More Sex Faster: The Grindr Story

More Sex Faster: The Grindr Story

By Seth Michael Donsky 04/17/12

A gay hookup app called Grindr is the ultimate cruising tool and a nightmare for sex addicts. Deceptively marketed and wildly popular, it has health officials up in arms—and sounding out of touch.

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Online hookup sites have always posed a risk of sexual compulsion for gay men. New smart-phone apps, which you can take everywhere, only compound that risk. But one of the most popular, Grindr (as in meat), a self-professed "social networking" app built around GPS (global positioning system), seems to intentionally blur the line between dating and cruising. This presents a unique threat to sexually compulsive men, who can delude themselves into thinking that Grindr is a legitimate dating app, as well as to men who do not identify as compulsive but can be lured into such behavior by the app’s siren-song promise of sexual bounty masquerading as social introduction.

Applying technology to cruising has a long history in the gay community. The erotic online sex sites such as Manhunt and Adam4Adam from which Grindr evolved themselves evolved from the phone-sex lines dating back to the mid-'80s and the onset of AIDS. These fee-per-minute services enabled the fantasy lives of gay men, elaborately developed by the libertine sexuality of the '70s, to find expression—and the piquancy of a real-live human voice—amidst the fears and phobias in a time of plague. Ironically, Grindr brings the techno facilitation of sex back to where it started: the phone.

But phones aren’t what they used to be. Just as gay author-activist Dan Savage once observed that the Internet threatened to turn gay men’s living rooms into bathhouses, Grindr threatens to turn gay men’s lives into endlessly looping porn movies. (Or at least into a compulsive grind—maybe that’s where the name comes from.)

Grindr allows gay and bisexual men looking for “a date or new friends”—in the words of its website—to peruse the profiles of other “like-minded guys,” prioritized by proximity. The first of its kind, the GPS-driven app has garnered considerable press, including stories in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Last winter, Grindr won a 2012 “Crunchy,” TechCrunch’s annual tech-industry awards, for best location app, as well as the 2012 iDate Award for best mobile dating app and best new technology. And Grindr is also going straight: Last fall, creator Joel Simkhai launched a heterosexual version called Blendr

Applying technology to cruising has a long history in the gay community. Ironically, Grindr brings the techno facilitation of sex back to where it started in the '80s: the phone.

A common observation in the coverage is the irony that gay men, especially those in their 20s, are now so "addicted" to Grinder that when they go out to gay bars and clubs, everyone is staring into their smart phone at the Grindr profiles of the guys surrounding them rather than at the guys themselves. A piece on the Daily Beast last September calls them "Grindr Parties." Nor is it unusual, in "gayborhoods," to click onto the app in the comfort of your apartment and find several "like-minded guys" only feet away: next-door, across the hall, through the ceiling or the floor. Who knew? Of course, that may be a little too close for comfort for casual, er, networking, even in this era of 24/7 GPS efficiency.

Yet one glaring omission in most stories is the fact that, in spite of Grindr’s bland claim that it is a “start-up dedicated to finding new ways for people to connect,” the truth is that there is nothing new about the ways men are connecting on Grindr—by hooking up, not dating. Need proof? Try this: Think very carefully about the last time you were looking for a “date,” a "new friend" or a “like-minded guy” in real time and based on how close he was to where you were standing. What would you call that? The only similar use of the word “date” that I can think of is in Hollywood movies set in red-light districts (like the opening of the original Arthur) when a prostitute leans into a potential john’s car and asks him if he’s looking for a date.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t personally have anything against either hooking up or dating, and I’ve done both, but experts warn that it’s misleading to confuse one for the other, and potentially damaging to people who identify as sexually compulsive.

“It’s my experience with the people I work with, and colleagues I’ve spoken to, that Grindr is strictly a site for hooking up, not dating," says George Collins, author of Breaking The Cycle: Free Yourself from Sex Addiction, Porn Obsession and Shame and director of Compulsion Solutions, an outpatient treatment center in Walnut Creek, Calif., that specializes in phone consultations with sexually compulsive men. "The description in the 'What is Grindr' section of the website is loaded with coded words such as 'discreet,' 'uncomplicated' and 'right away'—words that signify sex more than any type of dating or intimacy. The brick-and-mortar equivalent of Grindr might be a glory hole.

“Grindr can compound sexually compulsive behavior,” Collins continues. "If someone is a sex addict, it makes it easier to have more sex partners and thus more potential problems, physical and emotional.”

Collins also cites several potential dangers to people who do not identify as sexually compulsive in using Grindr as a legitimate dating tool. “A guy who may be just trying to date could be pulled into the addictive part of sex," he says. "Young impressionable men, new to their gayness, might hook up to hook up instead of dating to achieve an intimate connection. Mature men could be emotionally damaged because Grindr is the 'easy way out.' They could easily wind up in an endless loop of hooking up instead of finding an actual connected relationship. Dating is hard to do. It takes nerve and emotional vulnerability. Grindr just takes nerve. Underneath it all, we actually just want to be loved. Grindr is not about love.”

