From the giggling and hushed, excited whispers, I can tell the two girls sitting next to me at the bar are excited. One, a blonde, and the other, a brunette, are dressed in the “Girls Night Out” uniform of skinny jeans, high heels and dressy tops. They have a few cocktails, while huddling over an iPhone.
“Is Brent on here? Blonde said. “I want to see if he has a profile.”
Brunette taps a few times on the display, and then squeals in a way that only sorority girls can.
“He is! Oh my God, look at his hashtags.”
“#MamasBoy! That is so true. He calls her, like, every other day.”
“#NoDirection! Haha, what a loser.”
A pause as they look at one another, slightly shocked, and then, a burst of laughter.
“Are you going to add your own?” Brunette asks.
Blonde shakes her head. “I think this pretty much sums up what it’s like to date Brent.”
The two girls aren’t browsing some random Twitter account, or peeping at a Facebook profile of a friend-of-a-friend gone amok. While it sounds like they’re reenacting a real-life version of an episode of “Sex and the City” or “Girls,” they’re actually looking at Lulu, the latest app craze among women. What is Lulu? Think of it as a “little black book” on men that’s shared with women. It crowdsources “reviews” that women give of past suitors, with the aim to pre-screen dates and boyfriends.
Women are flocking to Lulu for the “just among us girls” factor and the buzzy, conversational community, but controversy also surrounds it, prompting thorny debates over sexism, feminism and the destructive tendencies that technology can bring.
In many ways, Lulu is like a social media version of Cosmopolitan, where girls can talk frankly and honestly about sex, dating and relationships. It has a friendly, chatty “girl talk” voice borrowed from teen magazines, and a supportive community, aiming to empower women ages 17 years or older, to “make smarter decisions on topics ranging from relationships to beauty and health,” according to the company.
The app is, obviously, for women, but a simple Facebook login to check for gender won’t keep a persistent man out. Still, once Lulu is installed, multiple-choice quizzes rate men in a series of relationship categories, like ex, crush, boyfriend, hookup, friend or relative. Pink hashtags can be added to cover everything from the cheeky (#CantBuildIKEAFurniture) and sweetly enthusiastic (#AGodAmongMen) to the silly (#FartMachine) and downright explicit (#PornoMoves).
Lulu then takes the answers from the quizzes and attached hashtags to generate a score, ranging from one to 10, which appears in each man’s profile. Men can add their own hashtags, colored in blue, but any comments from them aren’t factored into the algorithmic scoring.
Founder Alexandra Chong got the idea after commiserating with girlfriends the day after a bad Valentine’s Day date. “When you Google a guy, you don’t want to know if he voted Republican or what he wrote a paper about in college,” she told the New York Times. “You want to know if mothers like him. Does he have good manners? Is he sweet?” That’s when she knew she had a good idea on her hands. She found investors, built the app and launched it this January on two Florida-area college campuses.
Like Facebook, Lulu grew on the campuses of college, particularly among sorority girls like Blonde and Brunette, my ad-hoc companions at the bar. In fact, one-in-four college women today use it, the company boasts, adding that it already has over a million users.
While Lulu quickly garnered a spot in a woman’s arsenal, alongside Victoria’s Secret Pink sweats and lip gloss, it hasn’t avoided naysaying and controversy. Some critics denounce it as sexist, Reddit visitors say it is “straight-up harassment,” and Kelly Clay at Forbes even decried it as a “double standard,” noting “if Lulu existed for men to rate women, it’s likely that Apple would probably reject it from the app store. But as the app exists for women to ‘rate’ men, it is ’empowering’.”
I was curious to see what the fuss was all, so I downloaded it to take a quick peek. The glossy, tastefully saucy design hints at Cosmo or Glamour, with a lot of photos of aspirational babes cavorting with male counterparts. There is even a “Dear Dude” advice column, similar to ones found in magazines, offering frank, non-judgmental dating and sex tips. But the centerpiece, of course, is the tiles of at-a-glance reviews, featuring the Facebook photo of each man, along with his score and hashtags.
I quickly realize I’m beyond the target college age — only a few friends had ratings, matched with complimentary hashtags that focused on personality, like “#PerfectManners” or “#TakeHomeToMeetTheParents.” Looking for a more typical sample, I asked a former college student, when I used to be a teacher’s assistant, to tell me what she found.
“It’s pretty benign, mostly complimentary,” she said. “I guess my network must be filled with good guys. Though there is one guy here who seems kind of shady and has a low rating. But then again, everyone knows he’s a pig, so that’s nothing new.”
