Grindr has trans­formed gay life, but is it for the better?

Grindr has been championed as a cure for gay loneliness and a symbol of sexual liberation. In its 10th year, Tom Faber weighs in on the app that transformed the landscape of gay sex and dating.

On a cold Jan­u­ary morn­ing I woke up to find my boil­er had bro­ken. There was no hot water or heat­ing, and it didn’t seem wise to leave my bed. I start­ed flick­ing through my phone and almost uncon­scious­ly float­ed onto Grindr. There I found a cute guy, 200 metres away, who sym­pa­thised with my boil­er woes. He invit­ed me over to take a show­er at his place. Though I was dubi­ous whether a show­er was real­ly all he was offer­ing, I decid­ed to go. We chat­ted, I took my show­er, and I left. That was it. It wasn’t the begin­ning of a beau­ti­ful rela­tion­ship or a three-day chem­sex ben­der. It was one of the infi­nite shades between, facil­i­tat­ed by the spon­tane­ity of Grindr and the kind­ness of a stranger.

Grindr has been cham­pi­oned as a cure for gay lone­li­ness and a sym­bol of sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion. Yet many users know that it can also feel like a curse.”

If I had to describe my rela­tion­ship with Grindr, I’d say it’s com­pli­cat­ed. In March the app turned ten, and in that decade it has trans­formed the land­scape of gay sex and dat­ing. It is the largest queer social net­work in the world, with around four mil­lion dai­ly users in 200 coun­tries. Online dat­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for LGBT peo­ple: a 2019 study by Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty showed 65% met a recent part­ner online, com­pared to 39% for straight peo­ple. Grindr has been cham­pi­oned as a cure for gay lone­li­ness and a sym­bol of sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion. Yet many users know that it can also feel like a curse.

The app was launched in March 2009, and with­in a few months Stephen Fry was show­ing it to a curi­ous Jere­my Clark­son on Top Gear. Down­loads of Grindr increased ten­fold overnight. It used the iPhone’s geolo­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy to become the first dat­ing app that could find match­es based on prox­im­i­ty, paving the way for Tin­der and Bum­ble years lat­er. It was like a real-life gay­dar, which could reveal queer peo­ple in a social envi­ron­ment where they may still feel com­pelled to hide them­selves. It became a mag­ic lens for us to find each other.

There are many pos­si­ble uses for Grindr: mak­ing friends, look­ing for rela­tion­ships, find­ing pho­tog­ra­phy sub­jects – but most­ly it’s about sex. Rather than hav­ing to match with some­one to speak to them, you sim­ply see a grid of the near­est avail­able men, how far away they are, and whether they are online now. No oth­er pop­u­lar dat­ing app is so delib­er­ate­ly stream­lined towards meet­ing imme­di­ate­ly. It both dero­man­ti­cis­es and des­tig­ma­tis­es casu­al sex: you can vet peo­ple before you meet them and find peo­ple who share your spe­cif­ic kink with­out judge­ment. If you’re not too picky, you could load up Grindr in any big city and be get­ting laid in 20 min­utes. For some gay men, it’s the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of cruis­ing in a pub­lic toi­let, and you’re less like­ly to get arrested.

Yet, as with all social media, it is addic­tive. You keep check­ing in case you got a new mes­sage, an urge mag­ni­fied by con­stant, low-lev­el arousal. Noth­ing holds your atten­tion like the poten­tial for great sex at any moment. The unpre­dictable tim­ing of this reward is key to the app’s addic­tive­ness, work­ing by a psy­cho­log­i­cal prin­ci­ple known as vari­able ratio rein­force­ment, which is also what makes slot machines addic­tive. When tech non­prof­it Cen­ter for Human Tech­nol­o­gy sur­veyed 200,000 iPhone users, it found Grindr was the app that made its users most unhap­py, fol­lowed by Can­dy Crush Saga and Facebook.

While some view tech­nol­o­gy as neu­tral, nei­ther good nor bad, an application’s archi­tec­ture facil­i­tates cer­tain behav­iours. In dat­ing apps, these may be ques­tion­able: pro­mot­ing super­fi­cial­i­ty, or encour­ag­ing users to spend more time on the app, rather than actu­al­ly meet­ing in real life. Grindr in par­tic­u­lar encour­ages the view of sex as pure­ly trans­ac­tion­al: an exchange of sen­sa­tions and flu­ids, with all para­me­ters agreed before­hand. I’ve chat­ted to guys late at night who offered to order me an Uber to their place, as if I was a meal on Deliveroo. 

Grindr timeline*

  • MARCH 2009 — App launch­es under the name Near­by Bud­dy Finder’.
  • 2016 — Chi­nese gam­ing com­pa­ny Bei­jing Kun­lun buys 60% stake in Grindr, pur­chas­ing the rest in 2018.
  • MARCH 2017 — Grindr intro­duces 500 cus­tom gay­mo­jis’, includ­ing an aubergine with a pierc­ing and a cap­i­tal T which was removed the day after launch, because it was used as code for Tina, aka crys­tal meth.
  • MAY 2017 — Intro­duc­tion of taps’, a way to send a word­less expres­sion of inter­est in some­one, like a Face­book poke.
  • NOVEM­BER 2017 — New pro­file space for gen­der and pre­ferred pro­noun make the app more open for trans and gen­der non-con­form­ing users.
  • SEP­TEM­BER 2018 — The launch of #Kin­dr­Grindr, an anti-racism cam­paign that aims to ban users who are dis­crim­i­na­to­ry or offensive.
  • MARCH 2019 — Users able to upload more than one pho­to on their pro­file and speak to oth­er users in group chats.
  • MARCH 2019 — Kun­lun are told by a US gov­ern­ment secu­ri­ty pan­el that Chi­nese own­er­ship of the app con­sti­tutes a nation­al secu­ri­ty risk, and it must be sold.

