02.01.10

Sex in the Time of GPS

The iPhone app “Grindr” is the biggest boon for gay sex since Craigslist. Clark Harding experiments hooking-up in all kinds of weird places, from traffic jams to mid-flight.

Technology is bringing men closer together—even to the point of penetration. With the help of the iPhone, mobile application use has grown exponentially from elite tech fashion to an entire culture of app whores. No, really. If there’s an app for anything from emergency medical advice to language translation, is it any surprise there’s one to calculate distance to sex?

Welcome to Grindr, the iPhone app that tracks its gay male user's every move and can find him a hookup nearby.

I couldn't fight the temptation to find out how many other gays were stuck in traffic on the 101 with me.

"This is so easy," I thought, as I pulled my shirt back on and thanked the charming young man whom I had adulterated about five minutes prior. "Can I see you again?" he asked, trying not to seem needy.

"You know where to find me," I responded, which was code for "No." Putting my iPhone back in my pocket I exited the building—and walked across the street to my house.

As a tragically hip, gay thirty-something, you'd think I would have been one of the early adopters of Grindr, the iPhone app that tracks its gay male user's every move and can find him a hookup nearby. Especially since online dating is really the only kind of dating I've ever known. I started cruising AOL's m4m chat rooms when I was 14, and in college used Connexion.org to look for relationships, while supplementing my dates with cheap hookups from Manhunt.net. But these were just tech fads. I can't count how many of my online profiles have gone the way of MySpace: outdated photos and spam piling up in my inbox. Before I even have a chance to get bored, a newer, better method always presents itself, as it did when a whole gaggle of gays exclaimed at a recent party, "Oh my God, you've never heard of Grindr?!"

My iPhone was snatched from my hands and the Grindr app downloaded by committee. I stumbled home that night, my pants already buzzing with new messages. In just those few minutes I was swept up in the undertow of what Grindr founder and CEO Joel Simkhai calls online's "third wave."

"The Grindr iPhone application," Joel explained to me, "is all about location. It uses GPS technology to determine your exact coordinates and instantly shows you photos of the guys around you." Or as I first saw it, Grindr tells me which guys in my immediate vicinity might be looking to hook up. I look at my iPhone, and sure enough, Joel is 1.2 miles away. He is a slight, Israeli with a warm smile. We've never met in person, though—I found him on Grindr, which is where I decided to conduct our interview.

"It's great when you know what a person looks like or whatever, but that information is not valuable unless you factor in proximity," he said. "Now can we talk in person cuz I hate typing on my phone."

Grindr is a remarkably simple experience. You have a screen name, one picture, and a few personal statistics to accompany it, followed by the obligatory short blurb about what it is you're looking for (all of which you can choose to not publish if you're uncomfortable.) The rest happens through texting. You can choose to put up your face picture, which most men do. Or, like me, you can publish your headless torso so your exes or, say, men who live across the street can't tell you're cruising the airwaves for something other than them. "It's all about how you present yourself," says Joel, "That is what dictates the experience."

According to Joel the average visit to Grindr lasts only eight minutes. No one wants to have a carpal-tunnel-inducing conversation via text—not to mention it drains your iPhone battery fast. Thus Grindr sticks to the basics: It tells you what guys are looking for, and where. I was flying from Los Angeles to New York for Christmas using Virgin America's wifi network when I decided to give the app a try.

"Slut," the message popped up from someone named "ArtsyFartsy" as soon as I activated the app.

"Excuse me?" I wrote back. He sent me his face pic and I saw that it was my friend Troy, one of my Grindr "contacts" awaiting my arrival at JFK. As we exchanged a few giggly texts—"This is weird!" and "OMG I'm obsessed"—I noticed that the lineup of men's pictures were arranged based on who was closest to me. When I tapped on the first one, his profile informed me he was "7 feet away." My eyes bugged like Carol Kane's in When a Stranger Calls, but instead of, "He's calling from inside the house," it was, "He's Grinding from inside the plane!" The stranger didn't have a face pic; his profile photo was just a shot of his bare chest. I peered over my seat, scanning for a fellow passenger holding an iPhone.

