Namita (name changed) had been married for 11 years, when she downloaded Gleeden on her phone last year. “For some time now, I had stopped feeling sexy. I was lonely. I felt that only my role as a mother counted and it made me unhappy,” she recalls.
Gleeden is an extramarital dating app which originated in France. Its Indian user base — aged 34-49 years — has grown from 1.2 lakh last year to 5 lakh now. The app, with a user ratio of 70 per cent men and 30 per cent women, is free for women. For men, it comes at a price.
“I went out on a date for the first time in almost 10 years and I felt I was 20 again,” says Namita, 31, who lives in Mumbai with her two children and husband. Her lover is also a married man, whom she met on Gleeden. “We share stolen moments of happiness. It is a way for us to escape from our daily lives without hurting our spouses and families,” she says, while advocating for open marriages.
Whether it is Gleeden or Tinder, Bumble or OKCupid, the Indian woman’s evolving relationship with love, sex and dhokha is now carried out via a host of dating apps. Young people seek out partners for love or casual hook-ups. Some seek friends in a new city, while others use it for professional networking. Middle-aged women — widowed, separated or divorced — are also exploring love’s second coming. “There are many divorced women and single mothers on dating apps these days. The oldest paying customers on TrulyMadly are a 66-year-old man and a 63-year-old woman,” says Snehil Khanor, chief executive officer, TrulyMadly, a dating app launched in 2013. “The percentage of sign-ups from women who are 30 years and older has more than doubled in the last five years,” he says.
Not all of them find the going smooth. Most of the men Uma (name changed) matched with were either married and not “legally single” or they were widowers, and not “mentally single”. “One can’t compete with a dead person,” says the 49-year-old, who soon deleted the app. “But a colleague encouraged me to get back on it again,” she says. Her second stint hasn’t been very different. “I matched with a man who wrote that intellectual conversations turn him on, but I can’t be doing all the talking, right?” says Uma, who has a 23-year-old son.
With empowerment comes vulnerability. In April, Meenu Jain, 52, wife of a former IAF wing commander, was murdered in her Delhi flat allegedly by 56-year-old Dinesh Dixit, a dog breeder from Jaipur, whom she had met via a dating app a few months ago. Jain, a physics graduate and topper in college, after her marriage lived an itinerant life with her husband, who was often transferred from post to post. After retirement, he took on a job with a private airline and was frequently out of town. Jain was found smothered in her bed, the police said.
Delhi-based Meghna (name changed), 27, has swiped right, left and centre on most apps in the past five years. But falling in love has been hard work. “In 2014, a friend told me to use Tinder to score dates, but I was sceptical. I had just gotten out of a toxic relationship,” she says. She joined eventually but quit in four days. “It was a total disaster. One guy, after a music gig, wanted to take me out for dinner at a butcher’s shop,” says Meghna. Since then, she has gone on and off Tinder and ended up with a “series of bitter experiences” — most of which can be filed under Clueless Indian Male. The potential matches either were too wary of “anything” serious or so attached that they would begin to stalk her, she recalls. “Nine of 10 guys I matched with didn’t know how to take it forward. They met regularly, went on dates till one day they ghosted me,” she says.
Ghosting is a new name for the oldest trick in the book — potential romantic interests vanishing into thin air without a word. The newest are breadcrumbing and orbiting — the “unavailable” person will keep you hanging by the hook with intermittent messaging, or keep a tab on what’s latest in your life by following your social media feeds.
In their book, The Desi Guide to Dating (HarperCollins, 2019), Ira Trivedi and Sachin Bhatia write, “Dating has become easier than ever before but apps have also made it more ambiguous than before. What does it mean that she’s read your WhatsApp message, knows that you have read her message and still haven’t replied and it’s been 30 minutes? And here you thought that a peck on the lips at the end of dinner meant the date went off swimmingly.”
The apps are adapting to ensure a more secure experience for women, who are vastly outnumbered by men in the digital space.
Bumble, an app co-launched in December in India by Whitney Wolfe (also Tinder co-founder) and partner-investor-actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas, claims to turn the gender norm on its head, as conversations ensue only when the woman makes the move first. In 2018, Tinder launched My Move, a setting that gives women the ability to send the first message.
