Somewhere between the ages of twenty and twenty-two, I had a thought worm into my head that I needed to have sex with as many people as possible. This was a reflex to insecurity. The realisation that my boyfriend at the time had been with people before me catalysed a dazed need to catch-up. In my world before, sex was a sacred thing, something that had “meaning”, and the idea of giving over my body to anyone casually was repulsive.
These feelings of sex as larger-than-life-and-me were a natural consequence to feelings of worthlessness and sexual/physical shame. As much as can be said on why I had deified sex to a zone outside of experience, too much of it is buried in the past to accurately unearth it. Rather, the aftermath says more. In the acting-out of repressed sexual desires throughout the years on Grindr, fears were replaced with complementary reactions, hoping to fill the emptiness of insecurity like painting over an orange wall with blue, ending up grey.
In this way, the world of Grindr is stark and dystopian. Rows of bodies and sexually-suggestive names shudder around the grid like cars in an assembly line. Men of various ages send you unprompted photos of their dick, or ass, or feet. The variable reward system keeps you strung along, checking the app not because you’re interested in anything particular, but because the app itself has suctioned onto your brain with the same intermittent gratification as casino games and poker-machines.
The ill-effects of using Grindr (and more generally dating apps) is slowly rising through psychological literature, with a focus on user-provided feedback on how they feel during and after using Grindr. One of the first men whose house I went over to, described how he was on Grindr “just for now,” despite having been on it for nearly a year. At first I condemned the use of the app, even as I went to house after house in the heat of a breakup, trying to figure out why all these different men were using an app that was clearly so awful for them. After a while I stopped trying to figure it out. I was then an initiate, inducted into the cult of sex-for-sex’s sake without even realising, slipping under and over each body like a wave.
The transactional usage of sex for socialisation litters its way through the app. It’s claimed as a means to an end, usually by those using it as such. But is it good-enough that if someone wants human contact, connection, that they have to walk the tightrope of meeting up with a stranger on an app designed entirely for sexual gratification? Not only that, the sexual positionings on the app lean towards heteronormativity. People advertise themselves as “bottoms” when in reality, they are only leveraging that position as a way to portray themselves as passive, or as a way to remove their sense of agency. This is definitely not to say that the role of the bottom is always a pseudo-desire, but that we live in a world where sexual dominance (being a top) is masculine, and therefore superior, and sexual passivity (being a bottom) is likewise imbued with the same psycho-sexual implications that heteronormative sex upholds.
By condensing the language of sex into icons (bottom/top, twink/bear, etc), you rely on the images conjured by these words, rather than an accurate account of your own identity and desires. This sublimation of identity thus hinges entirely on popularised, culturally-understood stereotypes, forcing you to pitch your sexuality as a cliched shorthand that affirms the mass-culture of heteronormativity.
This is despite Grindr holding the glossy veneer of sexual liberation. Who can argue against making gay sex more accessible? But instead of freeing anyone from antiquation, the intersection between gambling and sexual gratification dilutes the possibility of sex as something healthy and self-affirming. Grindr digitalises the bathhouse of Andrew Holleran’s Il Paradiso: “I can only collide with their bodies; I can only lick stomach, suck a dick, and maybe – this I would really like – embrace, if I am lucky.” The superficial interactions, the unquestioned assumptions, the “dreadful competition of sex, the fact that they have both done this little dance many, many times before and it has not freed them.” All of this is unchanged, with only the presentation updated. You are made to inorganically presume your desires, assessing sexual compatibility and enjoyment based on cherry-picked images and inexact phrases. The glorified ideal of hot and heavy sex is often more compelling than the real experience.
And this ambiguity offers so much, when the only information provided is a person’s position, interests, and a handful of photos, the only way to meld these together is through fantasy, where you fill in the gaps of a yet unexperienced experience. The hum of the car as it waits for you is usually more exciting than what’s inside.
In the same way money as a desirable object lures gamblers onto the pokies, sex as clout enables a false-positive sense of fulfilment, amplified in the hall of mirrors that is Grindr. Socially-stoked fears of male-virginity (virginity already a bizarre construct) turns people towards sex, while older men advertise openly for “‘younger”’ boys, flaunting a preference where virginity is desired. It is a no-win situation.
I know there are people that use Grindr healthily — maybe you met your partner on there — and I’m glad. I’ve had genuinely enjoyable interactions through it, too. But underneath that exists a steady thrum of engineered sexual addiction, harmful body-standards, hidden heteronormativity, and an absolution of meaningful desire. To every exception there exists a general rule, and every silver-lining, a touch of grey.