This is the second part of a series called “An Ethnography of Grindr”. Read part 1 here.
âSend an ass pic,â the macho man said, texting me about 10 miles away.
I was sitting on the washroom, uninterested in renting a Zipcar to leave campus and meet a macho man. But I also felt brave that day: âYou have to see it for yourself,â I said.
âSend a preview,â he said.
The response came so immediately that I got worried. Why hurry? Maybe he was working in the back of a movie theater and had misplaced the previews, so he urgently needed to put something on screen as the moviegoers arrived. I imagined dramatized images of my ass on the big screen, narrated by the calming voice of Morgan Freeman, accompanied by a musical score by Doja Cat. (And although chronologically it would have been a ‘preview’, I guess anatomically it would have been a ‘postview’, since it’s my ass?)
“I’d rather not,” I replied. He immediately blocked me, disappearing from sight. Shit !
Knock, knock: it’s me, your psychosexual development
I’ve been on Grindr for a few months. It would then be reasonable to ask why I downloaded the application? But maybe the best question is, why have I waited so long?
Usually I start things when I have no more reason to avoid them. I am an undergraduate student of Indian descent, a little below average height, and my body has not changed for about four years. But in the last year or so I’ve gone from gay to, well, homosexual homosexual. On the scale from âZumba instructorâ to âfistingâ, I landed somewhere healthy in the middle. Also, I wanted to wait until I emanated such sexual confidence that people would be surprised to learn that I was not sexually active – only then would I visit my neighbor’s Dick’s Sporting Goods!
More urgent, however: I was increasingly worried that my body would explode from pent-up arousal. In “skin hunger” terms, my skin was ready to hit someone in Llaga to grab the last serving of deliciously imperfect veggies. This parasympathetic storm arrived without even a warning!
To be clear, my homosexual identity was not at all new to me – on the contrary, it struck me that things weren’t working anymore. I didn’t have gay people in my life, and I needed at least two: one that would hammer me and one that would slap me and tell me to pull myself together. With pretty much more options and after hearing all the hubbub, I went “wild” (stopped using Hinge), finally downloading the app-that-should-not-be-named.
Open the app, again
First off, the app’s logo – a spooky shadow mask – really sets the mood. It doesn’t quite sound like queers in mesh shirts holding hands and walking around town singing kumbaya. It gives me something like a disgraced court jester living his days in a 16th century dungeon, or a creepy burglar who only came to steal a single vowel.
On the app missing a vowel, users in your area are presented in a “grid,” which has an assortment of torsos and blank profiles to choose from. The app has no matching process – all grid profiles are visible, all are fair game.
In fact, there are two distinct grids: âNearbyâ and âFreshâ. If a sexy new user joins the party, or if an existing user uploads an interesting new photo, they can be preselected in the âFreshâ grid. Personally, it’s not entirely clear what “Fresh” is trying to convey – fresh out of the panini press, or freshly squeezed in the juicer, or fresh out of a sexual arousal caused by the smell. Old Spice? It’s anyone’s guess. Otherwise, users end up heading to the “Nearby” grid, which is much larger and less elitist. These users are all in the area, unlike the homes in each new ResX neighborhood.
In each grid, “active” users appear as green dots on their profiles, which means they currently have the app open or closed it less than 10 minutes ago (probably to cry a good hit). When a user becomes inactive, the green dot disappears, but their profile remains on the grid for about an hour. I guess Grindr is trying to mimic the in-person interaction: Gay men are “active” once they physically enter the room, but the smell of Old Spice lasts for up to an hour after they leave.
By clicking on anyone on the grid, you can open and view their profile. Then you might stop to think about whether to ‘type’, send a message, or send a photo, like a shirtless mirror selfie with an expressionless face. While you’re deciding what to do, you can expect to be interrupted just about every time by a pop-up ad – most likely for a low-cost version of Candy Crush that looks like it was before same-sex marriage was legal.
