Now that marriage is a legal, universally defined option for same-sex couples in this country, we might want to take a look at how we find each other.
For the bulk of LGBTQ history, we met at bars. Sometimes mutual friends introduced us at dinner parties or holiday gatherings, but more often than not bars and nightclubs were where the action was. Reasonably loosened up over a few drinks, we felt comfortable leering at one another until a conversation was struck. Or maybe we just paired off in a dark corner. Sometimes dating ensued, sometimes it didn’t. But we’ve always been more of a “screw now, see if we can stand each other later” tribe. If this is honestly changing, that’d be great news. But I think the truth is that it’s getting worse, especially now that we can set the nightclub to vibrate and stick it in our pockets.
Sometime in the early aughties I became aware of a Boston-based online hookup network called Manhunt. At the time it was a beta-test endeavor, limited to the Boston area with only a small community of users. Having recently quit drinking, I was excited by a boozeless, cyber-environment, leaving the lines blurred between the quest to date or just have sex. There were tangible thrills: the danger of luring a stranger to your home, the possibility of hot, spontaneous sex, the ability to cruise alone without the presence of competition. Sure, competition was out there, but you didn’t have to watch them moving in for the kill.
For a while Manhunt was fun and users were friendly. It took time for the coy, bitchy behaviors to manifest. When they did, I slowly backed away. All the negotiating, the back-and-forth emails saying nothing, the beating around the bush—it seemed absurd. Even when I was at my most fit and confident, I barely mustered the patience required to summon sexual company. Truth told, I had better luck sitting out on my stoop in the evening. Every once in a while someone from the neighborhood would pass by and start a conversation that eventually led to a worthwhile encounter.
Manhunt, meanwhile, grew into a snarling hotbed of obnoxiousness. Narcissus reared his head (and his personality disorder), rendered in profile descriptions that read, “I am this, I am that—UB2.” Celebrating diversity? Embracing differences? Nope, the gays I encountered online literally wanted to go fuck themselves. I began hearing stories of men making online arrangements to meet, then hiding at the edge of the living room window to survey the goods upon arrival, often opting not to answer the door.
And while there were still guys trying to find real dates on Manhunt, it seemed like a way of pretending more than anything else…a little dance they were doing to try and make themselves feel better about their true motivations. Dating-only sites certainly have their own brand of insufferable smug. “I’m looking for a healthy, handsome, surefooted, self-sufficient, well-adjusted man who knows what he wants in life and isn’t afraid to reach out and grab it. Let’s embark on an adventure together!” The women aren’t much better: “Horse lesbian seeks mare—come, let’s run!”
I remained a stubborn Blackberry user until sometime in 2011. An ending AT&T contract allowed me to switch devices at a low cost, and I quickly became an iPhone diehard. I’d heard about networking apps focused on finding locals for sex, but it wasn’t until I got to Austin later that year that I began using one. Between ditching Manhunt years earlier and moving to Texas, I’d been busy with my career. I dated one person and didn’t have much sex, but it didn’t seem to matter. I remember having lunch with an old friend who characterized it as a problem that needed solving. I hadn’t thought of it that way until he said it. The power of suggestion quickly rendered my sexless existence an emergency.
By this point I was a cub. A sedentary writing career had meant a sizable weight gain. And Austin’s gay community was so spread out, so lacking in unity, it seemed the only way to meet men was using an app (besides hitting the bars or joining special-interest groups). I installed Growlr, the bear’s answer to Grindr.
This family of sex-specific social networking apps, which also includes Scruff, Mister, BoyAhoy, Jack’d, and others, are set to organize your prospects by decreasing proximity according to the coordinates of your phone. It’s possible to find someone in the same apartment complex—how convenient! Or, out to dinner, your phone might buzz with an offer to meet in the restroom from someone three tables over—a risky but thrilling prospect. It sounds enticing on paper, but the reality is far less exhilarating.
I soon discovered the hookup apps are everything intolerable about Manhunt on steroids. Worse yet, it appeared that we’d dispensed with all formalities, cordialities, and semblances of social interaction. It breeds a total caveman mentality. Picture the object of your desire grunting, ape-like, while pointing helplessly at his crotch—a man-child trying to let you know he desperately needs something. Maybe there’s even something sexy about that, until you realize that’s the best he can do to express himself.
The animalism doesn’t stop there, either. I discovered we’d entered a barnyard phase, likening ourselves to our grazing, four-legged brethren: bears, cubs, pigs, otters, foxes, and wolves “woof,”“grrr,” and “oink” at one another to voice approval and demonstrate interest. Welcome to the farm! Bah ram ewe and a word of caution: The goats are notoriously two-faced.
In my long absence, prowling men had begun making assertions like, “I’m a masculine, straight-acting guy who prefers masculine men.” Is that right, Buddy? Well isn’t that a hoot. I’ve got a hot flash for you: We all like masculine men, but we’re also all gay. Stop shaming us for being comfortable with ourselves while you’re so busy posturing. Have fun out there, looking for Mr. Goodbar.
Speaking of which, the apps champion a whole new level of invasiveness. Gentlemen callers get pushy and annoying. Fast. Potential hookups send you messages while you’re in business meetings, out for lunches with old friends, grocery shopping, racing to meet a deadline, or sneaking a nap. They seem not to understand you’ve got other things going on. You can always shut off notifications, but any good phone addict knows this doesn’t solve the problem—the prospect of sex (or at least flirtation) is just a screen or two away. It keeps you reaching for the phone to see if you’ve missed anything.
An addiction quickly develops. I know several people who enjoy fairly active sex lives using apps, but they also put a good chunk of time and energy into the chase. One recently caught me glancing at his phone during an AA meeting. At the top of Grindr’s main page is a recurring clip of two guys having sex. When that caught my eye, I couldn’t help but zero in. “Don’t look at my screen—that’s so rude,” he mouthed at me. So, let me make sure I understand this correctly: you’re trolling online while people around us are sharing intimate details about their most personal struggles, and I’m rude for being distracted by the pornographic imagery flashing on your phone. Okay, just checking.
I’ve witnessed another man I know doing the same thing at several large group dinners, his phone lodged just below the lip of the table so only those on either side of him can tell what he’s doing. This guy’s a former high-powered executive in his later 50s. And yet you cannot be sure he’s heard a word you’ve said to him because his head is so deeply imbedded in the chase.
Just imagine how much attention’s required. You’re fielding texts from your mom, your roommate, and your best friend. Fresh emails file in every few minutes along with multiple Facebook notifications. And now, on top of this, you’ve got several men simultaneously flirting with you, sending naked photos and maybe even getting pissy if you’re slow to respond. It’s a lot of work.
Having sexual opportunity in your pocket is more temptation than many of us can stand. On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked if I would engage in a lie to cover up the truth about a friend’s app-based sexual exploits so his boyfriend would remain none the wiser (or, more likely, suspicious without proof).
While trying to maintain an open relationship in Texas, someone texted me to say he’d seen my boyfriend on Grindr just moments earlier. He and I had been exchanging texts for hours, as though nothing much was going on. Despite our open-door policy, discovering that he was messaging me while simultaneously cruising for sex on the same device was more than I could endure.
Last week I tried Growlr for the last time. I’ve installed and uninstalled it six times in four years. It never gets any better. This time I was struck by how hollow and desperate it all felt. Whether a lack of sex in your life truly qualifies as problematic is a matter of your own perception. Once you open yourself up to this sex-in-your-pocket world, it consistently calls you, despite having so little to offer—like a bad drug. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t need anything else in my life perpetuating the illusion that I’m missing out.
More from the Grumpy Ghey: