Grindring for justice

By Senthorun Raj
Sen-FeaturedImage

15 minute read

My friends often remark that I can be relied upon to provide commentary about two things at any given time: Australian human rights violations and Grindr. This characterisation is pretty accurate. After all, I work in human rights advocacy and date a lot (or at least facilitate those dates) through my iPhone. But these passion-generating topics are not mutually exclusive or discrete. Sexual desires and intimate practices are not confined to my Grindr account or the hookups that arise from it; they are politically charged topics.

From the push to decriminalise homosexuality to the current fight for marriage equality, who gay men (like myself) fuck and who they love (not necessarily the same people) remain subjects of intense public scrutiny. Grindr not only illuminates sexual possibility if you are bored and horny, it also helps create a space where individuals can think through some of the current debates about “gay rights” and the push for sexual justice in Australia.

“This is Grindr. What do you expect?”  

Grindr is a social networking application for same-sex attracted men. Created by Joel Simkhai in 2009, Grindr has become the largest online social network for queer men with over two million daily active users in 192 countries. From the moment we “sign on” to Grindr we are connected to other users who are nearby. We are enmeshed in a process of – as one user describes – “window shopping.” But what you choose to “shop” for in this “meat market” varies enormously. Grindr offers users six formal options to describe their intimate pursuits: chats, dates, friends, relationships, right now, and networking. Some profiles display no photos or a picturesque sunset in their search of “NSA” (no strings attached sex). Other users display a crudely cropped photo of a night out in a club to better emphasise their search for “friends, dates and maybe more.” Some semi-nude profiles even demand they are looking for “just friends” (because sometimes friendship compatibility is quickly discernible by looking at a well-defined torso).

Grindr allows users to organise casual sex, professional networks, neighbourhood parties, orgies, and dating. In the words of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, these new “sexual counterpublics” emerge to facilitate new forms of emotional and sexual connection that do not revolve around the “traditional” imaginaries of reproductive or matrimonial relationships. Connections are now secured through virtual worlds, and intense social relationships are cultivated between people who have never met (and may never meet) offline. With such titillating possibilities, Grindr could easily be heralded as a transformative and revolutionary space for sexual justice. But such optimism comes with some cruel consequences.

“Let’s Netflix and chill.”

Sex is just a click away on my iPhone. But sex is also messy. The exchange of bodily fluids carries promises of passion, pleasure, and love, but also risk, exhaustion, and shame. Whether you are cruising for some “outdoor fun” (public sex) or looking to “parTy” (sex with crystal meth), Grindr has rapidly transformed the way we find and negotiate sex with people. I once spoke with a guy – let’s call him Hole4U – who encouraged me to have sex without a condom. He had poppers (alkyl nitrates that are inhaled to relax muscles), a blindfold, and a bed ready to go. I was nervous about the risks of such an encounter so I declined.

Gay sex has been the subject of anxiety-laden regulation, from scriptural sanctions to medical diagnoses to criminal laws. In Australia, starting with South Australia in 1975 and ending with Tasmania in 1997, the decriminalisation of homosexuality precipitated the rise (and right) of sexual privacy. Gay sex could be tolerated when it was confined to the bedroom. For homosexually active men who lacked bedrooms or desired anonymity, beats (public toilets, beaches, or parks) became sites of sexual play. These places were targets of zealous “public order” policing and lethal homophobic violence. Silence, stigma, and shame surrounded gay sex.

In Australia, we may no longer have to pretend that we are straight to avoid getting arrested or clandestinely seek out sex in a bathroom to have fun (unless that turns you on). Grindr has allowed us to find hookups anywhere we have a reliable internet connection. But apps like Grindr have also encouraged same-sex attracted men to talk more openly about sex. On Grindr, I’ve had conversations about my preferred sexual roles, condom use, kinks, and sexual health status. The lack of a direct “face to face” makes me more willing to talk about such personal things. As Kane Race observes, the “chat” function has enormous potential to facilitate frank informational exchanges between virtual strangers.

