Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation
Episode 4: Interview with Treena Orchard
Transcription by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: This episode comes with a content warning. A discussion of a sexual assault begins at the 37 minute mark, and ends at the 40 minute mark.
Jill: As women age, our sexuality tends to narrow to two basic box. We can become crones or we can become cougars. And I got to stay as a woman entering my fourth decade of life. Two options really suck.
Jill: Hello and welcome to another episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today in the hopes of moving beyond the cougar and the crone. I’ve invited Dr. Treena Orchard on the show. Treena Orchard is an associate professor in the School of Health Studies at Western University located in London, Ontario, Canada. She is a medical anthropologist who explores sexuality, gender, and politics of health among marginalized populations to help create meaningful sociopolitical change with people among whom she works. She uses qualitative and arts-based methods in her collaborative research initiatives, including her recent auto-ethnographic project on dating apps and digital sexuality. And today she’s here to talk to me about the experience navigating age-hypogamus heterosexual relationships using the dating app Bumble.
Jill: Hi Treena and welcome to the show.
Treena Orchard: Hi, it’s great to be here.
Jill: So before we begin, I just want to take a moment to pause and remember that even though this podcast exists in digital space, digital space is not separate from physical space. The Internet depends on physical space for its existence and cannot be divorced from that space. And as such, I feel it’s important to acknowledge that this podcast, Gender, Sex, and Tech: Continuing the Conversation is produced on the unceded land of the Coast Salish people of the QiqéytNation. And Treena, where you’re joining us from today?
Treena: I’m in London, Ontario, and I wanted to do my own acknowledgement of the land upon which I have the privilege to be, that has historically, and it’s still home to at least four distinct indigenous nations. The Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Attawandaron and also Lunaapeewak peoples.
Jill: So, Trina, can you tell us a little bit about your academic journey? Like how did you come to be a medical Anthropologist?
Treena: Many decades in the making. I think that’s my interest in anthropology emerged from when I was very small and interested in different kinds of cultural behaviors. I’ve long had a love affair with jewelry, adornment. Different parts of the world were something that was interesting to me. You think about the world outside and what does it look like? It was always very curious to me and I knew that I wanted to learn more about it and study it. And I came to know that that would be called Anthropology. My first degree is actually in History. Yeah, a lot of my, my specialization in Western Canadian History also different aspects of Indigenous History. And then when I, I sort of shifted to Anthropology that was connected with an experience I had in my third year of undergrad at University Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where I’m from. I took a course about Arctic cultures and did it really extraordinary paper. And the professor was, you know, curious about where I was at in my undergraduate career and what, and what I wanted to do. And, and I think from the paper I handed in case I didn’t say a word in class, I was terribly shy, he said, “You know, you are an Anthropologist. I will do whatever I can do to help you.” And for me, education was also a way out of some pretty difficult early experiences and life at home. And I felt seen in a really powerful way. And so, finished the History degree, took all the courses I needed to get enough of an honors certificate in Anthropology so that I can apply to grad schools in Anthropology. I applied, got accepted at UVic and then also it memorial. So coast-to-coast, two of the three coasts and I thought, well I’ve been to BC, but what’s Newfoundland like and also very, very good Anthropology department. And so I took the train from Saskatoon,
Treena: All the way to Nova Scotia, which was at that point the end of the line. And then I flew across to the Rock and just had a completely transformative experience, was just such a different part of Canada, very different to live on an island has a very different kind of feeling. Really remarkable place. And I did my research relying on some connections with my advisor and his then wife. They had long worked in a number of different Indigenous communities in different parts of Quebec and Ontario as well as internationally in Fiji. And so, I was, I went to one of the communities where they had a lot of experience and looked at. . . spent time trying to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in a remote community in Northern Quebec it’s called Kawawachikamach. It’s a Naskapi Indigenous community and I lived with a family and they were just so generous and patience and oh my gosh. I worked very hard, and it was a beautiful experience. And I wanted to return to that community for my PhD. By that time, I had moved from Newfoundland to Winnipeg and got a bunch of funding to go back, back up North. And then my than advisor for the PhD was going to India as part of a big HIV AIDS prevention project, India-Canada collaboration, HIV, women and girls, in which you could refer to as traditional systems of prostitution. They needed someone on the ground who could start at the baseline data collection like the first leg of the project. And it was nice because they wanted it to be qualitative, not behavioral surveys, which are typically quite generic, can potentially offensive in different contexts. Especially when you have to use a translator and you talking about very sensitive information. So, I was asked if I would change my entire life and instead of going back up North, How about going to India? And at that point I had traveled a little but internationally, but we’re talking Europe, right? And so, it was a terrifying situation in a way because not only was I worried that I might not do well, I was just nervous about the whole experience, you know, and I just knew how much I had to learn to be able to do a good job and to not mess up, you know, it’s different when it’s just you in the field. As different when you’re part of a team, right? And so, it was a really importance step in transition on multiple levels for me as a researcher, as a woman, as a scholar. And I’m so glad that I did it because I was able to have a number of different areas of expertise by the time I finished my PhD and just, I just learned so much about the world going to India, I learn a lot about how gender and power work. Can these be research initiatives. It’s really hard to be a woman anywhere. It was a really powerful experience. And so, to shifting from the indigenous, more traditional cultural Anthro, the PhD, much more medical obviously it has to do with HIV and that kind of thing. So that kinda marked the transition from me into specific domain. of Medical Anthropology.
