(RNS) — Dating today can be a bit like ordering at Chipotle. The universe of dating apps makes it easier than ever to custom-order a partner of your choosing — their height, their food preferences, their religion.
A new crop of dating apps aims to target the more picky consumer — narrowing the menu by prioritizing a “main ingredient.” Want to date someone who is Mormon? There’s an app for that. Want to date someone who is queer? Or gluten-free? Or over 50? There’s a site for that too.
“What you’re seeing now is that the market is segmenting more and more as it becomes mainstream,” said Eric Eichmann, CEO of Spark Networks, an umbrella dating company. “In our portfolio brand you have Silver Singles for people looking for love at a later stage in their life, we have Christian Mingle, we have Jdate, we have JSwipe too (both Jewish apps). It’s about people looking for other people who have that same criteria as their first criteria.”
This month, as Tinder celebrates its 10th anniversary, two new niche dating sites are hitting the market, joining countless other apps promising that shared beliefs and values are key to long-lasting relationships. While skeptics grimace at some brands’ gimmicky — or, in extreme cases, offensive — advertising, some specialized apps have proved successful. Sites like Muzz, for Muslim singles, boast over 7 million users. Still, some app users say even the most selective dating site can still lead to burnout, “creepers” and catfishing.
Even before its official launch, the new site Dominion Dating has proved controversial. Its target audience is Christian singles who believe husbands should rule over their wives, women should be homemakers and Christians should have children to exercise “dominion over the world,” per the website. Its membership application requires users to both abstain from “dressing sensually or immodestly” and submit an endorsement from “the man you are submitted to for discipleship,” all of which has solicited eye rolls aplenty from the app’s many critics.
Another ultraconservative app, The Right Stuff, is also slated to debut this month. Co-founded by former Trump administration personnel chief John McEntee, the app is advertised as a “dating app for the Right wing” and a substitute for apps that have “gone woke.” Though The Right Stuff is more political than religious, McEntee told Religion News Service he expects most users will be Christian. He added that the idea for the invite-only app came from frustrations with existing options.
“Some of the current apps, it’s not just that the users are mean-spirited to conservatives. It’s that they make you agree to left-wing things, and it’s really in your face,” he said. “We’re just saying, ‘Why don’t we just create our own place where we know at least that one giant filter is done for us?’”
The site is backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, who is in a same-sex marriage, but it does not offer dating services for LGBTQ users.
Some of today’s most popular dating apps, including Hinge, allow users to filter based on religion or political identity, but others, like Bumble, require a premium subscription to do so.
According to John Angelis, 42, a college professor and app user who lives in Virginia, users often try to get around the cost of additional filters on mainstream apps by advertising their political preferences.
“Some people now put on their profiles ‘Don’t swipe right or left if you’re a Republican or Democrat,’ whichever it is,” Angelis said. “I think politics is the No. 1 thing I see mention of in a profile. Compared to 10 to 15 years ago, I see much less religious preference stated.”
For Angelis, who occasionally uses Bumble and a site called Christian Café, it’s faith that is nonnegotiable when it comes to relationships. In his experience, Christian dating sites lead to better quality dates, even if the pool is smaller.
“(Christian Café) asks you a lot more questions about how you are actively participating in your faith, and you have to set up a profile that’s more about how did you become a Christian, how active are you in the faith, how often do you attend church.”
Michael Langlais, a professor at Florida State University who studies technology and relationships, noted that many contemporary dating apps cater to surface-level connections based on profile pictures or witty catchphrases. He suspects that religious apps are likely more effective for those seeking marriages, rather than casual dates.
“These religious apps are sort of like, let’s skip the shallow end of things and let’s go straight to values,” Langlais said. “And that can be a very powerful predictor of relationships, if you know you and this other individual share values.”
Many of the well-established dating apps and sites distinguish themselves from stereotypical hookup apps like Tinder by framing themselves as tools for finding lifelong partners. Eichmann, CEO of Spark Networks, spoke to RNS about Jdate, a 20-year-old Jewish dating site that Eichmann says is ubiquitous in Jewish circles.
“When people think of Jdate, they realize it’s about finding a soulmate,” said Eichmann.
In some religious sectors, apps are changing the way religious groups are thinking about dating and courtship on a larger scale. Richma Piaraly is chief marketing officer at Hawaya, a global Muslim dating app created in Egypt in 2017 that’s now a member of the Match Group. She says technology has empowered some Muslims, especially Muslim women, to take a more active role in their love life, especially in contexts where arranged marriages used to be the norm.
“I think what we are seeing is the democratization of online dating, especially among women,” she said.
Shahzad Younas, who founded the global, London-based Muslim dating app Muzz over 11 years ago, says the Muslim world is still warming up to online dating, but he’s seen the skepticism start to erode.
“In the Muslim market there is still some element of taboo,” he said. “However, no question, the stigma is definitely lessening. I lost track of the number of people I knew personally who, during COVID, reached out to me who said … all right, how does your app work and tell me how I sign up?”
According to Pew Research, a survey from October 2019 found that 12% of Americans have been in a committed relationship with or married someone they met on an app or website, and nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) have gone on a date with someone they met online.
In addition, according to Langlais, research shows that today, the quality of relationships formed online is similar to those formed in person, which, he notes, is a shift from what the research showed just 10 to 12 years ago. “My own research shows that people who meet on dating apps have just as much satisfaction and commitment as those who meet in person,” he said.
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Even as the Covid-19 era ushered in a new reliance on digital tools, some app users have been experiencing online dating fatigue, with many feeling more frustrated than hopeful.
Langlais says app burnout could be fueling the drive toward value-oriented apps, especially if the fatigue is caused by superficial interactions. For Czeena Devera, 32, her own app burnout led her and a few friends to re-envision what faith-based, in-person dating could look like.
Devera, who is based near Detroit, began using dating apps in early 2020. She enjoyed meeting new people but said it got exhausting after a while.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re on CatholicMatch or on Hinge or Bumble, it just seems like there will always be the one or two guys who are super disrespectful,” said Devera. “And you can’t really screen for that.”
After a conversation with a few close friends, Devera learned she wasn’t the only one feeling burned out by dating apps — so together they decided to create their own young adults group to foster intentional dating. The result, a Catholic group called Hot & Holy, has been shockingly successful.
“When we launched in October (2021), we were maybe expecting 80 people, but we got over 130,” Devera said. Their most recent speed dating event had roughly 190 attendees, including folks who drove several hours from Ohio and from Traverse City, Michigan. Each speed dating event is also attended by priests, brothers and/or consecrated virgins who are on hand to share insight with the singles.
The group, which welcomes anyone open to the Catholic faith, also hosts monthly happy hours that start with Eucharistic adoration and end with going out for drinks, as well as social events such as trivia and scavenger hunts.
Devera told RNS she hopes the in-person approach helps people avoid the trap of thinking of potential spouses like a menu. Personally, she’s already met plenty of potential dates through Hot & Holy — though she hasn’t sworn off dating apps just yet.
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