'Liberated at least from the mental tyranny of scrolling down an endless menu' (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

March 26, 2024   5 mins

It is telling that, as we mark the 15th anniversary of Grindr, my mind immediately turns to dystopian science fiction. In E.M Forster’s 1909 short story “The Machine Stops”, our protagonists (a mother and son) exist in a twisted future where single individuals reside permanently in isolated rooms underground. Residents of these secluded burrows have all their wants and needs catered for by a highly developed AI, which is simply referred to as “the Machine”. As everyone is separated, all interactions must occur via a mediated screen (a forerunner to Zoom). It is a barrier that the son, Kuno, longs to overcome, begging to see his mother face to face:

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.”

Grindr launched as a mobile app in 2009, the brainchild of a gay Israeli-American tech entrepreneur, Joel Simkhai. It provided a seamless tech-mediated way for gay and bisexual men to interact in their area. The app promised, and arguably delivered, a hassle-free way to screen and select casual sexual partners with none of the pitfalls of in-person conversation. It was a runaway success, earning Simkhai millions, and becoming a staple in the lives of gay men across the world. The company went public in 2022, a feat which was hailed by commentators as a sign of LGBTQ+ inclusion in the business and finance world.

On paper, being anti-Grindr seems a bit like being “anti-freedom” — the projection of prudish, old-fashioned sensibilities onto techno-sexual liberation. Even the typical propogandists of grievance, those who accuse the app of perpetuating racism or “body fascism” or “femme-phobia”, just want equal access to this clearly emancipatory tool for the gay community. Gay men, particularly young gay men, are promiscuous; it’s in our nature. We do not play by the same rules of fidelity and desire as those of more conventional taste. But Grindr, far from furthering and expanding the opportunity for gay desire, has not truly augmented this state of affairs. Instead, it has diminished it, fundamentally reducing the erotic frisson, if not the availability, of casual encounters.

Algorithmic screening, of course, is no longer just for gay guys. In her studies Cold Intimacies and Why Love Hurts, Eva Illouz has extensively documented the pernicious effects that the rise of dating apps like Tinder and Hinge has had on heterosexual romantic love. Dating apps, by design, have led to the over-intellectualisation and rationalisation of mate-selection. Many young people are now paralysed by choice and the exhausted task of trying to dissect and screen a potential partner, applying a cold set of metrics to ensure time is not wasted on hopeless duds. What Illouz documents for straight romance is equally true of the role of apps like Grindr on gay sex.

There are essentially two types of casual sex. There’s the functional, “get-your-rocks-off” kind where all that’s desired is a cheap orgasm with minimal effort. And then there’s the truly erotic, where a roll in the sack leaves a lasting memory. But this kind of eroticism requires something almost external to sexuality: a degree of mystery. Like Illouz, philosopher Byung Chul-Han has noted that our overly tech-mediated “pornographic” social world has lost the art of experiencing one’s sexual partner as truly “Other”. In The Agony of Eros he writes:

“Eros concerns the Other in the strong sense, namely, what cannot be encompassed by the regime of the ego. Therefore, in the inferno of the same, which contemporary society is increasingly becoming, erotic experience does not exist. Erotic experience presumes the asymmetry and exteriority of the Other.”

This lack of otherness, in turn, diminishes sexual encounters into ego-centric, utilitarian pursuits — masturbation with another person attached. Modern, tech-mediated sex is that of Nietzsche’s “last man” in Thus Spake Zarathustra who “has his little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night”, without ever realising what’s been lost. It’s no wonder that the rise of apps is correlated with the rise of various stripes of asexual identity. Why bother with sex if this is all that’s on offer?

Grindr flattens desire by design. To play the game, users must advertise themselves through curated, sexually enticing images. The notorious “headless torso” image, the brass tacks of sexual marketing, gets to the heart of what’s on offer here — not a person but a body. Metrics on height, weight, sexual position and penis size further allow users to screen each other by pre-determined criteria and preferences.

There is then a boilerplate set of steps for organising an encounter. One man prompts “you looking?” the other “can you host?”, a brief exchange of dick pics occurs and locations are sent. One textual analysis of Grindr conversations notes, grimly, that “metaphors of consumption or ‘meat market’ are pervasive” with users said to be “on the hunt” for sexual prey. Yet before one gets to this brief transactional exchange, you first must do the necessary labour: the endless scroll. One survey found that nearly 40% of Grindr users were on the app daily, checking in over eight times and spending around 1.3 hours per day just scrolling. The inevitable result of constantly hitting refresh is not finding the perfect partner, but merely settling for whoever was “good enough” given time spent — a sexual sunk-cost fallacy.

The end result is an in-person sexual encounter, sure, but one that’s already been ruined in advance. Disappointments begin at the front door (how old is that photo?), followed by some prescribed sexual motions (one’s “intos” having been agreed in advance), and then some brief post-coital conversation as you struggle to find your pants. Contrast this tech-mediated disaster with the typical gay hook-ups of yesteryear. One didn’t have to hyper-intellectualise the screening process as encounters were determined by chance. Your options were whoever was at the bar, sauna or beat: limited of course, but liberated at least from the mental tyranny of scrolling down an endless menu.

Rather than brief transactional exchanges, men are forced to perform an intricate set of glances, touches and maybe even a little flirting. Chul-Han speaks frequently about the collapse of little rituals in modern life, seemingly silly irrational habits which in fact add an inarticulable weightiness to encounters. In-person cruising also maintains the mystery of the Other, absent the overthinking of every pixel in an image or word in a sentence. The result is real sex, a raw unmediated encounter with another person where one briefly loses oneself in the intensity of pleasure. Grindr hasn’t killed the gay bar. Yet, with all conveniences, it’s not surprising that many gay men are choosing to sit on their couch rather than go out for more meaningful pursuits. After all, rejection in-person wounds far more than being ignored on an app.

“Concerns about their image and fear of rejection are putting much of Gen Z off looking for love”

New tech deeply embeds itself, and mere criticism of its pitfalls doesn’t make it go away. While some outlets have claimed Zoomers are ditching the apps for real-life connection, the reality is far bleaker: concerns about their image and fear of rejection are putting much of Gen Z off looking for love (and sex) altogether. Cures are not so easily prescribed. Because of their pervasiveness, “getting off the apps” is just as likely to result in prolonged solitude as it is more meaningful encounters. Pernicious tech must be soldiered through, recontextualised, and made to work for the user rather than passively consumed. Yet glimmers of light can be found in Chul-Han’s recommendation for little rituals and for maintaining a certain mystique.

Perhaps the solution is less getting off the apps entirely and more about taking a risk on what constitutes a “match” — leaving final judgements to an in-face encounter, and meeting at a bar first before the bedroom. Perhaps placing your bets on irrational, unpredictable physical “chemistry” over hyper-rationalised profiles can carve out some heterotopic space for homoerotic desire. One must not lose hope of aiming higher — of not settling for junk food sex when more refined erotic experiences await the patient and brave. Forster’s story ultimately ends with mother and son perishing as the machine crumbles around them. But just before their demise they share a single moment in which they feel the real presence of one another for the first time:

She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands. “Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying — but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”

Jarryd Bartle is a writer, educator and consultant on vice regulation.