Jill: One thing I think is really interesting about that too, is this idea that very early on, a professor identified your strengths and said like, “you’re an Anthropologist” and gave this name and then gave all this support. And I think really recognizing the role of mentorship and support in our academic journeys is so important.
Jill: So we’ve got kind of your route from History to Anthropology to then Medical Anthropology. But how did you become interested in researching sexuality and specifically in a digital age from this Anthropological or maybe Medical Anthropological perspective?
Treena: Well, the issue of sexuality has been at the core of my areas of interest ever since my Masters. I mean, it’s such a fundamental thing about being human and it’s something that, you know, as a young woman in a very confusing society in terms of how we think about women and how we talk about ourselves and our bodies and gender and all these kinds of things I was aware again, from a very young age that sexuality was something that was perceived to be as very dangerous but also very powerful. And it was also a really important aspect of my journey in terms of finding myself and that’s still true to this day. So, sexuality has always been on the table for me. That wasn’t a new thing. The new thing in the last few years has been the digital piece. I mean, I really remain a Flinstone. Oh, good Lord. Yes, no, I’m I’m I’m very much still a Flintstone, but after sort of coming out of a very destructive relationship, being relatively newly a sober person, living in a small and really conservative city. And then feeling actually okay, I feel like I have done a lot of healing and I’ve put some things behind me. I’m interested in seeing and meeting people, where am I going to do it? And so and like, you know, everybody’s doing it, everyone’s on dating apps.
Treena: I was terrified, but I actually started online. So, I think there is a distinction between online in terms of on the computer and then on the dating app. Because a dating app is primarily driven by GPS.
Treena: The mobile piece really distinguishes it from the kinds of experiences in some ways that you have on just like a laptop. What I did try a couple of sites like Elite Singles and Match.com. And those were just, those were really wretched experiences. The Elite Singles, it was again, when you’re so in a small city, the just the catchment area, it really matters. And like, I don’t have a car, so I can’t say well I’ll drive two hours to you or take the train, which I did a couple times actually. And so, the options were fairly small in terms of numbers of people. And so, neither of those platforms worked out very well at all. And so that’s what I shifted to dating apps per se. And I chose Bumble because, oh, look, it’s feminist. Oh look, it’s going to, it’s going to level the playing field. Put me in the driver’s seat. Okay. I’m going to do it. And I signed up for the most expensive VIP package, I wanted, which, so I was completely a gullible consumer. And I began using it just a woman trying to date, I had no desire to write anything down. Why would I this is not my area of expertise, digital things, right? This is my life as a woman. But literally from the moment I press the yellow Create button and set my profile into the universe after like agonizing over the profile blurb and the photos after I finally did it, it was literally like moments later when I was like, “What have I done? Also I can’t this fascinating, right?” Because all my neurons were like bing bing bing, because all of it was new. I was just the classic neophyte. And I was noticing like everything was weird and it was like just remarkable. And it was so strange. But I just, I was just on all the levels of who I am as a scholar or a woman, you know, a person in the world like I was just this so weird, this is fascinating. What is this all about? And I just began writing as actually as a way to cope. And then I’m like, I’m just already picking up patterns. I want to document this. I didn’t know if it was going to turn into something, but I’m just like I have to get this down you know? so that’s where that journey began.
Jill: Okay. So as you said, your research and your experience was primarily on Bumble. So, you’ve side you tried out some dating sites on the computer at first and then flip to the dating app, Bumble. And then with regards to in-person encounters that grew out of connections made on Bumble. Can you tell us a little bit about for, especially for people who’ve never used this app or perhaps have never used any dating apps, what’s it like using Bumble like, what do you do? What’s the process? How are matches created?
Treena: Sure. And I just want to like one small caveat is that I was on Bumble for five months. I’ve actually used Tinder for much longer. But the focus of my writing in the first stage of my dating app stuff because primarily on Bumble. But the thing about Bumble that makes it unique in terms of an application or dating app is that women make the first opening conversation. And so, you have to, you, you can see from a sea of different people, different people who you think are attractive and you want to communicate with them. You have to send a message to them. And they have 24 hours to respond. If they don’t respond, in the language of the app, at least circa 2017-2018, you know, these, “they disappear forever.”
Treena: Very dramatic, very fairy tale language, but also language to ensure that you are in some ways glued to the screen.
Jill: Right. Because 24 hours.
