[FoRK] Grindr: a new sexual revolution?

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Sun Jul 4 10:26:59 PDT 2010


Grindr: a new sexual revolution?

Grindr is a free phone app which lets gay men instantly pinpoint each other
using GPS technology. It has already transformed the sex lives of 700,000 men
around the world. But could it work in the straight market? And would it mean
the end of monogamy?

o Polly Vernon
o The Observer, Sunday 4 July 2010

Ever heard of Grindr? If you have, I'm going to guess that you are male and
gay; or male, technically straight and somewhat curious; or the straight
friend of a gay man. If not, allow me to enlighten you.

Grindr (pronounced "grinder") is a free downloadable iPhone app which, it
promises, will help you "Find gay, bi, curious guys for free near you!"
Grindr harnesses GPS, allowing you to establish who else in your direct
vicinity is also using Grindr. It shows you – on a gridded display – who
these men are and what they look like; it'll tell you how far away from you
(in feet, and even more thrillingly, fractions of feet) they are standing;
and it will allow you to "chat" them, if they take your fancy. Although
buried deep in the Grindr ethos is the idea that you shouldn't do in
cyberspace what you could be easily be doing in person. Don't "chat" when you
could actually, you know, chat.

Grinding is an intoxicating experience. I was first introduced to it on the
roof terrace of a bar in east London by my friends J and W. J launched the
app on his iPhone and I got palpitations as the grid of portraits (ordered in
terms of geographical proximity – your nearest Grindr user is posted at the
top left) instantly unfurled itself across the screen. All these men,
effectively coming on to – well, not me, but still… It is literally a sexy
app and the overflow of that sexual potency, the decadence, sweeps you along
on a wave of lust, regardless of who you are and what your gender or sexual
orientation might be. I was reminded of the first time I entered words into
the search criteria on Google, of the first time I downloaded music from
iTunes – I knew I was engaging with a bit of technology that would alter
things on a profound level.

I scrolled on and on through the grid of gay offerings, furtively trying to
match the pixelated images with the real-life men ranged around me in the

"But do you want to know the funny thing?" J said. "The best nights you can
have on Grindr are the nights when you stay in." And he laughed, wickedly.

Grindr is reconfiguring the landscape of human relationships. Partly because
it's sex in an app, the sexual equivalent of ordering take-away, or online
fashion (my friend Kevin calls it "net-a-port-gay.com", and he's so pleased
with himself for this he says I can use his real name. Everyone else asked to
remain anonymous). Grindr was launched on 25 March 2009; now more than
700,000 (and counting) men in 162 countries around the world are using it to
phenomenal effect, if J, W, Kevin and the other gay men I've asked are any
kind of a guide. "I've never, ever had so much sex in my life!" R told me
gleefully. "I've probably had as much in the past eight months of Grinding as
I have over the 20 years since I came out. Maybe more." It's only going to
get bigger, to facilitate more sex. Two thousand people download it every
day, and a BlackBerry-friendly version of the app launched less than a month
ago – a development which could triple Grindr's reach.

But Grindr is more significant even than that suggests. It marks a major
evolution in how all of us – gay, straight, alive – will meet and interact
with each other. Depending on who you talk to, this is either brilliant
(liberating, socially enabling – the end, even, of loneliness and boredom);
or a potential disaster (signalling the end of monogamy, facilitating sex
addiction). Either way, it matters.

Arguably we are living in a post-gay era. The divide between gay and straight
worlds diminishes daily. Gay culture and straight culture become increasingly
intertwined. For example, Grindr's biggest boost occurred in June 2009, after
gay icon Stephen Fry told the boorishly straight Jeremy Clarkson all about it
during an interview on super-hetero TV show Top Gear.

So Grindr would matter even if it was not in the process of developing a
straight version of its sexy self. But it is. It is likely that the Grindr
experience will be open to a straight market by the end of 2010.

