When Naseer Ashraf, a handsome 25-year-old composer from Wakefield, R.I., goes out with his gay friends, they’re all about cruising hot guys. But even though there will be dozens of good-looking men all around them at the bar, they prefer to flirt with those who are nowhere in sight.
“We call them Grindr parties,” says Ashraf. “We all have our iPhones out, we open them up to our Grindr and we’ll be like, ‘I’m talking to this person,’ and they’ll be like, ‘Forget that; look at this person.’ It’s totally addictive.”
If you’ve never heard of Grindr (pronounced “grinder”), you’re old, straight, or a former Republican senator with a penchant for foot-tapping in airport bathrooms.
Since its debut in 2009, Grindr, an app that uses GPS technology to find other gay men in the vicinity, has become a worldwide phenomenon with more than 2.6 million users in 192 countries including Iran, Iraq, and even Sri Lanka.
Last month, Grindr became a force to be reckoned with after a married Puerto Rican senator with an anti-gay voting record was forced to resign for using Grindr to send pictures of his naked rear end that would have made Anthony Weiner blush.
Fire it up and, within seconds, your phone displays a matrix of chiseled men (many of them shirtless), their basic stats, and, most important, their exact coordinates. Wanna start up a conversation? Send a text (email? Please; so 2002). No need for annoying friend requests or silly quotes. Just upload a sexy shot of yourself and, in the words of the Weather Girls, “Hallelujah! It’s raining men!” Whoever said a good man was hard to find clearly never owned an iPhone.
“It used to be that you talked to someone and arranged and emailed, and it was a big production,” says 34 year-old Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai. “Now, they could be 50 feet away or across the bar and you meet them.”
Simkhai is not exaggerating. Turn a corner or hop to another bar and your phone displays a whole new set of horny hunks. That never-ending supply of men was what got Ashraf obsessed. “I like to flirt a lot, it’s my thing.” Even though he was in a monogamous relationship at the time, he says, he couldn’t stop grinding (yes, it’s a verb), checking out guys several times a day. Unfortunately, neither could his boyfriend, who, as Ashraf found out during one of his parties, was grinding men all over town. He dumped him the very next day.
“Ed,” a 36-year-old IT director from Minneapolis (who asked us not to use his real name), says he too is addicted to Grindr. Even though he’s in a happy and loving relationship, he often grinds while his unsuspecting husband is in the room. “He’ll be right there and I’d be tapping at my phone.” He says he’s never met with any of the guys, but can’t get enough of their suggestive pictures. “I think it’s just me seeking extra attention. Even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, truly physical.”
While Internet addictions are nothing new, the Grindr fixation is hard to ignore. Go to any cafe in Chelsea or West Hollywood and you’ll see men going at it as they’re having lunch. Bars are filled with Grinders (or is it Grindees?) as they talk to someone from across the room. According to the company, 8,000 new members sign up every day. The average user spends an hour and a half on it a day. Whether this constitutes an addiction is hard to say, but there is some anecdotal evidence of compulsive behavior among users.
“It doesn’t have to be about sex to be an addiction,” says Dr. Perry Halkitis, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. Halkitis, who has done extensive work on addiction in the gay community, says that for certain people, the interaction and exchange of images can fire up the same areas in the brain as, say, drugs. “For some people it’s sex, for some people it’s alcohol, for some people it’s looking at naked pictures of penises.”
The fact that it’s on your phone and so readily available probably doesn’t help matters. But Halkitis says there are worse things than getting addicted to Grindr. “At the end of the day, in this world of HIV and other STDs, looking at pictures and exchanging them is less risky than having sex with someone you don’t know.”
Christian Baeff, from Wilsonville, Oregon, says he has no problem with his husband’s infatuation with the app. On the contrary, he encourages it. “I tell him he’s very attractive all the time,” he says, “but he needs to hear it from other people besides his husband. It doesn’t bother me as long as it stays on Grindr.”
And while Manhunt and other hookup sites have been blamed for killing the gay-bar scene, the opposite is true for Grindr. “We’re getting guys out of the house,” says Simkhai. “It’s always with you, so you no longer have to make the decision of, do I stay home and be online or do I go out?”
Interestingly, the so-called “Grindr addiction” is not limited to gay men. Mary K. Moore, a married writer from Austin, Texas, says from the moment her gay friend introduced her to Grindr, she was hooked.
“I once cruised for gay men at the hospital while my mother endured spinal surgery,” she said, laughing. And it didn’t bother her one bit that they were batting for the other team. “I think it’s a little bit of voyeurism and a feeling that you’re in on a secret that no one else knows.”
She became particularly obsessed with the profile of a guy who called himself “Dyson” because, like the ubiquitous vacuum cleaner, he too never lost suction. “It’s just fun to see people all around you trying to make connections.”
Grindr is betting there are more women like Moore who would like in on the action. The company is launching a straight version this week (code name: Amicus) that will cater to heteros.
But while gay men have no problem hooking up on a moment’s notice and without much fanfare, that’s not the case with straight women (or lesbians, for that matter). Simkhai says the straight version is not a dating site but a way to make connections. “Facebook does a great job keeping you connected with people you already know,” says Simkhai, “but how do you meet new people? How do you make new friendships?” Simkhai is hoping the new app will do just that.
When asked whether women might feel skittish about advertising their location to any creep with an iPhone, Simkhai says members of the new app will have control over the accuracy of their location.
Whether women will go for it remains to be seen. “There is no way in hell I would be involved with anything that would pinpoint my location,” said Stephanie Esposito, a marketing executive from Manhattan. “I wouldn’t want to be stalked.” But, she says, if she felt the app had adequate safety features, she would consider it. “As a woman, I’m intuitive, I like the immediacy.” She says the back and forth of dating sites often leaves her exhausted. And then when she finally meets the guy, he turns out to be nothing like his profile. “You just don’t know until you meet face to face.”