Not since the introduction of the birth control pill have we seen a tool as liberating for women as online dating.
When the Pill was first introduced to the market as a contraceptive in 1960, it gave women new power. It wasn’t just sexual freedom. The Pill gave them the power of choice. It allowed a woman to seriously date and experience intimacy with more than one man before she had to select him as a life partner.
Digital dating and the vast amount of information that accompanies it–with a market estimated at 27 million Americans–arm women with the knowledge needed to make a better choice before the date even begins. The Pill allowed women to metaphorically road-test the car. Online dating allows a woman to get an inspection before she bothers heading to the lot.
Finding a potential spouse with a steady job is a high priority for 78% of women, according to research by Pew. Most dating profiles allow a woman to ascertain whether her “matches” have a job–or whatever else her preferences may be–all without asking uncomfortable questions on a first date. Only after a woman is armed with this information does she need to proceed with making a date. And she is the one with the power to initiate that meeting, if she so chooses.
In 2013, the dating site Are You Interested released figures showing that a woman sending an online message to a man in her age range had an 18% likelihood of receiving a response. A man, in the same scenario, had a 4% likelihood of receiving a response. The same site found that a man typically had to send 25 messages to different women to get a response. A woman had to send only five.
In that way, the slew of dating sites and applications that have flooded the market in the past decade make every day Sadie Hawkins Day. Now, Sadie Hawkins never actually got to experience the joy of having the ball in her court. She was the creation of the cartoonist Al Capp for his Li’l Abner comic strip; Capp gave all the unmarried girls in town like Sadie a special day to “catch” their husbands. The strip ignited a popular real-life movement in the late 1930s and early ’40s whereby women, in a stunning cultural reversal, could ask a suitor to be their companion for an annual Sadie Hawkins Day dance. Is Sadie Hawkins an old-fashioned metaphor? Not really.
We no longer live in the sexually repressed ’40s, and of course women have been asking men out for decades. But few women who have tried it will deny that online dating makes it easier to be the one to make the first move, that it allows women to be much more selective and forward and that it removes some of the stigma from being the pursuer.
My female friends often receive hundreds of first messages, compared with a handful received by my male friends. Does this mean that all those men will be a potential match? Does this mean that roughly 45% of those men won’t take themselves out of contention by awkwardly posing with small baby animals or exotic pets?
Absolutely not, but it does mean that the women have a much larger pool from which to select potential dates. Online dating may not be perfect, but it certainly beats waiting to be asked out at a bar–or worse, driving home in a lemon.
Piazza is the co-author, with Lucy Sykes, of new novel The Knockoff
This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.
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