Treena: 24 hours. Not only that, not only do you get reminders from HR about, you know, “Get out there. You’ve only got 24 hours left, or you’ve only got 12 hours,” they actually have a little clock that it counts down.
Treena: It turns red, usually when there’s 30 minutes left.
Treena: We’re reminded constantly you receive these messages from HR about getting active, staying active, making that first move, making these kinds of connections, and sometimes they will respond. I was only responded to 60 percent of the time.
Treena: Which means I was ignored 40 percent. Which is not that great of a success rate. Because one of the things about all the apps is that they’re sold as being easy, as being efficient, as being fun. As, you know, the best way to connect. There are some great things about them, but there are some things that are really problematic. And with respect to the Bumble experience, one of the things that I encounter it again, this was 2017, 2018. So we’re talking #metoo.
Treena: It’s a really important contextual background for my particular experience, I think in the sense that I would, one of the things I noticed is okay, we all know that Bumble is seen as women go first, it’s marketed as feminist. I saw some push back in terms of the way that the male users were responding to being on this platform, for instance, they would put things in their profile, which to me was bizarre because I thought that that’s prime real estate for you to sell who you are to a potential mate, right? Or a date. But they would sometimes use that prime real estate and say things like “No one on here talks to me” you know, or “Women, Women don’t know how to make the first move.” Or “This app sucks, because women don’t know how to behave like men” or “Women are behaving like men.”
Jill: And that sucks.
Treena: Yeah. Well, yeah.
Jill: That’s like, you can’t win, right? You don’t know how to behave like a man or you are behaving like a man and it’s bad either way.
Treena: Right, and they’re telling you it’s bad because it, from their point of view, and that’s another part about the design of this app is that it seems like the brand of feminism is just like “girls going to do it on her own.” And you don’t live in a yellow hive, we live in relation to one another. And so, it seems like there was, even if we think that we shouldn’t have to have hand-holding or other kinds of discussions with male users about this different culture we’re trying to support, we clearly need to. And it does seem like in some ways men were just kind of like tossed to the wayside, you know, and not really considered in at least the marketing about the different aspects of the app. And I, I’m not the first one to register kind of, hey, this feels kinda misogynistic, precisely because it is being sold as feminist. Am I the only one that thinks, you know, maybe we should sort of change the discourse here or talk about design in a way that’s going to be a little more equitable for everybody involved, at least on the hetero piece, right? And so that was kind of a unique aspect of the Bumble experience that I found really problematic.
Jill: I think it’s really interesting that it sounds like your experience was, first of all, there are a bunch of profiles of people that were potential matches that were saying things like misogynistic things like women don’t know how to do this. This app sucks, all these kind of things. Then you might send a message to people, probably not those people, and then this clock would start ticking and 40 percent of the time you just watch it tick down.
Treena: Now. Now, I mean, the more you play, the more you realize that those people, they will come around again because people are recycled on the app. So, but you know that dramatic language scares the shit out of you.
Treena: And it also makes the stakes are so high, so it makes you naturally kind of nuts about it.
Jill: Yeah. And kind of glued to it, right?
Treena: Precisely. But you’re not in control.
Jill: Like you don’t know if the person just like, I don’t know, took a vacation and isn’t really looking at their phone when you message them or if this is like a ghosting and a refusal or . . .
Treena: Yeah, exactly. You know, I mean, I will say is that I did meet some really interesting, nice man though. I did. But one of the things that struck me is that it was a lot of work. A lot of work compared to and I have the luxury and the advantage of having 20 years of dating life without a phone. And so what else would I have to compare it to but that? And it’s like I didn’t use up to work too hard. And now, I am like busting my butt in this competitive hive. And like, I don’t really know, so hard to get anyone to come to my house or to meet somewhere that the trepidation and meeting in person. But they’ll sext all night like that gets, so boring so quickly. They’re all watching the same porn. That for all sorts of reasons it was bewildering.
Jill: So, your research is focused on Bumble, even though you say you also used other apps which we may talk about.
Jill: But it was also focused on a specific type of relationship. So you talk about in particular heterosexual age-hypogamus relationships. So can you talk historically about how these relationships have been viewed or what these relationships are to begin with?
Treena: Yeah, sure. Yeah. You’re right. In the book chapter, the focus is on Bumble and it is about my age-hyopgamus relationships, which just refers to when the woman is older in primarily heterosexual relationship. And, you know, these are relationships that seem to be historically considered not only taboo but extremely rare. It is the man who was older because he is, he has more money and more power and prefers to date younger, usually. That is reflected in a lot of the statistics. And the older woman with the younger man is sort of seen as something you laugh about something you scorn, you score and the woman, because she’s think of an older woman and she’s not supposed to be sexual or attractive, especially not to a younger man who has a lot of capital because of his youth, his virility, whatever. And so they were for a long time disdained even though they were not that infrequent.
Treena: So people have had these kinds of relationships since time immemorial to borrow and Anthropological reference. We’ve always like diversity, that it’s what makes her species successful. Right?