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But talking about gay sex – explicitly in terms of pleasure or pride instead of secrecy or shame – remains a sore point in public. Australian curriculums, for example, make cursory references to “sexual diversity” (if at all) and are often clinical when talking about sexual activity or relationships. The mere mention that “sex can be fun” (let alone “gay sex can be positive”) in a school environment generates the ire of conservative politicians and commentators. Just look at the recent furore over Safe Schools. A voluntary program that supports sexuality and gender diversity at school has been politicised as “sexualised propaganda” that indoctrinates kids. The phobic response to the program reveals a political aversion to mentioning sex. Sex is treated as an entirely private, adult matter despite its obvious public consequences – especially for young people.

Public representations (including on Grindr) of sexually transmitted infections, for example, continue to be grossly inaccurate. People living with HIV are sometimes referred to as “dirty” because infections are worryingly cast as a stain on a person’s moral character. Sexually active HIV-positive people, especially those associated with sex work, are considered “dangerous” because sexual promiscuity is erroneously tied to an increased risk of transmission.

Ideas of risk, safety, and pleasure shape our sexual politics. Condoms, for example, have not only curbed HIV transmissions but they have also been used as markers of acceptability when it comes to sex. In other words, if you fuck without a condom you become cast as morally suspect or criminally dangerous. Many Australian states use criminal laws to punish HIV-positive people who have sex without disclosing their HIV status and/or who do not use condoms (even if they do not intend to infect their sexual partner). Alternatively, certain forms of sexual play that do not involve genital penetration (and lack any use for condoms) but involve some (other) intentional wounding, like bondage and sadomasochism, remain criminalised as an “assault occasioning actual bodily harm.”

Yet, as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) becomes more accessible and clinical research into “undetectable viral loads” expands, the risk of contracting HIV through condomless sex has astonishingly reduced. In sexual encounters between HIV-positive and HIV-negative people, there have been no reported infections of HIV transmission where a HIV-positive person has an undetectable viral load and their HIV-negative partner is on PrEP. Gay men practice condomless anal sex. This activity can be more pleasurable than having to use latex. Gay men are now being much more open about it. Yet, the men who engage in this practice have been repudiated with considerable indignation because such “unsafe sex” is still stigmatised as socially irresponsible.

As we build sex education, evidence and diversity are crucial.

Foregrounding pleasure, at the expense of risk, creates panic. Sex is both risky and pleasurable. But by focusing so much public health and regulatory attention on the former, we have largely erased the latter. Grindr has not only helped to expand our sexual encounters but also our sexual conversations. As we build sex education, evidence and diversity are crucial. We should embrace these dialogues. In doing so, we can create spaces for sex that troubles or challenges us – not just the kind that has been dignified in the zone of respectability.

“Looking to celebrate the SCOTUS decision with a relationship, not a hook up.” 

Grindr is not just a space for flirty fun or casual sex free from emotional attachment. For Does Anyone Still Date (a profile I came across recently), Grindr has the potential for its own undoing. It offers him a “reason to delete this app” by putting him touch with that highly desirable and elusive figure: Mr Right. Despite my best efforts (I have had Grindr for six years now), I have yet to locate him. But what does it mean to stake your future happiness on finding this mystery figure? In Australia, activist energies focus on the pursuit for marriage equality. Coupledom has become a place for legal recognition. For same-sex couples, this recognition demands equal inclusion in the institution of marriage. We want a right to marry our Mr or Mrs Right.

In June of last year, Facebook profiles were awash with rainbow filters as the US Supreme Court held that the right to same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected. Justice Kennedy’s concluding paragraph has become one of the most circulated pieces of jurisprudence. In his judgment, he wrote:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. 

Marriage generates a strong emotional pull: it brings intimacy into the orbit of respectability. Marriage functions to solidify our expressions of love and to promise all of us lonely gays in Justice Kennedy’s imagination (you know, the ones up at 3am texting “Looking?” to someone who is 55 metres away) a future of dignity free from exclusion and discrimination. Melodramatic pronouncements from the US Supreme Court aside, marriage equality campaigning in Australia makes similar claims about this cherished institution. We are here, but we are not really queer. In fact we are just like heterosexuals, so why does the government not let us get married to our soul mate?

