A year ago, Michael Hobbes’s diatribe on gay loneliness became ubiquitous on gay social media. Hobbes’s baleful account of gay life—in the tradition of Larry Kramer and Alan Downs—unsettled many of my queer peers who struggled to articulate why; in turn, they asked my thoughts as a sociologist well versed in queer theory and as a researcher on same-sex marriage, families, and relationships. Fortunately, Ben Miller at Slatewrote a remarkable rejoinder to Hobbes that I shared with them. Fresh on the heels of the anniversary of Hobbes’ denunciation of gay culture, my social media feed is inundated with yet another jeremiad against gay culture under the guise of concern for gay men’s wellbeing. In his new philippic, psychiatrist Jack Turban focuses his reproach on a central part of modern gay life—the GPS-based, social networking application, Grindr.
Turban’s intentions seem benevolent: he provides context for mental health professionals treating gay men struggling with depression or worried that their normal functioning is impeded by overuse of applications like Grindr. Unfortunately, Turban’s understanding of Grindr, queer history, and queer sex culture is as shallow as the hookups he frets over. Ironically, Turban’s ideologically driven misuse of data replicates the sort of heteronormative moral panics historically facing the queer community and furthers a problematic sexual discourse underpinning the very harm he is ostensibly seeking to treat. As a mobile application, Grindr falls under the current hysteria surrounding our “digital attention crisis,” but Turban fails on every level to persuade us that Grindr and its functionally are any different from any other moment of sex panic in queer history.
Turban asserts there is a paucity of published literature on Grindr; however, a cursory 20-minute search of an academic database returned over thirty peer-reviewed studies specifically on Grindr (roughly divided into three themes: cultural affects, sexual health, and relationship with mental health). While Grindr (and Scruff, Jack’d, Tinder, et al.) may be newer technology, it is certainly not divorced from its technological predecessors (e.g., from the extinct Gay.com and Craigslist Personals, to the extant Manhunt, OkCupid and other online personals pages—many of which developed mobile platforms); expanding search terms to include these online precursors returns a richer literature. Turban ignores a thriving literature on queer history and sex, including bathhouse culture–whose absence is notable given his repeated disparaging references to Grindr as a “digital bathhouse.” By ignoring these other literatures, Turban is unable to place Grindr within a larger social context, nor to fully appreciate the complexity of queer sexual practices.
“I decided to conduct an informal survey…”: Poor methodology, slippery slopes, and misleading data.
Bypassing the extant literature, Turban engages in an “informal study” of Grindr users that would struggle to find approval from the most forgiving Institutional Review Board (IRB), and would not pass muster under peer review. Nevertheless, he draws on his “informal study” of 50 Grindr users (including an unknown number who propositioned him) and draws damning conclusions of Grindr and mental health from it. He indicates over half of his respondents used Grindr for sex, but he never specifies how many of those participants were those who solicited his profile, nor if they answered any follow-up questions. He mentions that some men (again, we are never told how many) did not find Grindr negatively impacted their life, but their stories are never explored. Instead he focuses on three negative cases: one man who regrets seeking serial hook-ups, a 23-year-old struggling to find relationships, and a man consistently cheating on his partners. While case studies and ideal types are not unheard of in social research, the lack of discussion of participant selection, representativeness, study timeline, interview questions, and other methodological details should give any serious reader pause. Even for an informal study, Turban rests on his authority as a gay psychiatrist who studies gender and sexuality, but this is insufficient to draw valid conclusions.
Turban starts his series of suspect syllogisms to suggest the service is a Pavlovian sexual slot machine. Distilled to its core, the argument runs: (A) Orgasms create pleasurable feelings akin to cocaine and heroin. (B) Some men use Grindr to find sex partners and ostensibly achieve orgasm with variable success. (C) Consequently, Grindr is addictive like drugs and gambling. To say that this conclusion beggars belief is an understatement, yet it is merely the first of such problematic linkages in his piece. Perhaps because Turban is not using Grindr to find a hook-up he has an unrealistic understanding of how easy it might be to find sex on the application. Here too, Turban’s reliance on his informal metrics rather than the literature on Grindr usage leads to faulty conclusions. Turban’s juxtaposition of Grindr with other studies implies that Grindr is akin to gambling and hard drugs and is further responsible for depression, suicide, sexual degeneracy, and is the greatest stumbling block for gay relationships since the passage of DOMA.
Perhaps the most troubling insinuation in Turban’s piece is his implication that Grindr kills. He notes that suicide is presently a greater cause of death amongst gay men than HIV/AIDS. He also notes that Grindr users are most likely to report unhappiness after using the application. Since depression is a major factor in suicidality, the implication is that Grindr is the cause for suicides prevalence in the gay community. Yet studies on suicide rates for LGBT people indicate that it is largely linked to homophobia. Indeed, the fact that fatality from suicide is greater than HIV/AIDS is a bit of a double-edged sword: suicide rates have remained largely unchanged, but advances in treatment and prevention for HIV lowered HIV/AIDS fatalities. This lack of context would make even introductory social science students cite the maxim “correlation does not imply causation.”
Even the fact that Grindr is the top application in unhappiness of users ignores the fact that nine of the top 15 applications for user dissatisfaction are social applications like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, while the other six are games like Candy Crush and Subway Surf. Rather than concluding that social media applications of all kinds produce dissatisfaction, Turban’s narrow focus on Grindr reinforces the discourse that gay men are supposed to attach shame to sexual promiscuity. Those applications where users indicate happiness are all solitary in nature: productivity (e.g., Calendar and Evernote), media (e.g., Podcasts and Spotify), or meditative (e.g., Headspace and Insight Timer), with Kindle being the only application that sees as much average usage (26 minutes per day) as any of the unhappiness applications. It seems, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people and level 97 of Candy Crush Saga.”
