by: Zach Stafford
The other day I was talking with a guy about dating and sex. I asked him if he was dating, to which he responded, “No.” I followed up the question with, “How’s the sex life?” forgetting that I am not Samantha Jones and his sex life is probably not any of my business. He giggled and looked away at first, before finally making eye contact and stating, “Craigslist has been good to me.” This statement ignited a long conversation on his usage of Craigslist.com’s personal ads and how his posts have been getting more and more hits lately; in fact, he recently got over 100 responses to an ad he put up. I then asked him why he chose Craigslist over the popular Grindr application, and he told me, “Grindr isn’t really good in my neighborhood. I like Craigslist because it reminds me of MySpace. I really miss that site; it’s where I met my first real boyfriend.”
This took me back. MySpace was where I met the first boy I ever “liked.” I use that word “liked” loosely, because after meeting him in person, I had a huge I-don’t-know-if-I’m-gay freakout and stopped communicating with him. MySpace gave users much more freedom in regard to finding people in very specific ways. You could search by race, sexual orientation, location. That was an amazing tool for the marginalized and the curious surfing the Web for others like them. MySpace helped create a sense of “our-space,” or at least the opportunity to share space with someone like you, even if it was only through a digital screen.
Many men around my age can identify with meeting a first boyfriend, first sexual partner, or first person they came out to online, even more specifically on MySpace. Growing up in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the Internet, to most gay men, and even other LGBT folks, was our first Boystown, our first East Village, our first WeHo. I feel comfortable saying that folks under the age of 25, maybe even older, were probably gay online before they were actually gay in person, and even continue to use the Internet as their main mode of meeting other folks.
This brings me to my current problem. I am now gay in real life, and I can’t find a real date. In our current dating climate (and I am speaking about the gay male community), no one seems to be dating anymore. Whenever I go out with friends, it seems that everyone is more interested in two things: 1) getting way too drunk, and 2) being on Grindr in a bar. Grindr for me doesn’t facilitate any kind of dating.
Grindr, for all of those not aware, is a geosocial phone application that allows for a user to create a profile and be able to see all the men-seeking-men in their area. Almost a year ago I wrote a comical piece on Grindr at the Thought Catalog, talking about the five types of people you will meet on there. Grindr has come under heavy fire for a variety of reasons, one being that men seem to be more explicitly racist, classist, and so on and so forth when using Grindr. However, what I find most important about Grindr is that it has completely changed how gay men think about their location and being gay online, in a very different way than MySpace did.
Grindr is geographic; it relies on where you physically are, while MySpace has no geographic constraints. (Craigslist is the same.) What that means is if you’re in a rural town with a low population, Grindr won’t be as much fun as if you were in Boystown, Chicago, where the average distance between users is probably no more than 200 or 300 feet. Since Grindr is on your phone, you can access it anytime.
MySpace, on the other hand, created a more complex person online, and Grindr only gives you a sample. It showed users with friends, with family, with desires outside sex, and it was in some ways more representative of a whole person than Grindr will ever be. But as I mentioned above, to meet someone, you didn’t need to live in the “right” place. However, even with geographic constraints, people seem to be flocking to Grindr, but for many different reasons than what made MySpace so popular. Grindr has, in many ways, become the new digital bathhouse or cruising area, making sex and hookups even more available.
This culture of sex is not new. From bathhouses to tearooms to truck stops and backrooms, a lot of gay men keep participating in a hookup culture that’s been around for a long time. But what makes this digital culture different is that there are no physical boundaries. The tools one used to meet men for specific reasons, and the places they went to just hang out or meet people to date, are all colliding and mixing. When walking into a gay bar now, it is no longer a surprise to see a soft yellow glow bouncing off faces in the darkness on a Saturday night, that yellow light being from Grindr. Sure gay bars are still used to pick people up, and so are many other places, but Grindr not only helps intensify the sexualization of the user but also creates a divide between gay men. We have become more concerned with our phones than the people in front of our phones.
Lots of people I have interviewed for academic research, and even friends I spoke to in casual ways about Grindr and other devices, talk about a feeling of emptiness after using these devices for a while, not because the sex isn’t good but because many have no faith that the person they just met will want anything more than sex from here on out. I think that MySpace, thanks to being new at the time, and of course thanks to my fellow youngsters being naïve, made us excited for a possible date and having to work hard to see that person. With MySpace and maybe even Craigslist, there is still some hint of the chase. Grindr doesn’t allow for a chase, instead allowing for a quick walk around the corner, and then a quick walk home.
As gay men like me, the ones who have known only the Internet and how to be gay online, grow older, I find myself wondering what our future is as a gay community. Are we forever tied to our online networks, our applications? Given how gay men use the Internet, will we only find sex online? Will we even learn how to be gay in real life? If we cannot go into a gay bar without getting on Grindr to see what is better a few hundred feet away, how are we ever going to see what is best and only two feet away? These are lots of questions that can’t be answered today, but I think they raise questions around what it means to be gay right now. And of course, beyond all these questions, I, as of today, don’t have a date. But I do have hope not only in myself but in the love lives of gays everywhere.
And if all else fails, I still have Grindr, and that’s something.
Note: This piece was originally featured on the Huffington Post and was republished with permission. You can find the original, here.