"Oh, at the very latest," says Joel Simkhai, the founder of Grindr. He's a
wiry, neatly handsome 33-year-old man with an American accent, a hectic
manner and a sharp business edge. I meet him for coffee in a chic hotel in
London. This is where he's basing himself while he checks out Grindr's
flourishing UK market; he usually lives in Los Angeles. "The UK is the second
biggest country for Grindr after the US," he tells me. "London is the third
biggest city after New York and LA. You love us."

Simkhai was born in Tel Aviv and he and his parents moved to New York
("State, not the city") when he was three. He came out in his mid-teens "just
as AOL was taking off. I was born – gay-born – with online. And that was a
huge help to me in terms of meeting people – people who unfortunately were a
ways away in Wyoming or wherever – but still, I was meeting people who were
gay and who weren't freaks." But Simkhai says he still felt isolated as a
young gay teenager. He found himself asking: "The question. I think every gay
man starts asking it, from the moment he realises he's gay. You are somewhere
and it's: 'Who else here, right now, is gay? Who?' You are looking around,
you are constantly wondering. Because coming out is a lonely process."


"Yes! Very much so! And every gay man who asks himself that question also
thinks: 'Wouldn't it be good if there was some way for me to tell? Some way
for me to know?' Every gay man has had the idea for Grindr."

Nearly two decades later, after Simkhai had finished a degree in
international relations and economics and worked for some years in finance,
Apple launched its second-generation iPhone. "It was almost as if someone was
handing Grindr to me on a silver platter. The first iPhone didn't have GPS,
and it only had about eight apps. They were all Apple apps, too – you
couldn't develop your own. It really wasn't that great a device. But in the
same announcement of the second-generation phone, they said: 'This phone will
have GPS and now you can create apps!' I was like: 'Wait a minute! I know an
app I want to do!'" 

Did he have a complete notion of what he wanted from Grindr? How it would
work, what it would look like, what sort of commotion it would create?

"Ha! No. My notion was use GPS, see who else is near. Simple as that."

In August 2008, Simkhai contacted Morten Bek Ditlevsen, an app developer
based in Denmark. "He had a passion for GPS, just as I did. He's straight,
but he liked the idea; he had a full-time job, but he said: 'Yeah, I'll do
this as a hobby.' Didn't ask for much money."

Simkhai brought another friend, "Scott Lewallen, an expert in branding,
marketing and design", into the fold. Both still work on Grindr. It took
Simkhai, Bek Ditlevsen and Lewallen six months and $5,000 to build Grindr.

About the name: where did it come from?

"Nowhere specific. We liked the word. We liked the notion of a coffee
grinder, mixing things together… And there's the term 'guy finder' in there,
too. We wanted something that was masculine but was not about pride flags.
Was not about…"

A politicised idea of gayness?

"Yes! And was fun! And was in a way – not about being gay. I'm gay; I am a
proud gay man. It's not that we have any issues, right? But Grindr's not
about gay rights, or gay anything. It's about finding guys. Being among your
peers. Socialising. Being part of your community. It's not about: 'We're
here, we're queer.'"

So Grindr launched in spring 2009. For the first few months uptake was steady
but modest. Then Stephen Fry showed it to Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear "and
40,000 men had downloaded it within a week. Amazing."

Simkhai talks with great passion about his creation. He builds a beautiful
case for Grindr. He trumpets its international, unifying aspect, making it
sound like the United Nations of gayness. "Here we are, 8,000 miles from home
and we have 50,000 guys here in London. How? What? I haven't been here for 10
years – the first thing I did when I landed at Heathrow was launch Grindr!
Sydney. Melbourne. Singapore. Tokyo! Tokyo is our fourth largest city, one of
our top cities! I've never been to Japan! I don't speak Japanese!"

