The ‘dark patterns’ that keep us hooked on gay geosocial apps

Essy Knopf dark patterns gay geosocial apps Grindr
Reading time: 8 minutes

To what does the gay geosocial app Grindr owe its success? Is it the fact that it was one of the first, or that its design employs highly manipulative “dark patterns”?

To understand Grindr’s extraordinary success—one that allowed it to achieve ubiquity in the gay community, and to become a fixture of popular culture—we have to go back to its launch.

On March 25, 2009, Grindr was officially founded by San Vicente Acquisition LLC. The app’s arrival came less than a year after Apple launched its App Store.

Certainly, the absence of direct competition boosted Grindr’s popularity. That said, the app didn’t represent a reinvention of the online dating wheel, so much as a refinement.

The app’s designers implemented existing features already present in existing web-based services, such as Gaydar and Manhunt, combining these with the ability to see other users based on proximity.

The geosocial aspect didn’t just endow all interactions with an exciting sense of immediacy—it accelerated them.

No longer tethered to web-based services only accessible via computer, gay men were suddenly able to respond and arrange meetups on the go.

The excitement, speed, and convenience enabled by Grindr were so attractive that a raft of other dating apps soon emerged to challenge its dominance.

The enduring popularity of dark patterns

Tinder, OkCupid, Scruff, Hornet, Hinge, Bumble—all of these apps represent iterations of a winning formula. New look, same great taste.

The more successful apps such as Scruff simply lifted features wholesale from Grindr, while others like Tinder introduced new mechanics, such as the ability to swipe to like or decline users’ profiles.

Not all geosocial dating apps flourished or even survived the mobile app development boom, one which, of course, was closely tied to the rise of smartphones.

Those that did however hadn’t so much caught the wave of a trend or were simply meeting an unmet need. They endured because they used manipulative tactics user experience specialist Harry Brignull calls “dark patterns”.

Dark patterns in action in gay geosocial apps

On Brignull’s “Dark Patterns” website (now referred to as “Deceptive Design”, he lists a number of strategies typically used by websites to control user behaviors.

Brignull offers creative analogies (e.g. “roach motel”) and compound words of his own invention (“confirmshaming”), detailing the extent to which website designers are willing to go in the name of profit.

In a 2020 interview with Wired, he summarized one of the major outcomes of dark pattern strategies: maximized retention of the user base.

“Lots of companies will make it hard for people to leave,” Brignull noted. “They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they might stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 percent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer.”

“And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money.”

Many of these dark patterns Brignull describes don’t pertain to geosocial dating apps, but those outlined on a sister website do.

Dark Pattern Games runs a registry that names and shames video games it says use dark pattern strategies. (Note: The site does not appear to be directly associated with Brignull, and its provenance is unclear.)

These strategies I would argue are present in many gay dating and hookup apps, given most of them incorporate gamification in their designs. 

While Grindr is hardly an exception to the norm, it receives credit for being the first gay geosocial app to succeed in mainstreaming dark patterns. 

For this reason, I will use this particular app as a case study, exploring the presence of temporal and psychological dark patterns and their impact on the user experience.

Temporal dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Daily rewards: Logging into Grindr usually provides users an opportunity to collect messages sent from chat partners following their previous login.

User profiles appear in Grindr’s grid-based layout based on both proximity and how recently they have logged into the app.

Logging in therefore increases the chances of one’s profile being seen by those currently browsing the app.

This may thus trigger an influx of fresh messages, increasing the daily reward output and thus incentivizing users to return.

Grinding: Not to be confused with the popular verb for using Grindr, “grindring” (though the similarity here is ironic), this term refers to when apps force users to perform repetitive busywork to achieve a sense of advancement. 

In the case of Grindr, this involves screening countless profiles to see if they meet certain attractiveness and compatibility criteria.

This involves fielding cascades of unsolicited messages and photos, as well as chatting with an endless procession of old and new users.

Advertisements: Grindr forces users to watch ads before they can read or respond to messages from other users.

Besides buying a subscription membership, there is no way to bypass these ads. 

Infinite Treadmill: This term refers to when an app renders success or completion of a task impossible. 

Grindr’s old motto was “get on to get off”, with the app presenting itself as a kind of matchmaker between two people (or more) who were presumably seeking an in-person interaction. 

But meeting someone, whether it be for friendship or a sexual and/or romantic liaison, Grindr renders this almost impossible due to its gamified design.

To explain: in order to secure maximum responses, users have to continually engage with the app. For example, by logging in frequently, and tailoring profiles, messages, and photos to solicit responses from as many other users as possible.

When one receives such responses, which represent attention and validation, they positively reinforce our continued use. 

These responses also motivate us to continue tailoring our profiles, messages, and photos to maintain or increase these responses, rather than in service of a physical goal, like meeting another user.

The effect is an experience that can be likened to an endless cycle…or an Infinite Treadmill.

Can’t Pause or Save: Exchanging messages on Grindr is inherently fun and rewarding, and so we may find ourselves keeping at it well beyond what we might have initially planned.

Even after we close the app, we continue to receive push notifications from other users when they message us. These notifications serve to summon us back to the app to continue our conversations. 

But given other users also don’t linger on the app indefinitely, with many logging off—often without notice—this creates an impression that all exchanges are fleeting.

The possibility of missing out on said exchanges (and the possibility of a friendship, sexual, or romantic encounter) creates tension within the user. 

Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) thus drives many to routinely log back into the app and respond to any outstanding messages.

Due to the proximity/recency factor I mentioned above, logging back in pushes our profile back into prominence, drawing attention from still more users. 

This inability to “pause” means our Grindr interactions continue indefinitely, intruding into our daily life.

Psychological dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Illusion of Control: When scanning the Grindr user profile grid, new or unfamiliar profiles are more likely to stick out and inspire curiosity. 

Human beings are inherent novelty-seekers, a fact Grindr’s creators capitalize upon by spotlighting new profiles/profile photos. 

The app does this by refreshing display grids periodically, revealing users who have recently arrived in one’s area, or who have updated their profile.

By doing so, the app directs the flow of attentional traffic towards these individuals, which can trigger a virtual “love bombing” by multiple users. 

To the recipient, being love-bombed may lead them to believe they are a highly desirable commodity.

To the sender, being able to love bomb comes with the expectation that one will receive a response. Both recipient and sender are led to entertain an illusion of control.

Variable Rewards: Messages (read: rewards) are received entirely at random on Grindr, and even when one is not on the platform through push notifications.

The lack of a predictable schedule by which rewards arrive is a form of intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is commonly used by the gambling industry to manipulate clients into continually “playing the game”, even when doing so might spell financial ruin.

This has been demonstrated using Skinner boxes, an experimental device that uses intermittent reinforcement to create addiction even among pigeons and rats.

Intermittent reinforcement is successful because it does not encourage scrutiny or self-reflection. In the case of Grindr, it promotes a kind of minimalist, reflexive communication style that characterizes social media: swiping, liking, and commenting. 

Grindr users thus respond to the existence of others in the same casual, noncommittal fashion they would a social media post, knowing this is all that is required to obtain a response and therefore validation.

Aesthetic Manipulations: Grindr’s gamified design promotes interaction as a free-for-all, rather than a deliberate and purposeful pursuit of individuals for a concrete, in-person outcome.

The design doesn’t nudge users towards meeting in person, something that could easily be achieved by imposing limitations such as capping the total number of messages exchanged between two users.

To do so, of course, would result in a drop in the user base, and total time spent on the app, thereby reducing opportunities to monetize users’ continued use.

App makers, as discussed in a previous blog post, do this not only through advertisements and subscription services but the sale of user behavioral data.

One way in which Grindr is able to keep people on the platform is the spotlight effect that funnels collective attention towards specific users based on their salience and novelty. 

Being spotlit can leave one with a conviction in one’s own appeal, even if this effect ultimately is temporary and likely to be withdrawn after the app ceases to spotlight one’s profile.

The one-way flow of messages may be replaced by complete silence—often within hours of an initial login or photo update. The validation feast offered by Grindr thus leads to virtual famine.

The app promises the fulfillment of our subconscious desire to be seen as attractive, desirable, and worthy, before withdrawing it rather suddenly, and dangling it again when one receives attention again subsequently.

