Dating is hard enough: why are apps like Bumble making it worse?

The dating app has ditched its ‘women make the first move’ marketing and instead pivoted to trying to shame women into having more sex, writes Olivia Petter. They’ve really fumbled this one

Saturday 18 May 2024 13:50 BST
A photo of a Bumble billboard that says, ‘A vow of celibacy is not the answer'
A photo of a Bumble billboard that says, ‘A vow of celibacy is not the answer' (TikTok)

Bumble was the first dating app I joined because it made me feel safe. At 23, and with only a handful of romantic encounters to my name, I found its “women make the first move” USP an appealing draw. “Finally!” I thought, “a place for all of the hot, single, feminist men that date women to congregate, like a sexy corporate conference where no one stares at your breasts or tries to touch you inappropriately. Woohoo!”.

And, for a while, that’s how it felt to use the app: I met interesting, kind, attractive men who replied quickly and didn’t ghost me – oh, those were the days. The whole premise, from Bumble’s marketing to its design, was built around empowering women, and the clientele reflected that.

But recently something has changed – well, quite a lot of things, actually. Because this week, Bumble seems anything but empowering. Take a quick look at social media and you’ll see terms like “tone-deaf”, “very offensive” and “appalling” attached to the company’s name in light of its latest advertising campaigns.

On Twitter/X, photographs of Bumble billboards went viral for all the wrong reasons. “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun,” read one alongside a photograph of a woman walking down a street at sunset. “A vow of celibacy is not the answer,” chimed another, alongside a photo of a woman smiling. “Bumble need to f*** off and stop trying to shame women into coming back to the apps,” tweeted one person. They should “run ads targeted at men telling them to be normal.”

Another added: “Shocked by the @bumble ad saying ‘a vow for celibacy is not the answer.’ In a world fighting for respect and autonomy over our bodies, it’s appalling to see a dating platform undermine women’s choices. Wasn’t this app supposed to empower women to date on their terms?”

All of this is desperately disappointing. Particularly because it follows another key pivot for Bumble: ditching its “women make the first move” feature. While once it was only women who could start conversations in heterosexual pairings, now men can respond to various prompts on women’s profiles to initiate a chat. All these changes are part of a larger relaunch of the app announced last month by new CEO Lidiane Jones, who replaced Bumble’s founder Whitney Wolfe Herd earlier this year.

The changeover hasn’t been as smooth as some might’ve hoped; the phrase “Bumble Fumble” has been trending on Twitter/X all week – and the company has since apologised for its campaign mocking celibacy. “We made a mistake,” the platform wrote in an Instagram post on Monday. “Our ads referencing celibacy were an attempt to lean into a community frustrated by modern dating, and instead of bringing joy and humor, we unintentionally did the opposite.”

The irony is that instead of promoting dating apps, Bumble has illustrated all of the problems around them, particularly for straight women – see this study, which found that heterosexual women in London are having a hard time finding suitable partners today. The app’s aforementioned billboards are not encouraging, nor are they remotely empowering. Instead, they put pressure on women to date and have sex with men they might not be interested in.

The messaging carries the rancid stench of victim-blaming: if you’re having a hard time dating, it’s your fault. You’re being too picky. Too uppity. Too frigid. God forbid it has anything to do with the men these kinds of campaigns are attracting to your platform. I wouldn’t expect to hear this from any dating app today, least of all one that was supposedly built in the name of feminism.

It’s a shame. Dating is hard enough as it is – single women shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of rhetoric. And in case Bumble missed the memo, celibacy is very much in for 2024 (which I discuss in today’s piece: “It was a very strong signal from my body’: How celibacy is revolutionising people’s sex lives”) – even sex-centric dating app Feeld just added it as a desire users can list on their profiles.

You know what else is in for 2024? Women being in control of who they date and how they date them. Perhaps some rethinking is needed if we’re going to do it on Bumble.

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