Jill: Yeah. So I think there is still this kind of idea of a taboo around these relationships, particularly the older women and the younger man. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about some of the stereotypes that you found in your research regarding this kind of taboo relationship or what makes a taboo?
Treena: Yeah, and I think, I think it is taboo. However, I do think it is changing, which is good. But in the chapter I talk about the idea of the cougar and the crone. So, they, you know, historically and in contemporary times to older women have typically been seen as less attractive as we get older, as we move through different sort of reproductive terrains. Once those things like stop working, like this whole hydraulic kind of thing. Or we are seen as cougars which are predatorial, which are often seen as women who were past their prime, who are trying hard, who looked desperate and pathetic. And those binary kind of representations, they survive because people support them and they keep getting reproduced. And so the more a certain kind of representation is reproduce, the more that we will think that it is real or that it really is how most of us live and it’s typically not, right. And so that was definitely something that I wanted to think closely about in the chapter because within the dating app world, I found that I as an older woman, because I typically is going out with meeting people 10 to 15 years younger than me. I felt like I was quite a hot commodity.
Treena: And you know, but even going in with your eyes open, I am I just a bucket list item? And for some of them, I’m sure I was. But you know, sometimes really that’s fine in a way as long as, as long as the experiences, you can’t control necessarily how people are going to perceive you. And if it’s no harm, no foul, and that’s just part of life. Right? But I found that there were a lot of other different kinds of reasons why I was seen as, as attractive and desirable.
Jill: I want to return to the dichotomy just for a minute. So, yeah, I think that historically there is this quite sense that as women get older, the sexual, the sexual possibilities, the sexual scripts that exist kind of narrow. I mean, they were never that wide anyway, which ties back into sexism and misogyny. But they do seem to kind of narrow to this, this dichotomy that you point out in your research, the sexless crone, who is not only not sexually desirable, also supposed to be not interested in sex anymore, right? Or this kind of hyper predatory, desperate cougar. But you do also talk about the cougar has sometimes being paradoxically an empowering symbol. So can you elaborate a bit more on that?
Treena: Sure, I think that the cougar is seen as, as a way to kind of circumvent the idea that older women have, not only have a sexual desire, but they can act on it and that they’re successful, right? There is sort of some cache in the sense that it’s seen as a sexy, a little bit pathetic, but also I think people are rooting for cougars to a certain degree in a way because I think underneath it, we know that there’s so much more at stake that makes women interesting sexually. And I think the support for the cougar could be seen as a way to destabilize these really limiting opportunities or ways that sexuality among older women are typically represented. So, in some way it is a way to circumvent the limitations with what dominant society says and cultures say about what women should do and how, and how they should behave and who they should have sex with if at all. But there is something I think a little bit degrading about them as well. So, because they still are sort of seen as a trope.
Treena: As opposed to a diversity of sexual experiences and desires and transitions over, over time.
Jill: One thing that I think is kind of unique about your own research and your chapter in the book Gender, Sex, and Tech is that it is the only autoethnographic research in the book. So, as we dive into talking about what your findings were, can you, first of all, frame a little bit for us what an autoethnography is and how the research is conducted perhaps?
Treena: Well, an autoethnography is when the author’s life is, is the primary subject or the primary issue that is being used to explore a broader phenomenon. So, in my chapter, my life, my experiences as a woman are used as sort of a lens through which to understand the dynamics of Bumble, the kinds of people that I was meeting in these particular kinds of relationships. And then by extension, reflecting on, so what does this tell us about different aspects of sexuality intimacy on these digital platforms. And unlike more traditional human research, that has to go through ethics, obviously because you’re dealing with other human beings, consent and all of those kinds of things, this was not a formal study in that sense. It’s data that emerged and cultural analyses that emerged over the course of my experiences on this. Like it was completely an unanticipated thing. But it just really emerged organically. And I should say that the people who are referred to in any of my writings, they’re aware of the study. And there are also efforts taken to make sure that there are no clearly identifying details with respect to be able to identify any of them. And I cared about the people who I met some of them I didn’t necessarily jive with. But, you know, there was a definitely respect taken in terms of thinking about how I wanted to go about representing them for sure.
Jill: So what did you find in this research? Can you tell us kind of some broad themes that came out of your experience and your auto ethnographic writing?
Treena: Well, I think one of the things that was really interesting was A) that I found myself being quite desired. Which was like, okay, so I’m not a crone like maybe I’m like a small c cougar. I don’t know. But I just found that interesting. And it was just, it was quite prevalent the degree to which that I was being desired or chatted up. And that was like, that was interesting and surprising. It made me feel powerful. And then meeting different kinds of men from different professions, something that seemed to unite a lot of them was their interest in things like business, wellness, desire to have a global experience, whether it was through work or the personal lifestyle. I think it’s kind of connected to Instagram and the way that we present the beautiful lives and what success looks like.