You see, famine on Grindr is rarely total. Because the app has a large user base, and because users frequently change their locations, one’s profile is routinely discovered by a new batch of users. 

This intermittent reinforcement leads us to interpret these crumbs as evidence of a forthcoming meal. So we optimistically make do with what we can get, holding out for the possibility of future successes.

We tell ourselves that just over the horizon, our next lover or partner is waiting and that the only way to secure their affection is by continuing to login into the app and play the “game”.

Optimism and Frequency Biases: Being love-bombed on Grindr is inherently memorable, given there are few instances outside of using the app where this will happen.

The experience may cause us to lean into blind optimism. After all, if one enjoys such success at first blush, surely one will never struggle to garner interest from others? 

And so we come to believe that our prospects on the app are not a product of its design, but rather us having a fixed amount of desirability.

Yet when one considers the hundreds of conversations they have had with other users, one realizes that only a tiny fraction of those conversations lead to in-person meetings. 

Such meetings are, at least in my estimation, a far more concrete reflection of one’s prospects. 

The app however coaches us to focus instead on what is referred to in social media as “vanity metrics”. 

This jargon refers to metrics that make us feel good but don’t translate to any meaningful results, such as the total amount of messages received, especially during the love-bombing phase.

Wrap up

Gay geosocial app makers have the advantage: they know our weaknesses and are willing to exploit them using all manner of clandestine dark patterns.

These apps may provide what we consider to be an essential service often for free, but they come with a hidden price tag.

Monitoring our behavior on their platforms from behind a one-way mirror, app makers continually tweak and finetune these patterns so as to further entrap us. 

All of this is done in service of profit, per a widespread form of profiteering I have referred to as “distraction capitalism”.

We users accept these manipulations because they wear the fun guise of gamification, and cultivate satisfaction through intermittent reinforcement.

But constant exposure to this kind of reinforcement can lead many of us to develop process addictions. 

Much in the same way we log in to social media to check for “likes”, we may find ourselves compulsively logging into gay geosocial apps like Grindr to collect messages and a quick hit of dopamine.

If you happen to recognize the role dark patterns take in your regular app interactions and are alarmed, know that there are far healthier alternative methods available for meeting other gay men

‘Breadcrumbing’: the gay dating app practice that destroys connection

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 6 minutes

If you’ve ever used a gay dating app before, you’ve likely experienced “flash in the pan” conversations that start and end abruptly, usually without explanation.

Turns out that the sudden appearance, followed by the sudden disappearance, of chat partners is often part of an intentional strategy known as “breadcrumbing”.

Prior to learning this term, I liked to refer to my experiences using a phrase of my own invention, the “sushi train effect”. 

If you’ve ever attended a sushi train restaurant, you can probably already see the comparison I’m making. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain.

The sushi train effect explained

At sushi train restaurants, fresh-made dishes are presented on small plates delivered using a circular conveyor belt, or the back of a toy train that follows a loop. 

Many usual favorites can be obtained via this method—everything from tempura to nigiri and uramaki rolls, dumplings, and more. 

Diners choose the dishes they want to eat then remove them from the belt/train. As they do, sushi chefs prepare new dishes to replenish the train’s stock with.

The effect is like sitting before a buffet—or rather, a never-ending supply of snack-sized meals.

When one logs onto a gay dating app, one’s profile is immediately presented for review by other users, much like a new dish appearing on a sushi train.

On apps like Grindr or Scruff, that image appears in a grid of other profile images, organized according to current proximity.

If it’s your first time using the app, or simply your first time using that particular image, your profile will exude an aura of novelty. A feeding frenzy will ensue, with other users flooding your account with messages.

These users may express keen interest in, and admiration for, your person, replying to you with an urgency that demands immediate engagement. 

‘Boom and bust’ on the gay dating app

If you reply, many of these interactions may end then and there, with the other user mysteriously withdrawing the instant they’ve obtained your attention. 

But if you delay your reply, you can often expect the other user—who has subsequently logged off—to reappear sometime later, offering what usually amounts to a lukewarm response.

Their interest, as it turns out, was only temporary, even opportunistic. A brief window opened, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a world of possibility, then swiftly closed.

One is thus given the impression that others’ availability is time-limited, and even then when you do manage to catch them on the app, there is often no tangible outcome.

Recipients of this sudden influx of attention may be left wondering if what they have experienced is not admiration, but a Pavlovian response—like the salivating of dogs at the sound of the bell. 

This is the first part of the “sushi train effect”: idolization by total strangers. The second part is devaluation.

As the aura of novelty fades, what begins as a flood will inevitably slow to a trickle. This can happen over the course of a day, or even a few hours.

Before one was treated as “hot property”, but now one is regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel fixer-upper. One’s face or torso, once distinguishable from countless others, becomes just another brick in the wall. 

Like any dish glimpsed by diners circling the sushi train one too many times, one’s profile loses appeal through sheer familiarity. 

This meteoric rise, followed by a precipitous decline, creates an impression of “boom and bust” that can leave most app users feeling rather disoriented.

One moment, one feels seen and valued, and the next, it’s as if one has been discarded; reduced to yet another piece of flotsam floating in the modern dating and hookup sea.

‘The sushi train effect’ as a form of ‘breadcrumbing’

The third part of the sushi train effect is delayed revaluation. 

Take for example the user who declares their interest in you and agrees to meet in person, but who—when pressed for specifics—fails to follow through.

Sometimes, they turn on a dime, it feels like you’re chatting with a completely different person, one who now believes you are completely unworthy of the effort.

Other times, they may agree, only to cancel the meetup, citing some unforeseen event or complication. They may also indefinitely “bench” it, but without proposing a suitable date or time. Or they may block your account outright.

Then, days, weeks, months, or even years later, this individual will reach out again—prompted, it seems, by your convenient reappearance in their dating or hookup app grid.

They may offer an explanation for their disappearance, maybe even an apology for having flaked on you. Or they may simply pretend it never happened. 

What’s most confusing is when this person expresses the same level of interest they did on the first occasion. 

If you remember their sending mixed messages, you may feel tempted to address this directly. The alternative after all is silence, and merely contenting yourself with this sudden attention. 

Should you do this, you may become caught up in an amnesiac dance, make-believing it was circumstance and not a conscious choice that prevented your meeting the first time around.

The hardened skeptics among us however will throw the stranger’s sincerity into doubt, concluding that they’re messaging again out of pure boredom. 

And a lot of the time, we are justified in this belief. Many app users are merely hunting for attention, like an addict hunting for their next fix. Their interest has less to do with us as people and more with the renewed novelty we represent. 

To return to the sushi train analogy: dishes once declared ho-hum are often reappraised by diners after a long absence, and may thus regain some of their former appeal.

Turns out this behavior isn’t exclusive to gay dating and hookup apps but is rampant in the wider dating world.

‘Breadcrumbing’ explained

“Breadcrumbing” is when a dater uses small amounts of attention or validation to keep you interested in them. Basically, what it usually boils down to is fishing for attention.

Daters typically leave “breadcrumbs” when they aren’t seriously interested in meeting. What does “breadcrumbing” commonly look like on a gay dating app? 

Microcommunication is a common example: users who repeatedly check in (“Hey”/”How are you?”/”What you up to?”), exchange brief pleasantries, but make no serious effort to sustain a mutual conversation.

Sudden disappearances, followed by sudden reappearances—much in the same fashion I’ve described above.

Small talk that goes nowhere. Breadcrumbers use small talk to sustain the interaction, even when they have no intention to take that interaction offline. 

Refusing to schedule dates. Breadcrumbers are usually reluctant to make any kind of commitment, as their main purpose in messaging is to secure attention or validation. 

Trying to set up a date is the quickest way to suss out a breadcrumber’s intention, as they will usually evade, make an excuse, or bail beforehand.

Refusing to follow through with plans. As noted, breadcrumbers refuse to meet in person, preferring instead the minimal effort involved in a text exchange.

In short, breadcrumbers like to talk a big game but will always balk, for various reasons. 

Some may feel lonely, bored, and/or insecure and are seeking a quick boost to their self-esteem. In such instances, breadcrumbers receive your responses as proof of their attractiveness or worth.

Alternatively, the breadcrumber may want contact with other gay men, but see face-to-face meetings as carrying risks or responsibilities they aren’t prepared to deal with. 