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But we need to pause and consider our fantasies of love and freedom. In a society that represents romantic (heterosexual) love as an aspirational ideal, the inability to find our elusive “soul mate” can render us extremely anxious. My search for said person on Grindr has been particularly vexing. My quest for love has been largely a slippery struggle between personal and public references: negotiating a disparate range of fantasies, feelings and narratives that shape my experience of being in, and understanding, love.

In order to illustrate this, let me begin with a confession: from childhood my imagining of love was coded in terms of Cinderella or Snow White (my grandmother was a reliable source for fairytales). It was a feeling-rich love plot. Lauren Berlant articulates the concept of the “love plot” to make sense of how romantic desires manifest and matter to individuals. This plot is generic: just think of romantic comedies and how repetitive the characters and storylines are in them. These stories cultivate feelings and create points for us to describe what “real love” looks or feels like. That is, we demonstrate our experience of love based on our cultural reference points. We go out on dates, have sex, say “I love you,” move in together, and get married.

Most, if not all, of the love stories that I heard as a child were constructed around the heterosexual encounter between a passive/embracing female and an active/heroic male. I identified with the former. Stories were also racialised. The aesthetic of romance was white, as the popular culture I was subjected to at the time depicted the “knight in shining armour” as white. My fantasies of love in the future were secured over the years by feelings of longing that one day, I too, would swoon over him.

Grindr offers us a space to experiment with intimacy.
It also reminds us that there is no “right” way to live or love.

For sexual and gender minorities, recognition of our identities and intimacies has relied on contesting the assumption that heterosexual love and binary sex/gender are both natural and foundational to our intimate life. We said “no” to the story of compulsory heterosexuality. Curiously, then, why do we now want to say “yes” to an institution that demands compulsory monogamy while obscuring other forms of kinship? Marriage and monogamy are neither inherently better nor worse than any other relationship arrangement. Whether you want to find that “partner in crime,” or are “looking for a third” to complement your partnership for an evening, or need a few more bodies for a “party,” the ethics of intimacy cannot be measured in formal or temporal terms. You only need to look at the appalling instances of sexual violence in various romanticised “traditional” relationships to see why there is no inherent virtue in any one sort of intimate practice. What matters, more importantly, are the ways ethics are practiced in the relationships you are involved in. Grindr offers us a space to experiment with intimacy. It also reminds us that there is no “right” way to live or love.

Love stories can be enjoyable (I often hear the Taylor Swift song playing in the back of my mind) but they are also quite problematic. Today, the “sexualisation” of activities like condomless sex and representations of non-normative sexualities have become objects of public concern. In contrast, “love” (often imagined through the prism of marriage) has been celebrated and heralded as something to aspire to. It is an antidote to our anxieties about loneliness. These fantasies represent the desirable trajectory or “plot” of our lives. This is why love stories are affectionately told to us even as children. While I am certainly not advocating sex over love or think of them as disconnected either, it would be foolish to assume that sex is inherently more dangerous than love. Indeed, six years of failed expectations on Grindr should serve as a cautionary tale. Insisting that love be expressed in monogamous, codependent and/or enduring forms can lead to disappointment.

So, let’s stop shaming and stigmatising “those gays” who reject respectability or who aren’t looking for a reason to delete Grindr. Instead, paraphrasing bell hooks, pursuits for justice should cultivate expressions of care, affection, responsibility, respect, trust and commitment by leaving open spaces to nurture various kinds of intimacies while confronting emotional narratives taken for granted.

“Where are you from?”

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was bored. I swiped right across my iPhone screen and tapped the Grindr icon. I heard a familiar “buzz” that made me flutter. I had a message. I clicked on the profile image and I waited for it to load. I was greeted with some blonde hair, a vibrant smile, and a well-fitted shirt. “Your skin is amazing, it’s like hot chocolate,” the message read. Unsure of whether to respond flirtatiously (hot chocolates are tasty and food metaphors are easy to mould into sexual innuendo) or furiously (my skin is not an object to be cannibalised), I decided to exit Grindr and come back later to respond. I ended up just deleting the message because I had vacillated too long. He followed up, though.

