The Biggest Gay Bar on Earth Comes to Swarthmore

Seeking methods of hooking up and dating beyond alcohol-fueled makeout sessions on the Paces dance floor or dates at Sharples, some queer men at Swarthmore have turned to Grindr. Students and a professor described a variety of motivations behind using the digital application, which utilizes a cell phone’s GPS device to display a grid of queer men’s profiles in order of distance, and primarily facilitates casual sexual encounters.

“The Scariest Gay Bar on Earth”

As of June 2012, Grindr, which works on the iPhone, Android, and Blackberry, had 4 million users in 192 countries, including 1.1 million daily users. About 1.5 million users are from the United States. The app has been described as both “a revolutionary dating tool” and “the scariest gay bar on earth that is all over the earth” by the queer blogosphere and articles in Vanity Fair and GQ. Sean Bryant ’13, who chooses not use the app because of the dangers he foresees in meeting up with strangers, estimated that about one-fourth of queer men at Swarthmore use or have used the app at some point.

Grindr asks new users to create a profile, including a picture (there are some face shots, but headless, bare-chested torso shots are common as well) and a description of height, age, weight, ethnicity, and relationship status. The profile also includes the “Looking For” category, for which a user can select “Chat,” “Dates,” “Friends,” “Networking,” and “Relationship.”

“Dates” translates roughly to a casual sexual encounter, which Grindr has a reputation for facilitating. Most Swarthmore men interviewed (and users in general) said they used the app primarily for this purpose, though some have downloaded Grindr out of curiosity to see who in the surrounding community is queer and available, or used it to create romantic relationships and friendships.

“Grindr is used for hookups,” said Bryant, echoing the dominant view of the app in both queer and straight communities. “No one, to my knowledge, has ever joined Grindr to find some friends.”

An anonymous student, Smith*, who has used the app while at Swarthmore, said his experiences were in line with this perception. Smith said he had used the app to chat with other queer men, but always with the intention of eventually hooking up with that person.

However, a professor (Professor X) who chose to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the article, told a different story.

“I pretty much never use Grindr for hooking up, especially locally,” Professor X said. He added that while he had used the app to facilitate hookups while traveling, the fundamental goal of using the app for him was to meet and create friendships or possible romantic relationships with other queer men. “Even though our initial interactions were centered on sex, we also cultivated an underlying foundation of real friendship,” Professor X said of the men with whom he had had sex via Grindr.

Professor X acknowledged that the purpose of Grindr was usually a quick physical encounter. “I’m just not really built for the kinds of instant anonymous hookups that Grindr is more known for,” he said.

Kenneson Chen ’15, who is abroad in Germany and has used Grindr both at Swarthmore and while abroad, said he also used the service to find friends. Chen said that he had never used it for hooking up or finding a boyfriend and rarely ever meets up with the people he messages on Grindr, but noted that he was unusual in this respect. “I think people tend to meet up and/or hook up with Grindr acquaintances more frequently than I do,” he said.

No Strings Attached: Grindr’s Benefits and Failings

Sources described a variety of advantages to using Grindr, both in comparison to non-virtual methods of talking to, meeting, or hooking up with other queer men and in terms of navigating the dating world of Swarthmore.

Smith, who uses Grindr mostly for hooking up, cited selectivity as the main advantage behind using the app.

“You can be selective about who you interact with on Grindr, perhaps choosing only to respond to Asian guys or tall guys or guys who don’t send [genitalia photos] as a greeting,” Smith said. “In person it’s more difficult to be this selective because it’s rude to flat out ignore someone if you’re not really interested.” Grindr eliminates the need for a polite rejection and allows users to block others if they are uninteresting or annoying.

Another occasional Grindr user, Johnson*, said that while he had used Grindr to hook up, he found most of the fun to be in the flirting that takes place via the exchange of messages and photos, which usually would not result in a sexual encounter.

“It’s fun to say, ‘Here’s a picture of me, here’s what I’m into, we should totally do it,’ and then just stop, and that’s totally fine,” Johnson said. He added that he was surprised at how eager other users were to trade pictures. “It was very easy to trade pictures, especially sexual pictures,” Johnson said, adding that after some time, he decided picture trading was “too slutty” and stopped.

The app also helps to eliminate the uncertainty of navigating the often-awkward Swarthmore dating scene.

“I don’t know how I would hook up with someone in Paces, where I wouldn’t know if a guy was straight, or if that guy was willing,” Johnson said. With Grindr, he said, the experience was more controlled. “We’re both looking for the same thing. It’s a one night stand, and there are no strings attached,” he said.

Bryant, though an opponent of the app, acknowledged Grindr’s utility in this arena. “At Swat, people can be very awkward when it comes to approaching someone who they are interested in, and Grindr seems to cut out all the guessing and awkwardness,” he said.

Bryant also confirmed Johnson’s observation about clarity: “People on Grindr know each other’s intentions. There is no guessing game, no beating around the bush when it comes to what people want.” Bryant said that his perception was that Grindr users were very upfront and clear about their desires.

Grindr also helps to expand the pool of potential partners. Students often complain about the way in which Swarthmore’s small community hinders meeting new people and dating, and queer students suffer even more from the school’s limited size.

“Swarthmore is simply too small to possess a large enough queer population for some people,” Chen said. While Chen remarked that some students are satisfied with the dating scene, he thinks that Grindr allows students the welcome opportunity to expand the queer population. “I’ve found that while I have wonderful queer friends at Swat, the dating scene is admittedly stifling,” he said.