There are also breadcrumbers who are driven by a narcissistic desire they know they can meet by sustaining text banter with multiple suitors, often at the same time.

Whatever their motives, know that unless you yourself are using dating and hookup apps to breadcrumb, you’re likely to find these kinds of interactions to be unsatisfying and, ultimately, a waste of time.

Breadcrumbers are enabled by gay dating app design

Breadcrumbing is enabled by app design that reinforces this behavior while failing to hold those accountable responsible.

App makers are profit-driven, and in order to increase their profit, they need users to remain on their platforms as long as possible. Previously, I’ve referred to this phenomenon as “distraction capitalism”.

It follows therefore that these makers are willing to use all manner of tactics to guarantee this outcome. This includes refusing to set specific parameters for accessing and using the app. 

The problem with parameters—in the eyes of app makers’, anyways—is that they automatically screen out a significant segment of the user base. Monitoring problematic user behavior also requires hiring dedicated staff and thus comes with undesirable overhead. 

So like many other apps or web-based services, the designers opt instead for a more hands-off, almost-anything-goes kind of approach.

Another tactic used by app makers is gamification. I’ve talked about it before, but I’ll provide a quick recap here.

Gamification involves using positive reinforcement to reinforce users’ continued use, for example, through instant notifications, chimes, and flashy animations.

All of these stimuli are carefully calibrated to trigger neurochemical activity associated with success.

Gay dating app gamification thus doesn’t just trivialize human interactions—it frames interactions as opportunities to maximize the number of responses they receive, and therefore validation gained from others.

Taken to the extreme, this results in some users treating their fellows like human PEZ dispensers, whose only purpose is to disgorge attention upon demand.

Thus, when app makers prioritize the bottom line, they are willfully facilitating this kind of attentional exploitation. They are enabling breadcrumbing.

Users may thus find themselves caught in a perpetual loop of short-lived banter that never deepens into a lasting connection. 

Interactions come to resemble busywork, leaving those seeking something more substantive out in the cold.

Until app makers start using design to create a culture that promotes healthy interactions, those of us pursuing meaningful interactions would be better off spending our time elsewhere.

If you’re seeking some tips on how you can step away from gay dating apps, I’ve got you covered.

The ugly truth about Grindr and exclusion-based dating

Essy Knopf Grindr exclusion-based dating
Reading time: 3 minutes

Exclusion-based dating has long been a widely embraced norm for apps and services like Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder. 

Filters enable daters to screen candidates based on factors like race. This has inevitably fed into an existing hierarchy of desirability.

As many a gay man can attest, the sexual economy of dating apps and services is one in which “White” is usually coded as most desirable. Those with intersectional identities are usually granted a lower rank.

Dating thus is not a level playing field. Rather, it mirrors the inequalities of broader society. In this case, it has been divided along the lines of attentional “haves” and “have-nots”. 

“Preferences” as a result have become a mere byword for prejudice, with countless daters openly rejected on the basis of their race or some other—often superficial—trait. 

Given the history of gay men being condemned for their identity, it is tragic that we now perpetuate this shaming cycle through the exclusion of our fellows.

The end of exclusion-based dating?

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a groundswell of support for the antiracism movement.

As #BlackLivesMatter protests rocked the globe, dating services that had formerly endorsed racial exclusion-based dating appeared to change their tunes.

Some announced they would be removing ethnic and race filter options. Others declined, citing the longstanding motivation for preference filters: maximizing user choice. (Choice which I’ve argued is largely an illusion.)

Such changes could be taken as a mark of progress. They may have also just been virtue signaling

When the powers-that-be make a concession to the oppressed, more often than not it is less a concession than a convergence of interests. The timing of this decision suggests as much. 

Arguably, little has since changed in the wake of the racial filter rollback. Identity-based pecking orders remain as entrenched as ever.

The Thoughtful Gay Grindr exclusion-based dating

How dating apps encourage exclusion

The popularity of dating apps and services depends upon their promise of greater ease and convenience, but also the pleasures offered by gamification. Exclusion-based dating exists because app design reinforces this pattern. 

To explain: sorting through the sheer number of prospects on dating services requires a process of elimination. Filters present themselves as the logical conclusion.

And so users are funneled into a preset selection of behaviors, responding to each candidate on a binary yes/no basis. 

Sorting through an ocean of romantic/sexual options demands significant mental energy. Our brain quickly learns to conserve that energy by autonomizing the process. 

A careful profile survey is refined into a reflexive swipe. Preferences shift into hard “no”s. Full sentences degrade into monosyllables.

The apps positively reinforce our continued engagement with this pattern through instant notifications. Flashy animations and sounds signal success, assuring us that whatever we are doing must be right.

We in turn interpret our behaviors as winning strategies, leaving us less prone to questioning our own biases.

Overcoming exclusion-based dating

Studies show that unconscious bias is almost universal. Biases often reflecs those held by wider society; racism on dating apps are often a product of widespread systemic racism.

Left unchallenged, biases color our perception of the world. They fledge into prejudice, promoting “isms” such as ableism, ageism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, transphobia, and sexism.

The first step to overcoming biases is awareness. If you suspect you are prone to a particular bias, consider taking a free implicit bias test.

The second step is introducing information that directly conflicts with our automatic patterns of thinking about a particular group.1

Consider writing a letter to yourself, exploring the reasoning behind a specific bias or prejudice. Describe the experiences that may have given rise to it. Find possible flaws or contradictions in your biased belief system.

Weigh your dating preferences against your values. Do the two align, and if not, what then are you willing to do to address it?

Revising any attitude, belief, and response involves some mental effort. Dating apps on the other hand encourage us to suspend “intention, attention, and effort”2 for the sake of convenience and efficiency—then reward us for doing so.

Giving into automaticity results in us falling back on old habits. Like a car following grooves and ruts in the road, we will very quickly “tramline” our way back into bias.

Without self-reflection, we are at the mercy of our worst instincts. Only by developing awareness about our own thinking can we escape the toxic hold of exclusion-based dating.

How magical thinking destroys gay men’s chances of living authentically

Essy Knopf magical thinking
Reading time: 6 minutes

Are you sitting down, dear reader? There’s something I need to tell you: almost everything we’ve been doing up to this point in the pursuit of happiness may very well have been undermining it.

Many aspects of the gay monoculture—the party lifestyle, substance abuse, hookups, out-of-control sexual habits, love addiction, our obsession with personal image, status, and achievement—are in some way tied up with magical thinking.

“If I get this, do this, be this, then I’ll be OK.” Wish-fulfillment keeps us walking the hedonic treadmill, riding an endless carousel of self-gratification.

Even supposing we achieve our goal, we may find the bar only continues to rise. So we clutch in vain for the brass ring of materialism, personal transformation, acceptance, recognition, and adoration.

Maybe all of this isn’t exactly news to you, and you have long since grown out of chasing elusive thrills. Or you may have simply upped the dosage and drowned out the hurt and disappointment.

The trauma of being gay

The first step on the way to surrendering the magical thinking that keeps us trapped in this cycle lies in identifying the causes.

As gay men, we can arrive at chronic suffering in a variety of ways. We may have also experienced misattunement with our caregivers, who may not have had the capacity to fully meet our emotional needs.

Or our caregivers may have invalidated us on the basis of our sexuality—an all-too-common experience for gay boys

We may have experienced some form of childhood adversity. Some of us are even survivors of trauma

Trauma includes abuse and neglect, but also any experience that places “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system”, to quote International Trauma Center President Dr. Robert D. Macy. 

You may for example have been traumatized by individual acts of homophobia, or from the minority stress that results from its many systemic manifestations. Rejection, exclusion, marginalization, or physical harm for many can take a great toll. 

If we are already lacking social support, such as the unconditional love and acceptance of family members or friends, the damage is only magnified.

For men, this is a fact of our existence. We are socialized from an early age to believe that in order to qualify for gender membership, we must strive for an impossible masculine ideal of self-reliance.  

We do this by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, from the support of our mothers, and from our communities, a tragic development outlined in Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

We suffer even further from the absence of father figures and a lack of parental involvement. According to the Pew Research Center, one-in-four US fathers live apart from their children

Twenty-nine percent of those same fathers see their children at least once a month, while 21% visit several times a year, and 27% don’t visit at all. 

