I spent one Saturday morning late last year on my couch toggling back from Grindr to Scruff to Grindr to Scruff. I don’t remember what I was looking for; all I remember is that I was looking. At some point, I realized three hours had passed, and I still hadn’t moved from my couch or started my day. Even if I had, it undoubtedly would have been interrupted by a hook-up app, and/or a hook-up, though the latter was far less likely.
In front of my face and all around me in my neighborhood, according to the apps, were signs of struggle and discontent. “Grindr: come for the waste of time, stay for the constant rejection,” read the profile of one guy who seemed, based on his pic, to be handsome. Other users, signaling their desire to find something more substantial than quick sex, stated they were looking for someone to give them a reason to delete the app. “Ugh, back here,” read the headline of one guy’s Scruff profile. I saw another with a profile containing the Grindr-common phrase, “Sorry lost all my chats,” to inform those with whom he’d communicated previously that he wouldn’t be able to refer to his past conversations with them.
I know why he lost all his chats—because he deleted the app, then caved and reinstalled it. His resolve crumbled, or things didn’t work out with the guy who gave him that reason to delete the app, and he was back. I know because I’ve been there, too, several times. I started using these apps heavily in May 2012 and discontinued use for a few months at a time at various points over the last four years, generally depending on my relationships and their varying degrees of openness. Currently, I haven’t been on any since April.
The hook-up app (in this piece, I’m referring solely to those that facilitate men having sex with men, as that’s where the bulk of my experience with these apps lies) has, in less than a decade, become integral to gay culture—in fact it is designed and run to be a gay space (profiles posted by cis women are deleted), and as such, it’s one of few pure examples in this era of increasing visibility/assimilation of formerly all-gay spaces. The male hook-up app is exclusive in the way that many gay bars with their screaming bachelorettes are not. (Which isn’t to say, of course, that its exclusive ethos isn’t vulnerable—the Daily Beast’s now-deleted Olympics Grindr piece, in which straight journalist Nico Hines mined Grindr for data on gay athletes, is a perfect example of how these apps can be infiltrated by heteros.)
The hook-up app is integrated into gay culture, and integrated into the hook-up app (or, if you prefer a softer term, dating app) is an open sense of dependency on it and of pushing back against that. At least, that’s how it is in New York, a place that offers what feels like unlimited opportunity to meet other men who are interested in having sex with men. Part of my eventual disenchantment with hook-up apps, I think, came from its functional redundancy in a major metropolitan area teeming with gay bars and weekly parties and sex clubs and circles of friends who get together at one person’s apartment and fuck. Were I in the Midwest, for example, where the nearest available sex partner might be 20 miles away instead of 20 feet away, my experience with these apps might be different, as might this piece.
That said, it seems worthwhile to attempt to distinguish the line between addiction and app use resulting from things being just the way they are, precisely because that line is not at all a bright one.
“The technology has changed much faster than our capacity to manage it or certainly research it, and now we run one of the few treatment centers in the country,” said Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Greenfield has been studying internet addiction since the late ‘90s. “There aren’t even a lot of doctors who know how to deal with this. There’s nothing in the [smart phone] manual that says, ‘Caution: This device may be addictive.’ But that should be there!”
Greenfield didn’t have Grindr-, Stuff- or any hook-up app-specific data to share with me—in fact, he doesn’t differentiate between any apps when discussing internet addiction. That makes sense within this argument, since beyond sex, there’s something about adopting these apps as a lifestyle that can eventually make you feel stuck behind glass, tapping more out of habit than thought. Our devices have great power to trap us in repetitive behaviors without our noticing how repetitive they are.
“The internet itself is really the addictive medium,” Greenfield explained. “The power of the internet is the variable reinforcement ratio it provides. It gives you a reward in an unpredictable fashion in terms of when, what, and how. Even if you’re on the internet looking for information and just searching for news, or you’re looking at emails or text messages or you’re on an app on your phone, like Grindr or Tinder or whatever, you’re doing exactly the same thing. Every time you get one of those hits, you’re getting a microburst of dopamine in the mid-brain.”
This is apparently what crumbles our resolve to stay off hook-up apps. And just as the hook-up app is embedded into gay culture, the internet is embedded into the larger culture. There is no going back, and besides, no one wants to, and we couldn’t even if we tried. Could it be that dependency on hook-up apps—and the internet more broadly—isn’t an aberration, but a typical practice, a natural part of modern life?