Treena: And a lot of them were interested in business, right? But seem to often be at a bit of a crossroads in terms of that they would desire and the kinds of means that they had at their disposal to make those dreams a reality. And they were very interested in my life and my experiences even though because they were vastly different from theirs and when they’re vastly different from most people’s, which, which is fun. And sometimes it can be a little hard to find someone who really understands, but people like to learn about how someone makes mistakes, how someone finds different kinds of successes over time. And that’s where my age also came in handy because I have a broader arc of experience and I have so many different kinds of like lessons and cool things that have happened to me. Places I’ve been like a dope apartment and all of those things, you know, and the setting is important and I will sort of talk a little bit about the space that I was in. And they all commented on how well-designed it is and how calm it is, every single person who made their way into my lair. As it were. But that too, is that a reflection of a calm, organized person, right? And so there’s a safety there. And that’s something that they talked a lot about. And I think because I created that kind of atmosphere and I was interested and ask them questions about: So what, what’s it like to be a man right now? You know, I didn’t ask specifically questions about dating apps. I was just interested to see what they say about their lives and it wasn’t like and talk into the microphone. Those just organic talk, pillow talk, chit, chatting before you actually meet and hook up or, meet for coffee. And I think men are not used to being asked about themselves. And, and so there was space created to be open and expressive in ways they didn’t have before. And so, I learned a lot about the strains of masculinity. Different ways that men feel kind of useless. Feel nervous and like uncertain about power that women have. And so they’re not sure what can they actually do for us. And that’s going to reinforce sometimes and celebrity shows and this and that again, the whole “girl doing it on our own guy is just here for this” do, to do that kind of thing. Like you can kinda laugh at that, but that’s kind of demeaning in a way. Alright, there’s different ways to make progress that’s like cool.
Jill: Yeah, I’m thinking about. All of the sitcoms where like the husband or the male partner in these heterosexual relationships is basically there is the punchline.
Treena: Yeah, that’s what drives me nuts in commercials. Man are made to look stupid and useless. It, I hate it. It’s terrible, It’s so unhealthy.
Jill: So one of the things that you found in your research, which you’ve just talked about now, was that many of the men you were dating or talking to work grappling with their own sense of self or their own sense of what I, might call, sexual or relationship purpose in these heterosexual relationships as sexual scripts shift. And you’ve referenced the #MeToo movement. And you quote one man said quoting, “women don’t need men to have babies to pay the bills or to do much.” And you’ll go on to comment that quoting “men seem to feel useless and then behave in ways that sort of confirm that. And women must exchange their independence for utterly disappointing love lives among men who don’t understand them or fear/resent them.” So, can you elaborate on this struggle a little bit more and how you think it affects both men and women in these relationships are in digital dating space in general?
Treena: Yeah, So I think, you know, the context of dating apps in general, where the pursuit of love in one another is already highly gamified and objectified. So that is a really important starting ground. And then if we layer on to that, men who are kind of uncertain about not only themselves and what they can contribute in a romantic or sexual way and having but a seemingly endless options. And some of those women saying, you know, “I just want six figures and I won’t talk to you unless you six feet tall,” which is true in some of the women do think that and that’s simply respond. I think that sets up the behavior where “I won’t really respect women then if they, I don’t know what they really want from me and if all they’re communicating with me is kind of about money and stuff like that.” And they’re at their own crossroads in terms of their success or their financial wealth or whatever they’re their own wellness. It just creates such a disconnect between us. But I just found it quite challenging to find someone of substance who would sort of be interested in sticking around for a conversation that would last more than a couple of days. I felt like I sort of retreated from being my je ne sais qua, interesting self, you know, is a why bother telling this person about this kind of cool thing about. . . why put all of that emotional energy into the ether when it’s likely not going to work out, they’re going to fuck off on me or they’re going to be kind of gross. And so we’re kind of at a bit of an impasse sometimes. And it seems like it is a lucky break that you meet someone where something nice is going to happen. And you think about all the numbers, like the thousands of matches and it’s just a lucky break or something happens. You gotta, you gotta know that A) this whole dating app, it’s very flawed. And that failure is built into the design because if it worked tickety-boo, they would not make any money, right?
Treena: And we know that going in. But when you’re playing with infections and hearts and sexuality and safety, I think the idea, the issue of corporate responsibility is a huge area. I didn’t really touch on that in the chapter, but it is something that is very concerning for a lot of us who are in this particular field.
Jill: I think the idea of the role of the app here and exacerbating existing misogynistic impulses and tropes that are in society, as well as exacerbating issues of communication and issues of connection is really interesting. And there’s another thing that you said in the chapter which is quoting, “like any game, and that’s what Bumble is in many ways, there implicit rules and features designed to move players through the interface on route to a successful outcome. That is a match.” And of course, as you’ve just said now, they don’t want that match to happen too quickly. Because they want your attention on the app. And that’s not just Bumble, that’s, that’s all dating apps. This idea of linking dating apps to games is something I’ve heard before. And it seems to resonate with what you were just talking about, about the ways in which these apps might abdicate responsibility in terms of how they’re reshaping our connections to each other or the kind of scripts or rules that are becoming a feature of how we date and how we hook up. So can you talk about your experience with that a little bit?
