In our smartphone era, gay men still remain startlingly incompetent at expressing what they want
By Paul Gallant
In the bad old days, men looking for hookups with other men might have found themselves in parks at night, relying purely on pheromones and rustling sounds as introduction to future partners. Bathhouses and bars were better lit—sometimes. Nowadays, in our smartphone era, we carry around instantly updated digital directories of everyone who’s available, descriptions of who they are and what they’re looking for and, most importantly, a seemingly unlimited flood of photos that someone considered flattering, some so well-lit they seem to have been professionally art directed and photographed. And that’s just Facebook.
But even as technological and sociological changes have shone a brighter light on our mating rituals, gay men still remain startlingly incompetent at expressing what they want. Our descriptions of ourselves do a poor job of capturing what others might appreciate in us, while the demands we write in profiles rarely resemble what would truly, deeply delight us. We spend hours typing “wassup?” at home alone in front of cold pizza rather than take a 15-minute walk to have coffee with someone who might introduce us to an idea or interest we’ve never pondered before. And we’re as careless as drunk drivers with the feelings of men who, if they might not become our lifelong obsession, may be the best friend of someone who fits the bill. Back in the 1990s there was a book called We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. Well, we’ve had seven years of Grindr and, more than ever, there are more frustrated horny men than ever taking it out on other people.
Whether sexual orientation is genetic or not—I leave that to the scientists. But I am quite sure that no one was born with a preference for “no fats, no fems, no Asians.” Whoever coined the phrase should have patented it for profit, as it’s been passed around like a tube of toxic Pringles, failing to satisfy hunger while making everyone feel yucky as they reach for the next tube.
“I’ve turned on Grindr in cities where there are not a lot of Asian people and yet this language still persisted. It was almost viral,” says Jaime Woo, author of Meet Grindr and a forthcoming book on sexuality and ethnicity. “Guys saw it in other places and realized it was an emblem of something. You may not even be talking about fat, fem or Asian people, but those are the code words you use to say, ‘I fit into this very conventional underpinning of heteronormative, white masculinity.’ I think that has to be taught. We learn it from each other.”
It’s all so arbitrary. We denigrate one characteristic while remaining silent on so many others. Phrases like “no shorties” or “no baldies” rarely come up, while “no trolls” or “no flakes” seem like a waste of words—who self-identifies as a troll or a flake?
It’s easy to blame instant messaging and the brevity of app profiles for people using thoughtless cookie-cutter phrases to describe themselves and what they want and don’t want. But the Internet has merely spread, intensified and codified a mess of feelings, attitudes and desires that come from living in a messy society in a messed-up world. A classified ad published in the February 1985 issue of the gay liberation magazine The Body Politic caused a storm back then for its blunt request: “HANDSOME, SUCCESSFUL, GWM [gay white man] would like young, well built BM [black man] for houseboy. Ideal for student or young businessman. Some travelling and affection required.”
Body Politic collective member Ken Popert, now the executive director of Pink Triangle Publishing, defended the ad with prose the Vatican would admire: “Sexual desire and fantasy is just there…. It is not there to be morally evaluated and either glorified or condemned. It is the point of departure for understanding gay people (straight people as well, I suspect; but that’s their business). Desire is inviolable.” Of course, if one believes that the big banks, the institution of marriage, the role of women or the existence of God are up for debate, then desire seems like an odd topic to take off the table. Our desires are shaped at least in part by the information, stories and images that permeate our culture. Sexual ideals (Shaved or hairy? Suit or baseball cap? Vanilla or kinky?) that may change with the times are not any more part of our core selves than our favourite Beyoncé songs—although when we’re held in their thrall, it can certainly feel that way. If Beyoncé had never been born, another artist—perhaps a different kind of artist—would scratch that musical itch. We are much more adaptable than the phrase “It’s just a preference” gives us credit for.
“Like many social factors, desire is shaped behind our backs. We don’t realize how that shaping is taking place, nor do we have complete control over it. It feels to people like their desire just is,” says Tim McCaskell, an educator, writer and activist who, as a Body Politic collective member, argued against Popert’s view back in the 1980s. McCaskell cites another collective member, David Mole, who said we become addicted to the kind of sex we get. We chase what has worked (or, worse still, what seems to work for others) even when being more open would ultimately be more satisfying.
Much of the recent backlash against an online retailer’s “No Fats No Fems” tank tops has focused on the poisoned environment that language creates for those who might feel fat or fem, and the divisions it creates within LGBT communities. Glad Day Bookshop produced a playful “More Fats More Fems” shirt as an emblem of a more inclusive spirit. But the laziness of No Fats No Fems and similar expressions hurts those who use it as much as those who read it. They’re missing out on so much, including people who fit their mental image but who are turned off by their attitude. Shaming websites like Douchebagsofgrindr.com hardly seem necessary except for the satisfaction of revenge. Munching constantly on Pringles, these clueless sods never have the appetite for a gourmet meal. Someone who writes, “Chances of me sleeping with you are less than winning the power ball. Don’t waste your precious time. Don’t be bitter,” is not looking for and will never find a good time; it’s a cry for help from someone who doesn’t know enough to seek professional counselling.
I wouldn’t dare suggest that nobody knows what turns them on, or that there’s a hierarchy of desire. But serendipity goes a long way in both sex and love, as men who have met in the dark will attest.
Here’s one suggestion: if we were forced to constantly update our profiles—prevented from repeating words and phrases like some websites prevent us from recycling old passwords—then we might be forced to think more deeply about what we want and, even more importantly, what we can do and say so that we get it.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto, and is currently development editor at Yongestreetmedia.ca.