In this Conflab, Ade Adeniji, Co-Founder of The Quest and Sunny Bahra, a previous participant of The Quest workshops, talk about gay men and the dilemma of hook-up apps.
Ade: @HuffPostGay recently featured a piece entitled “why I’ve given up on hooking up” where the writer talked about his journey with ‘dating’ apps. What were your thoughts?
Sunny: The article really resonated with me as I, of late, have been having a similar attitude to the whole scenario of “dating apps”. As humans we all crave connection and online dating is the, relatively, new way of meeting and conversing with people – whether you are straight or gay.
Ade: So, what is your attitude towards these apps? I for one think that its all down to the user and the underlying ‘hunger’, ‘need’ or ‘intention’ that is driving them to use the apps.
Sunny: I think it’s such a multi-layered issue. Sure I agree that it’s down to the user and the underlying intention. However, as gay men, so many of us have insecurities about how we fit into the whole scene, self acceptance, body image, need to be loved. Insecurities that are universal, but sometimes are heightened under the “gay magnifying glass” so to speak. And then there’s often an heafty dose of unresolved shame lurking in the background which also affects how we behave with each other.
Ade: Indeed. And the apps give us the illusion of a quick way to quench that hunger. Ultimately the underlying hunger is a desire for connection.
Sunny: Yes, ultimately we all crave connection, however the problem I find with so many of these apps (and I only have experience of 2) is the way people interact. An advert on the tube comes to mind – it’s about conference calling and the tag line is “people type angrier than they speak”. Meaning that behind a keyboard & screen it’s so easy to become detached and that affects the quality of the conversion you have – often it’s much harder, more dismissive.
Ade: And many of us have not learnt how to navigate connecting emotionally with other gay men. Many of us were introduced to expressing our sexual orientation through sex, as opposed through dating. So we often have sex first, then dating/courting second.
Sunny: Many people do not feel comfortable talking to others in a public setting – i.e. chatting someone up in a bar. So the apps seem to be a great avenue to safely and tentatively converse with people without the discomfort of face-to-face rejection. However, it’s so easy to retreat even further behind this “safety net” and only converse via an app, reducing meeting up to sexual hookups. Or alternatively get stuck in a cycle of swapping pictures and messages endlessly, but never actually meeting anyone. The whole experience can make one feel very empty, which only enhances the feelings of insecurity.
If we aren’t good at connecting properly then retreating behind a screen can often only make things worse…
Ade: The image that comes to mind is that of a child who has been deprived of sweets for most of his life. And then on reaching young adulthood he finds himself working in a sweet shop and goes simply crazy and hooked on sweets. The apps are like sweets to many gay men who have felt this sense of deprivation for a long time.
Sunny: That’s a good analogy. I’d even go one step further and say that the child in the sweet shop, deprived of sweets all his life, ends up gorging and feeling sick, but carries on with the sugar high as it’s so addictive. And then it’s so difficult to step back and get some perspective of where you are before you’re too far down the rabbit hole.
Many of us have not learnt how to connect without sex being in the frame. And we also do not see many images of that type of intimacy and connection in the media too often.
I guess these apps promote sex as ‘connection’, or perhaps its more the other way round – gay men use it to promote sex as ‘connection’. It’s like a vicious cycle where we are all hoping it’s different, and yet all colluding to keep it the same!
Sunny: Hidden behind a screen and a faceless torso – exchanging intimate pictures with numerous strangers, hoping something will stick (I call it the ‘cluster bomb approach’). It’s hardly a recipe for making any sort of meaningful connection, is it….?
Ade: But it can be, depending on how it is used. It’s easy to blame the tool and I think an easy way out.
Sunny: True – but it’s so much harder to navigate the profiles on said apps when there are so many different agendas being portrayed. It takes a great deal of awareness and resolve to use them without losing sight of what you want. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s easy to get stuck on a merry-go-round of validation and insecurity. The author talks about being on so many different apps but chatting to the same people. Going fast nowhere….
Ade: It is a vicious cycle. I believe it’s therefore important to use them consciously – if the path of addiction is to be avoided. If they are being used to avoid loneliness, then that path is futile, same if being used to seek validation.
I remember being introduced to Grindr in late 2010, I had not heard of it and was keen to meet someone, a friend therefore suggested it. The first guy I met was nice, cute and we got on. But I was too afraid to let him know that I wanted more than sex and so we ended up playing games over a period of weeks. And this is quite a common story, some like myself too afraid to show up authentically and others too jaded and bitter to show up authentically… *sigh*
Sunny: True – and it’s no different to when there were no apps and we all had to go out and meet people socially. If the reason to meeting up was to avoid loneliness then the result would be the same as it is now. My only gripe is that the detachment of dating apps can often make things much worse and can be even more harmful to your self-esteem. There is no explaining ‘chemistry’ and that is something that will always be lacking in an “app” – especially if it’s all about torsos and abs. It’s never the same as eyes meeting across a crowded room
Ade: I think dating apps (although really for many they are ‘sex apps’ or ‘hook-up apps’) magnify the issue. As you say, it’s no different from when there were no apps – I remember that time well! And as I reflect on it, it feels like I hoped the apps would take away the pain I felt when out socially and trying to meet someone. It felt like the apps would be a way to meet someone without the awkwardness. But why would it be any different, when many of us never learnt the art of ‘courting’ or ‘dating’!
Sunny: Exactly my point. If it’s so hard to show up and be authentic generally in life, how likely are you going to do so hidden behind an app? The paradox is that hiding behind an app should make you more brave to open up (as the rejection is not face to face) – but often it can do the reverse. It’s all to easy to become isolated bend an app – thinking that you are making a connection.
Ultimately the apps are a symptom of something deeper and the article does touch on this. As you said many of us never learnt the art of dating and so often sex is the introduction to most meetings. I’m learning that sex should be the result of a great connection and not the precursor to it
Ade: Many of us gay men grew up bearing a variety of emotional wounds and scars – feelings of not good enough, not worthy, unlovable etc. These feelings do not simply disappear when we leave home and get a job, or get a six-pack or fancy apartment; they follow us around. So when we are in a social situation, these scars and wounds are there in the background. And when we are using any app, they are also there…. waiting. And they can be triggered at any moment.
These are the underlying issues that many of us do not face, but somehow hope that now that we are all grown up and left home everything is okay and that things ‘really did get better’.
In “The Velvet Rage“, Alan Downs says “…. we are a wounded lot….”. I really believe that. And the first stage of the journey is acknowledging the wounds and then working to heal them. Many guys (myself included for a long time) refused to believe I carried any old unhealed wounds and judged those who showed any of theirs.
Sunny: And I guess that’s what I’m taking from the article. One big PAUSE – get off the merry-go-round and ask what is going on here? What do I really want? And then hopefully find another way to go about things.
I agree and the work I’ve done with The Quest has helped me to look at those wounds (and we all have them – straight or gay), understand how they affect my choices and how I do have a choice in where I go from here…
Ade: I met my partner on Grindr 3.5 years ago. When we met up the first time, I remember telling myself I was not going to play games in that encounter and I was going to show and talk about my wounds. I had never done that before and it was a liberating experience.
I think had I still been doing what I had done for a long time, denying my wounds, then nothing would have happened. What I knew then was that my intention was connection and that the only way to do that was to be myself – open and vulnerable. Something many do not have time for or give room to on these apps.
Sunny: I like the way the author rounds off with the realization that he wants to do things differently and not fall into the same cycle of behaviour.
Ade: Yes, that’s a good starting point. As Maya Angelou said,
“When we know better, we do better”.