“What matters is whether the behavior interrupts everyday life,” is how Perry Halkits, professor of global public health, applied psychology, and medicine at New York University, differentiated addiction from practice. Halkitis has studied behavior in gay men for over 20 years and is gay himself.
Everyday life increasingly means people with their phones in their faces. But even for those of us who still delineate between the physical world and the virtual one, Halkits’s ostensibly clear-cut boundary includes a vast gray area. If, for example, it takes me twice as long to watch a movie at home because I keep pausing it to check my Grindr messages, does that count as interrupting my everyday life? If that extended viewing process has, in turn, caused me to delay working out, or cleaning my apartment, is it then interrupting? What I’m describing are all more or less leisure activities, and not accomplishing them means little to my survival. They’re ways to make my life better, much like the pursuit and attainment of casual sex. Yet, at least the byproduct of all of these things is tangible, whereas the outcome of Grindr use is temporary in the best-case scenario—after having sex, some time passes, and you want more. A bleaker outcome results from an unsatisfying Grindr hook-up leading to craving more sex immediately after.
“There’s a big continuum between dependency and addiction,” said Robert Weiss, founding director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, author of Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age and Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, as well as a clinical psychologist who treats sex addiction. “There’s somebody that turns to [an app] when they’re vulnerable, they’re having a hard time, but when they’re doing OK, they don’t turn to it. And then there are people who can’t stop turning to it. It’s not like it’s black and white. But there is certainly a population of people who have discovered the intensity of porn and the repetition of porn and the intensity of app hook-ups and they have decided that’s good enough.”
When hook-up app dependency is examined by professionals, it’s generally done in one of two ways: as internet addiction, or as sex addiction. Rarely acknowledged, it seems, is that these apps sit at the potential intersection of both, which makes them unique and gives them their own, specific narcotic qualities. In a 2015 paper for the journal Sexuality & Culture, “Gamified Eroticism: Gay Male ‘Social Networking’ Applications and Self-Pornography,” recent Ph.D graduate and independent scholar Evangelos Tziallas wrote brilliantly of the gaming aspect and multivalent nature of what he terms “gay male social networking applications” (or GMSNAs):
GMSNAs aren’t just games, but gamified porn platforms that have managed to integrate themselves into gay men’s daily lives by appropriating gaming logic and merging it with an amateur media culture that has placed sexual self-representation and creation in the foreground. Using Grindr and Scruff as exemplars, I will demonstrate that a choreographed dance of pleasurable and frustrated game playing—through an amalgamated system of strategic filtering, screening, monitoring, cajoling, and teasing—formulates the logistical and emotional circuitry of GMSNAs that produce the images and chats that maintain user attachment. It is not because GMSNAs make it easier for gay men to network socially that these applications have triumphed over physical spaces such as bars and bathhouses. GMSNAs have succeeded because they make interaction more legible, enjoyable, and seemingly transparent and controllable to a generation of young men raised with electronics who spend significant amounts of time immersed in virtual environments (Hillis 2009)—they’ve simply replaced typical goals and rewards such as achieving a high score and accumulating virtual trophies with the promise of an ever expanding self-cultivated archive of erotic images and chats.
Among this game’s rewards is something highly personal: Feedback about one’s desirability. A hook-up app is a mirror that may not tell you who’s the fairest of them all, but it can give you some indication of whether you number among the fair ones. Whereas previous generations of gay men could get a vague idea of their desirability from eye contact, spoken compliments, or a high number of interested potential sex partners at bars, parties, and bathhouses, today’s feedback is accessible, tangible, and fits in a pants pocket. That this feedback is often based on no more than a few pictures—highly curated fractions of seconds that have been frozen in time—is a quiet truth drowned out by all the chatter, compliments, and invitations to sex. The value of this type of feedback to members of a population that is full of men who grew up feeling undesirable outside of the mainstream (and often continue to feel that way, regardless of legal and cultural advancement) has the potential to be immense.
There were a lot of reasons that I was so drawn to hook-up apps during the peak of my usage—the pursuit of sex, loneliness, boredom. Beyond existential reasons, these apps tend to draw you back like any thread of communication would. If I opened an app while at work or at some other time when I wasn’t available for immediate sex (just to...check my messages?), I would inevitably set vague plans for “later,” when I was available, which would lead to checking the app again around the time of the scheduled appointment. And then, if that potential sex partner wasn’t online, I’d check again. And again. And again, even.