He points out that Grindr is a response to online dating, which causes as
many problems as it solves. "With missed connections and back and forth, and:
'Oh actually, this week I'm in New York, and you're in LA…' Online dating is
frustrating! It is a lot of work!" Grindr, on the other hand, is immediate.
There is no messing about, no toing and froing, no building up your hopes via
weeks of emails only to discover on your first physical date that you just
don't fancy whoever in the flesh. You see someone's picture on Grindr, you
meet immediately, you establish whether or not you're attracted to each
other: "Grindr reintroduces the aspect of chemistry. And – it's real. It is
not a Second Life. It is not a virtual world. It's a tool. It enables real
life, it doesn't replace it."

And it leads, I say, to very real sex. None of this virtual nonsense.

Simkhai pauses.

"Er… From my perspective… it's not sex. It's a precursor to sex. It's just
before. That's how I see Grindr. We want to be sexy. We think sex is part of
life, the basis of life. But Grindr is sexiness rather than sex."

Simkhai is concerned, perhaps, about the conservative elements of the US
media. Editorials on the danger of the "new gay hook-up app" pop up
periodically. Simkhai is keen to make the point that Grindr is not uniquely
concerned with procuring sex. "I meet guys all the time who say to me: 'I
know it's for hooking up, but… ' But they met some really good friends. But
they met their boyfriend. But. But." Simkhai says his main hope for Grindr is
it will help young gay men through the process of coming out.

I am moved by Simkhai's passion, by the tales of the non-sexual impact of
Grindr. I appreciate that it is still not easy to come out, and how important
that sense of geographical proximity, of being part of a visible and
accepting community, would be. The David Laws story breaks a fortnight after
I interview Simkhai; a high-profile, sad piece of evidence that gay men still
encounter problems in making their sexuality public.

Yet the men I speak to tell me Grindr is all about sex. "Internet's for
dating; Grindr's for sex," D tells me. "Well, sometimes the internet's for
sex, too, but Grindr: definitely sex." I ask around and am inundated with
Grindr stories, all of which end in a sexual encounter. "Sometimes you don't
really fancy them , but…" There's a sense of obligation to have sex anyway?
"Yeah. But that's OK."

I begin to develop an idea of the culture that surrounds it. Many gay men see
Grindr as a way to round off an evening. "I'd had dinner at a friend's house
in west London and I was walking back to the tube; thought I'd launch Grindr,
see what was going on. This guy pops up and chats me: 'You're near!' I chat
back: 'I know… ' He says: 'I'm here with my boyfriend. Come and see us.' So…
I did." 

Others use it as you might a glass of wine at the end of a stressful day. Kev
lives near a major station: "And so I get a lot of literal traffic. Men get
off the train on Sunday night after a weekend somewhere stifling, probably
with their parents; they launch Grindr – guess who pops up first?"

It's mixing formerly segregated elements of gay society. My 30- and
40-something gay male friends tell me they're having much more to do with
younger gay men: "Which is weird, and yeah, sometimes not totally
comfortable, if you think about it," says one. "You have to work out what's
too young for you and stick to that limit. But – you're always honest about
who you are. You've got to be. You can't say you're younger or hotter than
you are; you can't post someone else's photo. If you lie you're just going to
get found out, and that pisses people off, obviously. Lying isn't done on

Cheating, on the other hand, definitely is.

"You always see on Grindr: 'Oh, I've got a boyfriend – just interested in
chatting!'" says Matthew Todd, editor of gay lifestyle magazine Attitude. "Oh
really? Why? Why do you need to chat to people? Why do you need to be on
Grindr? Call your mum up!"

A gay man who is in a long-term relationship tells me he's aware of Grindr,
but is choosing not to try it. "It would change everything. I'm very tempted,
of course I am! But ultimately I don't want to go there, and I don't want my
boyfriend F to go there either."

"The vast majority of guys on Grindr are in a relationship," says P. "And I
reckon a quarter of the guys who use it are straight. Not curious or bi or
whatever. Straight."

"The straight ones are all talk!" says D. "They love the idea that sex with a
stranger could be that easy, could be downloaded on their phone… But when it
comes to it, they won't do anything."

