lives in Western cultures are now mediated, meaning they are made into symbolic content by using technological and institutional tools for communication. Consequently, some researchers have argued that the visibility of media representations of sex and new technology that enable new forms of sexual encounters are partly responsible for changing the committed nature of intimacy to a more casual one.

By applying the theoretical framework of mediatization, this dissertation aimed to unravel the association between new media and casual sexual intimacy on a micro-level, while at the same time being aware of changes in media, as well as cultural and societal changes that might have possibly contributed to changes in casual sexual intimacy. Put differently, the mediatization of emerging adults’ casual sexual intimacies explores the role of television content produced in the United States (U.S.) and mobile dating apps in processes of social and cultural change, in which mediatization is equally important and related to other meta-processes that have contributed to an increase in casual sexual encounters and relationships, such as the individualization and democratization of personal lives.

Overall, findings throughout this dissertation suggest that Flemish emerging adults are well acquainted with casual sexual intimacies such as one-night stands and friends with benefits. Remarkably, Flemish emerging adults tend to highly overestimate their peers’ engagement in casual sex and used existing terms that presumably originated in the U.S. to describe their casual sexual experiences and relationships. As television often serves as a socializing factor in cultures, it could be that the dominant position of U.S. television might have globally influenced changes in (perceptions of) intimacy and provided its viewers with vocabulary to discuss these topics. Therefore, it was deemed necessary to gain a better understanding of how exactly casual sexual behaviors are repeatedly shown in U.S. television shows, as these shows seem to function as global storytellers.

The results of the content analysis conducted in Chapter 2 suggest that casual sexual behaviors are almost as frequently shown in popular television programs as sexual behaviors within more traditional committed relationships. Interestingly, sexual behaviors within a committed relationship or date were mainly limited to passionate kissing, whereas sexual behavior within a casual sexual context consisted mostly of explicit portrayals of sexual intercourse. Such portrayals might give viewers the impression that casual sex has become the normative sexual script. In reality, however, sexual intercourse in the context of a relationship is more likely to occur than sexual intercourse in the context of a casual sexual interaction. While this content analysis does not allow for making any causal interference regarding actual casual sexual behavior, it certainly paves the way for media effects studies to examine how exactly exposure to the analyzed shows might influence perceptions of or engagement in casual sexual experiences and relationships.

Chapters 3 to 5 were carried out to examine whether Tinder leads to more casual sex. This was done so by exploring Tinder motives (Chapter 3), examining the associations between personality and both Tinder use and motives (Chapter 4), and analyzing how users go from swiping to having casual sex versus committed relationships (Chapter 5). While the findings derived from this dissertation provide some evidence to assume that mobile dating applications indeed contribute to changes in casual sexual intimacy, they also seem to promote the establishment of committed relationships. We thus should be careful not to confuse the perpetual and highly visible “newness” of media developments with a continuous transformation of all social and cultural arrangements. Clearly, studies related to casual sexual behavior have found a shift from dating behaviors to hookup behaviors even long before mobile dating applications existed. Consequently, mobile dating applications are not the cause of changes in casual sexual intimacy, but they do, however, create possibilities to obtain casual sex, for those who want it.


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