the death of spontaneity in the gay community
Are apps like Grindr commodifying sex into something transactional and destroying the thrill of instinct that physical queer spaces thrive off?
When I was a teenager, I left the Middle East to come to London. In Dubai - where I was raised - homosexuality is illegal, and the city experience is confined to shopping malls with information points at every corner. When I go back (and I rarely do), feelings of claustrophobia are overwhelming; not only are gay spaces non-existent, but there are no streets to wander or places to get lost - for me the fabric of a thriving urban landscape. The gay dating app Grindr offers some hope when I'm out there; if you can do it discreetly (and safely), a parallel world to air-conditioned mall-life is at your fingertips.
As the urban landscape is so homogenised in Dubai, Grindr can be a liberating antithesis for a gay man. In London, however, I fear the app is ruining what I love about this city. When I finally left home after coming out, the city streets were a playground of possibility, where a surreal experience could suddenly take hold, and the simple act of wandering could lead to new people, new things. Grindr tries to replicate this act of wandering but on a digital plane, where as user you "move" through the city, bumping into men who are just round the corner. And here are some things I've bumped into on my virtual meanderings - "White Guys Only. No Terrorists, Chinks, Currys. No Fems" (taken from a Grindr Profile), and, "Only into: FIT BLOKES, smooth, muscled arses & quads…NO: TWINKS, Chests like "toast racks in wet paper bags, & NO HAIR" (taken from a Grindr Profile).
Unlike the urban labyrinths that continually surprise, Grindr gives its "wandering" user the privilege of utter specificity, letting them design their own experience. You are asked to place yourself into different sexual "tribes", for instance - are you "Clean-Cut" or a "Bear", a "Geek" or a "Jock?" As with the above profile quotations, being offensively specific with what you want (and don't want) is common, and Grindr lets you filter profile searches down to specific heights, weights, ethnicities, ages and body types of other users.
Being offensively specific with what you want (and don't want) is common, and Grindr lets you filter profile searches down to specific heights, weights, ethnicities, ages and body types of other users.
Whilst this curating of sexual preference comes across as virtual freedom, its effects are anything but. The need to self-define or be defined in such rudimentary terms leads to feelings of isolation; if you're a Cis-white masculine Jock, maybe not, but what happens to users whose identities don't conform so easily? I, for instance, as a gay Iraqi drag performer, receive a lot of Grindr hate for being "too fem and Asian to be fuckable" (a direct quote) - for not "fitting in" with the most popular categories. A Trans Grindr user, who wished to stay anonymous, recounted their experiences to me, explaining that, "many of us transgender users don't tick the 'transgender' box for ourselves, because we've often been treated as inferior and are expected to be submissive as a result."
Presenting itself like a playground where identities are diverse and plentiful, Grindr misleads its users; it's a playground, sure, but of bullying "Tribes." Like in the real world, where the cis-white able-bodied males seems to get away with everything (*sigh*), as is the case on Grindr. But the even stricter categorisation of people on a virtual app leads to more upfront prejudices. This is the issue with packaging bodies and identities - infinitely complex things - into such rigid definitions.
Problematically, Grindr commodifies the sexual experience into something transactional. Users are both consumers and products, specifying their sexual requirements whilst presenting themselves as desirable commodities. This is how a Grindr exchange usually goes for me: either I or another user finds each other, and a conversation ensues - if I'm not met with racism or homophobia, sexual roles are discussed, body/face pictures swapped, and if both consent, sex is confirmed for that evening. What's striking is that a sexual contract is established with a man who by this point has only ever existed two-dimensionally. Every single time I've met someone, I've been shocked by his avatar taking physical form; more often than not the sudden shift turns me off.
Our culture of consumer specificity, which Grindr taps into, is eradicating physical intuition in favour of these specifically tailored experiences.
Trying to re-enact the courtship and chemistry between two corporeal bodies in an exchange of photos and words just doesn't work for me; whilst we all have different "types" and preferences, who we are physically attracted to is often left to chance, and it might come down to factors we're not even aware of (be it the subtleties of body language, say). Our culture of consumer specificity, which Grindr taps into, is eradicating physical intuition in favour of these specifically tailored experiences.
Whilst Grindr is by all means a "gay space," it is destroying the thrill of spontaneity that physical queer spaces thrive off, instead instilling them with fragmented identities. Prior to the rise of digital specificity, queer spaces were about collectivity, not separating individuals into a set of "tribes". Olivia Laing explores this brilliantly in her sensational, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. In it she looks back to pre-gentrification New York, and the gay spaces that attracted a diverse range of men in collective, non-hierarchal environments, always celebrating the importance of the chance encounter.
Digital specificity, and the feeling that we can find exactly what we want elsewhere, is deadening the power of spontaneity. Grindr is just one symptom that the very foundation of Western cities - which should be breeding with possibilities of the unknown - is fragile. Grindr, and the culture it signifies, is homogenising the human encounter into a paint-by-numbers transaction. Instead, we should give ourselves over to the forces of chance, allowing them to do their improvised, joyful thing.
Text Amrou Al-Kadhi
Image via Flickr