* Some dates approximate

Between 2016 and 2017, more than 1000 men approached Matthew Her­rick unin­vit­ed, expect­ing to buy drugs or have vio­lent sex with him. They were invit­ed by his ex, who imper­son­at­ed Her­rick in an attempt to harass him. Her­rick asked Grindr to ban his ex from the app, but was ignored. He took Grindr to court, and lost – there are pow­er­ful laws in Amer­i­ca pro­tect­ing tech­nol­o­gy plat­forms from lia­bil­i­ty for the actions of their users. The ex was ulti­mate­ly arrest­ed in 2017, but the ques­tion remains whether Grindr could do more to pro­tect its users from harass­ment. Herrick’s is the most dra­mat­ic sto­ry of Grindr mis­use, but the app has also been used to orches­trate theft, rape, ser­i­al mur­der, and the appar­ent­ly delib­er­ate trans­mis­sion of HIV to unknow­ing part­ners. The blind trust users place in each oth­er, let­ting a stranger into their house in the mid­dle of the night, is astonishing.

Grindr’s defence in the Her­rick case was that it doesn’t ask for per­son­al details, mak­ing it hard to crack down on an indi­vid­ual user. This anonymi­ty allows flex­i­bil­i­ty and dis­cre­tion, but also means users don’t need to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for their behav­iour. Bul­ly­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion are com­mon. It is not unusu­al to see lines like No fats, no femmes, no blacks, no Asians” on pro­files. Worse prej­u­dice appears in pri­vate mes­sages, rang­ing from exo­ti­fi­ca­tion to vicious racism. Although the onus is part­ly on queer peo­ple to be nicer to each oth­er, Grindr attempt­ed to com­bat dis­crim­i­na­tion by launch­ing its Kin­dr” ini­tia­tive last year. Yet the cam­paign ulti­mate­ly felt cyn­i­cal, giv­en the app still allows users to fil­ter search­es accord­ing to body shape and ethnicity.

Grindr offers dis­trac­tion, a tem­po­rary balm for anx­i­ety and lone­li­ness, but I won­der if it might also pla­cate peo­ple, so they nev­er exam­ine why they feel those things in the first place.”

The stakes are high­er in coun­tries where queer peo­ple are per­se­cut­ed. I used to live in Egypt, where open­ing Grindr trig­gers a mes­sage in Ara­bic warn­ing users that the app is sur­veyed by under­cov­er police. There are no open spaces for the Egypt­ian LGBT com­mu­ni­ty to gath­er, so Grindr is a cru­cial plat­form for peo­ple to come to terms with their sex­u­al­i­ty. Yet it is also dan­ger­ous: police use the app to lure gay men into meet­ing them, then arrest them on the spot. Some are raped and tor­tured in prison, all because they went online to find oth­ers like them and feel less alone.

Giv­en its ubiq­ui­ty in mod­ern gay life, it’s sur­pris­ing more peo­ple haven’t inves­ti­gat­ed the effects of Grindr on men­tal health. Grindr offers dis­trac­tion, a tem­po­rary balm for anx­i­ety and lone­li­ness, but I won­der if it might also pla­cate peo­ple, so they nev­er exam­ine why they feel those things in the first place.

Deep in its archi­tec­ture, Grindr is queer. It doesn’t force you to iden­ti­fy your­self, pro­vide per­son­al infor­ma­tion, or push you towards monogamy like oth­er apps.”

Still, Grindr is today woven into the fab­ric of gay life, and this is unlike­ly to change. Many young queer peo­ple are hav­ing their first sex­u­al expe­ri­ences through the app. You learn to use Grindr just like you learn to be gay,” a friend told me. Like most Grindr users I know, I sup­pose I’m still learn­ing both. Like most, I’ve done things on Grindr that I regret. It can be hard to untan­gle whether my crit­i­cisms of Grindr are more fair­ly direct­ed at the app itself, or at the per­son I can become when I’m using it.

Deep in its archi­tec­ture, Grindr is queer. It doesn’t force you to iden­ti­fy your­self, pro­vide per­son­al infor­ma­tion, or push you towards monogamy like oth­er apps. Queer peo­ple need this open­ness and flex­i­bil­i­ty, because many of us don’t know what our lives are sup­posed to look like in 10 years time. We don’t share the het­ero­sex­u­al priv­i­lege of prece­dent, know­ing how our lives will prob­a­bly map out, from wed­dings to babies to mort­gages. This means if I still want to be on Grindr in a decade, I can be – God knows there are enough peo­ple online look­ing for dad­dies. I should be able to find what­ev­er I’m look­ing for there, whether it’s sex, love, or just a hot shower.

Grindr Lexicon 101 (London Edition)

  • HNH: High and horny. This per­son wants to take drugs while hav­ing sex. For­mer­ly PnP, par­ty and play”.
  • Chems: Drugs.
  • BB: Bare­back, sex with­out a condom.
  • 💎: Sym­bol used to indi­cate the user is an escort.
  • CD: Cross­dress­er.
  • T-girl: Gen­er­al­ly used to refer to a trans woman.
  • Masc4Masc: Slang indi­cat­ing the user is mas­cu­line-act­ing, and is look­ing for some­one sim­i­lar. This term has been blamed as part of anti-femme dis­crim­i­na­tion on the app.
  • What are you look­ing for?: One of the first ques­tions you get asked. The main answers are friends, dates or fun.
  • What are you into?: Anoth­er com­mon ques­tion. Open to inter­pre­ta­tion but gen­er­al­ly a ques­tion about sex­u­al pref­er­ences, whether that sim­ply be sex­u­al posi­tion or a detailed break­down of likes, dis­likes and kinks.

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