Toward a Sociology of “Grindr”

–Cross-posted on Social (In)Queery

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Apps like Grindr have really changed the ways gay men can interact in public.  I’ve heard Grindr described in different ways, but it—and apps like it—are often talked about as “gay GPS.”  They’ll tell you, based on your current location, who in your vicinity is also on the App.  As with Myspace, Facebook and other social networking sites, Grindr became popular among a diverse group of gay, bi, and curious men, prompting some groups to remain, while others migrate to different digital spaces.  The most recent I saw marketed is Distinc.tt which is clearly being marketed as a space for those looking for a gay digital space devoid of what are framed at Distinc.tt as the less savory elements of Grindr culture.

A541245_214374312026457_1008125747_ns they put it, Distinc.tt is “prettier and less sketchy.”  Organizing themselves around more than just Grindr’s “who, specifically around me is gay” approach, Distinc.tt also tells users about where local “hot spots” are (locations with a critical mass of Distinc.tt users).  So, while Grindr’s ploy has been to market the sheer volume of users it has, Distinc.tt is framed in a way that suggests fewer users–a smaller, elite collection of the “right” kind of gay men.

How these apps are marketed (i.e., who they’re “intended to be used by,” who they’re hoping to dissuade from use, and precisely what the app states as it’s intended use) illustrates racialized, classed, and gender-presentational tensions and dynamics at work in organizing gay men’s public erotic lives.  Distinc.tt (left) doesn’t state this explicitly, but it seems intended to be used by a more economically and culturally elite group of (primarily) white, young, gay men.  Conversely, Grindr (right) is presented as more of a free-for-all of younger gay men of all different races and classes.

Adam Isaiah Green’s theorization of sexual fields and erotic capital is a great analytical tool to discuss these social spaces that occupy that fuzzy terrain between the digital and physical.  “Sexual fields” refer to spaces within which a specific set of “erotic capital” are understood to have purchase.  Green defines erotic capital in this way: “the quality and quantity of attributes that an individual possesses, which elicit an erotic response in another” (here: 29).  So, a constellation of physical, emotional, sensual, and aesthetic elements of identity are at play in this definition.  Yet, like Bourdieu’s conceptualization of cultural capital—and similar to my theorization of gender capital—how much erotic capital one has depends on the field one occupies.  Green conceptualizes sexual fields—within Bourdieu’s theoretical framing of “fields”—as “semiautonomous arenas” (here: 26).  By this he is arguing that they are the social spaces defined by the erotic capital understood to have purchase.

220px-Stonewall_Inn_1969So, gay bars organized around sexual fields make sense because they provide physical locations within which one can be reasonably aware of one’s relative desirability.  Thus, sexual fields are best thought of as “semiautonomous” because they are organized by the erotic capital of individuals within them.  So, within Green’s framework, a bar that caters to different groups of clientele that exalt, seek out, and perceive erotic capital in different ways at different times of the day can be understood as a different sexual field depending upon what time you happen to show up.

Some social spaces are primarily organized by an erotic capital everyone recognizes, while many spaces we occupy involve overlapping sexual fields whose erotic capital might be dramatically at odds.  In effect, Grindr clumps “gay men” together as a homogenous group, asking those who join to digitally join a single sexual field.  Yet, designers neglect to recognize here that gay men are not all a part of one single, homogeneous sexual field—as Green’s research shows.

Sexual fields are organized hierarchically, with what Green refers to as “tiers of desirability.”  The higher in the hierarchy you are, the more power you have over sexual status and contact.  Yet, Grindr ignores this, clumping together anyone willing to sign up.  It is primarily for this reason that competing apps have emerged in the market—as a way to digitize sexual fields that select groups of gay men might want to occupy.  And, just as significantly, their creation illustrates a desire to digitally segregate themselves from “other” groups.  Grindr allows some of this as well, yet users have to be a bit more proactive—and the interface subtly suggests that erotic capital is almost solely organized around physical attractiveness.  Surely, this is a significant factor, but sexual fields exist in which interest in and proficiency with certain kinds of sexual acts can function as a reliable source of erotic capital (e.g., “cuddling” in Bear culture and a variety of acts and interests in leather culture).

The few scholars I’ve talked with or heard talk about Grindr who are interested in not only the fact that gay men are using it, but also how they are using it.  The ability to “block” certain people (making oneself digitally invisible to others) allows users the ability to digitally screen a social venue for interactions one might like to avoid.  But, in some ways, it exacerbates existing systems of inequality, and forces people to acknowledge the various “-isms” that structure sexual fields: racism, ableism, athleticism, classism (so far as this is made visible), etc.  More than one scholar I’ve talked to have mentioned the ways that some (primarily white) men make use of the app involves selectively “blocking” anyone not white from interaction when entering a given venue.  In some ways, apps like Distinc.tt could be seen as stepping in to potentially help gay men avoid the self-evaluation that might accompany ritualistically “blocking” non-white people.

