Sorry Bumble, But Your Celibacy Billboards Were a Fumble


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A sexual health and consent educator weighs in on why the dating app’s binary view of sexual and romantic relationships is so problematic.

Modern dating is horrendous enough as it is without dating apps shaming us for our romantic — and sexual — decisions. But that’s the reality Bumble users are facing since the popular dating app released a marketing campaign chastising people who choose to be celibate. Earlier this month, billboards popped up around the world, decked out in Bumble’s signature yellow hue and emblazoned with slogans like: “You Know Full Well A Vow of Celibacy Is Not The Answer”  and — the worst of them all? — “Thou shalt not give up on dating and become a nun.”

(Excuse me Bumble, but have you *seen* The Sound of Music? It doesn’t look like a bad lifestyle compared to the current dating landscape.)

@laurensalaun Fun fact: Years ago, I dated a literal sociopath… guess how I met him? 🥴 #bumble #dating #datingtips #datingadvice #4b #4bmovement #celibacy #womensempowerment #feminineenergy #divinefeminine #greenscreen ♬ original sound – Lauren Salaun

The goal was, seemingly, to encourage people to press pause on the romcoms, fire up their iPhones and get back onto dating apps (ideally, Bumble, naturally). But the response from the public was swift, with people online calling out the dating juggernaut for shaming folks who choose to not have sex for a plethora of reasons.

On May 13, Bumble responded to the criticisms, releasing a statement on social media stating that they’re removing the ads and will be making donations to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, along with other organizations. In addition, Bumble said they’ll be offering their now-blank billboard spaces to partners doing work around supporting women, marginalized communities and those impacted by abuse, to display any ad they want for the duration of what would have been Bumble’s campaign.

It’s a smart PR response from the company, but it also isn’t enough. If anything, Bumble’s blunder has proved what we’ve known all along: even companies that are purportedly for women, which Bumble says it is, don’t really care about them and what they want, even when they’re profiting off of them. And maybe we shouldn’t be all that shocked.

Bumble’s celibacy ads reinforce binary thinking

For sexual health and consent educator samantha bitty (editor’s note: bitty prefers that her name be displayed in all lower case text, so we’re respecting that wish throughout this article), the ads weren’t much of a surprise, considering Bumble’s history since launching in 2014. While lauded as a feminist app meant to “empower” female users by letting them make the first move, for bitty, Bumble has always been a little suspect. “My issue with Bumble has always been their very binary assumption about gender and gender roles, and framing that as being something that’s empowering to women,” bitty tells FASHION.  “Their conception of what’s happening in the mainstream — reinforcing a heteronormative gender binary — has always been problematic.”

For bitty, the Bumble celibacy ads fall perfectly into this formula, making sweeping generalizations about the app’s users and what they want from dating — that is, primarily sex. “It assumes that people are on dating apps typically for sex or that sex is inextricably linked to dating or relationships,” bitty says. “A lot of people are there for sex, but that’s not necessarily always true.” In fact, a 2023 Pew Research Centre report found that more than four in 10 online daters in the U.S. are looking for more serious relationships.

Looking at the company’s public apology, which specifically acknowledged members of the asexual community who may choose to be celibate, bitty says. “And it’s not just people who are asexual or on the A-spectrum who participate in relationships for a variety of reasons other than only sex. [The ads] just don’t read the room at all.”

Dating apps are losing users at a rapid rate

To be fair, Bumble releasing a campaign aimed at coaxing users back onto the app is reflective of the state of dating apps right now, considering they’ve been hemorrhagging users in recent years. This is especially true when it comes to female users. As many online noted, the campaign seems to be a direct response to an increase in voluntary celibacy among young women, a topic increasingly talked about on TikTok.

And dating apps are feeling the brunt of this. A recent AP report found Bumble’s shares have dropped 45 per cent since July 2023. Tinder, arguably the app that started it all, has seen annual downloads down more than a third from their peak in 2014.

People are pursuing romantic and sexual relationships less — for many reasons

It’s the lack of nuance in the Bumble celibacy ads that is perhaps most upsetting, and the fact that Bumble doesn’t care to explore, or even seem to care at all about, the reasons why people might be choosing not to spend more time on dating apps. And there are several, from feeling emotionally and physically unsafe on the apps, to Gen Z wanting to devote more time to their friends and loved ones than mediocre dates, to a rise in non-monogamous relationships and app burnout.

But more broadly, it seems that people are tired of putting up with the transactional and disposable nature of modern dating. (There’s a reason why ghosting has become a thing.) While this isn’t entirely the fault of dating apps, it’s a reality that apps like Hinge, Tinder and Bumble have contributed to and perpetuate. “Everybody is tired of feeling consumed,” bitty says.

There has also been a general shift in how younger people view romantic relationships — and the amount of time they want to dedicate to them, according to bitty. “[Celibacy] has to do with shifting values around the ways that we hierarchize and prioritize relationships,” bitty says. “What I find with young people is that there are more queer-presenting folks living in relationships that are not the traditional, patriarchal kind of models of ‘our friendships are secondary to our romantic partnerships.’”

And with work, school, all-consuming social media, mental health needs and the general state of the world, when it comes to young people, “They’re also really busy,” bitty says. “People are getting their needs met elsewhere, for sure.”

A safer online dating space for women?

The decision to be obtuse about the reasons that people might be dating or pursuing sexual relationships less is made all the more frustrating considering that Bumble built its brand on the ethos of making women feel safe, respected, empowered and, most of all, heard. 

Within the confines of a heteronormative relationship, these apps rely on women as a commodity to bring other users in and encourage them to spend more on roses and super-likes, so you’d think they would be more invested in making apps — and dating culture in general — more of a welcoming and overall less terrible place to be. But the reality is they aren’t, because unfortunately this is the state of modern dating.

Despite the fact that apps like Tinder, Bumble and Hinge are seeing a decrease in numbers of users and downloads, the fact remains that if we want to connect romantically, apps are still the main way to do it. *Shudder* The good news? The online reaction to the celibacy campaign and Bumble’s response to the controversy has highlighted that young people are demanding — and expecting — change when it comes to dating apps. Whether we actually get there remains to be seen. Until then, there’s always matchmaking?

Bumble responded to FASHION’s request for comment. “Women’s experiences are at the center of what we do at Bumble. As part of our recent marketing campaign, we included an ad with language around celibacy as a response to the frustrations of dating,” a representative for the company said via email.

“We have heard the concerns shared about the ad’s language and understand that rather than highlighting a current sentiment towards dating, it may have had a negative impact on some of our community. This was not our intention and we are in the process of removing it from our marketing campaign, and will continue to listen to the feedback from our members.”

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