–Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design
Apps like Grindr have really changed the ways gay men can interact in public. I’ve heard Grindr described in different ways, but it—and apps like it—are often talked about as “gay GPS.” They’ll tell you, based on your current location, who in your vicinity is also on the App. As with Myspace, Facebook and other social networking sites, Grindr became popular among a diverse group of gay, bi, and curious men, prompting some groups to remain, while others migrate to different digital spaces. The most recent I saw marketed is Distinc.tt which is clearly being marketed as a space for those looking for a gay digital space devoid of what are framed at Distinc.tt as the less savory elements of Grindr culture.
As they put it, Distinc.tt is “prettier and less sketchy.” Organizing themselves around more than just Grindr’s “who, specifically around me is gay” approach, Distinc.tt also tells users about where local “hot spots” are (locations with a critical mass of Distinc.tt users). So, while Grindr’s ploy has been to market the sheer volume of users it has, Distinc.tt is framed in a way that suggests fewer users–a smaller, elite collection of the “right” kind of gay men.
How these apps are marketed (i.e., who they’re “intended to be used by,” who they’re hoping to dissuade from use, and precisely what the app states as it’s intended use) illustrates racialized, classed, and gender-presentational tensions and dynamics at work in organizing gay men’s public erotic lives. Distinc.tt (left) doesn’t state this explicitly, but it seems intended to be used by a more economically and culturally elite group of (primarily) white, young, gay men. Conversely, Grindr (right) is presented as more of a free-for-all of younger gay men of all different races and classes.
Adam Isaiah Green’s theorization of sexual fields and erotic capital is a great analytical tool to discuss these social spaces that occupy that fuzzy terrain between the digital and physical. “Sexual fields” refer to spaces within which a specific set of “erotic capital” are understood to have purchase. Green defines erotic capital in this way: “the quality and quantity of attributes that an individual possesses, which elicit an erotic response in another” (here: 29). So, a constellation of physical, emotional, sensual, and aesthetic elements of identity are at play in this definition. Yet, like Bourdieu’s conceptualization of cultural capital—and similar to my theorization of gender capital—how much erotic capital one has depends on the field one occupies. Green conceptualizes sexual fields—within Bourdieu’s theoretical framing of “fields”—as “semiautonomous arenas” (here: 26). By this he is arguing that they are the social spaces defined by the erotic capital understood to have purchase.
So, gay bars organized around sexual fields make sense because they provide physical locations within which one can be reasonably aware of one’s relative desirability. Thus, sexual fields are best thought of as “semiautonomous” because they are organized by the erotic capital of individuals within them. So, within Green’s framework, a bar that caters to different groups of clientele that exalt, seek out, and perceive erotic capital in different ways at different times of the day can be understood as a different sexual field depending upon what time you happen to show up.
Some social spaces are primarily organized by an erotic capital everyone recognizes, while many spaces we occupy involve overlapping sexual fields whose erotic capital might be dramatically at odds. In effect, Grindr clumps “gay men” together as a homogenous group, asking those who join to digitally join a single sexual field. Yet, designers neglect to recognize here that gay men are not all a part of one single, homogeneous sexual field—as Green’s research shows.
Sexual fields are organized hierarchically, with what Green refers to as “tiers of desirability.” The higher in the hierarchy you are, the more power you have over sexual status and contact. Yet, Grindr ignores this, clumping together anyone willing to sign up. It is primarily for this reason that competing apps have emerged in the market—as a way to digitize sexual fields that select groups of gay men might want to occupy. And, just as significantly, their creation illustrates a desire to digitally segregate themselves from “other” groups. Grindr allows some of this as well, yet users have to be a bit more proactive—and the interface subtly suggests that erotic capital is almost solely organized around physical attractiveness. Surely, this is a significant factor, but sexual fields exist in which interest in and proficiency with certain kinds of sexual acts can function as a reliable source of erotic capital (e.g., “cuddling” in Bear culture and a variety of acts and interests in leather culture).
The few scholars I’ve talked with or heard talk about Grindr who are interested in not only the fact that gay men are using it, but also how they are using it. The ability to “block” certain people (making oneself digitally invisible to others) allows users the ability to digitally screen a social venue for interactions one might like to avoid. But, in some ways, it exacerbates existing systems of inequality, and forces people to acknowledge the various “-isms” that structure sexual fields: racism, ableism, athleticism, classism (so far as this is made visible), etc. More than one scholar I’ve talked to have mentioned the ways that some (primarily white) men make use of the app involves selectively “blocking” anyone not white from interaction when entering a given venue. In some ways, apps like Distinc.tt could be seen as stepping in to potentially help gay men avoid the self-evaluation that might accompany ritualistically “blocking” non-white people.
It’s also of interest to sociologists because social networking like this is—technically—publicly available “data,” from a social scientific perspective. But, should there be some kind of checks and balances on scholars attempting to use apps like this to study groups of gay men? Or, are some ways of using the app okay, while others might be breaching people’s trust and sense of relative anonymity and security on the app?
Apps like Grindr and Distinc.tt allow gay men to locate one another in space–digitally removing the necessity of things like “gaydar” in some social spaces. Men can send each other messages, “block” others from seeing or contacting them, and digitally interact before they decide whether or not and how to physically or emotionally interact. But they also seem to rely on a superficial understanding of all that Green shows is at stake in erotic capital—forcing users to use physical appearance as the only source of erotic capital, or at the very least as a proxy for other forms. This is not to deny that physique plays a critical (perhaps the critical) role in structuring many sexual fields, but to highlight the fact that reducing erotic capital to physical appearance might take an unacknowledged digital toll on the social organization of intimate life.
Tristan Bridges is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. His research considers the many ways that men think about, reproduce, and resist gender and sexual inequality. He is currently investigating the historical roots of “man caves” in heterosexual couple households and examining the ways that men and women make sense of these spaces in their homes. Tristan blogs on issues related to gender and sexual inequality and space at Inequality by (Interior) Design.