The Normalization of Online Dating
There once was a time when people were reluctant to admit they used online dating services. Spending hours scrolling through an endless supply of prospective partners was not an activity many people were willing to admit.
Fast forward just a few decades, and we find the tide has turned. Today, online dating is a widely practiced, acceptable method of meeting prospective partners. Relationships formed online often lead to healthy, wholesome, unions, including marriage.
Yet not everyone uses online dating platforms with an eye toward romance. They are also used to facilitate casual sex. In addition, I have prosecuted cases where they were used to facilitate sexual assault. In this context, both women and men can be perpetrators as well as victims.
So the challenge for many prospective daters is to strategize how to reap the benefits of online dating, while also making smart decisions about who to meet in person. To this end, research reveals a surprising benefit of arranging a date online.
Online Hookups and Alcohol Fueled Sexual Behavior
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Risky sexual encounters have a wide range of negative implications for couples of any age. Research reveals that scheduling dates online, however, might provide a measure of protection against alcohol overindulgence prior to an in person meeting—even within a casual context.
Emily R. Wilhite and Kim Fromme in “Swiping Right: Alcohol, Online Dating, and Sexual Hookups in Postcollege Women” (2019) examined exactly what the title describes—the link between alcohol, online dating, and sexual hookups within a sample of post-college single women.[i]
They discovered that when women drank more alcohol than usual, they were 6% more likely to engage in casual sex. They suggest this may stem from alcohol functioning as a disinhibitor, contributing to a woman feeling comfortable having sex outside of a monogamous relationship. Other research appears to have reached similar results. The authors quote a large European sample where 23% of female participants admitted using alcohol to facilitate sexual relations and another study where college students used alcohol precisely because they believed it would facilitate disinhibited sex and justify a sexual hookup.
Wilhite and Fromme found that among post-college women, heavy alcohol consumption may contribute to casual sex. They also examined the impact of location on alcohol consumption prior to a casual sexual hookup. They found that spending time at a party or bar before a hookup was associated with higher intoxication levels as compared with being in other locations.
Online daters, however, followed a different pattern. Wilhite and Fromme found meeting a sexual hookup partner online was linked with lower intoxication levels during the meeting as compared to when meeting at parties or bars. This was true even when accounting for the location just prior to sexual activity. Wilhite and Fromme also found online meetings were linked with drinking less frequently before a casual hookup as compared to meeting a dating partner at a party or bar.
Alcohol Use and Safety Implications
Wilhite and Fromme recognize that interventions regarding the use of alcohol, dating methods, and location prior to meeting a partner might help to decrease the potential negative consequences of alcohol-fueled sexual behavior in young women. This is important given their findings that meeting a partner online appeared to be the most common method of arranging a hookup, with 39% of their sample reporting to use online dating to set up a casual encounter within the previous six weeks.
They note their results suggest the protective value of online dating, that it may guard against heavy drinking during hookups as compared to meeting casual partners at bars or parties. They recognize this is important considering that research has shown alcohol to be associated with an increased risk of having unprotected casual sex. Therefore, they recognize that meeting a partner online may reduce the risk of drinking to excess and engaging in risky sexual behavior.
Sober Dating: Seeking a Relationship, Not a Rendezvous
When meeting online acquaintances (virtual strangers in many cases) for the first time in person, many prospective daters opt for coffee rather than cocktails. Individuals seeking a relationship rather than a rendezvous want to get to know a prospective partner in a sober, well-lit atmosphere, which often translates into an afternoon coffee date. Building rapport, exploring common ground, and testing chemistry are often best accomplished when both parties are clear-headed.
Along these lines, the link between online dating and long-term relationships may be due to the enhanced opportunity for partners to get to know each other at a slower pace, in a sober environment, and over time. This allows both parties to build trust and a level of comfort with one another before actually meeting in person.
For those who are seeking a relationship online, taking the time to build rapport on the front end may lessen the desire to overindulge prior to a first meeting. Research seems to corroborate the fact that virtual communication can be one of many factors associated with less risky behavior prior to a first date.
[i]Wilhite, Emily R., and Kim Fromme. 2019. “Swiping Right: Alcohol, Online Dating, and Sexual Hookups in Postcollege Women.” Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 33 (6): 552–60. doi:10.1037/adb0000493.