In the notes section of my phone I keep a list of men I’ve met on online dates. Matt The Twat; Annoying Vegan Cycle Boy; Jamie Nice No Spark; The Bearded Canadian (Bit Odd). It’s like a dot-form diary of my recent romantic encounters, most of them born on a lonely Sunday-night-in, glass of shiraz in one hand, phone in the other.
I arrived on the singles scene in 2015 with an aching heart and a lot to learn. “Nobody meets in real life anymore,” one friend told me firmly when I suggested a night out on the town, snatching my phone and clicking through to the app store.
Seemingly overnight, dating apps had shifted from the desperate domain of the over-50s to the new normal. Every man and his dog were on Tinder – or every man and his sedated tiger, all dumb grins and flexed muscles bulging out of Bintang singlets.
Initially hesitant, I got into the swing of it soon enough; window-shopping for boys from the comfort of your couch sure has its benefits, and amongst the beefed-up bodybuilders and BDSM buffs, there seemed to be a few potential suitors.
I fronted up to my first online date with a healthy mix of hope and realism, aware that a chiseled jaw (in photos) and a bit of banter (via text) wouldn’t necessarily equate to chemistry or even amiability in the flesh. But on some subconscious level, I assumed I’d snag myself a good one – if not The One – before too long. After all, I have a clean record, wide smile and impeccable hygiene. Surely finding a match wouldn’t be that difficult.
I was wrong.
The reality was rife with rejection. I met men who seemed keen but never texted again; men who only wanted sex; men who were rude to waiters (red flag); men who flirted with waiters (double red flag). And perhaps worst of all: men who were perfectly lovely and available, but with whom I just didn’t click.
Then there was a whole new dating lexicon to learn and live: “Netflix and chill”, I soon discovered, didn’t involve vegging out in front of Stranger Things; “ghosting” was when a love interest suddenly vanished from your life with zero explanation; and “zombieing” occurred when said ghost returned from the dead, sliding back into your DMs on an idle Wednesday evening.
Recently, I was zombied by a guy I’d been chatting to on app-of-the-moment Hinge. He’d casually suggested a date then fallen off the face of the earth, only to reemerge four months later. “Hey stranger,” he wrote. “What happened to you?” I asked. “Nothing much, just some good old-fashioned app fatigue.”
It was perhaps the most profound two words ever uttered to me online: app fatigue. After the initial buzz around mobile dating – a world of romantic possibility right there in your pocket – we’re tired of soulless swiping. In a recent survey by the BBC, 37 per cent of respondents deemed dating apps the “least preferred” method for meeting a spouse. Complex algorithms now make it harder to make matches (unless you want to cough up for a premium membership), and despite tales of Tinder’s hot hook-up culture, research suggests millennials are actually having less sex than ever.
But if we’re not searching for suitors on our smartphones, where are we going to find them? The last time I heard of a woman meeting her husband-to-be on a sweaty dance floor, she was grinding to “Gangnam Style” in a pair of Isabel Marant wedge sneakers.
I guess that’s where I come in. My editor has challenged me to delete the apps and look for love offline. Goodbye, Hinge. Ta-ta, Tinder. Happn, I never really liked you anyway.
My colleagues are more excited about the experiment than I am, eagerly spurting out ideas and advice. Cycling clubs, one tells me, are a breeding ground for men – fit and virile types who care about the planet too. But I’m from the school of thought that you can actually forget how to ride a bike (I learnt the hard way on an unfortunate jaunt in Copenhagen), plus I’ve always been suspicious of men in lycra.
Instead, in the name of group activities, I sign up for a salsa class. It’s fun and sexy with cool Cuban beats and more hip-swivelling than I’ve done in a while – though thanks to a heavily skewed gender ratio, I spend most of the lesson partnered up with Maria, an Italian nonna who keeps mixing up her left and right. The next morning I tag along to my neighbour’s testosterone-filled boxing gym. There’s no shortage of decent-looking men loitering around, but the only thing they’re checking out is their biceps.
In a moment of panic, I gather the girls for a night out. The pub in Bondi is swarming with polo-shirted guys and pretty girls in snake-print skirts. Not that they’re talking to one another – this is Sydney, after all. Even back before the advent of dating apps it wasn’t the easiest place to meet new people, but the cliques and crowds have since become considerably harder to crack. Because really, why would a man put himself out there and approach a woman IRL when he could do it from behind the safety of a screen?
After a round of espresso martinis I’m determined to shake up the status quo and find myself sauntering over to a cute guy by the bar. Let’s call him Bondi Boy – though with his short dark hair and no-logo tee he’s the antithesis of the yogi-yuppie stereotype. I’m not quite sure how we start chatting, but I have a horrible inkling it’s with me squeaking, “You’re cute!” We banter for a bit before he asks for my number and I shimmy back to the girls, who are now madly downing shots of tequila.
