Sexual & Racial Politics in the Age of Grindr

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Much like Facebook and Twitter, Grindr is a community of people interacting politically, revealing how our desires are shaped and politicized by culture.

By Senthorun Raj

Why am I on it? What do I want? Who do I talk to? Which profile picture should I use? Where should I hook up? When am I going to delete this?

For those of us who use Grindr, these questions probably sound familiar. I know that they haunt my subconscious pretty much every time I load the app. Some of my friends even like to joke that I spend so much time talking about Grindr, as opposed to talking on Grindr, that I’m just a “Grindr Academic.” To them, I’m the person who writes about my sex life (like I’m doing right now) and then cites Michel Foucault to give it academic legitimacy. I find the joke endearing. But, we should not trivialize the politics of Grindr.

So, what can this space of hooking-up teach us about sexual and racial politics?

Whether you are cruising for casual sex or complaining about love or procrastinating online, Grindr has rapidly transformed the way we negotiate intimacy and frame sexuality. Erotic, platonic, and/or romantic relationships are now just a “click” away on our smartphones. With millions of users worldwide, Grindr has become a source of sexual sustenance. From the moment I tap on to Grindr, I’m connected to a range of other profiles via my geographical proximity to them. I am enmeshed in a process of—as one user so neatly describes—“window shopping.” What I choose to shop for as I scroll through profiles, however, tends to vary. Some profiles display semi-nude selfies that invite “NSA” (no strings attached sex) while others display a photo of a night out in a club to indicate their interest in “friends, dates and maybe more.”

I can use Grindr to organize casual sex, professional networks, neighborhood parties, friendship, and dating. There are infinite intimate possibilities. In the words of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, these new “sexual counterpublics” emerge to facilitate new forms of emotional and sexual labour that do not just revolve around the traditional imaginaries of reproductive or matrimonial relationships.

With such titillating possibilities, I could easily herald Grindr as a transformative and revolutionary space for queer connections. My optimism, however, comes with concern: filters cannot block the everyday cruelties of ignorance and inequality. Grindr, for example, relies on standard categories of defining bodies (ethnicity, height, weight, age) in order to mediate sexual desire. Many of the app users fashion their online identities through both visual and written statements that they are “masc” (masculine) and “str8 acting” (appearing heterosexual). In doing so, Grindr users mimic and reproduce norms of what is socially desirable.

Discussing our desires can evoke feelings of embarrassment or anxiety. We like to protect our intimate attachments from public interrogation. Apps like Grindr, however, blur such distinctions. When “personal preferences” take shape in rhetorical statements like, “Don’t be another old, ethnic, nelly bttm” or “If people can tell you’re gay … you’re not masculine,” private desires are woundingly public. Even if it is a virtual platform, much like Facebook and Twitter, Grindr is a community of people interacting politically.

Grindr users respond to these disaffecting profiles in various ways: some people angrily use the block button, more patient people try to challenge the rhetoric online, and others just take screenshots and vengefully send them to Douchebags of Grindr. For those who have not stumbled upon it, it is a website where we can revel in shaming those who shame. The idea of shaming arrogant Grindr users seems both fair and funny. But, despite this, the public “outing” and breach of privacy involved raise a number of ethical questions about how we should respond to the “Douchebag Politics” we encounter online.

We need to recognize that bigotry is a social malaise—not a personal pathology.  Grindr makes bigotry painfully apparent but this is not unique to the online platform. In making spectacles out of the purported douchebags on Grindr, we can make the more insidious forms of racialized activities seem palatable by comparison. After all, why does using overtly racist words in your profile attract moral opprobrium, while using an automatic filter to exclude certain kinds of bodies does not?

Making spectacles out of unrepentant bigots may satisfy or entertain us, but it does little to ensure that the intimate worlds we are building are inclusive and respectful. Whether we are on public transportation or networking online, racism is a systemic problem that is not just isolated to highly visceral tirades. Isolating people or profiles in order to stigmatize the individual person, rather than challenge the problematic behavior, is counterproductive. It just makes most of us more defensive (no one likes being labeled as a racist or homophobe even if they obviously are). Moreover, this usually limits our ability to confront the more insidious forms of prejudice that underscore such problematic behavior or that which is coded in terms of “preferences.”

This is not to suggest we can turn to anti-discrimination law in order to redress our sexual grievances. We should not treat desires as justiciable. There is little value in policing ourselves to desire others on the basis of exclusion. Finding someone solely attractive because of, or in spite of, their difference—whether it is their perceived “Asianness” or a specific body type—turns people into fetish or pitied objects to be consumed.

But, we do need some uncomfortable reflections. We live in a society that privileges certain kinds of body types, genders, ethnicities, and ages. From eroticizing heterosexual masculinity or whiteness to repudiating effeminacy or fatness, Grindr is saturated with social hierarchies that are pervasive in society. Grindr shows us how our desires are shaped and politicized by culture. Few of us would deny that.

While we are often quite willing to confront the scenes of bigotry that our visible to us in public forums, we need to extend this ethic when reflecting on the prejudices that operate at the most banal and emotional level of our lives.

Grindr is a tool for sex. It’s also a tool for politics. In the words of Audre Lorde, “our visions begin with our desires.” So, let’s be open about that. The political is personal.

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