Co-founder and former CEO Sachin Bhatia says TrulyMadly was created using artificial intelligence to “disrupt the online matrimony space”. “We discovered that 30 per cent men on these sites were already married and had heard of personal instances where women had encountered conmen with fake profiles,” he says.
TrulyMadly “keeps the married men away”. That’s not all, it assigns a trust score to a profile, which is linked to the user’s LinkedIn profile, phone number and government identity card, apart from his Facebook profile. A person with a higher trust score will get more matches and “likes”, says Khanor. Homegrown app Woo asks women to share their phone numbers only “when they know it is the right time”, and till then to use the in-app calling facility to connect with men.
Because women are apprehensive about sharing personal information, Gleeden assures “anonymity and confidentiality” — profile pictures are optional. Bumble only shows the initial of the user’s first name. “To verify and block profiles is like hygiene for us,” says Bhatia. On TrulyMadly, a woman has the option to make the first move and hide her profile. “In small towns, girls are afraid that a cousin might see the profile,” says Khanor, adding that they ask women not to upload photographs that may give away the location of their residence and workplace. “We ask them to inform a best friend when going on a date and meet the person in a public place,” he says. Bhatia says the percentage of blocked profiles on TrulyMadly has gone down to five per cent from 25 per cent in the last five years.
While the common belief is that more women are in the field for long-term relationships, many of them are also more open to the idea of casual sex. Somya Bharadwaj, a 26-year-old film producer in Mumbai, has downloaded Tinder and Hinge many a time, mostly when she’s “super horny”. “It’s become pretty chill now, most in my circle of friends, men or women, are looking for casual sex. It’s no longer a taboo. The idea of a hook-up is now getting normalised,” Somya says.
“If you look at (online) content these days, in one out of four videos, you’ll hear the mention of dating and not marriage,” says Bengaluru-based Able Joseph, who founded Aisle, which warrants “romance over flings”. In 2014, when it first came into being, 99 per cent of its users were men. That gender divide is prevalent even now, just that the gap has reduced. Today, Aisle features 32 per cent women users, TrulyMadly 28 per cent, and Woo 26 per cent. “When the gender ratio is skewed for internet usage in India, it will reflect in dating apps, too. But the usage has doubled in the last five years, with major growth in cities like Jaipur, Indore, Ahmedabad,” says Khanor.
That is not to say that the apps do not help women graduate from casual hook-ups to romance and marriage. Varanasi’s Shraddha Trivedi, now married for two years, met her husband on a dating app. “A friend of mine was sitting with her Aadhaar card in hand, making a profile on TrulyMadly, so I got curious. Where I come from, we can’t openly tell our families to get us married, even if we want to. I was the kind who could not look a boy in the eye, I was that shy. So, dating apps worked for me,” she says. “It’s not that people don’t date in small towns, but the circle gets limited to school, college or the neighbourhood. But nowadays, young people have started using dating apps. There are concerns that profiles can be fake, but I got married to a real guy,” she says with a laugh.
Now that homosexuality is legal in India, more women are exploring their sexuality. While gay and bisexual men have options in Grindr, Scruff and PlanetRomeo, and TrulyMadly has an LGBTQ+ counterpart in Delta, there aren’t many specially-designed apps for lesbian and bisexual women. They can, however, change gender preferences on Tinder, Bumble, OKCupid, Hinge, and other apps.
Like Ankita did, for a while, out of curiosity. “If I found a smart, intelligent and beautiful woman, I would swipe right. Howsoever much it may be confusing to talk to them, it was also liberating. It’s more open,” says the 22-year-old postgraduate student in Chennai. She matched with a girl, who already had a boyfriend but they were looking for a threesome. “I didn’t mind it and went ahead. But in these situations, it is also understood that the couple would not like to keep in touch later,” she says. Ankita also spoke to many girls on Tinder, who were straight and hoping to make new friends through the app. “There are a few women on dating apps who are only looking for hook-ups but will meet more people and take it as it goes,” says Siddi Soi, a 26-year-old Delhi-based queer photographer. “There are many who say they are confused but curious,” she says.