And according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, this absence carries a very real impact on children’s wellbeing.

Healthy, mutual relationships with primary caregivers are how we learn how to form nurturing attachments with others, maintain personal boundaries, regulate our emotions, and soothe ourselves in times of distress. 

In this sense, our first relationships are the most defining, setting the stage for how we adapt—or maladapt—to our future circumstances.

When we are deprived of these crucial supports, we can develop an insecure attachment style, and struggle to develop the resilience so necessary to weathering life’s many storms. 

A final but crucial source of trauma emerges from the relationships we engage in as adults. For those of us with difficult histories, we may turn to our partners for comfort and healing, only to find ourselves re-enacting toxic attachment patterns.

We may even lash out, inflicting the abandonment, abuse, or betrayal we ourselves have suffered. This only serves to compound our existing pain, driving us with increasing desperation towards escape and reprieve.

magical thinking the thoughtful gay

Becoming ‘masters of survival’

When we feel threatened, the system charged with ensuring our survival—the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—kicks into gear.

This “personal surveillance system”, Polyvagal Theory practitioner Deb Dana moves us many times daily between states of social engagement and connection (safety) to mobilization (scared), and immobilization (shut down).

These state changes are adaptive survival responses, driven by special powers of danger perception Polyvagal Theory author Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”. 

Trauma survivors or those with insecure attachment styles may find their neuroception runs in overdrive, leaving them wary and hypervigilant. As a result, they may spend long periods stuck on the lower “scared” and “shut down” rungs of the “autonomic ladder”. 

Our autonomic responses eventually become patterned not around the need for connection, but self-protection

An out-of-whack autonomic response thus makes a state of safety next to impossible. With the ANS no longer able to adequately self-regulate, we suffer ongoing stress, physical illness, relationship strain, and changes in our mental functions.

While the ANS is activated, we are unable to socially engage, causing us to miss out in turn on the benefits of co-regulation—what Dana calls the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states”.

This co-regulation occurs when we connect and attune to others in healthy, mutual relationships. It is a key requisite to shifting from a state of danger, back into a state of safety.

“Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient,” Dana writes. 

“In relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival.”

Given the collective trauma within the gay community, however, finding such co-regulation within may prove difficult. 

In its absence, we will pursue less savory means of regulation such as objectification, exploitation, invalidation, and exclusion, which have reached new lows on gay dating services and hookup apps.

essy knopf authenticity

Deception, magical thinking, and self-medication

We survive through adaptation. When things go wrong early in life, however, we stand a great chance of maladapting instead.

Experiencing homophobia and resulting shame leads many of us into a life of emotional inauthenticity. Denied the ability to explore our own identities and to embark upon relationships during our formative years, we don a cloak of secrecy and self-deception as a matter of survival.

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade,” writes The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs.

Outwardly, we may proclaim self-acceptance. Inwardly, however, we are still carrying around unworthiness and internalized homophobia.

Its poisonous whisperings may lead us to reject other gay men arbitrarily, just as we ourselves were once rejected. Prejudices within the gay dating scene—be it racial, age or weight-based—are just a few expressions of this.

The deep, unexpressed pain we carry as trauma survivors, if left addressed, may eventually bubble back to the surface in the form of deep-seated anger.

That anger may be directed either at ourselves in the form of self-harming behaviors, or at the individuals or systems that we believe have failed, betrayed, and harmed us.

Without the knowledge or means to move forward, we ignore our wounds, numb the pain, and chase distraction.

We may find it in fantasies of personal transformation or romantic fulfillment. For those of us weaned on Disney—a company that built an empire on the power of dream—it’s all too easy to indulge in the idea of Cinderella-style transformations.

One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll shed our sooty smocks and don the glass slipper. Some dashing Prince Charming will appear and bestow upon us the fortunes of unconditional love and acceptance.

Our pursuit of such an embodiment of perfection of course is doomed from the outset. And yet we continue to plunge headlong into romantic liaison after liaison, without pausing to consider the whys and hows.

Denied co-regulation, we may also turn to self-medication in the form of process (behavioral) addictions, such as compulsively working out for hours on end so we can achieve some idealized physique.

Or it may take the form of substance addictions, which are present among gay men at significantly higher rates than the general population.

When we indulge in magical thinking, we try in vain to paper over the void at our core, believing that someway, somehow, our injuries will be healed and all wrongs righted.

But so long as we spend our energy cultivating distraction rather than introspection, our damage will go ignored and our very human need for healthy attachment and co-regulation unrecognized. 

essy knopf magical thinking co-regulation

Letting go of the false solutions of magical thinking

Each of us understands on some level that magical thinking is an act of deception. We recognize that the forms of satiety we seek run counter to self-care. 

And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the rut of trying to appease, ignore, or blunt our autonomic responses.

Try though we might to escape our dysregulation, all we are ultimately doing is deferring peace of mind.

Polyvagal Theory teaches us that in order to course-correct from scared and shutdown back to safety requires healthy relationships.

It is only through co-regulation that we can ever hope to loosen the hold misattunement and trauma have on our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

If your autonomic state makes finding co-regulations difficult, or if you’ve been burned by past interactions, a relationship with a mental health professional can prove an effective substitute

Through the support of a therapeutic alliance, open wounds both past and present may eventually start to close. Through a therapist’s supporting presence, autonomic regulation may suddenly become possible. 

In recognizing and addressing your autonomic needs, you are taking the first step towards a life of authenticity. To quote Brené Brown:

cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

By choosing authenticity, we surrender the false solutions of magical thinking. By choosing authenticity, we give up temporary rewards and commit ourselves to some much-needed repair. 

Dating apps are surveillance capitalism at its most cynical

Essy Knopf surveillance capitalism
Reading time: 6 minutes

Collecting our behavioral data for private profit is a now-standard business practice first pioneered by tech giants like Google and Facebook.

On this surface, this may seem to be a mutual exchange: products and services, in return for personal information and what The Age of Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus” data.

From this surplus, these companies are able to construct profiles that are then sold as a commodity to other businesses. 

These profiles can also be used to “nudge, coax, tune, and herd [our] behavior” in a way that serves the interest of top bidders, such as through targeted advertising.

The people guiding this process—a mysterious, corporate-run “data priesthood”—operate from behind a one-way mirror. They might know everything about us, but we know next to nothing about them.

This priesthood’s practice of collecting, selling, and exploiting our behavioral data has since been adopted by the likes of dating and hookup app operators, at great cost to our privacy—and wellbeing.

The normalization of surveillance capitalism

Zuboff argues that every time we give in to these companies and sign their obscure, incomprehensible terms-of-service agreements, we are handing over exploitable information about ourselves.

We comply with these agreements only because by now they appear bog-standard, and because they are a necessary hurdle to accessing services upon which we depend. 

Fashioning an image of themselves as heroic entrepreneurs or authorities, data collectors buy our trust by promising “social connection, access to information, time-saving convenience, and, too often, the illusion of support”.

Yet their true goal as Zuboff points out is to extract human experience as a raw material for profit.

But succumbing to the new form of power represented by these organizations shouldn’t seem so inevitable. We still have the power to opt out. 

Here’s why it’s crucial we exercise that power.

essy knopf surveillance capitalism

Surveillance capitalism in gay apps 

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff explains how the social media platform Facebook uses “closed loops of obsession and compulsion” pioneered by the gaming industry to engage and captivate users. 

These loops rely upon “social pressure, social comparison, modeling, subliminal priming” to generate continued usage—and even addiction.

But Facebook is hardly the only surveillance capitalist organization to employ these techniques. Consider dating apps, which I’ve previously noted bear a chilling resemblance to Skinner boxes.

It’s public fact that dating apps mine and retain our private behavioral data, including text, photos, and videos

Some of us know that this data is being sold to advertisers or passed on to third parties, perhaps even foreign governments. This emerged as a major concern following the purchase of Grindr by Chinese gaming giant Beijing Kunlun.

What’s not often discussed however is how app creators use behavior data to shape app design and to enhance the “hand-and-glove relationship of technology addiction”, to use Zuboff’s phrase.

For example, a cursory glance at Tinder reveals the creators have tuned the app design to generate more rewarding feedback, and thus more user engagement. 

