Erotic novelist LISA HILTON reveals how online dating has dehumanised a generation of women


We were 20 minutes into our first date when the middle-aged accountant I’d met for dinner announced that he didn’t find me remotely attractive.

The feeling was mutual — his online dating profile picture had clearly been a decade out of date — but I would never have been so rude as to say so.

As an attractive, successful and confident woman, I wasn’t looking for validation, but my ego was bruised. Of course it was. Three years after my divorce, I had begun dipping my toe into the online dating pool; did I really deserve to be rejected so bluntly?

What this horrible experience illustrates is how corrosive the modern dating landscape has become, particularly if you’re navigating it as a newly single woman in her 40s, as I was. To this man, I wasn’t a person with feelings. I was merely one of many women he was trying on for size: disposable.

Just as trolls type insults they’d never dream of saying face-to-face, online daters can forget they’re interacting with sentient human beings. They start to view their date as a kind of extension of their phone and normal manners are dispensed with.

For me, this date was the final straw. I put the cash for my share of the bill on the table and left, determined never to put myself through this reductive, dehumanising process ever again.

Like most of my online dating experiences, this date had been nasty, brutish and short.

Initially, dating apps had seemed to offer myriad exciting possibilities, but I had learned they promise far more than they are programmed to deliver. I was left so disenchanted that I began to think I’d rather be single for ever.

LISA HILTON (pictured): Dating apps seemed to offer myriad possibilities, but I had learned they promise far more than they are programmed to deliver

LISA HILTON (pictured): Dating apps seemed to offer myriad possibilities, but I had learned they promise far more than they are programmed to deliver

Marina Mirgova, 42, (pictured) is an executive PA from west London who has a six-year-old son. Disillusioned by 11 months of online dating, she gave up on romance two years ago, concluding: ‘It’s a meat market'

Podcaster Francesca Specter, 30, (pictured) from London, said: You realise everyone is playing a game, and you find yourself accidentally buying into it — all in the name of finding love’

Marina Mirgova, 42, (left) is an executive PA from west London who has a six-year-old son. Disillusioned by 11 months of online dating, she gave up on romance two years ago, concluding: ‘It’s a meat market.’ Podcaster Francesca Specter, 30, (right) from London, said: You realise everyone is playing a game, and you find yourself accidentally buying into it — all in the name of finding love’

Just as trolls type insults they’d never dream of saying face-to-face, online daters can forget they’re interacting with sentient human beings

Just as trolls type insults they’d never dream of saying face-to-face, online daters can forget they’re interacting with sentient human beings

I’m certainly not the only woman to be deterred by such demeaning encounters. We’ve come a long way from Match.com’s first dating website in 1995, a time when the very notion of searching for love seemed desperate. Then along came apps with GPS technology, allowing you to be matched to those in your vicinity, and online dating became not only more accessible but acceptable, too.

These days, around a third of relationships start online, and by 2035 that will rise to more than half of us meeting partners via the internet. But at what cost?

From the pornification of sex and the time wasted on endless and pointless text ‘conversations’ to the horrendous lies told by middle-aged men, I believe online dating has made women not only less confident but less likely to find a long-term partner and more at risk of abuse.

Dating apps are skewing human relationships, affecting social norms.

Like many women, I’ve been subjected to so-called ‘dick pics’, and the idea that you would see someone’s genitals before you have so much as a coffee with them is, frankly, obscene. Yet, increasingly, women talk resignedly about receiving countless such images during their search for romance.

The dramatic change in sexual mores is also shocking. Getting asked for anal sex on a first date was bad enough; a man spitting in my face during sex was horrifying.

The whole experience left me feeling like some staid maiden aunt with old-fashioned attitudes. Considering I’m actually the author of three erotic historical novels — Maestra, Domina and Ultima — and a journalist who often writes about sexual matters, that speaks volumes. When I was last single in the late 1990s — I married my former husband in 2000; we divorced in 2013 — my dates were with men I’d locked eyes with across a crowded bar, or perhaps got chatting to through friends at a party.

Pheromones, those all-important chemical messengers connected to physical attraction, had already done their job. Real-life dating was about finding out how else we might be compatible.

Online dating takes the opposite approach. You search for someone who ticks boxes, then meet up in the hope a spark will be ignited. If not, then it’s back to swiping away addictively on your phone — where, unfortunately, there’s every chance you’ll whizz past someone who is terrible at selling himself but actually, in the flesh, might be just your type.

Psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings confirms online connections bypass the normal physiological processes that help us recognise a good match. ‘When you’re looking at a picture, the sexual chemistry isn’t going to happen — you won’t pick up on those pheromones,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, that reduces your chances of getting it right.’