But what was most compelling was the potential engagement and validation of my ego. It’s highly irrational to absorb any pride from those responding to a split second of your existence, those who are projecting their own expectations and fantasies onto your image when they give you such a response, and yet, absorb it (and even come to crave it) I did. I knew I was being irrational, too—maybe not in those specific moments, but often enough in the moments surrounding them. After teasing all this out at my current remove, this behavior strikes me as compulsive.
Almost every expert I talked to for this story had no answer when I asked what that level and type (that is, charged with sexual potential) of app-based feedback does to one’s psyche. There has been some research conducted in the realm of general internet feedback (repeatedly suggesting a correlation between positive feedback and high self-esteem, and also a connection between self-curation and self-esteem), but this research largely focused on public social media like Facebook, where the platform and feedback is visible to a potentially high number of users. Hook-up apps, though, are platforms made for private interactions.
Meanwhile, in academia, studies on these apps (typically Grindr) generally discuss them in terms of sexual risk behavior and STI/HIV transmission. (Some recent papers available on the U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health website include: “Acceptability of Smartphone Application-Based HIV Prevention Among Young Men Who Have Sex With Men,” “Patterns of Lifetime and Recent HIV Testing Among Men Who Have Sex with Men in New York City Who Use Grindr,” and “Still a Hard-to-Reach Population? Using Social Media to Recruit Latino Gay Couples for an HIV Intervention Adaptation Study.”)
At least one study, though, does suggest a scientific basis for people liking to be told they’re hot.
“We wanted to do a deeper dive into what you get out of [Grindr] besides sex,” said Stephanie Tong, assistant professor of communication at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. Along with a classmate of hers at Wayne, Chad Van De Wiele, Tong authored a study titled “Breaking Boundaries: The Uses & Gratifications of Grindr.” “One of those kind of distinct uses we found was an ego boost: ‘One of the reasons I keep coming back to it is to feel good about myself.’ We haven’t followed up on that, whether that’s prosocial or healthy or if it’s detrimental or both—it could be both in different ways. But the idea [is] that you can get that feeling of social inclusion or approval from the app itself.”
My biggest concern about my use of Grindr is that it will inflate my ego—and that I’ll furthermore get used to that inflation so that the day it pops, and I realize I’m too old to be considered desirable by any but a small niche, will fling me into a free fall. But for men whose egos have been already deflated by cultural stereotypes—as is the case for a gay Filipino-American academic I talked to for this piece, Anthony Ocampo, who feels that American sex culture is hostile to him as an Asian man—hook-up apps can be a necessary and positive corrective.
“As someone who grew up as a gay man of color with my entree being West Hollywood—I wasn’t skinny or lean when I started going out—I developed deep-seated notions that I wasn’t physically attractive,” said Ocampo, assistant professor in the department of psychology and sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, and someone who’s studied the sociology of Grindr. “That took a really long time for me to admit out loud. I think the plus side of Grindr and leaving it on when you’re just chilling is that you get to accumulate empirical evidence that my negative self-image was untrue. If 30 people in the course of 24-48 hours were saying, ‘Hey cutie,’ there’s something about that that counteracts the negative self-image that I had developed over the years of feeling marginalized as a gay man, as a not necessarily fit or buff gay guy.”
Where the responsibility of the app-makers fits into these issues is dicey business itself. Obviously, people who make apps want you to use them. The more often you use them, the more often they can expose you to ads, and the more they can boast about their traffic to potential advertisers. You could argue that an app maker’s best case scenario is addicting all of its users to its product. At the same time, plenty of products that are known to trigger dependency issues—take cigarettes and alcohol—are manufactured daily and readily available. The burden of use regulation falls on the consumer, which is part of the reason that all of these things are legally only sold to adults.
Grindr, Scruff, and the like, though, were largely developed by gay men for gay men, so we can perhaps place slightly more cultural responsibility on them as servers of their own community, who understand it well enough to provide a service that has rapidly worked itself into its culture.