Consider the flashy animation and audio tone whenever you “match” with another user on Tinder—stimulation that’s likely to cause a release of the neurochemical dopamine, associated with the sensation of pleasure.

This is a form of positive reinforcement that ensures many of us keep on playing the swiping game, at least until we hit a paywall.

Paywalls in this case are used to create the illusion of scarcity. When free users swipe “no” on an interested candidate, the app will notify them they have missed a potential match, then suggest relieve the resulting fear of missing out (FOMO) by purchasing the right to chat with this other user.

Similarly, by offering a limited amount of free “likes”, the app levers loss aversion to coax users into buying a subscription.

App designers also nudge us to return to the app using push notifications. These notifications are also used to promote flash sale promotions or advertisements.

The examples provided here are blatant examples of the manipulation Zuboff describes. However, it’s the examples we don’t know about that I believe we should be most worried about.

The danger of manipulative app design

Zuboff cites studies that reveal the particular vulnerability of teenagers to social media addiction, owing to their development age.

Yet I would argue that people of all ages—gay men included—face a similar hazard in an always-online world, especially given the decline in public gay spaces in the wake of COVID-19.

As a result, we may find ourselves constructing and displaying our gay identity in alternate venues, such as dating and hookup apps.

Much like social media, these apps coerce us into continued usage through social comparison. 

Combined with the addictive design of these apps, our self-value and personhood may become tethered to the ongoing gaze and approval of others.

If we don’t practice mindfulness, we are at risk of being caught in a toxic cycle, wherein “ego gratification and ego injury drive the chase for more external cues”.

To explain: when we are ignored or rejected on these apps, gratification is denied, and our ego is injured. 

We may try to soothe that injury by pursuing still more gratification, returning over and over to the app for our fix. 

The shallow, mechanical, and objectifying exchanges that often ensue are a far cry from the acknowledgment and affirmation we are seeking.

As we hover over our phones “anxiously awaiting the appearance of the little notification box as a sign” of our self-worth, we suffer a slow extinction by a thousand snubs. 

For “Without the ‘others’,” Zuboff writes, “the lights go out.” 

How surveillance capitalism hurts us

Enter dating and hookup apps with their endless stacks and grids of attractive faces and torsos. 

In the case of gay men, this social comparison is taken to a new level: we aren’t just competing for the attention of other users, but also against them.

The competition for the best possible “match”, when combined with the illusion of scarcity, fuel FOMO regarding potential romantic or sexual interests.

Our interactions on these apps come to resemble some overwhelming game of chat whack-a-mole, in which we try desperately to catch, hold and hoard other’s attention.

It’s a game that often feels futile, as interest fluxes and users log on and off, often without explanation. Being shunned or ignored is commonplace, as is deception.

For instance, it’s not unusual to realize mid-chat that the person on the other end either isn’t who they claim to be—or is actually a chatbot.

Certainly, where dating is concerned, rejection is par for the course. But when identity and self-value come into question, as it so often does on these apps, the stakes often feel so much higher, as anyone who has ever found themselves caught in a flame war can attest.

Creating app-based addiction

To recap: surveillance capitalism allows creators to monitor users’ behavior and then use the resulting data to control us, for example through the gamification I’ve described above.

Like gamblers denying the odds, we keep coming back, even attempting to turn these odds in our favor by curating a profile we know will maximize user engagement, even to the point of trickery.

It is human nature to selectively present the best parts of ourselves, but these apps seem to actively encourage selective self-representation by providing profile fields that cater to one-dimensional hypersexuality.

Limiting as it is to be defined only by the minutia of one’s erotic interests, many users inevitably fall into line. Some do it in the name of efficiency or practicality, others in the name of achieving the success of a date, a hookup, or simply being messaged.

When taken to the extreme, users will adopt a completely different identity, knowing it will likely entice messages or photo exchanges.

Instant messaging is inherently rewarding, but add to this the ever-present possibility of sexual attraction or rejection, and users are pushed into heightened states of anxious arousal.

With enough exposure, we run the risk of developing an app-based process addiction.

Defying surveillance capitalism

Today’s tech-dependent world has arguably left us all pawns of surveillance capitalism.

Dating and hookup app creators aren’t in it just for paid subscriptions. They want control of our behaviors and habits, a reality that is by now an open secret.

Fuelling addiction enables these creators to expand their subscriber base. The larger the subscriber base, the greater the behavioral surplus they have at their disposal. 

The greater the behavior surplus, the more practical data they can harness in the name of fuelling addiction.

If your data isn’t resold, it is at the very least exploited by app designers to keep the “hand firmly in the glove”.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism provides perhaps the most chilling argument yet against dating and hooking apps. There are still many more.

Yet given how reliant some of us have become upon them, quitting may seem next to impossible.

If even a small part of this article has given you cause for alarm, perhaps now is as good a time as any to consider some of the more wholesome alternatives.

Is ‘choice’ in app-based dating really just a cruel illusion?

Essy Knopf dating apps choice
Reading time: 7 minutes

Personally, as someone with a natural tendency for obsessive compulsiveness, I find app-based dating about as stressful as clothes shopping.

My visits to the mall usually begin with a single aspiration: buying a pair of jeans. I’ll usually give myself just an hour to make a decision. But this attempt at self-discipline rarely is a good idea.

What begins as a low-pressure routine trip quickly ends up becoming a race to find the best deal. Wandering from store to store, I’ll compare fit, color, and price, and how each option ranks alongside those I find online.

Before I know it, the internal timer will hit the hour mark and I’ll be forced to settle on a candidate.

Head spinning, I’ll collapse into the nearest seat, overwhelmed by the possibility that for all my research, I may very well end up making the wrong choice.

This “analysis paralysis” usually results in me returning to my car, driving home, and spending the next two hours browsing online until I’ve found an even better deal.

The tyranny of choice in app-based dating

Picking a pair of jeans is not a life-or-death type of situation, but for me, it certainly feels like one. Whatever savings I may make along the way are almost always negated by the stress I accrue as a result of my exhaustive (and exhausting) search.

Worse still, when the jeans I ultimately select arrive in the mail, I’ll often discover they’re a bad fit…meaning an even longer wait for a replacement pair.

It’s a development I could almost certainly avoid if I just settled for an in-store option. So what exactly is stopping me? A little something economists refer to as “loss aversion”.

No one resents the freedom to choose, or the benefits, conveniences, and privileges it affords in today’s world. But there are instances—like the one above—where choice can tyrannize, rather than liberate

The downside of living in a consumerist society is that it often leads to a mindset governed by what author David Brooks calls a “utilitarian calculus”. 

That is, we look at everything in terms of personal utility or gain. Not even interpersonal relationships are immune to such cynical assessments.

People who have fallen prey to “utilitarian calculus” are what The Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz calls maximizers. When confronted by a purchase decision, maximizers almost always pursue the “best” possible option.

Maximizers are consumed by the need to be conscious and deliberate about every choice. They are extremely averse to losses but also regret. For that reason, they are more often than not hamstrung by their pursuit of perfection

As in my case, shopping for the “best deal” when confronted by an endless array of choices can lead to mental overload. It can also deprive us of valuable time and energy. 

As Schwartz writes:

“Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.”

The perils of ‘maximizing’

Consider this quote in light of gay app-based dating. A maximizing mindset seems baked into website and app design, with features that make screening, excluding, and selecting effortless.

We are able to set filters to identify people who fall within a narrow set of idealized parameters. We swipe to dispose of undesirables, and “favorite” to build a list of prospective lovers.

But as Schwartz points out, dating app maximizers sooner or later run up against the following conundrum: “How can anyone truly know that any given option is absolutely the best possible?”

The fact is, we never really can, a fact that continues to haunt maximizers well past the point of having made a decision.

This may explain why many app users avoid meeting; who ghost and flake on a whim. Barring obvious reasons—such as being on the app purely out of procrastination or a desire for validation—these individuals may feel confronted by your request for them to make a decision.

While meeting for a coffee is not exactly a marriage proposal, it does require some investment of time and energy. It is by no means a commitment, but it is a choice all the same

That choice comes inevitably at the cost of other choices. For instance, spending facetime with one person for example means possibly missing out on facetime with someone else who happens to be available and interested at the same time. 

