Image: Guy Torsher

The iPhone Revolutionized Gay Hookup Culture

With Grindr, love and sex became available in abundance. So did body shaming and discrimination.

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Jun 27 2017, 7:00pm

Image: Guy Torsher

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along.

I was at the gym recently when I heard something on TV that made me realize how profoundly the iPhone has changed everything. "Welcome," exclaimed a booming voiceover, "to the app economy."

Despite that phrase being a bit of marketing fluff, it rang true. I thought of just how much of my life I control from my smartphone: take-out, dining out, banking, transportation, communication. For a lot of people, including gay men, phones are also the gateway to sex and/or love. The arrival of the iPhone was a turning point, for better and worse. It wasn't just about the phone itself, but the apps that sprung up around it, like Grindr.

Before 2007, when the iPhone hit the scene, if gay dudes wanted to meet one another, they had to physically uproot themselves from their couches, have showers, and descend upon a gar bar/whatever passed for a gay bar, where you were likely subjected to an excruciating "best ass contest" before you were allowed to go hunting for a mate.

People who wanted to forego the tedium of person-to-person interaction pre-iPhone used desktops to access various gay dating sites online. You had to email the other person and wait for them to reply. If you were lucky, it'd take about a week of back-and-forth online wooing to set up a date.

No longer.

In March 2009, Grindr launched on the App Store. There was obviously an appetite for it, because it grew astonishingly quickly. By 2016, the app boasted two million active daily users across 192 countries, generating revenues of $32 million a year. Soon after Grindr came online, it would spawn countless copycats on both the iOS and Android platforms, like Scruff, Jack'd, and Hornet, but in the beginning, it was primarily for well-off gay men with the newest status symbol: an iPhone, which that year cost $599 US, fully loaded.

An iPhone 5, released in 2012. Image: closari/Flickr

Grindr represented a paradigm shift in how men could meet each other. In this bold new age of connection, your geography suddenly became the most important factor. You could discretely hook up with someone in the same small town—or on the same street or even the same block—without anybody knowing. (Much to the chagrin of other members of the non-cis-male LGBTQ community, apps to cater to their needs are still relatively few and far between.)

The app had obvious advantages. If you lived in a homophobic environment, the relative anonymity could be a godsend. But its faceless nature was a double-edged sword.

"The reason why gay bars were so revolutionary in the '60s and '70s was you had to walk in the door and people could see you walk in the door," Sky Gilbert, a Canadian LGBTQ playwright, author and teacher, told me on the phone. "There's one in your city and people might see you going in. You had to be out, you had to be public. So it was a great thing."

With Grindr, love and sex are theoretically available in abundance. But hook-up apps quickly became saturated with body shaming and overt racism (at least one Twitter feed is dedicated to some of the most egregious examples). In recent years, the web has been filled with tales of discrimination. We've been reduced to the two-dimensional characteristics of our profile pictures, just one among a grid of often headless, chiseled torsos.

Read More: 'Her,' the Lesbian Grindr, Has Nothing to Do with Casual Sex

Matthew Harris, a Toronto teacher, met his now-husband on Grindr. Even so, he is wary about the benefits. "I felt uncomfortable using it because I didn't have a torso that could be photographed without a shirt," said Harris in a phone interview. "I prefer to meet people the old-fashioned way, like going to gay bars."

This type of instantaneous judgement of another person—based solely on an image of a few hundred pixels—can translate into worrisome behaviour.

"I think that Grindr and all of the online hookup apps for gay men are problematic," said Gilbert. "It's totally different than what happens with straight people. We always have issues about secrecy. People will become lonely, unsatisfied, frustrated, angry and violent."

Indeed, Grindr is known for blatant discrimination. On profiles, it's fairly common to see the legend "No fems, no fats, no Asians" or some variant thereof emblazoned across profile photos. Researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia studied the phenomenon in 2011 and christened it sexual racism. They conducted a survey of more than 2,000 gay Australian men and discovered such statements are widely tolerated.

Grindr declined an interview, but sent this statement: "Grindr is committed to creating a safe environment through a system of digital and human screening tools, while also encouraging users to report suspicious and threatening activities. While we are constantly improving upon this process, it is important to remember that Grindr is a platform. Grindr provides global outreach, information, and access to services to our users around the world, ranging from sexual health services to alerts on raids in dangerous areas to help for refugees. Grindr seeks to work with these communities on solving these social issues."

The app has undergone countless improvements since its release, making it easier and more seamless to connect with other guys. It remains the largest gay social network app in the world.

"People do need and love human contact, and they love being together in public and private spaces as human beings," said Gilbert. "They don't just want to have a relationship with a computer."