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Grindr: The ethics behind the 'right now' culture (Part 1)


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Twenty years ago dating was a romantic affair. Gazing across a coffee shop, your eyes meet, you date and then love blossoms. Today it’s all very different. You meet on an app, have sex and then see ‘where it goes’. But what is this doing to modern day perceptions of love and sex? And is Grindr hiding corrupt and dark secrets?

Grindr's logo

Founded in 2009 to initially mixed reviews, Grindr – the ‘dating’ app for gay men – has quickly become a phenomenon, reporting in 2014 to already have over 10-million active users in over 190 countries, most popularly in the US and UK.

Any user, however, would tell you that a ‘dating’ app is an insufficient and misleading description of the app. While, admittedly, some men do get relationships and dates off the app (including myself), its primary use has become a means of obtaining ‘right now’ sex: a no-strings-attached sexual encounter where there is no requirement to ring in the morning. One of the most worrying implications of Grindr’s exploding popularity is this promotion of ‘Right Now’ culture, which is a lot more explicitly attained than on straight dating apps like Tinder (where you have to ‘match’ before you can even message someone).

What exactly are the implications of this “right now” culture? Firstly, it affects perceptions of the gay community both externally and internally. Evidence suggests that both the gay community, as well as outside observers, see gay men especially as ‘sex obsessed’ with alcohol being a crucial element of the gay scene. As Wigel put it, it’s clear that straight dating apps like Tinder don’t have this ‘right now’ element as straight men are not so sex obsessed, and we are left asking ‘Why don’t more straight couples want it? (Or why do so many gay ones?!)

But it also, for some, seems to demean the value of sex in-and-of-itself. Some philosophers hold that sex is about more than simply the physical pleasure achieved in orgasm: it’s about the union and connection, on a physical, emotional and psychological level, between the people involved. And so sex, to sustain its value, ought always to have an emotional dimension. If ‘right now’ culture is promoted, which appeals to the same ideas of sex as prostitution, the value drops.

I am unconvinced. While sex may gain value by being emotionally loaded, this does not prima facia mean it loses value by not having it. Could there simply not just be valuable and unvaluable sex? It is far from clear why having unemotional sex affects the value of sex that is emotional (it might, in fact, help us draw the distinctions to understand the true value of valuable sex).

It is similar to purchasing a dress having two purposes: on-the-spot happiness and long term fulfilment. While having both is the aim, if long-term fulfilment is not gained, nothing is lost and you still have the on-the-spot happiness. It’s less valuable but the system as a whole is unaffected. The same applies with sex; sex would have two ‘value’ purposes that are mutually exclusive from each other: physical and emotional. The use of sex purely to achieve the former does nothing to effect the value of the latter. It is unfair to say Grindr demeans the value of sex and should be branded unethical on this ground.

The more worrying repercussion, at least for me, is its simultaneous demeaning of the value (or at least perception of) of dating and relationships (and, hence, love).

This, unlike sex, is demeaned by the very promotion of this “right now culture”. Some may argue this line of argument contradicts my previous argument that prostitution is morally permissible without degrading the value of love – but there is a key distinction to be unearthed. Prostitution sets itself up as what it is: ‘right now’ sex and nothing more. You really do get what you are paying for! Grindr, however, presents itself under the guise of a dating app. What it therefore does is make us believe that dating is about this type of sexual encounter or, put otherwise, that dates must include sex.

So with Grindr ‘right now’ sex becomes mixed up with relationships in a quite worrying way. While not demeaning the value of sex, the app is problematic on theoretical grounds as it becomes mixed up in the distinction between what it claims to be and what it is. Compare this to Tinder, where the ‘right now’ option and the conventions of dating are regularly achieved, or even ‘Her’ – the lesbian equivalent to Grindr, which evidence shows promotes dating through the promotion of connection and ‘articles’ rather than ‘bodily fluids’.

You would not after all, if you met someone in a coffee shop, show them a nude pic or ask ‘are you a top?’. Grindr has made this a worryingly common online convention of gay dating. This is linked to recent evidence that argues that gay men have been ‘dehumanised’ by apps such as Grindr and Scruff. Instead of seeing them as potential partners of even ‘human’ the perception shifts to men as ‘virtual sex bots’. When it comes to dating, we are now just left with an ‘unfiltered and inhumane approach to human interaction’. Naturally this may also be symptomatic of perhaps a more general promiscuity in the gay community, though Grindr then acts as its epitome.

What is Grindr doing to our perceptions of the gay community?

Far from being dehumanised, it seems Grindr also both enforces and transcends typical ‘gay’ definitions. On the one hand, it paints the picture of gay men driven by alcohol and sex with an array of fetishes; but on the other, it has also led to what Dr Jane Ward has labelled the ‘bro-job’, the rising trend is straight white-men to have a gay experience.

This would usually be with a gay man. It is estimated that 18% of men on Grindr identify as ‘straight’ and it is not uncommon for ‘straight’ married men to solicit discreet sex from gay men. This rising trend, however, led to launch of the app ‘BRO’ in January 2016, publicising itself as ‘the app for bromance’ which allows two “straight” men to meet up for “encounters”.

The app's creator, Scott Kutler said that: “One of the reasons we don’t state bi or gay in our app is that we believe it shouldn’t matter when meeting other men… labels can be damaging”. Under the guise of arranging a straight or gay ‘bromance’, the reality is that most ‘straight’ men use the app as a hook-up tool with other straight men (or gay men).

So it seems that Grindr and other such apps are shifting the focus of the label ‘gay’ away from sexual actions (i.e. a man having sex with a man) to a self-identification (you are ‘gay’ if you say your ‘gay’). The issue is to then understand the ethical and psychological implications of such a shift. On a base level it at least seems like homosexuality ought to be linked to homosexual acts and to say you can be ‘straight’ but engage sexually with men seems to conflict. We would, after all, say that if someone said they were exclusively gay, and had sex with women, that they were lying and were bisexual.

While, granted, these labels are never perfect they do serve a basic purpose in helping with sexual identification in a way that the ‘bro-job’ fundamentally plagues. ‘Grindr’ and ‘BRO’ both become a breeding spot for ‘straight’ men to hide away homosexual urges (or paint over them as coming under the remit of exclusive heterosexuality). This might seem to be helping ‘destroy the labels’ but in reality it’s allowing both straight men to hide away from properly exploring their sexuality and is making being ‘gay’ a matter of pure self-identification.

We now live in a world where you can have sex with men, but still say you are exclusively straight, because you are just bros. What, then, is the difference between straight and bi? It’s just a way to allow ‘straight’ men to hide away from their self-perceived shame of desiring other men and we are not only allowing this to happen, but seemingly actively encouraging it. With this clash of definitions hanging over these apps, it continues to enforce itself as unethical and problematic.

The concept of Grindr, and other male dating or hook-up apps, are theoretically unethical. While not necessarily demeaning the value of sex as others have suggested, they demean the value of love, affect modern perceptions of homosexuality, can be seen to dehumanise homosexual men and have led to pertinent problems in how we define homosexuality. But this, for many, will not be enough. Theory is good, but surely it’s OK in practice? What really is so wrong about Grindr “in the real world”? That is left to be seen.

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