When your next sex date is only zero feet away. Geolocal technology and gay male online dating with the app Grindr in Berlin (Part 1)
In his master’s thesis, Frederik Efferenn investigated the use of the dating app Grindr in the urban space of Berlin. Through its GPS-based technology, the app produces a dynamic and homosexual network that gay men use to arrange casual hook-ups. How does the search for non-committal sex inscribe itself in everyday routines that homosexual men use to shape their lives in Berlin? For the Digital Society Blog, the author presents various central theses from his research.
Have you ever heard of cruising? In gay parlance, the term is used synonymously for seeking quick and anonymous sex with strange men in public spaces, or semi-public places. In Berlin, gay men use many different meeting places to meet for such fleeting, sexual adventures. They can easily be found, for example, on the city map of the queer city magazine “Siegessäule” or on the website “gay-szene.net“. But if you now think that this is once again a special peculiarity in connection with the free spirit of Berlin, you are wrong. For cruising has been a widespread practice in urban gay male communities around the world for decades. Its origins lie in the historical discrimination and persecution of homosexuality, which can be easily explained with a brief glimpse to the last century. Here, gay men in Germany, for example, were still deliberately prosecuted until the 1960s. For fear of stigmatization, many of them therefore met away from the eyes of the public. They used semi-public spaces such as bars and saunas or even public places such as parks, beaches or toilets at certain times of the day as meeting places. Of course, only insiders were aware about this, and knew how to communicate with each other using various signs, codes and tactics. This is how the cruising culture was established at the time, where gay men met for their own safety under the protection of anonymity to have sex with strange men. As a historical practice, it has survived the test of time and is still an integral part of gay culture today, of course in a modified form.
Design and modes of operation of the app = analog infrastructures
But what does the dating app Grindr have to do with this gay sex dating practice? Quite simply, it added a digital twist to the ‘analog’ search practices of cruising. Since 2009, the app has allowed its users [a] to locate, contact, and meet for sex with other gay men in their immediate vicinity from a variety of everyday situations. To do this, the app uses the respective live GPS locations of its users and sorts them on the screen based on their direct proximity to each other. In scene jargon, it is therefore often referred to as a “gaydar” (derived from terms ‘gay’ and ‘radar’). This means that gay men have the opportunity to find potential sex dating partners everywhere in their everyday lives via their smartphone screen. Whether walking around town or working at the home office, the app is always associated with the thrill of theoretically being able to find the next sexual adventure. To do this, Grindr provides its users with a ‘secret’ and virtual space that is invisible to most people within our heterosexualized society. Through it, gay men can find each other, live out their own sexual identity, and initiate often unnoticed non-binding sexual encounters. Does this remind you of anything? Many design features and functionalities of the app bear a very strong resemblance to the logics of historical cruising culture! More specifically, it simply recombines a pre-existing analog socio-cultural infrastructure with a new digital spatial construction. In the everyday lives of gay men, the app thus creates a new user experience built entirely around this proximity mediated through the smartphone screen. This is also why the app is so appealing to the needs and dispositions of gay men today.
Grindr is now the Amazon of gay dating apps
With this rather simple – but extremely effective – technical geolocation feature, Grindr has now grown to become the most popular online dating platform for gay men. By its own account, it has several million daily active users around the world. Although Grindr markets itself as a social network for queer people[b], the app is mainly used by gay men for a specific form of sex dating. The sex involved is usually one-time, short-lived, and rarely leads to any further interpersonal relationship between the men. Of course, other types of use can be recorded, but users who are generally not interested in sexual encounters and contacts tend to quickly leave the app after a while. According to cultural scientist Kane Race, apps like Grindr dominate gay (online) socialization today and have become one of the most common methods for sexual encounters between gay men in the last two decades.
Online sexual dating and the digital probing of Berlin.
In my master’s thesis, I addressed the question of how app use and the search for noncommittal sex dates are inscribed in an everyday practice that homosexual men use to shape their lives in Berlin. By way of introduction, four key findings about homosexual online dating culture in the city are discussed below.