It turns out, men have nothing to worry about: Lulu tends to skew to the positive. According to New York Magazine, the average score is 7.5 among its 2.5 million reviews. “Girls aren’t using Lulu to bash guys,” Deborah Singer, marketing director at Lulu, told New York Magazine. “They’re going on to shout about the good guys to recommend their friends.”
But it’s the principle of Lulu that disturbs critics on several levels. There is, of course, the privacy aspect. Men are included without being asked to be, though they can ask to have their data removed. And then, there is the thorny issue of reverse sexism. If men had rated women in this way, would women be so quick to laugh it off as “just among guys” and a bit of bromantic fun?
Probably not. But more importantly, what does Lulu say about our culture, in general, and the dynamics between men and women today? To understand why Lulu hit such a nerve, a deeper probe into Lulu is needed. But a warning: social context of the app and its primary audience doesn’t paint a pretty picture.
On today’s college campus, women aren’t only trying to find themselves, and lay groundwork for a career; they’re experimenting in commitment-free sexual encounters. Mothers, this is not your courtship ritual. The formality, rules and timelines of dating have blurred into confusion, in a free-for-all where heterosexual women hope for more, but often get burned to the point where they pretend they no longer care.
It’s a “hookup culture.”
Hookup culture is at the heart of a slew of high-profile books written about the sexual climate of campus, ranging from Kathleen Bogle’s “Hooking Up” and Donna Freitas’ “The End of Sex” to Laura Sessions Stepp’s “Unhooked.” Some authors are more condemnatory than others, but nearly all of them conclude that fleeting sexual flings have replaced dating, and not often to women’s collective advantage.
Instead of going on a date at old-fashioned movies, dinners or events, to get to know one another before beginning an intimate relationship, women today meet at parties, clubs or bars, hook up with guys, and then do the “walk of shame” home the next morning. Rather than connecting on a deeper level with men, they hang out in large gatherings, like frat parties. Occasionally, a hookup is parlayed into dating or a relationship, but most often than not, it fizzles into nothing.
What makes Lulu so popular is that it gives women valuable intelligence on which men will dump them, which will call the next morning, and which might turn into something more. Gone is the “get-to-know-you” process of dating, replaced with hashtags shared among virtual girlfriends.
Hookups have changed the culture of dating, but critics place different spins on its effect on women. Those in favor, like Hanna Rosin, in her book, “The End of Men,” say it is merely a functional strategy for ambitious women, allowing them to pursue pleasure and explore sexuality, while investing most of their time and energy on academics and professional goals. After all, women no longer go to college to find husbands, they say, and by hooking up, women don’t have to lose themselves in relationships, anymore.
“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” a slim, pretty junior at the University of Pennsylvania, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the New York Times. “We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” she said, adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.”
But opponents, like Susan Patton, a Princeton alumna and mother, see the culture as, ultimately, harmful to the fairer sex. In March, she wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian, urging female undergraduates not to squander their chance to meet a husband on campus. “The cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry,” she advised. “And you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.”
Repeated sexual encounters with no real emotional investment, they worry, also leads to callousness and inexperience during real relationships, and a sexual aggressiveness is needed to catch someone’s eye in what has, essentially, become a marketplace of the flesh.
Then, there are the fundamental inequalities. According to the New York Times, women are more often left physically and emotionally unsatisfied after hookups, compared to male counterparts, and there is, of course, the stigma of being labeled a “slut,” while men are lauded as “players.”
In truth, the effect of hooking up likely rests somewhere between the two camps, but its impact affects every woman who navigates those murky waters. Some girls are happy to explore a burgeoning sexuality without any hang-ups, while others, who wistfully long for more solid relationships, find it harder to meet someone in a social climate where sex is so easy and plentiful.
“Looking to meet your spouse in college is about as outdated as quitting high school to get a job at the local factory, and for roughly the same reasons,” Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate.
Of course, hookup culture is nothing new to college campuses. Long before Lulu was a twinkle in anyone’s eyes, I attended an elite nationally-renowned university dominated by fraternities and sororities, and casual encounters were the status quo, famously fictionalized in Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” a cautionary tale of a brilliant and beautiful, but naive, coed who compromises herself on several levels to “rise up” the sexual food chain of her school.
On weekend night, a certain fraternity of men at my school would notoriously sit and drink outside, rating female co-eds very vocally as they walked by, often with explicit details thrown in for good measure.
These days, that kind of graphic objectification happens online, adding a new set of complications to the sexual dynamics of campus. Practices, like sexting, are often upended, turned against the people who indulge in them, and everyone, it seems, has a story about explicit pictures meant for one pair of eyes, only to find a way online or shared among another group of friends.
