Sean Rad: Tinder sexual harassment suit “was exaggerated by the press, really. The reality was much more boring.”
On Friday afternoon, as the rest of the world was learning that Donald Trump had boasted of sexually assaulting women, I had my phone switched off.
I was spending the afternoon in a Manhattan warehouse at the New Yorker’s “TechFest” event and didn’t want anything to distract me from an on-stage interview with Tinder’s Sean Rad. You know, the man who once threatened a female journalist, has been recorded engaging in embarrassing “locker room talk” and has tried to downplay and dismiss claims of sexual harassment at his own company.
How’s that for irony?
Other speakers at the event included the brilliant Sallie Krawcheck of Ellevest, the Nobel prize winning economist (who doesn’t see himself as an economist) Daniel Kahneman and Reed Hastings who opened the event by saying that a Trump victory would be “so bad for America.”
But I hadn’t extended my New York trip by a day to see any of those speakers. I’d extended it to see Rad, in the hope that he would finally be called to account for threatening to smear Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales, or at least pressed to talk truthfully about the reasons he was forced to step down as Tinder’s CEO or the high profile lawsuit that exposed the company's bro culture to the world.
I mean, this is the New Yorker, right?
Up to a point.
The interview was conducted by staff writer Dana Goodyear who is, by any metric, a tremendous and well-qualified journalist. And yet, as often seems to be the case when East Coast media tries to report critically on Silicon Valley, Goodyear declined to press Rad on any of those subjects, instead affecting a tone of mild amusement at the concept of swiping and online dating generally. “Explain how Tinder works,” Goodyear asked, before grilling Rad on what musical “anthem” he had chosen for his profile.
“These are the days, by Van Morrison” Rad responded, earnestly.
Rad then embarked on a lengthy stump speech about how he’d created Tinder in order to overcome his anxiety at being rejected by women.
“Is there something generational about wanting to remove anxiety?” asked Goodyear. Phew! Generational anxiety: The New Yorker back on familiar ground!
“There’s good anxiety and bad anxiety,” Rad said, channeling Chris Morris. He them pivoted to studies which Tinder had conducted amongst millennials which showed, he claimed, that “Millennials are less likely to conform than any other generation.” To illustrate this non-sheepyness, a slide appeared on a giant screen next to the stage. It showed that 60% of New York millennial women, and 80% of men had used Tinder. Mavericks!
The entire interview was punctuated by these slides, incidentally, which Goodyear acknowledged had been provided by “the Tinder team.” At one point Goodyear even said “Let’s see what the next slide says…” before asking her next question. It was remarkably fortunate that the pre-prepared PR materials so closely tracked with the interviewer’s questions.
And so the stats continued: “80% of Tinder users say they are looking for a long term meaningful relationship….” said Rad, adding that “Tinder is historically the biggest creator of new (human) connectors” - a fact that might come as surprise to the world’s organized religions.
Finally, Goodyear pounced: “Can you give me the feminist critique of Tinder?”
Rad, who has clearly been media trained since he boasted to the Evening Standard that models begged him to have sex before proudly misusing the word “sodomy”, pulled what he thought was the correct answer from his mental database:
“In the real world there are bad actors. On Tinder you get to control who gets to speak to you.”
Then he was back to stats: “Statistically, it’s not true that Tinder is about hookups… Tinder allows you to build more empathy….” And millennials: “If I could say one thing about being a millennial it’s that you get to be who you want to be. We don’t judge.”
The next slide was a golden oldie: The familiar list of “most swiped” male and female jobs on Tinder. Topping the male jobs list were pilots and firefighters, while the most popular women tended to be physical therapists and dental hygienists. Another gift for the New Yorker!
“Men seem to prefer more nurturing jobs’ Goodyear observed. At this revelation, Rad appeared to malfunction, babbling that “it’s probably a sociological thing. I think we’re looking at a nature, nurture thing, I mean…” before abandoning the thought altogether. Goodyear noted that “model” rated highly as a job title for both men and women on the image swiping based hookup app. But Rad was having none of it. Model photographs don’t perform well on Tinder he said. “Ironically if you’re a model, you’re at a disadvantage.”
“Yeah,” said Goodyear.
At this point, Rad gave credit to Tinder’s in-house sociologist Dr. Jessica Carbino. “It’s unusual to have an in-house sociologist,” said Rad, before reducing her to a pretty face: “We actually met on Tinder. I swiped right.’
Finally -- finally! -- as the clock ticked towards zero, Goodyear got to the meat of the interview. “What did you need to change at the company to change what happened that got you removed?”
Readers will likely recall that what got Rad removed, but here’s a handy reminder from Slate:
Former executive Whitney Wolfe sued Tinder in July, claiming that her boss and former boyfriend, Chief Marketing Officer Justin Mateen, verbally abused and harassed her with a slew of vile text messages (many of which were reproduced in the suit) after the couple broke up. In one incident, Wolfe alleged that Mateen called her a "whore" in front of Rad during a company party before one of the CEO's guests spat in her face. Later, she alleged, she was stripped of her title as co-founder because she was a woman.
(Fun fact: Rad learned of his firing as CEO as he waited to appear on stage with Trump supporters Peter Thiel and Palmer Luckey…. And Monica Lewinski.)
But Rad flat denied the reported and confirmed version of events. “It’s a little misunderstood why I was removed,” he told the New Yorker audience. “The board was worried I didn’t have experience. I wasn't really fired, more demoted. Ironically that was the best thing that happened to me. I felt like I had to be perfect, and this removed the pressure."
Actually, you felt like it was ok for your business partner to call a woman a whore in the workplace. Potato / potato.
Goodyear asked specifically about the lawsuit. “To be honest,” Rad began, before continuing with a spectacular piece of dishonesty: “The changes we made had nothing to do with the lawsuit.” Rad then blamed the press for “exaggerating” the lawsuit which revealed workplace text messages showing Mateen hurling abuse at his ex-girlfriend and attacking muslims and ‘homo’s. The suit also contains texts between Rad and Whitney Wolfe showing Rad helping push Wolfe out of the company to defend Mateen.
“[The lawsuit] was exaggerated by the press, really. The reality was much more boring.”
“The texts weren’t boring” noted Goodyear.
And that was that. No questions were allowed from the audience and the interview wrapped with warm applause from the crowd. Then we all emerged blinking into the New York sunlight to learn that a billionaire had been caught admitting to assaulting women. Already the billionaire’s colleagues and friends were dismissing the horrifying words as “locker room talk” from “11 years ago” and blaming the media for exaggerating them.
How does that Van Morrison song go?
There is no past, there's only future
There's only here, there's only now