No dating apps, no dates, no exes, no hookups: what’s driving the ‘boy sober’ trend? | Lisa Portolan

A new trend is sweeping TikTok: #boysober. Its rules? No dating apps, no dates, no exes, no hookups. Thousands of women are uploading videos describing why they have gone boy sober and extolling its benefits.

What could cause this kind of heterosexual exodus? Two words: dating apps.

The apps have transformed the landscape of modern romance, offering convenience, accessibility and the promise of connection at the swipe of a finger. But they have also become breeding grounds for harassment, abuse and assault.

The No 1 reason women are going boy sober is that the dating pool has turned toxic.

When I conducted research on dating apps and intimacy in 2020 the majority of women in my study had encountered technologically facilitated violence. This included abusive behaviour, receiving unsolicited sexual imagery, being asked for sexual imagery, and encountering fraudsters, bullies and even stalkers.

Distressingly, many respondents normalised this behaviour, indicating it was part of being on a dating app and existing in the online domain as a woman. These respondents would block people and report them.

But it was often unclear what action the dating apps took; often the woman would encounter the same person on a different app – or even the same app.

Some four years later, and more than a year on from Australia’s national roundtable on online dating safety convened in January 2023 by the minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, and the minister for social services, Amanda Rishworth, what has changed? The roundtable brought together the online dating industry, state and territory governments, the family, domestic and sexual violence sector and victim-survivor advocates. As a result the Albanese government put dating apps on notice: self-regulate or be regulated. The apps were instructed to come up with a voluntary code by mid 2024. That milestone is fast approaching.

But the onus of taking action to protect oneself continues to fall disproportionately on women, who find themselves navigating potential risks including harassment, stalking and abuse, requiring them to be vigilant. They must screen profiles, verify identities, protect their privacy and manage communication boundaries.

The decline of dating app use has been steady: statistics reveal a 5% decline in user activity on Tinder, the leading global dating app, in 2021. Shares in Bumble and Match Group, Tinder’s parent company, have experienced consistent drops over the past few years. This trend poses a growing challenge for these companies, especially with more than 90% of generation Z expressing frustration with dating apps, as reported by the youth research agency Savanta.

A sense of unease and vulnerability is driving women away from the apps. Numerous studies have highlighted the alarming prevalence of unsolicited explicit messages, stalking and catfishing scams targeting women. This climate of fear not only erodes trust but also undermines the fundamental purpose of dating apps as spaces for genuine interaction. My research demonstrates that for many women the trauma of being on dating apps is not worth the potential of meeting a partner – with many indicating they are unwilling to sacrifice their mental or physical health.

Last year’s Australian roundtable was a pivotal moment. The discussions underscored the urgent need for robust measures to combat harassment and ensure the apps’ integrity. But concrete action and regulatory frameworks have been slow to materialise, leaving many women feeling unprotected and marginalised.

Critics argue that without robust enforcement and independent oversight, a voluntary code is little more than an empty gesture, designed to placate public outcry without effecting meaningful change. Dating apps should have to demonstrate genuine accountability and prioritise the safety of their users, particularly women who bear the brunt of online harassment and abuse.

As women continue to leave dating apps in search of safer, more equitable alternatives, the onus is on industry stakeholders and policymakers to address the issues driving this exodus. It’s imperative that we confront them head on, fostering a culture of safety, respect and inclusivity within online dating platforms.

Dr Lisa Portolan is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and the author of several books, including Love, Intimacy and Online Dating: How a Global Pandemic Redefined Intimacy


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