Not a significant loss by most measures, but ask a maximizer who lives with background anxiety of loss and regret aversion and they may disagree. 

This anxiety and agonizing about supposed trade-offs however can ultimately thwart the maximizer’s search.

Ignoring those of us who use app-based dating for the thrill of instant messaging and sexting, the remainder we can safely assume are looking for some form of in-person interaction. 

Monitoring our usage of these services reveals that we spend a lot of time information gathering for the “best option”—swiping, starring, filtering, blocking, chatting—time that is rarely proportional to any tangible outcome.

Sooner or later, we hit a point of diminishing returns. The “fun” offered by the often gamified app-based dating services diminishes, and we log off. (And unless we delete our account, it’s likely we’ll find ourselves hopping back on again for a quick attentional fix when boredom or desire strikes.)

The illusion of choice in app-based dating

While these apps are forever dangling the possibility of a “better option”, they’re also distracting us with addictive casual gaming mechanics

Even if we emerge from the use of app-based dating without a process addiction, our quest for maximization will prove neverending.

Consider the ever-shifting availability of possible partners. Attention from these individuals will oscillate, peaking at certain hours, falling during others, even dying off suddenly and inexplicably.

Consider also the fact other users harbor a variety of motives. Even supposing they happen to share ours, there’s often a difference between stated motives and true motives

A chat partner may say they are looking to date, but that may simply be a front aimed at sustaining the interaction. Or it may also be one of many conflicting and competing motives.

What this means is that in many cases one user’s stated desire to date could be abandoned the instant they are presented with an offer of immediate sexual gratification. (To quote the Nelly Furtado song “Promiscuous”: “Chivalry is dead / But you’re still kinda cute”)

Finally, while it may seem that you have total freedom to choose a romantic partner, that freedom is not exclusive to you. The other person has the right to their own choice, which will not necessarily align with yours.

Assuming your maximizing instincts don’t first paralyze you, there’s always the possibility your decision might be thwarted when the other person fails to reciprocate your interest.

essy knopf gay app based dating

Confusion, commitment phobia, and ‘gaming’

The opposite of a maximizer is the satisficer. Like the maximizer, the satisficer will be discriminating when it comes to selecting a romantic partner. They are also capable of being satisfied with excellence, as opposed to some impossible ideal of perfection.

Where maximizers are picky about finding “the best”, satisficers carefully weigh the options before accepting “good enough”. 

Schwartz says the distinction is essentially a philosophical one:

“A chooser is someone who thinks actively about the possibilities before making a decision. A chooser reflects on what’s important to him or her in life, what’s important about this particular decision, and what the short-and long-range consequences of the decision may be. A chooser makes decisions in a way that reflects awareness of what a given choice means about him or her as a person. Finally, a chooser is thoughtful enough to conclude that perhaps none of the available alternatives are satisfactory, and that if he or she wants the right alternative, he or she may have to create it.”

When juggling options on Grindr, Scruff, or Tinder, we exercise our rights as romantic and sexual “consumers”. But what we don’t do is reflect on what’s motivating our behavior. 

Yet effective dating arguably can only happen once we have a clear and consistent understanding of what we’re seeking, and why.

How do we arrive at such an understanding? We apply the Five W’s and the one H:

  • Who we are looking for (what kind of person)?
  • What type of interaction are we interested in (hookups, dating, relationship etc.)?
  • When do we want this interaction to take place?
  • Why this interaction in particular? (To put it another way, how will this interaction contribute to our long-term goal?)
  • How do we intend to establish that interaction? (What methods will we use?)

Sounds obvious. And yet more often than not, our focus is confused. There are simply too many options that maximizers are forced to treat app-based dating as a game of elimination.

Our focus in this game is less on identifying a suitable partner than it is removing options from the dating service pool, often for the most arbitrary reasons (“I don’t like his hairstyle”, “He seems too needy”, “He lives on the other side of town”). 

Gamified app designs, such as the swipe mechanic used by Tinder, encourage users to continually “prune” options, often to the point of distraction.

Another factor is that we as a culture are commitment-phobes. More often than not when dating, we become locked in a maximizing mindset, hellbent on securing an option that ticks off an often superficial, if not an impossible shopping list of personal traits. 

Forever scanning our grid or swipe stack, we “trade up” prospective candidates like indecisive children in the candy aisle, stricken by the possibility that the one candy we select comes at the exclusion of other, possibly better selections.

Maximizing also can lead to “gaming”. Caught up in maximizing rewards, our initial goal (“meeting someone with whom I share chemistry and/or compatibility”) becomes something more vague and insatiable (“getting as much validation as possible”). 

To put it another way, we go from treating romantic attention as the means by which we achieve some kind of relationship, to attention exclusively becoming the ends

Caught up in the fun game of projecting desirability and provoking engagement, we spend our time manipulating the attention-based economy of dating services in order to get our attention fix.

‘Shoulda, coulda, woulda’

When our focus is confused, when we shy from committing to a choice, and when we’re caught up in gaming app-based dating, we treat self-awareness as an obstacle to our purpose.

Yet so long as we’re driven by blind instinct rather than introspection, that purpose risks becoming more and more unclear.

More effective and productive use of our time would involve choosing with purpose, rather than selecting on a whim. Namely, satisfying, rather than maximizing.

If we give in to maximizing, we may find ourselves prone to bad decisions, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, and even depression, Schwartz warns.

To maximize means to be driven by a fear of loss and regret, to succumb to “shoulda, coulda, woulda”-style doubts.

Regardless of what our moment-to-moment motives on app-based dating services are, what we are all seeking as human beings, ultimately, are meaningful connections

But where such connections are concerned, one can only maximize so far. People are by nature imperfect, so pursuing “the best” is a quest that – let’s be honest – is doomed from the outset.

Takeaways

  • Recognize that “maximizing” is driven by loss aversion.
  • Avoid dating app commitment phobia and “gaming”.
  • Try “satisficing”. Mindfully seek “good enough”.

Five steps to a fantastic gay relationship

Essy Knopf gay relationship success
Reading time: 6 minutes

Throughout my twenties, I stumbled from one unsuccessful gay relationship to another, thwarted by the fact my partners and I were often operating at cross-purposes.

The first time this happened, I had just confessed to my then-boyfriend Kohei* that I didn’t anticipate ever wanting to have kids of my own.

Having a vague awareness of my own dysfunction, and fearing I might unintentionally inflict it upon my children, it seemed the sensible thing to say.

I was also barely out of my teens, and in no way ready to even contemplate the possibility of parenthood.

“Gonna be honest, that really has me worried,” Kohei replied. I shook my head.

“It’s just not my thing.”

“… So you’re not even going to consider it?” Kohei said.

“Sorry,” I said. Kohei’s gaze fell to the floor.

“Well, I can’t see myself dating someone who doesn’t share my long-term goals.”

Feeling cornered, I grabbed my backpack from his couch and stood up.

“Fine,” I said. “Don’t date me.”

Stepping out onto Kohei’s front porch, I called out a polite farewell, hopped on my bike, and pedaled home.

When a gay relationship just doesn’t “work”

My reaction was, in hindsight, unfair. But truth be told, Kohei’s ultimatum had given me the escape hatch I had long been looking for. 

My boyfriend’s puppy-like devotion had arrived at my door, premature and unqualified – like a Christmas gift in July. It had left me with deep-seated suspicion.

Was Kohei really interested in me, or was he just afraid – as we all are, on some fundamental level – of being alone? 

Up until this point, I had been seeding our conversations with prickly challenges, less out of a desire to antagonize Kohei than a wish to test whether he would stand his ground, or rollover. And time and time again, Kohei had done the latter.

When the morning after our confrontation, Kohei attempted to patch things up with me, I insisted that he was in fact right: we were not compatible.

The “don’t date me” comment was, I knew, the culmination of many attempts to test him. Kohei’s willingness to overlook my take-it-or-leave-it attitude seemed to me proof enough that the two of us were, in some inexplicable way, out of alignment.

Too needy, or too neglected?

Where I had kept Kohei at arm’s length, come the next relationship, I found myself cast in the opposite role.

Remo* was accommodating, but not in the way Kohei had been. Unlike Kohei, asserted himself where he needed to, and I respected him all the more for it. 

Here was a person capable of withstanding me at my bossiest and gently putting me on notice. We were, I wanted to believe, a good match.

