When dating really becomes an industry

April 09, 2015 6:03 AM | Deleted user

When dating really becomes an industry

The rationalization of courtship in late modernity

Dr. Eric C. Hendriks, cultural anthropology, Utrecht University

The metaphor of the “dating industry” has become so commonplace, that it is easy to overlook its actual meaning and implications. It is far more apt and provocative a description than may seem at first, because they signal that, under the societal conditions of late modernity, courtship has increasingly been subjected to industrialization-cum-rationalization. That is, the logics of efficiency, work and industry in fact increasingly rule contemporary courtship.

The rationality of endless gain maximization forms the core of what sociologist Max Weber called “the spirit of capitalism.” The ever-deepening penetration of this capitalist spirit throughout society and culture is one of the most important developments of the modern era. In late modernity, with the rise of “emotional capitalism” (Illouz 2008), this rationality finally even began to conquer intimate life, penetrating courtship, love and romantic relationships (Gorski 2003: 172; Illouz 2008; Sennett 1998). These domains had formerly been thought to be, by their very nature, impenetrable to industrial streamlining, the work ethic and considerations of efficiency.

Of course, economic considerations—differences in wealth—have always influenced whom people got married to. Yet “efficiency” was never part of the game, except perhaps for a Genghis Khan. Striking examples of the industrialization-cum-rationalization of courtship are the notion of efficiency in internet dating and the emergence of a “pickup” subculture.

Efficiency in internet dating

New approaches to internet dating are increasingly informed by a striving for efficiency. Dating sites employ algorithms to pre-match users. Also, newer dating sites have streamlined the selection process (e.g. Tinder) so as to maximize the number of potential partners that can be “selected” or “rejected” within a certain time unit. Meanwhile, some dating site users employ additional electronic tools to more efficiently work through the thousands/millions of profiles of potential partners.

There are, for instance, smartphone apps that allow a dating site user (usually a man) to automatically and indiscriminately send initial contact requests to all (female) users in the area. This strategy allows one to move the real selection procedure to a later stage, namely when one has already obtained first responses (or non-responses) to one’s automated initial request or message. This maximizes efficiency, because one then only has to spend time and energy examining the smaller pile of user profiles that responded positively in the first round; after all, these profiles are more likely to be open to one’s possible further advances. By increasing scale and standardization, the individual here attempts to maximize the output of his online flirting in a quasi-industrial fashion. (Of course, however, none of this works if the opposite side uses the exact same strategy; or if the number of nearby users in the area happens to be highly limited and hence a “scarce resource.”)

The Pickup Community

An even more striking example of the rationalization of courtship is the so-called “Pickup Community” (or, alternatively, “Seduction Community”) which emerged in the late nineties and early 21st century. In the Pickup Community, male dating coaches sell their male students/consumers techniques and guidelines for increasing their competitiveness on the dating market. Not coincidentally, a large part of the teaching material draws on insights and terms from the sales branch. The educational products of the Pickup Community include advice books and DVDs as well as training programs in which dating coaches train students inside bars and nightclubs.

Though part of a wider landscape of dating and relationship advice, the Pickup Community forms a distinct subculture, even possessing its own distinct technical vocabulary or “language” (Hendriks 2012). Certainly most students/consumers only hope to receive some quick dating tips, yet there is a small group of elite practitioners – the subculture’s heart and soul – who turn “pickup” into a lifestyle and subscribe to a distinct value system.

In this value system, the hedonistic goal of sexual pleasure comes to complexly intertwine with ascetic, disciplinarian values. Elite practitioners of pickup “play the numbers game,” constantly approaching, and interacting with, new women (called “sets”). They do so not just because that increases one’s chances of success, but also because it is a way to practice and improve one’s skillset. In this way, socializing can turn into hard work. In a sense, pickup practitioners apply the capitalist work ethic famously described by Weber (2007 [1905]) to the art of womanizing. Womanizing then, rather than simply a hedonistic endeavor, comes to revolve around endurance, self-objectification, a sober abstinence from unproductive emotions and naïve romanticism, and an endless quest for increased market value (Hendriks 2012).

Of course the Pickup Community is a marginalized and controversial subculture. Many find it utterly reprehensive. Yet in singling out these dating coaches and their students, critics overlook that their activities reflect the contemporary individual’s quest for coping with the new conditions of courtship.

Religious and political communities have largely imploded, both in the West (Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 263-267) and China (Yan 2010), while the economy has become increasingly “flexible” (Sennett 1999). As society transforms, so do the conditions and manifestations of courtship, intimacy, romantic relationships, and marriage (the latter has, judging the divorce rates, also become rather “flexible”). In particular, as the capitalist spirit further pervades society, so our love lives also increasingly come to follow capitalist dynamics – whether we want it or not. This is why the everyday notion of a “dating industry” is more apt than some may be comfortable with.


Gorski, Philip. 2003. The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hallin, Daniel C. and Paolo Mancini. 2004. Comparing Media Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hendriks, Eric C. 2012. Ascetic Hedonism: Self and Sexual Conquest in the Seduction Community. Cultural Analysis, 11. <http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~caforum/volume11/vol11_Hendriks.html>

Illouz, Eva. 2008. Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. Berkeley: University of California.

Sennett, Richard. 1999. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York: Norton.

Weber, Max. 2007 [1905]. Die Protestantische Ethik und der ‘Geist‘ des Kapitalismus. 1905. Erftstadt: Area Verlag.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2010. The Chinese path to individualization. The British Journal of Sociology 61, 489-512.