Still, you might be surprised to learn just what can happen in an hour on the grid, especially with the honor and privilege of the âFreshâ designation. I’m not just talking about the classic âheyyâ but also funny posts like âNeed head now? (Guess these could be chained together in a poorly written infomercial?) A user with a blank profile once sent me a description of his body, in crude anatomical detail, with the confession that he was married – but without any proposed action. to me whatever.
Either way, you can expect to receive plenty of photos of men’s cock-a-doodle-doos. Oh, and what’s the plural of anus? Annie? Anunen? Anopods? Either way, you can expect photos of these as well. I guess an unexpected benefit of joining Grindr is the preparation, in case you need a prostate exam.
At the top of the screen, you can find the âMy Viewsâ function, an icon with a number representing the number of users who viewed your profile during the last Earth rotation. In general, this number reflects the level of activity of Grindr and can vary widely. For example, showing peak activity just before the weekend or when Cher is less than 1000 miles away. It also increases when Lorde releases a new album, as Lorde’s releases often cause major disruptions to the gay circadian rhythm. On the other hand, it decreases whenever Joe Rogan posts another podcast episode or when Kevin Hart tries to apologize for something.
In the current version of the “My Views” feature, if you are active while someone is clicking on your profile, you can watch the number display and feel the dopamine surge that comes with it. If you click on the eye, you can see the profile of your most recent viewer. But for the rest, you can only see a blurry photo with no name – if their profile even has a name or photo in the first place.
Permanence of objects, impermanent objects
Grindr introduced the “Viewed Me” feature about two years ago. While searching online, I found that it had received mixed reviews – some users complained that it made them too embarrassed about their activity on the app. In my experience, I often find that my opinions have jumped when I return from being briefly inactive – when my green light has gone, ironically. Why are we so embarrassed to let others know that we have seen them?
Grindr is far from being close to art, but as they say, “art reflects life”. During my years at Stanford, when I walked into a space with another queer man in attendance, we often both walked around, trying to assess each other through fleeting glances. Sometimes gay men refused to look my way at all, even when I was talking to them. Certainly Stanford could be a special case – a perfectly manicured country club, with a blurry line between personal and professional. And the student body here is big enough to have an abundance of gay men, but also, like, only 12.
Yet seeing has always been an action, long before Grindr did. My question, at the risk of sounding corny: we’re ready to preview each other’s ass, but why is it so hard to preview each other’s hearts?
It’s possible that gay men are playing our cards close to our chests, revealing themselves strategically, either to communicate a lack of interest or to lessen the impact of possible rejection down the line. But also, I think a lot of us never had the chance to be cute and silly as kids. We couldn’t hold hands near the water fountains, say, in fifth grade, or be scolded for dancing too close to the school dance, say also in fifth grade. And here we are, interacting anonymously on the anti-theft app – and at times, avoiding vulnerability as if herpes could be transmitted through eye contact. We have to understand how to be children, but with consequences for adults. It’s like when Zoom starts to fall behind, but instead of audio and video the lag is between our body and the Western cultural script of our existence.
And here, another reason why I waited so long to download Grindr: Before, I didn’t know how to be seen by other queer men because I didn’t know how to see myself. Gay, dark-haired, ridiculous – I got to a point where I couldn’t see the parts of me coming together and forming a cohesive person. How can you accept yourself if you can’t even see what you are accepting?
I was putting myself a little below the queer men “out there,” who were part of a vague “queer community” from which, in the end, many of us feel disconnected. I had felt a desire that I confused with many things – the need for a changed body or face, or a relationship, or even a different academic path – but in reality, it was the desire to have a vision of myself. When I validated what I could see, my life changed. I realized: to think that we are so special that we belong to a lower plane than everyone else is ego, not humility. Along with this understanding of myself came an understanding of what I would often expect from gay men – a request for my postview, or an unsolicited photo of their Hoover ride.
Gay Men: I wonder if we ever see each other and are afraid to admit it? Or haven’t we seen each other yet? It can be a lifelong project to see either, if at all we can. But in the style of object permanence, maybe we are all like ethnographers: now you see me, now you don’t see me – but you know I’m still here.
This article is part of a series on sex, love and relationships in the digital age and during the pandemic.
Contact the The Grind section of the Daily at thegrind ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.