“What’s your nationality?” he inquired.

Finally able to respond to this fairly simple question, I texted back, “Australian.”

“No, I meant where are you from?” he tarried back.

“Um. Redfern.”

Seemingly unable to grasp that I was an Australian who lived a few blocks from Sydney University, he proceeded to conclude, “Oh, just thought you were Indian or something. Indian guys are hot.”

Forgetting for a moment that my ethnicity is neither my nationality nor where I am from, I had no connection to India other than a historical one given that Tamil people moved or were displaced from the southern parts of India to Sri Lanka several centuries ago. (Sri Lanka is the country where my parents are from.)

Most people reading this would be quick to think, “Dude, chill out. It was a harmless question.” Except, for those of us who are not seen as “Australian” on a daily basis, these simple questions can take the weight of an interrogation. They become constant reminders (which others write about as “microaggressions”) that we cannot “really” be Australian because we are not white. This guy had set out to cruise me. The unsolicited series of genital pictures that followed seemed to imply as much. He was a very attractive man. But, what he construed as flirting, I viewed as his inability to recognise that I was not a curry that he could eat.

Desires are slippery sensations. We like to play with them through fantasy and tend to protect our intimate attachments from public intrusion (sometimes to avoid the embarrassment of disclosing what or who we are into). Apps like Grindr help blur the public/private boundaries of desire. When “personal preferences” take shape in rhetorical statements like “NO FATS, FEMS OR ASIANS” or “Be younger than 26; or the block button becomes essential,” what is considered private becomes painfully public. Even if it is a virtual platform that we access through the touch of our mobile phones, much like Facebook and Twitter, Grindr is still a community of people (or more specifically profiles) that interact with each other.

My complaints about the Grindr universe pale in comparison to what others have witnessed. Grindr users have taken to respond to such disaffecting profiles with Douchebags of Grindr – a Tumblr site that revels in shaming those who shame others. For some, echoing retributive justice in criminal law, the idea of arrogant users getting their “just deserts” with public shaming seems perfectly warranted.

Despite this, the public “outing” and breaches of privacy raise a number of troubling ethical questions about how we should respond to the bigoted “douchebags” we encounter online. In making spectacles out of the purported “douchebags” on Grindr, we can make the more banal forms of racialised activities seem palatable by comparison. After all, why does using overtly racist words in your profile attract moral opprobrium, while using an automatic “filter” to exclude certain kinds of bodies does not? Whether we’re detaining refugees indefinitely in offshore places or incarcerating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, racism is a systemic problem that is not isolated to offensive rhetoric like “No Rice, No Spice…Fan of the block button.” Our laws, regulations, and policies are quite adept at blocking people.

Isolating profiles in order to stigmatise the individual person, rather than challenge the problematic behaviour, is counterproductive. It just makes most of us more defensive (no one likes being personally labelled as a racist or homophobe). Racism is not a problem of character (that “bad people” perpetrate) but is a matter of capacity (white privilege reproduces in institutions and individuals). By imagining racism in terms of Grindr Douchebags or Reclaim Australia, we limit our ability to confront the more insidious forms of prejudice that underscore such problematic behaviour, or that which is coded in terms of “preferences” – in both political activity and personal life.

Grindr, like many other online dating platforms, relies on categories of framing or filtering bodies (ethnicity, height, weight, age, tribe, interests, etc). These are offered to better “match” potential partners and avoid the horrors of “wasting time.” Many of the app users fashion their online identities through these categories and other visual (think creative use of fruit and vegetable emojis) or written statements that signal they are “masc” (masculine), “vers” (sexually versatile), or “hung tops” (men with large penises who like to penetrate other men). We are warned by some to be “straight acting” or reminded not to be too “girly” because if gay men “wanted to date women, [they’d] be straight.” In doing so, users reproduce sexist stereotypes to a brand of “straight masculinity” that is considered desirable. This version of masculinity has a favourable exchange rate.