1. The dating culture is highly dependent on where it is used.
Does it make a difference if gay men use the app in different cities and settings? Sure. For the research participants, the app has a very unique character in Berlin, for example, which is very different from many places abroad or in Germany. This has to do with the approximately 300,000 gay residents and the large number of gay tourists who establish a comparatively distinct gay male subculture in the liberal metropolis. Here, many of the men show themselves quite openly with their faces, sexual preferences and, in some cases, links to their social media profiles on the app. In addition, the large and relatively anonymous dating market in Berlin often feels ‘inexhaustible’ to many because new men are always flocking to the city. For them, using the app is thereby linked on a daily basis with the knowledge that thousands of users are constantly online in their social and urban environment. This quickly creates the feeling that theoretically ‘better’ and ‘more exciting’ men could be waiting on every corner. Of course, this also has consequences for how the men interact with each other on the app. This creates a very accelerated, de-emotionalized and efficient dating behavior in Berlin. This is characterized by communication that is strongly focused on sex, with little room for other content and contexts. As a result, other conceivable uses for Grindr in the city, such as finding a romantic partner or using it as a chat platform away from purely sexual content, are significantly limited.[c]
2. The app leads to a playful exploration of the city.
On another level, with the help of the app, the men’s own smartphone screen becomes a kind of male-homosexual lens with which they transform the entire city into an exclusive and gay spatial structure. Here, especially one’s own apartment and neighborhood turn out to be important centers of individual Grindr use. Interestingly, due to the high density of gay men, most sex dates only take place within a relatively small radius of no more than four kilometers around one’s own home. In addition, however, the app is also used in everyday life for various voyeuristic purposes or to pass the time, to look around in other parts of the city, or to make themselves visible to previously unfamiliar users in neighboring neighborhoods. As a result, men from a wide variety of social situations and activities transform urban space into a socio-sexual public sphere. Whether during work, a walk, or at the gym, the app runs alongside many everyday actions like a quiet background noise that is used to probe one’s surroundings again and again. The points described above lead to this technically produced near-spatiality becoming a central part of the men’s own urban life in Berlin and becoming firmly linked to their own gay self-image.
3. The corona pandemic only partially disrupts the normal dating process.
At the beginning of the Corona crisis, most users on Grindr were also initially very cautious. However, after a short period of several weeks, men started dating and meeting for sex dates again. In contrast, the absence of the many gay tourists – who otherwise flock to the global metropolis on a daily basis and are all over the city – makes for a big difference in user numbers. Normally, they make for a very interactive and dynamic dating market, which currently seems comparatively sluggish for many resident users due to their absence. Nevertheless, users remain active on the app, as online sexual dating is firmly integrated into many of their daily routines. This is also the case, for example, in the home office, where it can also quickly become a mix of leisure and work in one’s own private space. Here, chats and the search for interesting profiles invite many men to procrastinate. In addition, the more flexible time windows in the home office also sometimes lead to a short pastime on the app leading to a spontaneous and quick sex date during working hours or the lunch break.
4. The app becomes a key element of a male homosexual, urban and engineered sexuality.
Since the sexual dating culture on Grindr often goes unnoticed by outsiders, the app offers men the opportunity to live out their own sexual needs apart from the sexual morality of our heterosexually shaped society. It thus becomes, for example, a platform on which they can renegotiate among themselves the ‘classic’ and fixed bond of emotions and sex. Many separate here in their sex life between a playful, anonymous pleasure satisfaction with strange men and an emotional as well as romantic intimacy, which they share only with one person. In addition to singles, many men in open partnerships[d] also like to use the app in Berlin in this context. Consequently, the physical-digital space of the app offers them a possibility with which they can realize relatively undisturbed new and innovative forms of relationships away from the social ideal of the monogamous partnership.
Outlook: Where are the problems and dangers?
Finally, this introductory blog post ends with a cautionary self-criticism. Because the presentation of the research results listed so far focuses very much on the positive aspects and potentials with which gay men on Grindr can develop their own homosexuality. Therefore, it runs the risk of ignoring many of the problems and critical behaviors associated with the app. For example, why do men keep their own app use a secret from their heterosexual environment of family, friends, and work colleagues? What role do intersectional categories and discrimination within the queer community play here? These questions will be discussed in the second part of the blog series in a few weeks.
