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How Dating Became a ‘Market’

Liz has been intentionally avoiding seeing dating as a “numbers game” since her last relationship ended in August. However, the 30-year-old Alaskan admits that things haven’t been going so well.

Liz has been going on Tinder dates on a regular basis, often multiple times per week, and one of her New Year’s intentions was to go on every date she was invited on. But Liz, who asked to be identified only by her first name in order to avoid harassment, can’t shake the sensation that the whole thing is impersonal and businesslike.

“It’s like, ‘If this doesn’t work out, there are 20 other guys in my inbox that look like you.’ “I’m sure they feel the same way—that there are 20 other girls wanting to hang out with them, or whatever,” she added. “Instead of being recognized as individuals, people are considered as commodities.”

It’s natural that someone like Liz may absorb the notion that dating is a game of probabilities or ratios, or that it’s a marketplace where singles must simply keep buying until they discover “the one.” The notion that a dating pool can be evaluated as a marketplace or an economy is both new and old: For years, freshly single people have been referred to as “back on the market” and dating has been analyzed in terms of supply and demand. The Miracles recorded “Shop Around” in 1960, a lighthearted homage to the idea of meeting and trying on a variety of potential partners before making a “deal.” In the early 1970s, economist Gary Becker, who subsequently won the Nobel Prize, began applying economic concepts to marriage and divorce rates. More lately, a slew of market-oriented dating books have been advising singles on how to close a romantic deal, and dating apps, which have quickly become the go-to way for singles to meet each other, have elevated sex and romance to the level of buying.

Unfortunately, the fine-tuning of dating’s numbers game and the streamlining of its trial-and-error shopping around process have occurred at the same time as dating’s definition has extended from “the search for a suitable marriage partner” to something rather more ambiguous. Meanwhile, new technologies have evolved that make the market more apparent to the common person than ever before, fostering a merciless mindset of assigning “objective” values to possible partners and ourselves—with no regard for how that framework may be weaponized. The idea that a population of single people can be examined like a market may be useful to sociologists or economics to some extent, but it can lead to a distorted view of love if it is widely adopted by single people themselves.

Dating as we know it—single people going out together to restaurants, pubs, movies, and other commercial or semicommercial spaces—began in the late 1800s, according to Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating. “Courtship was monitored almost everywhere for most of human history. And it was happening in noncommercial settings like homes and synagogues,” she explained in an interview. “Somewhere where other folks could see me.” Dating moves the process out of the family, out of supervised and usually noncommercial environments, and into movie theaters and dance halls.” She pointed out that modern dating has always placed the process of seeking love inside the sphere of commerce, allowing economic conceptions to creep in.

According to Weigel, the supply-and-demand notion may have first been applied in the late 1800s, when American cities were growing in population. “In [your hometown], there were probably five individuals your age,” she said. “Then you come to the city to make more money and support your family, and you’re surrounded by hundreds of people every day.” People are more prone to think about dating in terms of probability and odds when there are a larger number of potential mates in play, she added.

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