Treena: Sure. With respect to the gamification piece: I mean, it’s visually, there’s movements. There are features designed to grab our attention, to hold our attention just like a VLT or gambling.
Treena: It’s not sensory in the same way that you’re in a casino. But if you’ve got your sound on, on, on, on your phone, there, there are sounds. There’s bright colors. Often like primary colors, there’s very little shading. It is boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, right? And that we all know those things like stimulate and then they off too much you down, right? And then you return and you get those little HR messages, like “get out there. It’s prime swiping time.”
Treena: Yeah. I’ve got screenshots of him, but what do I do? Because his name is not real and pictures are of two different people.
Treena: So I reported him, but it’s like I’m sending them a picture that is fake. I’m sending them a name that is fake. And It’s the second time on that same platform.
Jill: So they can block it. And then if they do, and then he just pop up under a new picture and a new name and carry on.
Treena: Yeah, Exactly. Yeah. And you know, I consider myself lucky in terms of getting out of that situation unscathed. But the second time it happened and as he left, he is like, “let’s pretend this never happened.” That was chilling.
Treena: And they’re also getting all of our data for free.
Jill: Or we’re paying to give them our data.
Treena: Right. Right. And like how valuable that that is, right? As Nancy Jo Sales, she, she refers to that as “big dating.” It’s instead of big data, right? You know, so there’s all these kinds of things that these, that these companies are getting from us, right? And they’re not really giving us all that much in return. And we’re over a decade any no grinder was around in 2009. We’ve had a lot of time. There are lot of smart people out there. Surely by now we could design platforms that are a bit more equitable and interesting and designed by consumer input. And there are some new kids on the block that I think are doing those kinds of things. But again, you need to be in a big city, right? To be able to use those. If I, you know, I could download the app and London and a community of two. So, I feel so included, right? So again, the importance of place.
Jill: So, let’s bring this back to Bumble, which tried to make a change. And some people have critique this change of being a bit of a gimmick. Bumble, as you’ve said, markets itself as a feminist dating up, particularly for the heterosexual version of Bumble. And that’s because in the heterosexual version, as you said, the woman has to make the first move after you have a match. Do you think Bumble is a feminist dating app?
Treena: No, definitely not. Definitely not because it doesn’t create any kind of equity, right? It seems to completely exclude the men who were part of the equation. And it seems to have this idea about “girl doing it on her own.” Which is really dated. It’s a small f, feminist when it really is in direct contradiction to a lot of the very fem-forward nature of the company itself. In the sense that the majority, at least 85 percent of Bumble staff are female identifying. I don’t think only cisgender but female identifying. There had been a number of campaigns in response to broader political events that have been happening. And they take out full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, powerful things they use that Bumble yellow which goes a long way and communicating things with respect to the brand. So, there’s interesting things happening in some respects at different aspects of the corporate level. But as the dating app, it is not feminist. And I’m certainly not the first person to argue that.
Treena: That’s decidedly no.
Jill: So one aspect of your research is about your experience with the app. The other aspect of your research coming out of your experience with the app talks about your experience in age-hypogamus, heterosexual relationships and critiquing the cougar and the crone narratives which we have done. And you also talk about, as you already have, some of the responses from the men that you connected with on these apps. And in thinking about the inadequacies of the sexual scripts that we have, how they’re failing women, particularly in your research older women, and how they’re failing men, you also reached for a new sexual script based on the Divine Feminine.
Jill: So can you elaborate on what the Divine Feminine is? How it might help make sense of kind of the shifting sexual roles, this shifting time of sexual scripts right now?
Treena: Yeah, and I guess I will say that, you know, the Divine Feminine is new to me, but it is a very old, very old, very old, thousands of years old. And it’s connected with different parts of the world. And it refers to usually sort of pre-agricultural cultural settings where partnership was essential, where female fertility and male fertility was venerated in really significant ways through religion, cultural organization, through dress, or the way people lived, et cetera. The ways in which they understood reproduction and having children, right? And relationships writ large. There are ideas about, like I said, partnership, about respecting and venerating fertility. Not about sort of domination. Whether it’s like domination over the earth, or domination over each other in terms of social structures, right? It was very much about partnership and about equanimity, and also honoring the contributions of women over time. So, there was a need in contemporary versions of Divine Feminine too the idea of the crone is present as part of that belief system, but she is a venerated person because of her age. Her experience is part of the things that she has to offer and contribute and it’s, it’s honored. Right? So that is very different from the cougar or the more like dilapidated sexless crone, right? And so when I was thinking about making sense of the ways that the men were talking about me and the ways that they were appreciating me, this sort of, this, this image emerged and it, it felt like it represented more fully the more fluid and appreciative and mutually beneficial kinds of experiences that I was able to help create, and that I was also able to observe and overhear and participate in. And so that is where kind of the idea of the Divine Feminine came to me from and why I think it reflects what I’m talking about with respect to gender, power, and sex vis-a-vis the dating apps and these particular kinds of relationships. But I do need to be mindful of the fact that the Divine Feminine is something that has been taken up and appropriated in a whole bunch of different ways and social media that are quite problematic and that are really white, often white, very much in line with what a critiques of the dominant wellness industry or a certain sort of aspects of yoga culture. iVery white, very hetero, very sort of middle, like in the middle to upper-class education kind of thing. Just kind of also, not making fun of the divine feminine, but it, using it as a, as a tool to gain followers.
