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Sex and Silicon Valley: the veritable arms race of the dating app industry

The bay area tech boom has given many of the industry's workers money, confidence and a hedonistic tinge, writes Rory Carroll from Silicon Valley

'The startup mentality of perpetually seeking the next new thing influences dating habits,' said Eric Barry, a former part-time sex worker.

Silicon Valley has long attracted young entrepreneurs and software engineers with the promise of wealth. Now it shimmers with an additional appeal: sex.

The technology boom has given many of the industry's workers in the San Francisco bay area money, confidence and a hedonistic tinge at odds with the stereotype of shy geeks.

Long hours in front of a computer remain the norm but they are also packing bars, splashing cash and using dating apps in a thriving hookup culture.

Business models old and new are responding to demand for one-night stands as well as soul mates. The competition between dating apps has been called an “arms race”, with one startup flying in single women from New York to meet potential partners. Sex workers, meanwhile, are charging thousands of dollars per night.

“San Francisco is a great city for casual sex,” said Eric Barry, 28, a former Google employee and part-time sex worker who now writes and hosts a podcast about sex.

The startup mentality of perpetually seeking the next new thing influences dating habits, he said. “You go to bars, prospecting new opportunities, pick someone up, and then you move on to the next thing.”

Lucrative salaries and stock options tend to embolden the diffident, said Barry. “There is truth in the awkward geek stereotype but being 22 and being worth $350,000 boosts your ego. It goes a long way to building up your confidence.”

Vertiginous valuations for startups such as Uber ($17bn) and Airbnb ($10bn) have created a giddy atmosphere, evoking comparisons to the dotcom bubble and 19th-century gold rush.

Speciality cocktails and craft beers fuel voluble crowds at bars in the Mission district, popular with hipsters, and the marina district, favoured by preppy types. “Business is great,” beamed Gideon Ledlie Bush, manager of Marengo, near the marina, during a recent, packed Friday night.


Seven reasons to date a geek

 Her clients were not Bill Gates-lookalikes with coke bottle classes and pocket protectors, said Linx Dating founder Amy Andersen. 

With the city adding 8,000 tech jobs last year, and the average tech salary exceeding $100,000, it is little surprise that bars are doing well.

Bar owners also credit dating apps. Grouper matches groups of three men and three women, accounting for the six-strong clumps you see ordering drinks. Apps such as Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, OKCupid and Grindr also pack them in. “The dating industry has turned into a veritable arms race,” said SF Weekly.

(Justin Mateen, Tinder's co-founder, told the Guardian earlier this year it was not a hookup app but a “social discovery platform” which facilitated introductions.)

Before taking their profile picture, some trek to dermatologists like Seth Matarasso, who runs an upscale clinic, for Botox injections. “It can backfire, almost like false advertising,” he said. “You put up a facade, eventually it'll bite you on the butt.”

A new, crowdfunded site called the Dating Ring caused a stir last monthby flying in 16 women from New York on the basis that New York had a surplus of single women and San Francisco a surplus of single men.

“We need you handsome geniuses to let us know if you are available to go on dates and parties with NYC women that weekend, and which days you are available,” said the invitation to prospective matches.

Cosmopolitan magazine encouraged proactive steps last year when it proclaimed "Seven reasons to date a geek”.

Dame magazine recently countered with a broadside against “dull”, “boring”, “stunted”, “self-absorbed” geeks in Seattle and San Francisco who throw money around but lack style or interest in their dates. “You can see them coming a mile away. There’s just enough time to run,” it counselled.

Many ignore that advice, judging by the apparently newly minted couples who huddle outside bars on Polk Street in the early weekend hours, waiting for an Uber or Lyft. Some of the men still have company tags on keychains.

The tech industry's obsession with newness does not render the world's oldest profession obsolete.

Siouxsie Q, a 28-year-old sex worker who declined to reveal her real name, said about half her clients were tech workers, ranging in age from 21 to 61. The boom had augmented their spending power, she said, but some were too busy or shy to find girlfriends. “I see lots of first-timers, people straight out of college. Not everyone is great at bar culture.”

She considers her service a form of “self-care” which offers a respite from a work culture of continuous connectedness and instant responses. “I think one of the things they pay me for is that I turn off my phone and they have my undivided attention.”

Another appeal was the ability to schedule and compartmentalise sex with no strings. “I won't call in the morning. I won't be grumpy if they don't have breakfast with me. I won't Facebook them at work while they're trying to fix an app that just's crashed.”

Siouxsie Q charges $800 for two hours and $3500 for overnight. She uses podcasts as a marketing tool. “It's really transformed how I do business. Apps are the new gold.”

'I think one of the things they pay me for is that I turn off my phone and they have my undivided attention.


'Channeling your inner Natalie Portman'

At the other end of the spectrum are matchmaking companies which shudder at the term hookup and speak of “synergy” and “soulmates”. They charge up to $100,000 to connect venture capitalists and other high-rolling figures with potential spouses.

Amy Andersen, the founder of Linx Dating, organises “link and drink” events at the Menlo Park's Rosewood hotel, near Facebook's campus, and does extensive searches for individual clients, prompting the nickname the Cupid of Silicon Valley.

Her clients were strategic in seeking “the one” and had no time or desire to troll the bar scene, she said, but some erred in applying tech-style analytics to dating. “That does not always work because here we are dealing with matters of the heart.”

Her clients were not Bill Gates-lookalikes with coke bottle classes and pocket protectors, said Anderson, but some had started dating late in life and were prone to “first-date jitters and not being necessarily emotionally aware”.

Her advice to male clients: don't flash wealth or sell yourself too hard at the outset. “Women could easily end up with the sports car man for the wrong reasons, I mean that lifestyle, 'caviar, champagne, fast cars', is pretty appealing to just about anyone.”

Her advice to women: don't show up wearing a baggy dress. “Men hate this, they really do. This isn’t about looking like Pamela Anderson wearing a bustier and leather leggings but about maybe channeling your inner Natalie Portman.

“You’re classic, ladylike, stylish, not trying too hard, not showing too much skin, but perfectly presentable.”