Chen added that Grindr’s use by exclusively queer men was also an advantage when seeking new friendships. “There are really very few spaces solely reserved for queer men, especially spaces so open about sexuality and with the purpose of meeting or, at least, acquainting yourself with other queer men,” Chen said.For those who have not shared their sexuality with the rest of the world, Grindr can also provide a comforting degree of anonymity.Smith believes that men who were not yet openly queer would be comfortable using Grindr because the app does not require face photos. “A body could be anyone. Prove my body is the one in the photo,” he said. “You can’t, unless I have some distinctive tattoo or birthmark.”The potential anonymity of Grindr also provides a way to ease into the queer community.”For someone in the closet, the prospect of meeting another, usually self-assured and forward gay man can be downright terrifying,” Chen said. While approaching another man at a party and requesting a number could be dangerous, Chen said, Grindr reduces the risk of being shamed or physically or verbally harassed.Both Chen and Johnson also said they had used Grindr when they were not yet openly queer in order to see if there were queer men in their surrounding area.

“I used Grindr to see who else was gay around me. It was comforting to know I wasn’t alone,” Chen said.

Johnson added that he would have welcomed the app while attending high school, where there were no out queer students, because “I didn’t know that there were gay people out there — I didn’t know what they looked like.”

Along with the advantages of convenience, selectivity, anonymity, and the chances to develop friendships, however, there are potential disadvantages to using the app.

Bryant said that he would be uncomfortable with meeting strangers at night who he had connected with on Grindr “when there can be some pretty crazy people out there.” He also thinks that Grindr’s facilitation of instant hookups undermines the creation of an actual, meaningful friendship or relationship.

Smith said that while his experiences had been mostly positive, he has had a couple of negative encounters. These were mostly due to another user being dishonest about their age or posting photos that were not of themselves.

Professor X mentioned that there are many “red flags” one can spot in order to guard against having a negative experience with the app. These red flags indicate to Professor X that he will not enjoy spending time with someone in real life. “I make sure not to ignore those red flags, no matter how attractive the guy may be,” he said.

These warning signs include “not having a face picture, not revealing their name, not being willing to engage in ordinary conversation…only wanting to meet privately…and perhaps the biggest one, continually asking ‘when are we going to meet?’ rather than trying to engage with me in conversation,” Professor X said.

Chen raised the question of queer social apps on queer culture, especially with regards to appearance. Some apps, like Grindr, GROWLr, BoyAhoy, Jack’d, Hornet, Skout, Mister, and Scruff (another popular choice, along with Grindr, among queer students at Swarthmore), allow users to filter out profiles based upon certain characteristics such as age, race, height, and weight, or are targeted at types of appearances (GROWLr is for those who identify as “bears,” queer men who embrace a more muscular, hirsute aesthetic).

“Is this racist, age-ist, body-ist?” Chen asked. He also wondered whether these filters enabled the fetishization of certain bodily characteristics.

Why Gay Men?

Although Grindr’s creator has released an app called Blendr, open to all genders and sexualities, its success has been limited. Sources offered a variety of perspectives on why the app arose and became explosively popular especially among queer men. Some of the underlying factors appear to be cultural.

Smith said that he was surprised that more Swarthmore students do not use Grindr, and that the app was primarily useful because so many queer men use it. Smith also said that Grindr did not suffer from the same stigma that dating apps and websites for straight people do: “only pathetic people use them,” he said.

Professor X linked Grindr’s popularity and existence to a largely heteronormative culture. “I think Grindr is just another evolutionary step in the way that gay men have been trying to find each other while trapped in a hetero-centric, usually homophobic culture,” he said. Unlike straight people, Professor X said, queer members of society are and have been part of an invisible, often vilified minority, and thus need ways to find one another outside of the public eye.

Professor X detailed the variety of ways in which queer men have met in the past, including websites and methods of meeting up in public bathrooms or “cruising” areas known for dense populations of queer men — a process that Grindr has made virtual.

Professor X also believes that Grindr was partially engendered by cultural perceptions of male sexual desire compared to that of females. “The conventional wisdom is that, on average, men are just biologically and emotionally more willing to have sex with a random stranger than women are,” he said.

Gender and Sexuality Studies Professor Anna Ward acknowledged this perception as well. “The assumption people make is that straight women are not interested in casual sexual exchanges, and therefore, would have no interest in an app that facilitated this,” she said.

Ward, however, believes that this perception is mistaken. She said that while there is tremendous cultural disapproval of women who engage in casual sexual relations, and that the culture of sexual violence in which we live can make women wary, the fact is that women do engage in casual sexual encounters.

“What is the difference between a woman hooking up with a guy she just met at a club and using an app like Blendr to do so? I think it’s a difference of degree, not kind,” Ward said. She sees a random sexual encounter at a nightclub as barely different from using an app to facilitate such an occurrence.

Ward also noted that queer women were notoriously early adopters of technological methods and online dating sites, including Craigslist and OkCupid, to facilitate casual or long-term sexual encounters. Grindr (and its users) may merely be the most visible of these technological methods.

Ward added that she often heard discussion of queer men “being more horny or more open to casual sex than other folks,” and that this perception was incorrect. “Gay male communities have a long and admirable history of appreciating the pleasures of casual and/or anonymous sex, but they’re not alone in that appreciation,” she said. “When people make sweeping statements about what women do or don’t want sexually, I can’t help but think about all the women, both queer and straight, that just don’t fit those assumptions.”

Regardless of the reasons for its existence, Grindr’s facilitation of casual sexual encounters certainly fits into Millennial-generation “hookup culture,” which has become a recent media buzzword after coverage in The New York Times. “Hookup culture,” which mystifies many adults but pervades high school, college, and recent postgraduate life, consists less of traditional dating and more of casual meet-ups and sexual encounters. It remains to be seen whether Blendr, which recently joined with a dating website called Badoo and acquired its millions of users, will gain popularity and visibility equal to that of Grindr.

*Smith, Johnson, and X are all pseudonyms for individuals interviewed.

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