Without eye contact and in-person intuition, it’s harder to detect a liar, too. Several friends of mine have swiped right — the modern way of signalling your interest — on someone who seemed perfect but turned out to be married and hoping their date wouldn’t let a small thing like a wedding ring get in the way.

Mother-of-two Alex Bingley, 45, who works in customer relations and lives in Manchester, quit online dating due to such dishonesty. Having been pursued by countless married men online, she resorted to extensively verifying potential dates — which is depressing in itself.

I’m certainly not the only woman to be deterred by such demeaning encounters. We’ve come a long way from Match.com’s first dating website in 1995

I’m certainly not the only woman to be deterred by such demeaning encounters. We’ve come a long way from Match.com’s first dating website in 1995

Alex says: ‘When it comes to dating online, men basically lie. After my ex-partner and I split in 2014, I had one child-free night a week, so whoever I was meeting had to be worth the time and the effort.’

Not having dated since 2003, Alex admits she was ‘very naive’ when she signed up to Tinder: ‘One man messaged me at night asking: “Are you going to bed now? Love to be with you!” Then came the photo of his genitalia. I was so shocked.

‘I also received explicit invitations to have sex with total strangers — so many I gave up on telling them it was offensive.’

Over time, Alex turned detective: ‘Reverse photo search on Google is brilliant and every woman must use it. You can search with their photo and similar pictures from the web will show up, meaning you can weed out men who are using an old picture, or their friend’s image, or those of a random stranger. I send them a screenshot and tell them never to contact me again.’

On one occasion, she put her date’s phone number into the search bar of Facebook and his profile came up, revealing he had recently married. ‘We had arranged to go for dinner. I told him he was busted and blocked him.’

She continues: ‘I learned to search their posts on social media, reading the comments. I’d click on their family members, too. Sometimes photos of new babies and fiancees popped up even though they’d claimed to be single.’

Alex has even referred to the electoral register: ‘If a man and a woman with the same surname are living at the same address, the odds are he’s married and looking for an affair.’

As for actual dates, she has had many off-putting experiences. Not least the recently separated man who arranged to meet her in a restaurant at the same time his former wife was dining there with her new partner. ‘He explained that it was so she could see him “moving on with his life”.’

It’s no wonder Alex swore off online dating after four hard years. ‘I came to the conclusion that the odds of meeting someone who isn’t deluded, narcissistic, insane, insolvent or on a different page were slim to none, so I imposed a digital dating detox. Not long after that I met my current boyfriend through work.’

Alex may have found someone in ‘real life’, but online dating puts plenty of midlife women off looking for love altogether.

Marina Mirgova, 42, is an executive PA from west London who has a six-year-old son. Disillusioned by 11 months of online dating, she gave up on romance two years ago, concluding: ‘It’s a meat market. Thankfully, my self-esteem finally kicked in.’

Psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings confirms online connections bypass the normal physiological processes that help us recognise a good match

‘When you’re looking at a picture, the sexual chemistry isn’t going to happen — you won’t pick up on those pheromones,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, that reduces your chances of getting it right’

Psychologist and dating coach Jo Hemmings confirms online connections bypass the normal physiological processes that help us recognise a good match

Even when apps do result in love and marriage, a study by UK-based charity the Marriage Foundation last year found that those who meet online are six times more likely to divorce in the first three years, compared with those introduced by family or friends

 Even when apps do result in love and marriage, a study by UK-based charity the Marriage Foundation last year found that those who meet online are six times more likely to divorce in the first three years, compared with those introduced by family or friends

After Marina split from her partner of ten years in 2016, she spent three years focusing on her son before first venturing on to dating apps at the age of 39.

‘I’m not bad-looking and the messages came flooding in,’ she recalls. ‘I was surprised how great it was to read “Why are you single? You’re gorgeous!” from a stranger. I’d get 20 love interests a day. Weeks went by, and I realised I hadn’t set up one date.

‘It took me a few months to cotton on to the fact that many of my admirers were simply cutting and pasting messages that they’d sent to dozens of women.

‘I lost count of the crude one-night-stand requests and images of men’s genitals.

‘Friends told me that if I paid to join some of the more reputable sites it would be different. But I don’t want to pay to meet someone — it’s not very romantic, is it?’

Instead, she gave up entirely.

Even when apps do result in love and marriage, a study by UK-based charity the Marriage Foundation last year found that those who meet online are six times more likely to divorce in the first three years, compared with those introduced by family or friends.

Hardly surprising when you consider the cynical way many people ‘match’ with others online. Tinder first introduced the ‘swipe’ function — where users swipe right to show interest and left to reject — in 2013, bringing a ‘gaming’ element to online dating and increasing its addictive quality. Other dating apps have since adopted it, too.