I reached out to Grindr’s press email address several times for this piece and received no response. Scruff, an enormously popular hook-up app along the lines of Grindr whose users tend to skew hairy and bear-y, did, however, get back to me. I sent a list of questions to them—among them: Was the potentially addictive nature of Scruff given any consideration as it was being developed?; Has Scruff consulted with any psychologists/experts on sex addiction, internet addiction, and/or app addiction?; and How does the company reconcile its needs for traffic with compulsive, unhealthy behavior in its users?—and received back a more general statement from Scruff founder and Chief Product Officer Jason Marchant, who also took the opportunity to advertise Scruff’s newish travel feature. The portion of Marchant’s email relevant to my specific inquiry reads:
Our mission at SCRUFF is to connect gay guys with one another and with the global gay community. We strive to build a space that is friendly, safe, and useful for our members.
More than ever, gay men are finding community on SCRUFF. It is reconfiguring the landscape of gay life, especially in areas and in countries that lack safe public spaces for LGBT people. Being an agent of this change comes with great responsibility. In August, 2014 we launched the BenevolAds program to make our members aware of the health and community resources available to them. BenevolAds offers free in-app advertising to nonprofits and government agencies that serve the LGBT community. Currently, we are running ads for over 600 organizations in 22 countries around the world. We have displayed ads created by these organizations to SCRUFF members over 12 billion times. Over 50 of these organizations are running ads pertaining to mental health, sex addiction, and substance abuse. These ads have been shown to members over 450 million times.
We strongly encourage non-profit and state agencies that provide services for LGBT people with sex addiction and other mental health issues to connect with SCRUFF members in the communities they serve by signing up for BenevolAds at http://ads.scruff.com.
Waging a full-scale cultural battle with technology is foolish; technology will always win. Grindr is just the reality, and it’ll only be the reality until something even more efficient comes along to replace it. What scares me about this is that we dove headfirst into this way of communicating without even having any sense of the bottom or how far down it’s located.
Time reveals convenience’s shortcomings. Many guys feel that internet porn has negatively affected their sexual functioning (plenty of clinicians like Weiss, for example, agree with these claims), and a resulting NoFap movement has emerged in response, over a decade after internet porn became a reality. That no such counter-app movement occupies any significant cultural space could speak to many things—the newness of this technology compared to internet porn, cultural compliance, a general lack of anxiety over something that ostensibly makes our lives easier. But everyone should be examining how this technology is affecting his operation because if you’re using it, it’s already infiltrated your system.
“There’s probably some damage being done by having [some] gay men only interact with each other in this manner, but at the same time we have to just go with it, because that’s the way it’s going to be,” said Halkitis. In fact, almost everyone I talked to besides Dr. Greenfield voiced reluctance about deeming hook-up app use an “addiction” so as not to further pathologize gay men’s fraternizing, which has been pathologized throughout history.
Almost everyone I spoke to voiced ambivalence or uncertainty as to where we are headed with the exception of Dr. Weiss. That’s noteworthy given that Weiss has spent so much of his career focused on pathology in sex—the point where “the way things are” becomes an actual problem.
“I think this is part of human evolution,” said Weiss regarding hook-up apps. “Technology has never been as paired with evolution as it is today, but we already know that the human brain adapted to the tools that we were making like flints and iron. We’ve always been presented with problems that new technology has brought about.
“In my generation, my parents said that sex, drugs, and rock and roll was going to be a big problem. It was—a lot of people I know had drug and alcohol problems, there was a lot of divorce, a lot of things evolved out of the cultural and technological revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s created problems for a lot of people in the decades that ensued. But not everybody. Lots of people used cocaine in the ‘80s—they’re not still struggling with it. Not everybody who had open sex in the ‘70s is still doing it now.
“People evolve and change and try stuff out. But there have always been people who struggle. There have always been people who are addicted. And there have always been people who come along and help those people. We’re creating new problems, but technology always creates new problems. People come along and create new solutions. That’s humanistic. I think most people are going to be just fine.”
I know I am—for now. Whereas I once felt like I was at Grindr’s mercy, I’ve come to think of its online, id-based medium of interaction—mostly just idle chitchat with possible sexy results—as a crawlspace of my consciousness that I installed a few years ago. For now, because I’m in a new relationship—and because my therapist has warned me about dissociating via distractions—that crawlspace is boarded up. Sometimes I hear voices coming from it, beckoning me to check it out and reap its cheap rewards. To this day, Instagram, Snapchat, and plain old texting give me a taste of that old hook-up app feeling. I’ve resisted for months now, but like the rest of us, I’m uncertain as to what the future holds.
Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gawker. App screen shots by the author.