The day I called to reveal I had just been made redundant, I got my first hint of the growing distance between us.

“So…I’m out of a job,” I said, my voice breaking with emotion. 

“Well, you know what you have to do,” Remo replied.

“What do you mean?” I replied, stung by his lack of sympathy.

“Look,” Remo said. “I’ve got to get back to work. I’ll text you later.”

Feeling kind of put out, I grew first apprehensive, then adversarial.

“You know, you could be a little more empathetic,” I said during a later conversation.

“I think you mean empathic,” Remo sniped back.

Sensing his withdrawal, I pressed him for emotional support. But the bullishness Remo had once excused had suddenly become a problem. He ended it not long later, claiming he no longer “had the time” to hang out. 

In fighting for my boyfriend’s validation, it seemed I had unwittingly driven him away. Heartbreak and an unexplained sense of shame followed. 

What is attachment?

When gauging a gay relationship for compatibility, there is perhaps one factor that trumps all, and yet is often overlooked: attachment style

Attachment styles in short are about how we form attachments to other people. Our styles are largely the result of our first relationships with our caregivers.

When our attachment is healthy, we develop a secure attachment style. According to Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, “secures” have a strong and stable sense of self-worth, have no problem being direct in relationships, and are comfortable with intimacy.

When however our caregivers inflict trauma such as sexual abuse or emotional neglect or fail to properly “attune” with us, our attachment is ruptured, and we develop an insecure attachment style.

Those suffering from insecure attachments not only struggle to maintain consistent self-worth – they are also more likely to struggle where it comes to forming healthy relationships.

Levine and Heller identify two insecure attachment styles as the most common: “anxious” and “avoidant”.

Those with anxious attachment styles typically seek closeness and intimacy in their relationships. They fear abandonment and may engage in “protest behaviors”, which include excessive attempts to reestablish contact, withdrawing, hostility, and manipulation. 

Avoidants on the other hand like to keep their distance when in a relationship. They do this by engaging in “deactivating strategies”: refusing to verbally commit or say “I love you”, dodging physical or emotional closeness, nitpicking their partners, flirting with others, and longing after a “phantom ex”.

Levine and Heller believe about 50 percent of the adult population have a secure attachment style, while roughly 25 percent are anxious, and the remaining 25 percent are avoidant.

One could argue that in the case of gay men, insecure attachment styles could be even higher. Consider for example the misattunement that results from a parent rejecting their child on the basis of their sexuality.

Notably, relational trauma can also shift securely attached people towards insecurity. The fact that “betrayal, abandonment, abuse, and chaos” is a gay relationship rite of passage for many, according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs, makes us even likely as a population to suffer from attachment issues.

essy knopf gay relationships success

Which attachment styles are compatible?

Secure + secure OR secure + anxious/avoidant: Those with secure attachment styles can form strong relationships with each other and with the insecurely attached (anxious and avoidant). “Secures” are generally able to provide a “safe base” for their insecure partners, sometimes even help “heal” their attachment problems. But not always.

Anxious + anxious OR avoidant + avoidant: Anxious-anxious and avoidant-avoidant partnerships are less likely to work by virtue of their mutual difficulty forming healthy attachments. 

Anxious people seeking reassurance from other anxious people are naturally a difficult proposition. Likewise, avoidants are not likely to date avoidants because of their mutual desire for distance and independence inevitably forces them apart.

Anxious + avoidant: Avoidants’ tendency towards distance and independence is likely to unsettle their anxious partners, who thrive in an affirming, supportive environment.

When avoidants withhold intimacy from their anxious partner, the partner may confuse the resulting turmoil for passion. Attempting to re-establish relational equilibrium, the anxious partner may double down in their demands, only for the avoidant to withhold affirmation even more.

The pair thus will find themselves caught up in a spiraling push-pull dynamic that is sometimes confused for romance.

Forging a fantastic gay relationship

According to an attachment style quiz devised by Levine and Heller, I myself have a predominately anxious attachment style. Considering the behavior of my first boyfriend Kohei, I’ve concluded that he too was likely anxious.

Kohei’s constant need for affirmation and intimacy might have been a non-issue for a securely attached partner. But for me, it was overwhelming, and I coped in the only way I knew how: by challenging and thereby trying to create distance.

Kohei’s anxiety about the relationship understandably grew, until at least he issued a challenge of his own: either change my future parenthood plans or kiss him goodbye. 

Remo on the other hand was most certainly avoidant. I was never permitted to get too close, and the more I sought reassurance, the more he withheld. My attempts to re-establish contact were met with veiled contempt.

Until I discovered attachment theory, the mechanics of a successful gay relationship eluded me, and gauging romantic compatibility was hit-and-miss. 

Levine and Heller thankfully provide detailed strategies for coping with avoidant or anxious attachment styles. Their key advice is to seek out a more balanced pairing: secure + secure, secure + anxious, or secure + avoidant.

To determine the other person’s attachment style, Levine and Heller suggest following these steps:

    1. Determine whether your partner seeks intimacy and closeness. 
    2. Assess how preoccupied s/he is with the relationship and how sensitive s/he is to rejection. 
    3. Don’t rely on one “symptom” – look for various signs. 
    4. Use effective communication: express your needs, thoughts, and feelings. Then assess your partner’s reaction.
    5. Listen and look for what he is not saying or doing. Trust your gut feeling. 
essy knopf attachment style gay relationship success

A final word of caution to secures: helping someone with an insecure attachment shift towards more secure attachment patterns isn’t always possible. Sometimes your partner may insist on clinging to their old ways.

The question therefore is, are anxious or avoidant behaviors something you are ultimately willing to overlook in your bid to forge a gay relationship? Can you learn to be satisfied with your partner’s status quo?

For those with anxious attachment styles, remember that you’re more likely to experience an avoidant out in the wild than any other attachment style.

Avoidants after all spend more time dating than in actual relationships, on account of their struggles forming healthy attachments. 

Secures are also a lot harder to come by. Why? The ease with which they form healthy attachments means they’re more likely to remain in relationships and are less likely to ever appear in the dating pool.

Takeaways

  • Identify your attachment style: secure, anxious or avoidant.
  • Use the five steps to determine your partner’s style.
  • Seek compatible partnerships.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

How judgmentalism is ruining gay dating

Essy Knopf gay dating
Reading time: 6 minutes

Gay dating is riddled with pitfalls, but perhaps the most significant is the rampant judgmentalism we face – and inflict – upon one another.

The irony is that we approach dating expecting chemistry while treating each other in ways that make it almost impossible.

The catch-22 is that unless we feel safe unless we can let our guards down, we’re going to resist being vulnerable. And without vulnerability, there is no chemistry.

Judgment and gay dating

I met Bryce* one evening over boba tea. Bryce was a guitarist from the UK who had come to Los Angeles with big hopes of breaking into the music industry.

As we exchanged details about our lives, Bryce made a number of flattering remarks about my appearance, flashing flirtatious grins, while indicating he genuinely wanted to get to know me.

As our conversation rolled on, Bryce asked me about my family and we somehow got onto the subject of trust.

“I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Bryce said.

“That’s great,” I replied. “I used to be the same.”

Bryce looked at me, expectant. I smiled, explaining I had firsthand experience dealing with a relative who was a pathological liar and that this had left me somewhat wary.

Almost immediately the warmth left Bryce’s expression. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned he asked to call it a night. 

Out in the car park, I offered Bryce a polite farewell hug.

“Oh, we’re going to hug, are we?” he sneered, then walked away.

I got into my car, confused. Had my comment had been mistimed? Had I overshared?

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no time would ever have been appropriate for such an admission.

For in opening up to Bryce, I had breached an unspoken code by which many gay men live: never expose your vulnerabilities.

Gay dating and expecting perfection

Being born gay almost always guarantees an inheritance of trauma or invalidation. Having been bullied and marginalized for our differences, in particular our emotional expressivity, we learn early on to hide these, lest others brand us “feminine”.

Some of us do this by constructing a perfect exterior, or by hiding behind keen wit, brand name wardrobes, gym-fit physiques, or career success. In many cases, this is the mark of insecurity, born of an unrelenting inner critic.