It’s also of interest to sociologists because social networking like this is—technically—publicly available “data,” from a social scientific perspective.  But, should there be some kind of checks and balances on scholars attempting to use apps like this to study groups of gay men?  Or, are some ways of using the app okay, while others might be breaching people’s trust and sense of relative anonymity and security on the app?

Apps like Grindr and Distinc.tt allow gay men to locate one another in space–digitally removing the necessity of things like “gaydar” in some social spaces.  Men can send each other messages, “block” others from seeing or contacting them, and digitally interact before they decide whether or not and how to physically or emotionally interact.  But they also seem to rely on a superficial understanding of all that Green shows is at stake in erotic capital—forcing users to use physical appearance as the only source of erotic capital, or at the very least as a proxy for other forms.  This is not to deny that physique plays a critical (perhaps the critical) role in structuring many sexual fields, but to highlight the fact that reducing erotic capital to physical appearance might take an unacknowledged digital toll on the social organization of intimate life.

8 thoughts on “Toward a Sociology of “Grindr”

  1. I think you kind of touched upon this, but I think it deserves greater emphasis. You describe Grindr as kind of a digital gaydar that has a wide variety of people in it and then describe some of the other competing apps as trying to cater to certain crowds while excluding others.

    And your example is that there are some people who are looking only to meet white people and instead of purposefully excluding people of color on Grindr, they might be inclined to use another app that caters primarily to white guys.

    But I think your analysis mostly ignores the fact that Grindr itself has its own market and reputation. It’s not simply a free-for-all. Admittedly, I’ve never used it, but the app definitely has a reputation as being a hook-up app (more so than a digital gaydar). And I hear a lot about head-less profiles and stuff like that.

    • Thanks for writing. You’re absolutely right. I did ignore the reputation of the apps themselves. It’s not an actual research project I’m working on. Rather, I was offering some thoughts on how to think about Grindr sociologically. But, I think you’re right. New apps are emerging for multiple reasons, and part of it is to find more than “hooking up.” Distinc.tt appears to be offering something more. The “hot spot” aspect I discussed, for instance, is less about finding specific individuals and looking more for friendly venues. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s worth examining.

  2. right on the money! these sorts of apps are not even about “social networking” in the sense of a facebook or such. they are straightforwardly designed to afford the furtive fulfillment of all manner of sexual desires, and encourage disloyalty – remember, however, that in the gay male universe, there is that normative segregation of “love” from “sex”, and such apps reinforce this norm (we all feel all manner of hierarchically placed desire for different kinds of bodies besides those of our primary partners, who are ideally at the apex of our personal value order, so the social logic is that we need places to fulfill those desires in this Culture of Desire). i can say that and believe still that people shouldn’t ignore their sexual selves🙂

    • Thank for reading, Ricky. I also think there’s a danger in characterizing the entire gay male community as though they are one homogeneous group. You may be right about the uses of Grindr, but arguing that this is somehow intrinsically characteristic of all that is “gay” is part of the problem I wanted to address here.

  3. Whether it is “white young gay men” or just “young gay men”, both apps exclude those who are not young. This seems to have escaped your scrutiny.

  4. T: My sense is that some gay grindr-like apps are more conducive to creating tiers of desirability than others. For instance “Growlr” offers the user a set of subpages, including profiles receiving the most views, and a page listing the “hottest” members. Members viewing these pages get a very clear sense of what counts in the game and what doesn’t –i.e., the reigning structure of desire. While grindr doesn’t have these features, to my knowledge, it nevertheless provides just enough space for a user to express his sexual preferences in terms of what he is attracted to, and this can produce a sense of one’s place in the field among those viewing profiles (and thinking, hmm…do I measure up?). As well, users begin to discern a sexual status order via response rate to the messages they send others. Anyhow, to the extent that grindr and, even more so, Growlr, are sites where interactions are nearly solely organized by one’s photos, so this new digital universe encourages an ever-more reflexive approach to self-presentation. For better and worse. Anyhow, thanks for your posting. -Adam Isaiah Green

    • Thanks for writing, Adam. I agree. I think the apps dedicated to specific groups have more defined tiers of desirability. But, I also think that apps intended for a broad-based audience end up creating tiers of desirability – or being used in different ways by different groups. So, while Growlr and DistincTT are up from with their ranking system (sort of), Grindr ends up reproducing a sexual field digitally. It would be interesting to get data on when and around whom different groups get “blocked” by users as well as interview data on how people use the app in ways that structure sexual fields. Thanks so much for reading. I love your work. Best, Tristan

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