Treena: Tapping into users desires and maybe feelings of loneliness, kinda portraying themselves, so these like these, these gurus, that sprout up all over Instagram and there, I can, sometimes, I follow some because I find it compelling, but I also find it very insulting. Some of their discourses: “Oh, you, if you’re not, if you’re not having G spot orgasms and you’re not a woman.” Whoa, is this the 60s, whereas Germaine Greer when we need her? Like, you know, it was just like “Where are you talking from?” I just, it’s misinformed and is quite offensive. And it’s spreading this kind of authoritative divine knowledge to all sorts of people who might not, maybe know that it’s kind of a lot of it’s bullshit. And so there is, the Divine Feminine has a lot of different ways it’s being used in contemporary times. And the way that I’m thinking of it in relation to the experiences that I had on Bumble is nothing like that.
Jill: So it sounds like, yeah. There is currently a commodification.
Jill: And appropriation and distillation of the idea of the Divine Feminine, for commercial and attention surveillance purposes, if we’re seeing it like on Instagram and all these kind of places. And that, that would be kind of a hollow shell of what you’re actually talking about?
Treena: Yeah, exactly.
Jill: And I think that, that you can really see that, that if there’s this kind of authority about like how we should be having orgasms or how we should be experiencing ourselves, or experiencing our bodies. Like that seems to me to go quite against the way you initially talked about the Divine Feminine in terms of reciprocity and recognition and responsibility and all this kind of stuff. It’s, it’s not about hierarchy and some wealthy cis white ‘feminist’ telling me how is your experience, my body.
Treena: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, it’s not didactic either. Right, you know, it’s like they are telling their followers what to do and it’s very exclusionary. That’s nothing like what I was talking about. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot of like undesirable, problematic behavior up on, on dating apps. But that’s not what I’m right with respect to the idea of understanding certain kinds of relationships that I was able to foster. Yeah, there’s no relationship between what I was talking about in that context to the more dominant, really problematic exclusionary versions of the Divine Feminine.
Jill: So, let’s remember that and set the problematic versions to one side. And let’s work with this kind of reciprocal honoring egalitarian version of the Divine Feminine. Because yeah, you note that dating apps have a lot of problems. The corporations that put up these apps have abdicated a lot of responsibility. The apps themselves seem to foster and amplify misogyny and other problematic sexual relations and scripts. But even so, you engaged in meaningful connections and meaningful relationships. And you note that it was quite emotional to leave the hive when you chose to step away from Bumble. One of the things you said was that the men that you have connected with showed you that you mattered, that you were worthy of love and care. And as I was reading this, it struck me that there is something that I don’t think gets acknowledged in popular media, perhaps, something divine or sacred about giving and receiving care. And so, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the experience of exiting the hive when you chose to leave.
Treena: Yeah, I think that’s a really important question because I again, I don’t think it’s something that people talk about as much, like “delete them, move on,” you know. And for me it was my first experience. And it was so it was such a roller coaster and it just wore me out, and, and elated me and just made me just my brain just explode. You know, it was just and it was the first time dating after I had it purposefully not wanted to for a lot of reasons that were really important to my healing. And so, it was very monumental. And as I was deciding to make the move and just like just leave because once you connect with someone, you’ve got their text, you know, you don’t have to necessarily use the app all the time to communicate with them unless you’re not comfortable shifting to another platform. So, I remember distinctly I was coming back from Toronto was like to early January 2018. I had gone to the city for something and, and I just, I made the decision that I need to listen to myself and I feel like I had collected so much information as well. It’s like I just felt like saturate it. And I didn’t really want to keep doing it because it didn’t feel very healthy. I had the connections with some people, I didn’t need the app anymore as well. I think I also felt like that. And so, I was just chatting with people on the way home. And one of the people who I connected with on there, he was, genuinely seem kinda concerned, and he’s like that because a lot of people who I met on there, especially the younger people, they had so much more experienced than me.
Jill: On the app?