I became conscious of how trusting these apps make you. There’s none of the social restraint that comes from meeting through mutual friends (if they treat you badly, your friends will find out) Pictured: Lisa Hilton with daughter Ottavia

I became conscious of how trusting these apps make you. There’s none of the social restraint that comes from meeting through mutual friends (if they treat you badly, your friends will find out) Pictured: Lisa Hilton with daughter Ottavia

‘Behavioural psychology is at work here,’ explains Jo Hemmings. ‘Your reward centres are getting pressed every time you are matched with someone.’

So the point is no longer to form a meaningful connection but to get as many ‘matches’ as possible, which is surely counter-intuitive.

As for me, I spent the first few years after my divorce focused on my daughter, who was seven at the time. But by 2016, aged 43, I began to think it would be nice to go on some dates for company and possibly to revive my sex life.

I joined a site called Blues Match, aimed at Oxbridge graduates like me, thinking it would improve my chances of meeting someone like-minded.

I felt confident that the forty-something chap I arranged to meet first — a former journalist, he said — would, at the very least, provide pleasant company.

The reality was he looked about 70 and smelled like a brewery.

Desperate to escape, I cited a family emergency, paid the bill and left. I then spent several weeks ignoring his calls. Finally, he left some unpleasant messages on my phone calling me a bitch, which made me feel vulnerable.

I became conscious of how trusting these apps make you. There’s none of the social restraint that comes from meeting through mutual friends (if they treat you badly, your friends will find out).

The next date was worse. His online profile ticked all the right boxes — he was good-looking, sporty and we’d both lived in France. And, when he joined me in the restaurant he’d booked, he looked just like his profile picture.

But then he made several racist remarks. His views appalled me, and I told him so, to which he said, in a patronising tone, that I didn’t understand the way things worked. I left cash on the table and walked out.

Another date was with a distinguished academic whom I had found fascinating when we spoke online and then over the phone. But when we met, even though he was sweet, he seemed more like a kindly professor than a man with whom I could become intimate.

Research from dating app Badoo recently found that 78 per cent of online daters feel stressed and let down by one incompatible date after another.

Podcaster Francesca Specter, 30, from London, had split from a long-term partner and was doing a Master’s degree when she joined location-based app Happn in 2016. She also tried Bumble (where women make the first move) and Hinge (aimed at those looking for long-term love), which led to a couple of short-lived relationships.

‘I did go on some nice dates,’ she says, ‘but overall I was struck by the sense of disposability. You realise everyone is playing a game, and you find yourself accidentally buying into it — all in the name of finding love.’

It’s the younger generation of women — my 17-year-old daughter included — I worry about most

I worry about her being pressured into sending photographs of herself she might regret later. I worry about the influence porn is having on the men who carry it around in their pockets

it’s the younger generation of women — my 17-year-old daughter included — I worry about most. I worry about her being pressured into sending photographs of herself she might regret later. I worry about the influence porn is having on the men who carry it around in their pockets

Then there’s the creeping dependency. These apps are pernicious; they make you more fearful of real-life encounters and dependent on the app. If you’re less confident in real life, you get hooked on little dopamine hits from ‘likes’ on your phone.

Francesca says: ‘I think many people use the apps as a crutch for dealing with boredom or negative feelings — a quick hit of ego validation when you receive messages. I definitely got sucked into that at times.

‘But I’m looking for a genuine connection. So, earlier this year, I decided to take a break from the apps in order to invest time in myself and with friends. It helps that I host a podcast called Alonement where I interview guests about their alone time. I’m still open to a relationship, but I prefer to meet people out and about.’

It strikes me online dating is the emotional equivalent of indulging in fast food. As appealing as its immediacy might be when you’re hungry for connection, it’s ultimately unsatisfying and extremely bad for your (mental) health. It left me feeling alone and, at times, desperate and pathetic. In the end, I decided it was better to remain single, enjoy life on my terms and be open to meeting someone in the real world. Since then, I’ve had a couple of short-lived relationships but I’m happy to be single. My ex-husband has remarried and we remain on good terms.

Is it easier for men to find love online? I suspect it’s damaging in different ways. It discourages men from engaging emotionally and, with easy access to pornography, makes them less likely to view women as real people.

But it’s the younger generation of women — my 17-year-old daughter included — I worry about most. While my mother was very liberal and always spoke to me about sex as being a positive experience for women, I hear myself cautioning my daughter to be careful in ways my mother never did with me.

I worry about her being pressured into sending photographs of herself she might regret later. I worry about the influence porn is having on the men who carry it around in their pockets.

And I worry about women of my age as they try to navigate the new Wild West of dating that, if my experience is anything to go by, dehumanises us all.

Interviews: Samantha Brick



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