Technology allows sharing to happen on a faster, wider level, but the results can be manifested in an even more disturbing rash of “revenge porn” sites, which allow men to post explicit photographs of their ex-girlfriends — often, accompanied with full names, social media and often even addresses — for other men to rate and enjoy.
According to the New York Times, when victims call the police, they are told little can be done. Lawsuits sometimes succeed in shutting down a site, but really, once an image hits the Internet, it is often spread far and wide, picked up by hundreds of other sites. Some states, like New Jersey and California, enacted laws to stop these sites, and activists are working on drafting a nationwide ban, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In the middle of the toxic and sexual digital climate sits Lulu, which positions itself as a sort of empowerment to help women navigate a complicated, and often consequential, social landscape. For better or worse, Lulu doesn’t judge how women explore their sexuality, whether it’s in a relationship or as a series of fleeting flings, and assumes they have full choice over the pursuit of their desires.
Its Dear Dude column — once you get past the frank language and sometimes explicit details — is a strong, sex-positive advocate that tells women to know, honor and communicate their own pleasures, wants and needs, instead of worrying about pleasing or attracting a mate.
Lulu isn’t out to change the status quo, but it does try to make it easier for women to deal with the world they now find themselves in. And the surge of popularity among sororities means that clearly something is working.
Lulu is often called a “Yelp for guys,” and critics say the idea of rating anyone, in such an intimate way, is repugnant. Yet the idea of crowdsourcing information on a man, or digitally rating them, much like we do for a restaurant or boutique, is, in some ways, a logical outgrowth for a generation that does a lot of its thinking and dating online. We already ask on Facebook whether to check out that hot restaurant on Friday, so it seems natural to crowdsource whether to date that hot crush on Friday, too.
“The last thing we need to do is encourage this generation that revenge is an acceptable form of coping and communication — especially digital slander, which clearly has legal repercussions,” Clay wrote at Forbes, and many agree that Lulu is a slippery slope to more dangerous behavior. But ratings, whether to give or get, are somewhat of an irresistible human tendency. Just ask the 500,000 men who have asked to be rated on the app, according to New York Magazine, or the male friend I told about Lulu.
While he was outraged by the idea of the app, denouncing it as sexist and demeaning, once the tirade was over, he sat quiet for a moment before asking, “You think… I can see what rating I got?” I stifled a laugh, and then obligingly pulled it up for him, where we discovered that he didn’t, in fact, have any rating at all. “That’s good, right?” I asked, assuming he was worried about his privacy being violated.
“I guess,” he shrugged. Then, we scrolled down to a mutual acquaintance that scored an 8.5. “What?” he said, outraged. “I am a way better boyfriend than that guy.” Then, he asked me to rate him and give him a hashtag as a friend.
“What hashtag do you want? #MostAwesomeDudeInTheWorld?” I joked.
“That’s a nice start,” he said, not quite catching my joke.
I couldn’t bring myself to rate him. Even though I told him he would’ve been at least an 8.7, deep down, I had to ask myself: if I found out my male friends, exes or acquaintances had rated me, how would I feel, even if the feedback was positive? I’d be flattered, maybe, but I’d also feel unnerved that my every interaction was up for judgment and quantification.
Lulu, perhaps, gives women a safe, anonymous way to leave “feedback” on past relationships, but I wonder if safe anonymity here is merely a cop-out for real growth and self-knowledge. After all, we can’t have genuine intimacy without uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability, and staying behind the safety of a screen is certainly a way to isolate ourselves in genuine loneliness.
I think, ultimately, what saddens me the most about Lulu, on some level, is how it represents our tendency to mistake social media for real intimacy. Communication isn’t just releasing bits of data out into the world, either to the ether of the Internet or to someone directly — it is a two-way street that involves actively listening to nuances, paying attention to what’s not being said, and why something is coming out the way it is. It’s about empathy and compassion for others as much as exchanging points-of-view.
Social media is useful to start a dialogue, but technology only brushes the surface of intimacy, without a lot of the emotion, body language, tone of voice or facial expressions that actually bond us.
Lulu enthusiasts would likely argue that the app is a way for women to speak to one another in a safe, fun way, a community that shares information on potential mates, whether it’s for a night or for life. They’d likely add that it gives women some semblance of power when heading blindly into a romantic situation, where the consequences of a hookup culture are severe. They might even say it is harmless fun.
Talking with other women is great — women have shared with each other well before Sex and the City, sewing circles and Tupperware parties — but the real empowerment, I believe, comes from communicating in an honest and open way with the people we’re with, whether it’s expressing our own desires with a hookup for the night, or our long-term hopes and dreams with a life partner. Unfortunately, no app that can teach that, and no hashtag can offer a shortcut in that learning process. ♦