Dr. Soroya Bacchus, a psychiatrist who specializes in addictions and compulsions and who works with clients at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, takes an even dimmer view of GPS sex sites. She believes that apps such as Grindr—and the ever-growing competition like Scruff, Jack'd, BoyAhoy (and Manhunt…and Adam4Adam and…)—are not simply unhealthy but downright dangerous. “The GPS feature poses serious safety concerns,” she warns. “If a predator targets another man via this app he will have instant access to the victim’s location.”

But that's not quite true. You cannot gain access to someone else’s specific address, although you can get close enough to stalk someone if you have the wherewithal to wait it out. On Grindr your distance from each user is posted to that user, including those whom you deem inappropriate. Collins references a case reported in Vancouver, Canada, of a 15-year-old boy who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 54-year-old man he had met on Grindr.

To the threat of sexual violence, Bacchus adds the risk of sexual compulsion as well as HIV and other STDs. She claims that GPS apps like Grindr attract sexually compulsive men, many of whom may be cheating on partners. “Those men,” warns Bacchus, “are not likely to be too concerned with their, or anyone else’s, safety and may have trouble controlling their urges, making it more likely that the non-compulsive user may be exposed to STDs, like HIV.”

“It’s simply not a smart move,” she concludes, “to use this app to find someone with whom you will make yourself physically or emotionally vulnerable.”

The antipathy of Bacchus and even Collins to hookup sites will no doubt strike many users as over the top, reflecting more about these therapists' own negative views of recreational sex or promiscuity than anything else. The irony is that Grindr's exaggeratedly wholesome self-presentation mirrors this attitude, with its emphasis on dating, no public XXX shots and sex talk limited to innuendo; gay desire is locked in the closet—you have to "go private" with another user to share that information on the site. If this raunchless style seems trés démodé by US standards, it may help explain why Grindr has caught on among 3.5 million users in almost 200 countries (again, according to its website). In many nations in the Mideast and Africa, discretion is the better part of survival for gay men, and Grindr can be easily adapted by the discreet.

Grindr casualties with cautionary tales are not hard to find. Brent, a gay man in his mid-30s, who lives in New York's Chelsea (one of the neighborhoods that probably most challenges Grindr’s bandwidth), is a member of SCA, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, a 12-Step recovery group for people with out-of-control sexual issues. He had been out of a long-term relationship for nearly a year without dating when a friend suggested he download Grindr just to check it out.

“I was overwhelmed,” he recalls. “There were so many hot guys online and nearby.” While he only hooked up twice during the week in which he had Grindr on his phone, he became obsessed with the business of trying to hook up almost 24/7. “I only slept in fits and spurts,” he says. “I’d wake up an hour or so after having just finally fallen asleep from exhaustion, and I’d be at it again. I had to see who was online right then and there.”

Brent admits to having been up late on sex sites like Manhunt and even non-sex sites like Facebook or YouTube, “but there was something more insidious, more compelling about this one,” he says, “because there was the tantalizing promise that the guys I was chatting with were right around the corner right now. Plus Grindr went with me, wherever I went. I had it on at work, out with friends, everywhere. It became a full-time obsession.”

"The brick-and-mortar equivalent of Grindr might be a glory hole," says sex-addiction therapist George Collins.

That obsession with having Grindr on all the time leads to what could be the app’s most damning collateral psychological damage: people relying on hookup sites and applications so much that they become a replacement for meeting in reality, as opposed to a supplement or a stage in development.

I was at a dance party in Palm Springs with several friends last New Year's Eve. One of them was frequently on Grindr throughout the weekend, including while we were dancing! I wondered why he couldn’t just meet someone at the party face to face. “It’s more efficient this way,” he said. But he never did meet anyone. I, however, met someone the old-fashioned way, and we hit it off. There’s efficiency for you.

Dr. Joe Kort, a Michigan-based psychotherapist and author of 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do To Improve Their Lives, says that a growing portion of his gay clients are coming to rely on Grindr to meet—and having to deal with the blowback of the habit. “Gay men are using it in place of meeting in person—especially those with social anxiety,” he says. “It can be addictive since it is so easy and accessible. I am seeing this trend among gay men of all ages, causing even those who do not have social anxiety to become out of the loop socially and finding themselves anxious about trying to meet people in person.”

Gay men have fought long and hard for the right to be open and visible about who we are. As convenient as it may be to reduce meeting to the innuendo of connecting based on thumbnail profiles and GPS proximity, it also seems like a step backward in many important ways.

As innovative as Grindr appears to be, it may, in the end, be nothing more than the same old grind, only far worse. 

Seth Michael Donsky is an award-winning Brooklyn-based filmmaker and journalist whose work has been featured in the Utne Reader, the New York Press and in Best Sex Writing 2010 (Cleis Press). His journalism was recognized for excellence by the New York Press Association in its 2011 Better Newspaper Contest.