Toward a Sociology of “Grindr”

–Cross-posted on Social (In)Queery


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 which is clearly being marketed as a space for those looking for a gay digital space devoid of what are framed at as the less savory elements of Grindr culture.

A541245_214374312026457_1008125747_ns they put it, is “prettier and less sketchy.”  Organizing themselves around more than just Grindr’s “who, specifically around me is gay” approach, also tells users about where local “hot spots” are (locations with a critical mass of users).  So, while Grindr’s ploy has been to market the sheer volume of users it has, 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. (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.

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Mary McIntosh–Toward a Sociology of Sexuality

Capture1Mary McIntosh recently passed, and it allowed me to reflect on the significance of her work.  Her work is part of a small body of scholarship that quite literally created a sociology of sexuality.  It’s hard for scholars of my generation to fully appreciate the power of Mary McIntosh’s (1968) opening sentence in the abstract of her article, “The Homosexual Role.”

The current conceptualization of homosexuality as a condition is a false one, resulting from ethnocentric bias. (McIntosh 1968: 182)

Like many of the early attempts by both gender and sexuality scholars recognizing problems with a structural-functionalist approach, McIntosh operates inside of functionalist theory.  McIntosh wrote this essay during a time in which if homosexuality was taught at all in sociology courses, it appeared in courses on deviance.  McIntosh’s work was a small—but pivotal—example of the kinds of work that have helped to question it’s categorization as “deviant” in the first place.  Today, students are just as likely to deal with questions of same-sex desire and identity in sociology of families, courses on race and ethnicity, gender, identity, and inequalities more generally.  Sexuality is a topic that appears in introductory textbooks as well.

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Feminism as a Gendered Space — “Gendering Feminism”

Feminism isn’t really a space—but it’s certainly an ideological terrain of sorts.  It’s an identity people “adopt,” a stance people “take,” and insult people “hurl,” a set of theories people “cite,” a part of a movement people “join,” and more.  British suffragist Rebecca West famously stated: “Feminism is the radical notion than women are people.”  Feminism—to me—is the revolutionary idea that gender inequality exists, but that it doesn’t exist of necessity or inevitably.

In my research on men’s participation in marches dedicated to raising awareness about issues of violence against women (here), I came to think of feminism as a gendered space—as gendered ideological terrain.  Men’s adoption or support of “feminist” views or issues often seemed to be implicitly understood as a gender transgression.  This was all the more interesting, because, at the particular events I observed, men were required to transgress other gender boundaries as well—they dressed in drag.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®” marches require participants to walk one mile wearing “women’s” shoes—which are almost also understood as high heels.  The event is gender segregated by design: men walk, women watch.  Playing on the adage that to truly understand someone else’s experience requires walking a mile in her/his shoes, this event makes literal that which was perhaps never meant to be taken literally.  The movement-sponsored shoe is a 4-inch, red, patent leather, heel.  Men (not all, but some) at all of the marches I attended referred to these shoes as “stripper heels”).  Some men wear traditional masculine attire aside from the shoes (business suits, sports team uniforms, jeans and shirts, etc.).  But many men take the event as an opportunity to dress in drag.  And when these–primarily heterosexual–men dressed in drag, they often also performed stereotypes of women and gay men that seemed directly opposed to the message organizers sought to send with the event.  Although I did see examples of women (and less often men) uncomfortable with some of the men’s behaviors, the majority of marches and audience members laughed with and at them.

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Exodus International: Are Chambers’ Anti-Gay Politics Changing?

Exodus International is one of the most powerful forces in the ex-gay movement–a movement aimed at “healing” homosexuals through Christian doctrine, prayer, and “therapy.”*  Similar to the ways that certain groups of Christians promoted teaching “intelligent design” in schools alongside the theory of evolution, parts of the Christian Right have used the claim that homosexuality is not innate to contest legal protections for lesbians and gay men.  The ex-gay movement goes a step further, however, and argues that if homosexuality is not innate then what’s stopping people from ridding themselves of “it.”  Through prayer, ex-gay camps, and therapies designed to “help” gay men and lesbian women (through “sexual reorientation”) lead “normal,” “healthy,” heterosexual  lives, Exodus International–and the many movements with similar tactics and tenets–is a group that has long sought the “cure” to homosexuality through “reparative therapy.”  This is significant, as Robinson and Spivey (2007) note, as “Today, nearly every major Christian Right organization uses the existence of ex-gays to argue that homosexuals can change.  This notion is fundamental to their argument that unlike legal protections based on immutable traits such as race or sex, those based on sexual orientation are unnecessary” (here: 651).

