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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.