[a] Since all individuals within the conducted research identify as cis-male and gay, a masculine and masculine-homosexual spelling will be used in the further course in reference to the users of Grindr. However, this is not meant to distract from the fact that people with other sexual orientations and gender identities do use the app in their everyday lives.
[b] In a subcultural and political context, the term ‘queer’ refers to the self-designation of people who locate their identities and lifestyles beyond the privileging patterns of heterosexuality and two-gender hegemony. Grindr was originally developed in 2009 for a gay and bisexual male dating market, but has recently added new features to be more inclusive of other sexual orientations and gender identities beyond the heterosexual norm.
[c] At this point, it is important to note that Grindr’s local dating cultures vary greatly from place to place. For example, rural areas and smaller cities, where there is a much lower density of users, provide a very different context for action than the big city. Similarly, using the app in restrictive countries where homosexuality is highly stigmatized and sometimes prosecuted poses many risks (including data risks). Such local factors always have a strong impact on the respective culture of use of the app.
[d] The concept of open partnership is defined among research participants as a relationship between two people in which both parties are knowingly free from each other to also meet other sexual partners. For them, the openness of this form of relationship refers to a de-romanticized, de-emotionalized, and purely sexual aspect. It is not, therefore, a form of polyamory that allows one to form a sexual and emotional bond with several people at the same time, which can lead to a variety of long-term relationships.
 Cf. Christian Licoppe / Carole Anne Rivière / Julien Morel: Grindr casual hook-ups as interactional achievements. In: New Media & Society Jg. 18 (2015), H. 11, S. 2540-2558, hier S. 2545f.
 Cf. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung: 1994. Homosexualität nicht mehr strafbar (07.03.2014) https://www.bpb.de/politik/hintergrund-aktuell/180263/1994-homosexualitaet-nicht-mehr-strafbar [zuletzt aufgerufen am: 21.05.2021].
 Cf. Licoppe / Rivière / Morel: Grindr casual hook-ups as interactional achievements, S. 2545f.
 Tim Fitzsimons: Grindr turns 10. How a decade with GPS ‘dating’ apps changed us all (24.03.2019). https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/grindr-turns-10-how-decade-gps-dating-apps-changed-us-n986666 [zuletzt aufgerufen am: 21.05.2021].
 Cf. Christian Licoppe / Carole Anne Rivière / Julien Morel: Proximity awareness and the privatization of sexual encounters with strangers. The case of Grindr. In: Carolyn Marvin, Sun-Ha Hong and Barbie Zelizer (Hg.): Context Collapse. Re-assembling the Spatial. London 2016, S. 45-65, hier, S. 57.
 Cf. Simon Clay: The (Neo)Tribal Nature of Grindr. In: Anne Hardy / Andy Bennett /Brady Robards (Hg.): Neo-Tribes. Consumption, Leisure and Tourism. Cham 2018, S. 235-251, hier S. 237.
 Cf. Kane Race: Speculative pragmatism and intimate arrangements. Online hook-up devices in gay life. In: Culture, Health & Sexuality Jg. 17 (2014), H. 4, S. 496-511, hier S. 503.
 Cf. Christian Grov / Aaron S. Breslow / Michael E. Newcomb / Joshua G. Rosenberger / Jose A. Bauermeister: Gay and Bisexual men’s use of the Internet: Research from the 1990s through 2013. In: J Sex Res Jg. 15 (2014) H. 4, S. 390–409, hier S. 394.
 Cf. Licoppe / Rivière / Morel: Grindr casual hook-ups as interactional achievements, S. 2541.
 Cf. Ebd.
 Cf. Race: Speculative pragmatism and intimate arrangements, S. 498.
 Cf. Tim Hendrich: Ausgeprägte Gay Szene. Wo leben die meisten Schwulen? (03.07.2018).
This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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