I awake the next morning to a heavy head and a pinging phone. It’s Bondi Boy: “Hey, want to meet up today?” I agree to an afternoon coffee date and wander down to meet him by the beach. He’s shorter than I remember, but my heightism is quickly cancelled out by his kind eyes and our easy connection. We grab hot drinks then sit on the sand, chatting and laughing under grey-streaked skies. Coffee rolls into drinks at a local bar, then dinner at my favourite Mexican restaurant. It’s one of those great first dates where time loses all meaning; the kind that makes you feel calm and jittery all at once. Bondi Boy walks me home and gives me his jumper when the chill sets in. And then, as fat raindrops start to fall, he grabs my face and kisses me.
I feel giddy as I open the front door, and my phone beeps before I’ve even put my bag down. “Can’t wait to see you again.”
I have three main fears in life: ending up alone, elevator doors closing in on me, and speed dating. I’ve always physically recoiled at the mere idea of the latter, perhaps because it turns dating into a competitive sport. I like to win – yet after a series of failed online dates, you do start to wonder if you really suck at it.
Tonight though, I’m letting go of my hang-ups and heading to an event organised by global matchmaking company MyCheekyDate. It’s also an opportunity for me to get over Bondi Boy. After three more (great) dates, he’s revealed he’s fresh out of an eight-year relationship and not ready for anything serious. I feel dejected, but also determined not to let it derail my experiment.
Notably, I scored the last female ticket to the event, which means I’ll have to go alone. I get a friend to drive me and turn up 30 minutes late, a strategic move to miss the awkward small talk at the start. Walking in, it looks like your typical Saturday night at a slick city bar, except on closer inspection I see that the boys are all sitting on one side of the long candlelit table, girls on the other.
As soon as I start chatting to my first guy, a computer engineer called Evan, my nerves dissolve. It’s actually pretty easy; the seven minutes fly by so quickly you barely have time to introduce yourself before a host appears and quietly taps the man to move down the line (in a bid for subtlety, MyCheekyDate nights are void of stopwatches, bells and whistles).
Carrie Bradshaw once described first dates as “job interviews with cocktails”, and her words ring true here. Towards the end of the night, a burly Eastern European dater tells me he’s sick of sitting down and instead towers over me, firing questions and taking notes on his scorecard as I speak.
But for the most part, the men are warm, interesting, even vulnerable. You can’t help but applaud them for putting themselves out there – leaving the house (and shelling out $35 for a ticket) already shows they’re more committed than the average sofa-bound swiper. Plus throughout the rapid meet-and-greet, you can instantly feel for chemistry, something even the techiest tech can’t account for (yet). So in that sense, it’s definitely more efficient than mobile dating.
I feel a hint of something with one guy, a Brit with a dry sense of humour. The next morning I get an email from MyCheekyDate letting me know that we’ve matched, and make a note to email him during the week.
I back it up with another singleton soiree, Dating With Dogs, the following afternoon. It’s the brainchild of Tatum Brown, who wanted to bring together lovelorn dog-lovers while raising funds for animal rescue groups. Genius. I borrow my friend’s cavoodle, Toby, and rock up to the pub. There are dogs everywhere: stocky staffies and goofy golden retrievers and preened little poodles.
Unfortunately, there aren’t as many men. Women seem to outnumber them five to one.
It’s a common theme I’m witnessing throughout this challenge, and it may speak to the fact that guys are just less socially organised than women. But it also suggests they don’t feel the same pressure or desire to couple up.
I stand with a couple of other women and point out that the dogs seem more likely than us to get any action – one huge Pyrenees mountain dog keeps getting mounted by little mutts. But it’s not all bad news: I’m out and about on a bright Sunday afternoon playing with puppies and meeting new people. Face-to-face connection, whether romantic or otherwise, is a genuine benefit of this real-life-dating thing.
And it’s having an effect on me, I realise, as I stroll up the street to do some shopping that evening. Not only has my screen-time halved, but I feel altogether more open. More open to possibility, more ready to muster some words together if I do meet a potential beau on the street. More confident to …
I’m jolted out of my daydreams in the dairy aisle. I can see Bondi Boy mulling over the cheese. Which would be all well and good, except for the fact that I’m wearing his jumper. I repeat: Wearing. His. Jumper.
My half-filled shopping basket practically falls out of my hand and I make a mad dash for the exit, unsure if Bondi Boy saw me, and unsure whether to laugh or cry. (For the record, that was the first time I’d worn his hoodie since he lent it to me on our date, grabbed randomly as I was running out the door.)
That’s the thing about dating offline: for me it’s been tinged with disappointment and doubt, but at the very least, it’s provided some great fodder for my friends. And if I come away with a spin on the dance floor, a kiss in the rain and a major fear conquered, maybe, just maybe, it’s worth pursuing.
I pull out my phone and create a new page of notes to document my real-world dates. First entry: Jumper Boy. And an expanse of blank space just waiting to be filled.