How Grindr tamed gay desire

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Has technology suffocated erotic frission?

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.

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