Treena: Yeah. And they were like, “Wow, this is really hard for you,” and I’m like, “yeah, it is!” It is it is hard for me. And like, how do you do this all the time. Sometimes we talk about that. They were showing me compassion and because that seemed like quite hard won, it felt big. And it didn’t make me wonder, like, does this mean I should stay on there because I’d already made my decision and I knew I needed to exit. I think it was so emotional because it’s like okay, so I’ve got a few people’s numbers, cool. But like now what? I had grown dependent on this app and dependent on the catalog of the experiences that I had and they were so difficult and intense. It’s like do I want to do that again? Okay. I don’t know. If I don’t, then what are my options? And so, it felt kind of unsteady. But it also felt like the right time to leave because I had just, you know, I went in full force. You know, I look back, Oh my God, poor me. I had no idea what I was doing! I didn’t know. But that’s another reason why I was like the perfect person to document all of these things, including the nitty-gritty about using, using the app and different aspects of the VIP package in the platform. It was always a lot of details actually in terms of how you can use it in things about the app that relate to our experiences that we have on it. And I just felt like I just needed to close it, but it was hard because it was really instrumental/. And also it has to do with your heart, has to do with sex, which is important to me. When you don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen next, it makes you feel kind of sad and a little anxious and a little confused. Such is life. But, you know, for all those reasons it made the decision to leave very charged.
Jill: It’s really remarkable that there was this community of men on the app who were caring for you and supporting you and concerned for you as you left.
Treena: They were taking care of me on the way out. Right.
Jill: Yeah. That was beautiful.
Treena: Exactly. And you don’t hear about that. But I’m still friends with so many of those men who I who I met. So many. That was like four years ago, five, four, anyways, ages ago. And some of those connections were, had been very lasting.
Jill: And how does or does the Divine Feminine help you understand the, the lasting this of those connections?
Treena: Yeah, I think so. I think so because I mean, I’m interested in everybody because that’s just the way I am, but I really respect what they took the time and the courage and the vulnerability to show me. And I was being vulnerable with them too. And there’s something really powerful about that. And it’s not like I’m texting them every day. You know, it’s like we pick it up every now and then with each other. But there is that there’s a nice bond, not with all of them, but certainly with, with three or four of them. And it’s something that we sometimes remark about were like, wow, I think we’re going to be friends forever. Thanks to Bumble. There have been, some of them have been like levers off and on for several years or so. The relationships evolve over time. But that’s sort of the fundamental thing, and I think that really reflects the fact that they were a more equitable situation. Because if they weren’t, neither of us would probably still be hanging around because it just kind of like a one-sided bullshit relationship with them. Who needs more of those?
Jill: So yeah. So we can see that we can use digital space to develop care and reciprocity and equity. But it sounds like it was a lot of work because this space was not necessarily set up with, with that in mind.
Treena: Yeah absolutely.
Jill: That the space was setup more like a game. Like winning.
Jill: Like ladies doing it for themselves. Power. Independence. Individuality.
Treena: Yeah, the platform isn’t going to make amazing connections for you. The platform doesn’t really do much for you except it enables you to meet new people. The nature of your experience has a lot to do with what you bring to the table and what other people bring to the table because you can be really nice and cool and get shit on. Happened. Happened. Happened. Right? So that’s one of the things about dating apps is that one must protect one’s resources and be mindful of what you’re, what you’re getting into, what you want. Take breaks every now and then. Like, have a few different kinds of strategies for meeting people depending on what it is you want to do. All right, there are different ways to use them because they are quite limited and potentially harmful. Which is about their design. But also, the way that we talk about sexuality, the way we talk about gender, the way we talk about power, one another, ourselves, in our society.
Jill: So flipping a switch and letting the women go first isn’t going to fix all that?
Treena: No dear. It sounds nice. Yeah, maybe we think that it shouldn’t work that way. And maybe some people who are under the illusion that we have come further than we actually have. But we have not for a number of reasons, right? And that was one of the things that I could only learn that by going into the hive myself as a participant, like I was shocked at how far we have not, or just the way that there’s a historicity to misogyny and gender-based things, right? I mean again, nothing is linear, but it was just, I was so disheartening. And shocked, especially as a sexuality researcher, I’m like, I’m I thought I knew a lot about sexuality and gender, which okay, I did. But in my own society and in these platforms that everyone’s using they’re so normalized, often adopted and critically, which is what the market wants. There’s a lot going on here that I really only learn by immersing myself like in true auto-ethnograpic style.
Jill: This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech continued the conversation began in Chapter 4 of the book, Gender, Sex and Tech: An Intersectional Feminist Guide. The chapter is titled, “Neither Crone Nor Cougar: Navigating intimacy and ageism on dating apps,” and it was written by Treena Orchard. I would like to thank Treena for joining me today for this really engaging discussion. And thank you listener for joining me for this episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversaton. If you want to continue the conversation further, feel free to reach out on Twitter @tech_gender. Or you might consider creating your own material, maybe an essay, podcast, video, to continue this conversation in your voice. Music for this episode was provided by Epidemic Sound. And this podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from Douglas College in New Westminster BC, and support provided by the Marc Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. Until next time everyone, Bye.