The new laws of love: sexuality, the couple, and romantic encounters in the digital age

Match, Meetic, OkCupid, Grindr, Tinder, Happn, Bumble… just a few of the thousands of dating or meeting websites and applications available on internet today. Such sites first appeared in the United States in the mid-1990s. Since then, the pioneer sites have been challenged by mobile phone applications, which are becoming increasingly popular, especially with young people. In twenty years, these services have remapped the geography of love and sexuality in France and other countries. They have changed the way people meet romantic partners and called into question the ways we have imagined love. The notion of meeting the one-and-only has given way before the possibility of having multiple internet partners. In sum, digital dating services have rationalized and sexualized intimate relations. They have been accused of nothing less than killing love. Such criticisms reflect the consternation and reprobation elicited by this new way of meeting romantic partners. But are they well founded?

Online romantic encounters are definitely in a category of their own, disrupting as they do both practices and representations. But the changes are not necessarily what we might expect. To begin with, online encounters have worked to privatize meetings between potential romantic partners—a point not often made. Les nouvelles lois de l’amour, by INED researcher Marie Bergström, based on a wide-ranging empirical survey of website and application designers as well as their users, revisits what we think we know about these services. Rather than trying to encompass all user categories—which always has the effect of crushing the experiences of minorities—the survey focused exclusively on the heterosexual population, who constitute the majority, in order to better identify and bring out their specificity. The book examines these encounters and the new, digital system that makes them possible to determine how heterosexuality has been reorganized, to identify its new codes, contradictions, and inequalities.

 The book’s new perspective on online encounters breaks with standard analysis of change in intimate relationships, and with the dominant sociological approach to couple relationships wherein new romantic and sexual behaviours constitute above all a transformation of norms. Rejecting that idealist approach—wherein private life tends to be subsumed by the world of ideas—the book focuses on the social wellsprings of emotional life, offering a materialist reading of couple relationships and sexuality that shows the links between current changes in intimate life and the profound economic and social changes of the last few decades. While not denying norm change, it highlights the conditions of production for these new attitudes, attitudes operative not just in internet encounters but also other sexual, romantic, and affective practices.

 This means the book can be read at two levels. For general readers, it dissects a phenomenon that elicits as much curiosity as consternation. Using simple language free of sociological jargon, it presents the types of logic driving people’s use of these new services. But it also offers a contemporary sociological analysis of emotional life, with the understanding that dating and meeting websites and applications are “strategic observation sites” from which to revisit the classic matters studied in sociology of couple relationships and of sexuality.

Source:Bergström M., 2019. Les nouvelles lois de l’amour. Sexualité, couple et rencontres au temps du numérique. Éditions La découverte

Contact: Marie Bergström

Online: March 2019