Column: Tinder – A Lacanian Reading

Tinder: A Lacanian Reading

In her weekly column Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower, Annika Blau applies academic theories to pop-cultural artifacts, bringing scholarship out of the ivory tower and unto the supermarket. In line with the Festival of Dangerous Idea’s talks on sexuality, Annika this week introduces us to a father of sexual psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan.



Last week in Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower we delved into the discourses around sexuality to unpack the controversy over Miley Cyrus’s butt cheeks. Continuing this theme, I would this week like to talk about Tinder, an app run on the dual-core engine of location services and sexual frustration.

Modeled on the gay networking app “Grindr”, Tinder allows you to connect with local singles in your area for a techno-inspired sexual encounter. After creating an account and uploading the requisite self-portraits, you can flick through hundreds of profiles until you find someone of sufficient candidature to bang on a Thursday night.

Tinder is a vast catalogue of potential sexual encounters, from which you can pick and choose in the comfort of your own home. Gone are the days of awkward small talk in bars. Gone are the days of scrupulous body-language reading in oft-futile attempts to decode whether or not someone is “up for it”. Tinder makes desire plainly known, as transparent and methodological as a medical report.

For some, Tinder may represent a new low, for others, a world of possibilities.

To help untangle the mild unease that is the most comment reaction, I’d like to introduce one of the Big Papa’s of sexual psychoanalysis: Jacques Lacan (others = Freud, Foucault.)

Lacan’s writings are notoriously difficult to decipher, as the following memes attest to.

So I recommend reading summaries of Lacan rather than the texts themselves.

Now Lacan has a lot to say about sexuality, and like Freud, most of it is pretty out-there. There’s not quite the same degree of focus on the anus but there sure is a lot about wanting to copulate with your mother. Nevertheless, his theories around desire pertain nicely to Tinder (and Grindr).

Lacan says that desire is about “setting” as opposed to “object”. Fantasy is a vague sketch of who will be doing what to whom in the hypothetical sexual act. It does not consider the subjecthood of the sexual object (your partner) beyond their function as a desirable object for you. The sexual object (your partner) exists only as an agent to realise your fantasy. The sexual object (your partner) is stripped of subjecthood: they are just a pawn for the action.

Meanwhile, you also exist for your sexual partner as an object rather than subject – their pawn. In this way, the act of sexual intercourse is each person enacting and fulfilling their fantasy individually. While you are joined with your partner in the act, you are each having your desire gratified in an individual and distinct way. This is summarized by Lacan in his famous saying, “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship”, because sex is less a relation between two people and more each of them living their fantasy individually.

Because the sex object (your partner) exists only as an object, a screen onto which your desire is projected, sex is ultimately a narcissistic act.

This is where Tinder comes in. As per Lacan’s theory of sex, the profiles you flip through on Tinder are not real, full subjects. They are just a face and name. They are empty screens onto which to project one’s narcissistic and idealised image of the sexual object.

Lacan says sexual drives are not directed towards a “whole person” but towards part-objects. One’s tinder profile is a compilation of part-objects: a face, a name, a look, an atmosphere. Reduced to a Tinder profile, we are deprived of full subject-hood.

In this way, Tinder is not a slight against sexual relations. It is just an exaggerating version of how the mechanics of desire already work.



Annika Blau is a freelance writer from Sydney with a lot of opinions. Her writing explores what pop culture tells us about ourselves, and pairs the teachings of academia with those of the supermarket aisle. She wants to know why we don’t examine Kanye West with the same academic rigour as The Cantebury Tales, and finds Lady Gaga as revealing as the census. More of her writing can be found at annikablau@blogspot.com.au.

Read the rest of ‘Leopard Print in the Ivory Tower’ here.


(Banner image from Quinn Dombrowsky)