A sex therapist called Sergei told me to download Grindr.
I wasn’t seeing him professionally, to be clear: we had just pulled after a night out in Shoreditch. Sergei was Ukrainian-American: he had smart glasses, tight muscles and a flat, bored voice. It was September 2011. One night he made me do unprintable things on his balcony and the next day, I took his advice. ‘You’ll meet more people,’ he said. I did.
Grindr, in case you haven’t heard, is the gay dating app on which ‘dating’ operates as a euphemism for chatting, flirting, ghosting, stalking and shagging. Love very occasionally makes an appearance, too. This year marks 10 years since the launch of the app, and its impact on the dating lives of gay men in the capital is hard to overstate. It took the procurement of gay sex out of Hampstead Heath and Old Compton Street and into London’s mainstream bars and bedrooms. Created by a gay Israeli-American, Joel Simkhai, the app’s format is simple: once you have logged in, you are provided with a list of all the other users in order of geographical proximity, who appear in an unfurling grid. They could be gay, bi, queer or trans, but for the most part it’s easiest to say they are men looking for the company of men; and by ‘company’, I tend to mean sex, although you can definitely find a date. There are even tens of thousands of couples in London right now who actually met on it. In 2017, it was listed as having 27 million members, and in 2018, it was sold for $152 million (£124m) to a Chinese gaming company. The same year, it was reported to have averaged 228 million messages sent a day, and 20 million photos. What percentage of those pictures are of men’s genitals is not listed anywhere, possibly because it would be enough to make the internet blush.
But Grindr isn’t all ‘fun’, which is the classic Grindr euphemism for a shag. There is also a really foul side to Grindr, one that the app has only started tackling in recent years. For starters, there is an extraordinary amount of in-app discrimination. If you’re fat, trans or not white, if you’re short, disabled or too camp, you’re working at a severe disadvantage. But there’s more. Grindr faced a backlash in March 2018 after disclosing the HIV statuses of its users to third-party companies. Similarly, it has been shown that the app’s ability to geo-locate users has left them under threat in countries that are hostile to LGBTQ communities. There have been awful murders of young men hooking up with a serial killer in this very city, and there is also the very tricky phenomenon of chemsex, in which men use dating apps to set up drugs-and-sex parties. Each of these cases is complex, but each serve as a reminder of the reasons why Grindr remains so powerful: there is very little men won’t do when given the hope of grabbing a shag, or some love, or basically any type of intimacy
I can vouch for this personally. In fact, eight years on from meeting Sergei, I’d say I’m still regularly baffled by his advice. For instance, I would roughly say I’ve downloaded and deleted Grindr 843 times. No, that’s not said for comic effect: hand on heart, 843. Most men I know are the same. I mean, as Sergei promised, I’ve met a lot of people on there — an awful lot. These include a couple of boyfriends, various lovely friends and a whole archive of passing anecdotes. I’ve also had some really great sex. Weirdly, though, if you asked me to give you my most fun Grindr stories, my mind goes blank — not because I don’t have any, just because they’ve become such a normal part of my existence. I don’t have a separate mental file of ‘Grindr stuff’. It’s just life.
Certainly, there have been more exotic moments. One of the best things about Grindr is that it operates as a passport into other worlds, whether in London or across the globe. Trust me: there are worse ways to get to know a city than to get filthy with its men. Bankers in deadly modern Shoreditch flats; students in bedsits in Bermondsey; that Belgian pilot in a Reykjavik hotel room; the film producer getting his morning flight from LA. But then part of the charm is also the ease and domesticity. What could be handier, on a lazy Sunday, than shagging someone who lives only three streets down? I’ll always remember turning up for a threesome with an older, wealthier couple. One partner opened the door and led me into the living room, where the other was waiting for me with a glass of chilled white wine, and was watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
That said, Grindr can be skin-scrapingly tough. After all, it taps into all your deepest vulnerabilities: about how you look, what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it. And the main language employed for all this tends to not be cutesy chat, but barked, sullen instructions — and nudes. Really, it’s weird how much we’ve all agreed to become each other’s DIY porn. These days, not only are you supposed to have a fab Instagram influencer life by day, but by night, you also have to serve up a succession of triple-X thirst traps for all the other knackered young professionals within spitting distance. ‘Pics???’ you’ll be snapped at immediately. ‘Into??’ Honestly, I could go on for hours about all the awful, shallow people on Grindr, except for the fact that sometimes, that awful shallow person is me.
Most of my Grindr experiences, however, have been positively vanilla compared with other people’s, and certainly less scary. If you want to get a sense of the app’s problems, you actually only need to log in and browse the profiles nearby. ‘Only into white guys — sorry, that’s just my preference,’ will read one bio, and to be honest that added apology is rare. ‘Be in shape,’ another one will tell you, or ‘Masc 4 Masc,’ which basically means no one camp or femme. The language on Grindr is often violent; I suppose it’s a relief that physical violence is, in comparison, quite rare. Still, it’s there. The most famous case is of the chef Stephen Port, who murdered four young men whom he met for hookups by poisoning them with a fatal cocktail of drugs. I’ve heard of plenty more muggings and blackmailings and of situations that have gone awry, but these cases are regularly covered up, often out of shame.
Also, check your account on any Sunday morning and you’ll see a particular proliferation of ‘H&H’ — ‘high and horny’. The issue of chemsex has been much discussed in recent years and one thing that has struck me is how it’s often described as something lurid and far away. In fact, from what I can see, it is again quite bourgeois and banal, as full of accountants and bankers and lawyers as anyone else. What also seems clear about it is that, as with most stuff on Grindr, you need to be tough enough to withstand its harder side. If you’re the slightest bit vulnerable, it will gobble you up. A friend went to a ‘chillout’ once. He was giving someone a blowjob and when he looked up, the guy was on his phone, on the app, looking for the next person to join.
I spoke to various people about their Grindr experiences, and the picture was unsurprisingly varied. For some, it has brought much more than they bargained for. ‘What do I like most about Grindr?’ asks one of the app’s users. ‘The accessibility, the variety. I’ve had some of the best sex of my life off Grindr and have actually made some good friends, too. I met my partner on there. Importantly, that was just a random hook-up when we were both pissed. When you are happy — and in my case, probably sober — Grindr is all kinds of lolz.’
For others, though, it remains an unsettling, unnerving experience. ‘The unwanted pics, the people who don’t take no for an answer,’ starts another user, Arnold. ‘The judgemental nature of judging how hot people are. The minging sex pics I haven’t asked for. The sadness of those desperately clinging on to the app in the hope it’ll end their loneliness. That sinking feeling when someone who you really fancy doesn’t even give you a response.’ Another, Gary, questions whether he has fallen prey to the greatest illusion on Grindr, the one on which all dating apps thrive: the illusion of choice. ‘It made it easier for me to meet men, no question. But it made it so easy that maybe it made it harder to form a committed relationship.’
When asked about its 10-year mark, a Grindr spokesman says that ‘we see even more opportunity on the horizon for Grindr and for our community’. It also states that ‘we have been at the forefront of creating a safer and more accepting world for the LGBTQ community’. It has tried to keep up with the various criticisms against it, not least with an initiative called ‘Kindr’. We can only hope. But one question is whether any of this really matters when faced with the horniness of a gazillion men, alone in their bedrooms.
And really, there are more questions than answers as online dating just becomes dating, full stop. In 100 years, will we cringe at the click-to-buy barbarity of apps like these? Is the dating game just always awful, because rejection will never not hurt and hot people always win? Can dick pics ever be art? I have no idea where Sergei is now, but these are questions I’d love to ask him. Mind you, I’d also like to just be back on that balcony.