"It's not necessarily accurate," Troy explained once I landed. "It doesn't measure vertical distance, only latitudinal and longitudinal. The person could be thousands of feet below you and it will still say zero feet away."

The problem with casual sex with people in close proximity is that they never really go away. And though Grindr allows you to block profiles for various reasons (check out GuysIBlockedOnGrindr.com), it doesn't change the fact that they are still 30 feet from you. It sounds shallow, but as I was quickly learning, being a few feet from someone isn't always a good thing.

For a product that's been on the market for under a year, the number of urban legends surrounding Grindr is impressive. "Did you hear about that lawyer who was at his desk and found someone two feet away who turned out to be his assistant so they screwed in his office?" Or, "That's nothing compared to the dad accidentally Grinding with his son downstairs." Which is perhaps why the folks behind Grindr distance themselves as much as possible from what its users actually do with it. "I don't like to say we're a dating service, because we are really just a technology provider with user generated content." says Joel, who says Grindr has been adding about 2,000 new users a day since it launched in March 2009. "We don't get involved in how it's used."

Or, in my case, misused. In every location possible I would lower the crab pot to see how many I could catch. The app takes a classic urban pastime—people watching—and makes it digital, not to mention completely addictive. It's impossible to resist the urge to constantly pull it out and look at who's in your immediate area, even if you're not looking for a hookup. In fact, many of the guys I talked to were in no position to hook up at all. I can't count how many times I asked a guy on Grindr, "Where are you?" only to receive the reply, "I'm at work," or worse, "I'm driving." Los Angeles has a no-texting-while-driving law; still, I couldn't fight the temptation to find out how many other gays were stuck in traffic on the 101 with me.

When driving through Inglewood, the men on my Grindr list suddenly turn Latino. If I'm in Koreatown, they're mostly Asian. And if I'm in Beverly Hills they're all old. "You'd be surprised" adds Joel, "as to how each of these demographics have formed their own Grindr subcultures or their own community way of using the app." Grinding through rush hour became my daily ritual until I got a message from someone that said: "Driving while grinding is dangerous and sexy." After another impromptu Carol Kane impersonation as I frantically searched cars to spot the mystery traffic Grindr-er, I realized it was time to cut back.

Similarly, I was walking home the other evening when I got a message from the young man across the street. It said, "I'm ditching the Grindr app. It's too easy. If you'd ever like to see me again you know where to find me." I looked over at his building, wondering if he was waiting for me.

"Maybe it's a generational thing," says Cody Bayne, club promoter at Fubar in West Hollywood, "because I like a certain amount of serendipity guiding my relationships." Perhaps it's because he runs a bar full of young punks that you wouldn't guess Cody is in his 40s. (He says he prefers to be contacted the old-fashioned way: “through Facebook.”) He's a product of a time when gay life took place in a bar, and in a strange way, Grindr resurrects a bit of that spirit, returning the online scene to the public sphere. "I've been club promoting for 20 years," Cody says. "I lost clientele with the advent of online dating because a lot less people go out to meet others at bars."

But now, he says, Grindr "has brought gay life full circle." It's an app that complements—even enhances—a night of barhopping. This weekend, he's hosting a Grindr party where those with the app get into the club for free: 400 men, 0 feet away. In fact, some Grindr parties aren't even sanctioned by the app. These gatherings are happening by themselves. "There was a rogue Grindr party in Singapore recently," Joel laughs.

But what's the next tech fad? "I think we're living the next," says Joel. "The market seems to redefine itself about every decade or so. First with AOL chat rooms, then more tailored Web sites, and now this third wave of location-based searching. It's the major game changer."

And it's just so easy, I thought as I pulled my shirt on and, once again, said thank you to the young man I'd just defiled. "See you next time?" he asked. "You know where to find me," I said as I put my iPhone back in my pocket and walked down the block to my house.

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Clark Harding grew up in Homer, Alaska. He holds a degree from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, and currently resides in Los Angeles.