Not every gay man is enamoured of Grindr. Attitude's Matthew Todd has
reservations. "A friend with an iPhone showed me it about a year ago and
said: 'Can you believe it?' I rolled my eyes and thought: 'There is no way of
stopping this.' Find any new technology – we will always bring it back to
sex." Todd's used it ("I dip in and out") and he knows from feedback that
Attitude's readers are using it a great deal. "I think it's good for people
to be able to connect. Especially young people. It's good to be able to see
that there are other gay people around, and to be able to interact. But at
the same time I think it's a very adult world. The commercial gay world –
which Grindr is part of – is a very adult, very sexual world. And I worry
when I see these young kids coming out on to the gay scene, and everything is
about sex. There's no real concept of relationships."

Others condemn it more directly. "Grindr's addictive," writes one man – the
ex-boyfriend of a close friend – by email. "Grindr and Gaydar [the UK's
biggest gay dating site]… A lot of gay men have addiction issues. I feel crap
even writing it, but there it is. We drink, we use drugs and we use sex to
overcome the shame we feel. And we feel worse because we know we shouldn't
feel shame, we should feel pride – so we abuse drugs and sex more. Things
like Grindr and Gaydar enable that sort of sex, sex which is compulsive and
which dehumanises you; and means you in turn dehumanise the people you are
having sex with." He puts me in touch with G, a man he met while seeking
treatment for sex addiction. "I've lost entire weekends to sex," writes G.
"Downloading porn, going on Grindr, meeting men whose names I don't find out,
having sex; downloading more porn…"

"Low self-esteem," says Todd. "I see it a lot in gay men – it's inevitable
after years of repression and shame. And what's better for self-esteem than
someone having sex with you?"

Could Grindr work for a straight market? There is, I think, an undeniable
gender divide on the things that men and women will do for sex, and the
things they expect and want from sex. Yes, women are capable of having
inconsequential flings. We are capable of one-night stands. We are capable of
having sex without becoming emotionally involved. FitFinder – which allowed
undergraduate users to post descriptions of people they'd seen and fancied on
their university-dedicated website – became extremely popular earlier this
spring, before university authorities banned it, which would suggest that
there is a straight market for a location-specific dating concept. But I'm
not sure Grindr could fully accommodate the complexities of male-female
interactions. The gender politics, the power games, the ebb and flow of
interest, the tedious but totally authentic need most men feel to pursue a
potential sexual conquest…

I ask a handful of straight women – some single, some not – if they think
they might be interested in a Grindr equivalent; they say they can just about
envisage it working, although none of them would commit to the notion of
using it themselves. The straight men I poll say they'd think less of any
woman who "advertised herself like that" – and then all insisted on
downloading gay Grindr on to their phones, "just to see how it works".

If anyone can make and sell a straight Grindr, Simkhai can. He does concede:
"I'm a gay man and I know how to think like a gay man… actually, my sense is
I know how to think like a man. I'm not a woman. I don't know how to think
like a woman." Yet he says he gets more requests for a straight Grindr from
women than he does from straight men. "Many more. Which might be because
straight women are often friends with gay men, so know about Grindr… But I do
think it would be relevant for women. I do." Furthermore: "We'll redesign it;
we'll call it something different, market it differently. We have to. Gay men
are very territorial. They want to keep it all to themselves, but they say:
'If you have to make a straight version, call it something else. Grindr is

I am still sceptical, but then Simkhai says: "This notion of: 'Who is around
me? Who is in this room now? Who else is like me?' – this is not just a gay
thing. And this thing where: 'I want a more fulfilling life. A richer life!'
This is not just a gay thing either. Gay men don't have the monopoly on
loneliness and isolation." He is right, of course. As I say goodbye to Joel
Simkhai, I find myself thinking: however straight Grindr plays out for us –
even if it opens up a Pandora's box on our sexuality, alters forever the way
men and women relate, leaves us vulnerable to a whole new world of emotional
and sexual complications – bring it on. It's going to make life more

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