The president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, recently publicly challenged some of Exodus’ core practices, including questioning whether “sexual orientation change” is truly helpful or even possible (see here for the NYT summary of the alleged “rift in the movement”).  Chambers has been spokesperson for the group as well as president and stated that despite leaving a gay life to marry a woman and have children, he still struggles to “avoid sin,” but also believes that he—and others like him—should not be made afraid to admit this.  In earlier interviews, Chambers had been increasingly hesitant to make a claim surrounding the success of conversion therapies.  Part of this has led Chambers to reject the previous Exodus slogan, “Change is Possible!” (see here for a long panel discussion addressing this among other issues).**

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Laud Humphreys’ Discussion of Space in “Tearoom Trade”

Re-reading Laud HumphreysTearoom Trade (1970), I was reminded of his wonderful analysis of sexuality and space. For those unfamiliar with the study, Humphreys studied sex between men in public park restrooms. He was interested in how these interactions occurred and who was involved. His results were astounding. He found that a large percentage of the men participating were married, many were religious (mostly Catholic), a large percentage were either in the military or veterans, and–perhaps most interestingly of all–a large majority of the men that did not identify as gay were socially and politically conservative. In fact, Humphreys found that only 14% of the men in his study could be said to be a “typical” gay man. Most of them, in fact, were not gay (meaning they did not identify as gay). Rather, these were heterosexual men who sometimes (and for many of them often) had homosexual encounters in public restrooms.

Humphreys’ work is regrettably most commonly discussed as an example of unethical research (see here and here for notable exceptions). He went undercover studying this practice, serving as a lookout (or “watch queen”) for police or anyone else who might pose a threat to the men involved. During his research, he also recorded the license plate numbers of participants’ cars and used public records to obtain names and addresses. A year following his research, he interviewed about 50 of the men under the guise of a survey study on mental health. The ethics of the research have been a hot topic in research methods courses since the 70s. Focusing solely on whether or not Humphreys’ research was “ethical” or not, however, sidesteps a conversation about what he actually found and why his research was so important.

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Glitter-Bombing: Tactical Frivolity or a Frivolous Tactic?

Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery

The first time I remember glitter being used as an educational tool, I was in elementary school.  All of the first through third graders were gathered in the auditorium.  At the front of the room, an adult shouted for everyone to be quiet.  She reached into a paper bag and pulled out a handful of gold glitter and asked for a volunteer.  My hand shot up immediately.  But she chose someone else.  Asked if we liked glitter, we all screamed “YES!” in unison, and then she said, “Well not today!”  I like to think that there was a dramatic pause here as we all gasped, but that may be how I like to remember the story.  She let the glitter sprinkle back into the bag, but her hand was still covered.  She asked the boy who volunteered to shake her hand and so he did.  Then she got all of us up and asked us to walk around the room shaking hands with people.  As you might expect, this got rowdy (as random handshaking parties are wont to do) and she stopped us all after five minutes or so.  “Raise your hand if it has glitter on it,” she said.  Almost all of us raised our hands.  Then we all sat down and she talked at length about germs and diseases and the importance of basic hygiene.  I think it was a lesson about health and hygiene generally, but I now like to think that it was sex education in disguise, and that the “handshake” was a metaphor.  Either way, I will say this: I sometimes think about the exercise when I wash my hands (and when I don’t).  If you’ve never had glitter all over you, take it from me, it doesn’t come off after the first wash.

The educational properties of glitter have been put to other uses more recently as well.  Glitter-bombing has become a phenomenon across the nation as a way of peacefully and playfully protesting political pundits and candidates that support a particular constellation of anti-gay agendas.  Glitter-bombing is  a new form of protest that’s been directed at virtually all of the GOP candidates for this presidential race.  The sentiment dates back to when the former-Miss-Oklahoma-turned-anti-gay-rights-activist, Anita Bryant, had a pie thrown in her face at a press conference.

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