Delhi-based Rhea Almeida, 24, a bisexual woman in an open relationship, used Tinder to connect with both men and women. “But I haven’t met any I matched with. Women are open about their sexuality and flirting with them is much healthier, but they like to prolong conversations and don’t end up as dates,” she says.
“It is more tedious to meet women,” says Bhavna (name changed), 22, a postgraduate in gender studies from Delhi, who identifies as bisexual. “I haven’t seen women creating lesbian or bisexual networks as much as men do through Grindr. Dating apps are a little problematic as one also comes across men too. If they find you belong to the LGBTQ+ community, they can be quite hostile,” she says.
Nevertheless, for men or women, queer or cis people, technology has taken courtship into a new terrain, where the old rules of engagement do not apply. Especially, when it comes to emotional honesty. “People do not wish to be vulnerable or fall for meaningful love as they fear hurting themselves; in this way, they end up bubble-wrapping their hearts,” says Mumbai-based psychologist and relationship counsellor Hoori Shah.
“Common concerns with people using these apps are low self-esteem, high insecurities, inability to trust. It is difficult to differentiate between those looking out casually and seriously on these apps,” says Delhi-based counselling psychologist Manisha Sharma, adding that a rejection from a casual seeker may put an introvert, looking for something serious, in a cycle of self-doubt.
The apps have also created instability in relationships, as the idea that a better match may just be a swipe away won’t let people settle in easily. “They may have everything nice in a relationship and yet miss something,” Sharma says, citing the case of a young man who recently visited her. His partner, he said, was intelligent and gave him space. Their sexual compatibility was the best he had experienced but still something was missing. “We concluded that it was just the fear of missing out on something even better. This seems to be spreading, people throwing away what they have, hoping to find something even better and then getting caught in a cycle of regret,” Sharma says.
After five years of swiping through bizarre bios and profiles, Meghna started the Instagram handle Tinda Tales, with the tag line: “Dating in Delhi is like eating a tinda (apple gourd). It’s really healthy but bad (sic) to taste.” Here, she posts images of bizarre profiles she encounters on Tinder, people posing with their spouses, morphed photographs of politicians as a couple. “Dating apps are like a buffet in contrast to traditional dating, where you meet one or two men. So people have too many options. I may be invested in one guy, but he may be speaking to three more,” Meghna says. TrulyMadly affirms: a girl will like one out of 13 profiles in a day, but a guy will like 10 of the 13. “I want men to drop all the pretensions and just be themselves,” she says.
But she also admits that “being herself” can turn out to be an unpredictable proposition. “What I want really depends on which phase of life I’m in. Three months ago, I was averse to these apps. Then came a phase when I just wanted to hook up, and now I’m open to the idea of a summer romance,” she says. When she swipes right the next time, she would want a partner who is smart enough to live with the surprises.
Cushioning: You meet someone you really like but s/he is already in a relationship. When they flirt, you may think s/he is interested in you, but s/he has no plans of leaving his current partner.
Breadcrumbing: Unlike a ghoster, who disappears one fine day, the breadcrumber will disappear only for weeks, only to resurface and send flirtatious but non-committal messages. But s/he will not make an effort to meet you. It is just an easy way to keep the door open for the future.
Benching: Before you enter into an exclusive relationship with your new partner, you run the risk of being benched by him/her. Like a sportsperson, you may find yourself as his/her back-up option, as s/he continues to play the field.
Catch and release: Those who love the thrill of the chase will put in all the effort to woo you for a date. As soon as you say yes, they lose interest and move on to the next target.
Stashing: You may be dating someone. You think it is going well. But you realise that you don’t feature on any of his/her social media posts or that s/he un-tags himself from your posts. S/he is not that much into you but doesn’t want to close the door, so he “stashes” you.
Orbiting: Here, the person will ghost you but continue stalking you on your social media. S/he will like your posts and watch your stories on Instagram and Snapchat. S/he simply wants to keep you in his/her orbit, in the slight chance that you may hook up in the future.
Kittenfishing: Also called catfishing lite. A person who can invent a new persona, with photoshopped or outdated images, embellished accomplishments, or by lying about weight or height. S/he’s just stretching the truth.
With inputs by Parth Khatau.