Dating is bad. Dating as a woman of a certain age is worse. And dating in the age of apps “which encouraged men to think of women as less than human—as hot pictures, as objects,” as Nancy Jo Sales writes in Nothing Personal, is a hell not even Dante could have imagined.
As a guide through this particular purgatory, you couldn’t do much better than Sales. Single at 49, Sales, a journalist and filmmaker, sold a documentary called Swiped: Hooking Up in the Digital Age. But she kept it on the down-low that she herself was using the apps. Her new book is a series of dispatches from her journey into the blasted lands of Tinder.
Sharp-edged and funny, relatably flawed, with a heart full of yearning and a mailbox full of A.A.R.P. come-ons, Sales is a one-woman response to the eternal question of why smart people do stupid things—or why smart women do stupid guys. “I want a boyfriend,” she writes, quoting the Liz Phair song “Fuck and Run.”
“I was keeping it together in one part of my life while unraveling in another. The work was still being done, the bills were being paid, my daughter was being fed and clothed and loved…. Meanwhile, this other, secret me was using dating apps like an addict uses drugs.”
The metaphor works because dating apps, Sales writes, do not exist to bring their users romantic fulfillment and a forever partner. They exist to keep users, well, using them. As with commercial weight-loss companies or for-profit rehabs, failure is baked into the profit model. The apps hold out the possibility of happiness, whispering that success is just around the corner, that this time will be different, and that any failure is the user’s fault, not the system’s.
Swipe, Text, Meet, Drink, F*** … Repeat
Sales takes us deep into the world of “endless swiping, messaging, talking to strangers, the tiresome, exhausting, never-ending threads, the repetitive dates (swipe, text, meet, drink, fuck) with an assembly line of weirdos,” while showing us, with examples anecdotal and scientific, how dating apps have allowed “disrespect to become normalized,” and created a world where dating and relationships are artifacts of the past, where men expect a nonstop buffet of commitment-free sex, and women expect to get ghosted, or slapped, or worse.
The book is a hybrid, a mash-up of a hero’s quest, a love story, a #MeToo memoir, a work of reporting and sociology, and a story about the ways misogyny can misshape a woman’s life, and the reader can feel a little whiplashed as Sales moves from dry academic data points to sex scenes, to barstool confessionals with people she ID’s with monikers such as “Alex the Tinder King” and “Pie Boy.”
Then there’s the nominal hook, a man-boy named Abel with a sweet Southern accent with whom Sales instantly clicks, in bed and out. Abel is a “hobosexual”—that is, he carries his life’s possessions in a backpack, and couch-surfs from hookup to hookup.
Dating apps have created a world where men expect a nonstop buffet of commitment-free sex, and women expect to get ghosted, or slapped, or worse.
We learn early on that Sales has already banished Abel from her life once. But on page eight, her phone buzzes: “Hola there lovely how goes it?” And Sales is on her feet, on her way, making excuses and running out on a friend. Love is the drug, and she needs to score.
As the chapters unfold, Sales takes us through the story of her parents’ marriage, her own marriages, her career as a journalist, the history of Match.com, the rise of Donald Trump, the toxicity of our porn-ified, app-ified world. All the while, Abel vanishes and reappears in a cycle that keeps Sales, and the reader, asking: Has he changed? Will he be the One?
I’m not giving much away when I tell you that a 23-year-old who’s seeing other women, who’s not always entirely honest, and who sometimes gets so drunk that he urinates in Sales’s bed will not prove to be a stalwart life partner. Still, Sales finds a kind of happy ending, the realization that true love was right there, all along, and that the most consistent and satisfying relationships in her life have been with her friends of both genders and with her daughter, Zazie, who sounds like an absolute delight.
If you’re single and swiping, Nothing Personal will make you feel seen. And if you’ve found your person, or your people, you’ll hold on to them that much more tightly.