Exciting & Helpful or Disappointing & Pointless? Thoughts on Grindr, Scruff, Growlr, etc.
Nevermind that its logo looks like serial killer in a hockey mask—Grindr is harmless and fun, right?
I have given a lot of thought to that question over the years as Grindr (along with its competitors Scruff, GROWLr, Recon, and Jack'D) has come into near-universal use among gay men.
In some ways, these "social networking apps" (AKA hookup apps) represent a culmination of the gay male sexual liberation movement - a technologicy that can aid gay men in satisfying their desire for quick, easy, hot, fun, local sex. They can also be a good instrument for making new friends. At the very least, loading another page of guys is a fun way to pass the time if you're standing in line somewhere and you want to double-check the accuracy of your gaydar.
Titillating, easy, and noncommittal, these apps give our brains microbursts of pleasure and activate our anticipation of even greater pleasure in the near future. They help reinforce the idea that there is a seemingly endless sea of hot gay guys just around the corner; and they can help maximize the number of guys we connect with, making it even likelier we will find "Mr. Right." So what's the problem?
The problem is...all of the above. Most of the gay men I talk to report soaring rates of frustration, flakiness, near-misses, hurt feelings, and awkward encounters using these apps. Despite the ever-tantalizing promises of finding satisfying connection (sexual or otherwise), the real-world lived experience of many men is characterized more by disappointment and blows to their self-esteem. Go ahead—think about your own experience. When considering the investment of time and energy that goes into "hunting", what percentage of the time do you actually feel like you got what you are looking for?
My purpose here is not to criticize or shame anyone for using these apps, but rather to point out the ways in which they may be causing more harm than good. Studies show that our brain responds to near-misses in the same way it responds to actual rewards: with a pleasurable squirt of dopamine. This serves to reinforce the behavior, even if it is not delivering the sought-after reward (think of playing a slot machine). So when using these apps, you are conditioning your brain to experience pleasure when searching for guys, despite the notoriously poor outcomes and frequently negative emotional consequences: feelings of inadequacy, frustration, hopelessness, anger, confusion, and more.
Studies also show that we tend to assume that everyone else is having more sex than we are are—a notion which is amplified considerably in mainstream gay culture—and as such, gay men for whom these apps do not ignite an amazing sex life are left blaming themselves for it.
More importantly, though, is that these apps contribute to a climate where gay men objectify one another, hide from one another, and fear making themselves vulnerable; they reinforce a fantasy-life that makes reality feel all the more crushing; and they discourage us from having holistic, nuanced, truly connected contact with one another. As Goethe wrote, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
So please take my word for it: It's not you, it's the culture. Take a chance and be kind to yourself; and if you can, try to unplug ever now and then.