We live in a society that privileges certain kinds of sexual expressions, body types, abilities, gender identities, ethnicities, and ages.

Stereotypes can be costly – especially when your life can literally depend on how well you fit within one. I mean, when people think about “gayness,” they sometimes conjure up Madonna, Oscar Wilde, Greco-Roman wrestling, clubbing at Stonewall, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and Glee. For bureaucrats working in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, these tropes get reproduced in adjudications to determine whether a refugee is “genuinely” gay and subject to a well-founded fear of persecution.

Since 1992, Australia has recognised that sexual minorities of a particular country can be recognised as a “particular social group” for the purposes of seeking asylum under the Refugee Convention 1951 and the 1967 Protocol. While I can easily brush off prurient questions about whether I prefer to top or how often I like to “get pounded” on Grindr, in refugee cases the demand to present a comprehensive account of a person’s sexual history is humiliating. If you are seeking asylum on the basis of sexual orientation you need to be ready to pinpoint the exact moment you “realised” you were gay (I’m still trying to work mine out and it’s been a decade since I came out) and to outline how much sex you have (sometimes even with photographic evidence).

Much like Grindr, refugee narratives are framed and filtered by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection through categories like popular culture consumption, sexual practices, bodily comportment, community affiliations, and sartorial presentation. But, you need to be careful. If you seem too scripted when you tell your story, then you are considered to be some kind of well-rehearsed “Kabuki actor” putting on a play. In fact, 5J(6) of our Migration Act 1958 enables decision-makers to discount any activity undertaken in Australia that is deemed to be self-serving for an asylum claim. It is a catch-22: either you are too gay, or you are not gay enough to be credible. These refugee status determinations may seem entertaining in their incredulity but for individuals subject to these processes they can be corrosive.

In addition to undermining a person’s dignity, these administrative decisions can facilitate the return of refugees to places where their lives or liberties or loves are systematically threatened.

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“I hope this doesn’t sound offensive…”

In thinking about sex, love, bigotry, and identity through Grindr, we can see the urgency of challenging the troubling logics of privilege and feeling that shape everything from online flirting to public policy.

So, how do we begin this challenge?

We can start by recognising that privilege or ignorance are features of social reproduction – not just personal moral failings curable by the legal or online equivalent of a Burn Book. We live in a society that privileges certain kinds of sexual expressions, body types, abilities, gender identities, ethnicities, and ages. These privileges come with certain forms of knowledge attached. From eroticising heterosexual masculinity or whiteness to repudiating effeminacy or elders, Grindr is saturated with social hierarchies that are pervasive in our society. They get reproduced in administrative decisions (such as queer refugees seeking asylum) or law reform (such as same-sex couples demanding marriage equality). We are required to navigate sexual intimacy and identity in both our private and public worlds. Desires are shaped and politicised by culture. Few of us would deny that casual observation by now, I hope.

Finding someone solely attractive because of, or in spite of, their difference – whether it is their perceived “Asianness” or a specific gender expression – can objectify people in demeaning ways. In our attempt to address social exclusions, though, we should be careful about reproducing new forms of policing. There is little value in incentivising ourselves to desire others on the basis of characteristics that we feel pity towards, or in thinking that “affirmative action fucking” will change oppressive social norms. Of course, we will always find specific features about a person sexy. But, it is how we express those desires and the space we give others to shape their own pleasures that we must be more vigilant about and attentive towards. This is not easy.

While we are quite willing to confront the scenes of bigotry that are visible to us in public forums (such as racist tirades documented on smartphones), we need to extend this ethic when reflecting on the prejudices that operate at the most banal and emotional level of our lives. Making spectacles out of political bigots or Grindr douchebags may amuse us (I’m guilty of this myself), but this does little to ensure that our pursuits for justice and inclusion are secured long term.

In the words of poet activist Audre Lorde, “our visions begin with our desires.” We must continue to animate and challenge them. Now, I’m off to tap back on Grindr.

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  • Joel

    Your Lauren Berlant link doesn’t work, and I could cry.

    • Rose Press

      Hi Joel, thanks for pointing this out. We’ve now fixed the link.