“I am all for sexual liberation, but…”: Moral panics, technology, and sexuality
Turban’s methods are problematic, but the conclusions he draws from his study fits in a broader context of moral panics. This concept has been adapted to many cases, but in 1973 sociologist Stanley Cohen developed the concept in relation to Mods and Rockers as follows:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. (1) A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; (2) its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; (3) the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; (4) socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; (5) ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; (6) the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.
Grindr evokes the same moral panics sociologist studied for decades surrounding changes in intimacy. These sex panics are an omnipresent part of social discourse; we see similar sex panics in regard to sex education, same-sex marriage, and the fight over trans people in bathrooms. For over a century, nearly every change in relationships and sex was met with apprehension. Each shift involved moral handwringing and claims that changes would bring dire consequences. Though we now take the idea that relationships are built on love for granted, this idea was seen as dangerously unseating the traditional patriarchal family unit. Just as Trump’s rallying cry to “make America great again” assumes a moment where the U.S. was universally great, these claims about a golden age of relationships fail to note that such an era never really existed.
Changes in media and technology tend to evoke the same moral panics as changes in intimacy, framing Grindr as a source of double panic. The introduction of the bicycle was met with claims that giving women free mobility would lead to “weakness of mind, general lunacy, [and] homicidal mania.” The newspaper demonstrated the failure of the social contract as husbands ignored their families to read the paper at breakfast. From comic books to video games and etc., each change brought a moral panic concerning the “youth today.” Today, new invectives against our reliance on mobile phones are published regularly.
Focusing on moral panics, we miss the role Grindr serves in the gay community. While Turban claims the majority of his respondents were using Grindr to hook up, other studies have shown that killing time or social interaction are more likely to be listed than sex. For the last two decades, technology served as an incredible driving force in gay life. The gay community exists as an imagined community, and its members may not be easily identifiable. It can be difficult to find fellow gay men to form friendship groups, let alone relationships. Where the local gay bar or bathhouse provided a safe space to meet fellow queers, GPS applications increasingly perform the same function–and for rural users this allows them an equal opportunity where they may have lacked a gay bar. Frequent Grindr users at home recognize their neighbors, regardless of whether they chat with them on the application. When I pass fellow Grindr users at the grocery store, we nod in acknowledgement of our shared queer world. Grindr makes the invisible visible. When groups of gay friends gather they discuss Grindr experiences, positive and negative: they laugh, commiserate, and compare notes. These virtual liaisons shape real life experience of the gay community. Discussions of Grindr merely as a sex app that leads to depression undermines the broader role of Grindr in the community.
“Do you think you can’t attain love, so you’re settling for hookups?”: The heteronormativity of sexology.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, gays and lesbians have fought to redefine what intimate relationships and families look like. Ties to feminism and sexual liberation coupled with exclusion from the normative family meant that they were freed to experiment and find new ways to live their lives. By the tail end of the AIDS crisis, gay politics took what cultural scholar Lisa Duggan refers to as a homonormative turn. Homonormative politics upheld neoliberal ideology and sought to exclude more radical formulations of sex: non-monogamous relationships and sex à la carte were out; marriage, mortgage and minivans were in.
Paradoxically, as the gay movement became more conservative, and gay relationships became more accepted, the titivating nature of gay sex became less taboo. As the old advertising axiom goes, “sex sells.” Consequently, we see many voyeuristic examinations of the sex lives of gay men on Grindr that fail to take into account the privacy and safety of those involved. It’s in this context that Turban recreates the problem facing sexologists over the last century. Rather than examine how we can support patients through alternatives to heteronormativity and the “need” for a relationship or strategies for healthy open and honest relationships, instead we have the anxiety of a 23-year-old that he’s not in a relationship. Despite the fact that the average age of marriage for men in Massachusetts (where he conducted his study) is 30.5, the focus is not enjoying his 20s, but rather the failure to meet social pressure to be in a relationship. Unfortunately for gay men who may wish to discuss their experiences on Grindr with mental health professionals, articles that take this stance mean their experience is more likely to be met with alarm and judgement than sympathy and understanding. And that in turn may lead to treatment programs that focus on things like avoidance, which reinforces the linkage between Grindr and shame, or the “hormonal implants” (effectively chemical castration) that Turban approvingly cites.
In the end, none of this is to argue that Grindr is perfect; far from it. In addition to their recent privacy scandal, internalized homophobia, hegemonic masculinity, and racism of its users are well documented. There is some debate as to whether Grindr’s anonymity emboldens these attitudes but reports from members of the queer community seem to indicate this is more a reflection of community values laid bare, not a consequence of Grindr. The trope that non-heteronormative sex found online is inherently damaging to the gay community is clichéd. And in the hands of unsympathetic mental health professionals or medical writers, impressionable youth might end up exacerbating their sexual ambivalence as they are told that being on Grindr is bad for them, and they are bad for being there.
Sociologist Janice Irvine adroitly summarizes the problems that sexologists face, problems which Turban’s piece does not escape or mitigate: “Sexologists became the new moral entrepreneurs of sex, under the pretense of scientific objectivity drawing boundaries between healthy and unhealthy, good and bad sex. They present socially constructed sexual knowledge as unyielding truths and culturally specific sexual meanings as universal facts. The invention of new sexual categories and identities, disorders and dysfunctions, treatments and cures serves to regulate sex, produce sexuality, and govern the modern self.” Maybe it’s time we start listening to queer voices rather than those alarmists who uphold the moral status quo.
Ben A. Johnson (@benajohnson) is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he also received his MA in sociology. His research areas include, culture, gender & sexuality, queer theory, and the family.