Deprived of self-compassion, we, in turn, become incapable of mustering empathy for others. When a romantic interest tries to be vulnerable with us, to let their imperfections hang out, there is a strong possibility we will treat this as an infraction.

Uncomfortable with the demands this vulnerability makes of our own, we – like Bryce – reach not for understanding, but dismissal. 

Thus, having ourselves been rejected for being our authentic selves, we come to reject others for what we perceive as their weaknesses or flaws.

I believe it’s for this reason that many of us choose hookups over dating. We’re even more likely to avoid connections if we have in the past put ourselves out there, only to be shut down.

Hookups furthermore validate. They offer us instant gratification while sparing us the emotional risks typically associated with relationships.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that we commonly associate vulnerability with “dark emotions”. But so long as we remain terrified of recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing such emotions, they continue to exert significant control over all aspects of our lives.

Imperfection is a given

Most gay men will suffer some form of trauma and a degree of neuroticism by virtue of what we have lived through. Psychology Today defines neuroticism as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings”. 

Unfortunately, the popular doctrine of masculinity asks that we hide our anguish and struggles. Those who fail to do so are mocked and rejected. Social conditioning has more or less made emotional concealment a condition for acceptance as males.

But our wounds and imperfections are a fact of human existence, ones that will sooner or later be revealed in the course of dating.

While I believe this act of revealing should be treated as a generous gift and met with compassion and understanding, many of us resort instead to the scorn and rejection we ourselves have suffered.

When we do this, we don’t just perpetuate a cycle of harm – we render gay dating an exercise in futility,

Until we have learned to be comfortable with our wounds and to reintegrate that emotional part of our identity we have split off as a matter of acceptance and survival, we will not treat vulnerability with the honor it deserves.

And so the meaningful relationships we all ultimately desire will continue to elude us.

Use discernment, not judgment

When dating, judgment may serve as a valuable defense mechanism, allowing us to screen out people who may pose a threat to our interests.

The gay dating world is, after all, rife with people who are irresponsible in their actions, inconsistent in motive, and generally lacking self-awareness. 

This is especially true on gay dating apps, which cannot enforce personal accountability. People we’ve been engaging in a heartfelt chat with can, for example, decide to reject, ghost, or block us, often without an apparent cause or explanation.

It’s no wonder then our reaction is to always be protecting ourselves, yet there is a difference between preemptively attaching negative labels to someone and genuinely trying to understand and relate to them

To this end, first dates should be treated as much as an exercise in rapport-building as one in information gathering. We should work to learn about our date’s habits and character; to build a holistic assessment in the place of making a snap judgment.

Chemistry is important, certainly, but true chemistry is a slow-burn phenomenon that can only flourish under conditions of emotional safety. So we must first create a gay dating environment in which it can flourish.

We do this by choosing discernment over judgment.

essy knopf gay dating judgmentalism

Discernment in practice

Judgment is a process of assigning values and drawing conclusions, while discernment is a process of perceiving facts and making informed inferences

As a discerning dater, your job is to be on the lookout for discrepancies, causes for concern, differences, and dealbreakers.

Your date for example may tell you they find you very attractive. They may insist they are looking to date. But they may also label themselves a workaholic.

You will notice here a disparity between a stated desire and practiced action, one that seems to suggest this person may not really want to date. Dating, after all, would require that they be willing to shift gears; to consider putting people before things

Workaholics by definition neglect their own needs. They are therefore unlikely to have the mental bandwidth to accommodate another person’s needs. 

When a date defines themselves as a workaholic, they may be intentionally or unintentionally “Mirandizing” you. That is, they are reading you your rights as a romantic candidate, telling you what to expect. Namely, that their job will always come first. 

This kind of distancing behavior is often indicative of an avoidant attachment style, which does not bode well for most people seeking romantic fulfillment. 

If we probe a little deeper, workaholicism for many gay men is an expression of covert depression, masquerading as grandiosity. There is a possibility this person may have some challenges they need to work through.

Unless your date is taking proactive steps to help themselves, to be in a relationship with them may require that you be willing to accept – if not enable – their avoidance. 

By making observations about the facts presented here, I have practiced discernment.

But discernment also tells me that while my date has admitted to being a workaholic, this is a clue, not a conclusion. 

Keep on gathering intel

Red flags may leave you with reservations, but it is imperative to keep an open mind, while also looking for data that may contradict or confirm the evidence at hand.

In the situation above, you may subsequently learn your date was joking about being a workaholic, or that they are in fact willing, ready, and able to break the habit.

With positive discoveries like this, we may feel tempted to abandon our assessment. Still, information gathering is a process that cannot – and should not – be rushed when gay dating, lest we miss evidence of future problems.

After all, when meeting other gay men we tend to put our best foot forward – at least initially. Over time, our true nature seeps out through the chinks in our armor. Such glimpses of our true selves are often the most telling.

One of the perils of expediting assessment while dating is that we may overlook this true self. Or we may never even get the chance because we’ve already ruled that person out, thus missing out on the opportunity to connect with a possible kindred spirit.

For this reason, we must strive to recognize the commonality in our stories and to offer one another the compassion we are all seeking – and rightfully deserve.

Takeaways

  • Dysfunction and imperfection are universal.
  • By dismissing a date, we may be perpetuating harm we ourselves have suffered.
  • True chemistry only happens when we feel safe.
  • When we judge, we create a hostile environment that undermines vulnerability.
  • The alternative is to practice discernment, compassion, and empathy.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

Four instances when gay men are justified in cutting a date short

Essy Knopf gay men dating
Reading time: 6 minutes

I like to think that if two gay men are willing and able, they can overlook their differences and find common ground. There are some instances, however, when such open-mindedness comes with mixed results.

So when Hayrik* approached me over a dating app asking to meet me for a hike and I saw he harbored political views diametrically opposed to mine, I decided nevertheless to try and bridge the divide. 

But when Hayrik showed up 30 minutes late for our date, with neither apology nor explanation and looking at least 40 pounds heavier than he did in his photos, I knew something was off. 

I considered confronting him about this but told myself that to do so would be rude. But as we set off on our hike, Hayrik’s dog in tow, doubt began to gnaw at me.

Some minutes later, the dog stopped to relieve himself. To my dismay, his owner made no attempt to pick up after him. 

When pressed, Hayrik complained that he’d forgotten to bring a bag. Offering a shrug and a lopsided smile, he said: “I’m just a bad dog owner”. 

I considered whether or not to cut the date short. If I turned on my heel and left, I had no way of knowing how Hayrik might react. Fear of conflict forced me to bite my tongue. 

Hayrik made some small talk, slowly steering the conversation towards politics. When I made our differences of opinion known, he responded with a gleeful aside, attacking my beliefs. 

By this point, we were at the hike’s halfway mark, so excusing myself now seemed almost pointless. What was I going to do? Overtake Hayrik and storm back to my car?

I tried to change the subject, only for Hayrik to drop an incendiary comment, the kind you might expect from a troll sowing chaos in an online comments thread. 

I fell silent, and sensing I’d quit the game, my date quickly ran out of steam. An awkward silence prevailed.

What to look for when dating other gay men

In choosing not to end the date prematurely, in choosing to save face, I’d been forced to tolerate Hayrik’s behavior, thereby inadvertently endorsing it. 

Had I identified some guideposts for what I expected when dating gay men – and also what constituted a violation of these expectations – in advance, the situation might’ve turned out quite differently. 

But what are reasonable guideposts, and when is it appropriate to quit a date?

1. Discrepancies

I didn’t believe that the disparity between Hayrik’s physical appearance and his photos was cause enough to end our interaction then and there. Yet the disparity was one he was surely aware of. 

Dating profiles are the personal equivalent of marketing materials. It’s in our interest to put our best foot forward, so we all “curate” our personal presentation to some lesser or greater degree. There is however a clear difference between selective presentation and active deception.

Gay men who for example list themselves as being one age on their profile, when in reality they are at least 10 years older, are another example of this. 

No matter how youthful someone might look, such behavior points to a fundamental lack of trustworthiness. And without trust, there is no basis for a relationship.

2. Causes for concern

Unmanaged Mental Health Issues: As someone who has battled anxiety and depression, do I advocate intolerance of such people? Definitely not. The keyword here is “unmanaged”. 

If this person is not actively seeking or receiving help for their problems, trying to establish a romantic relationship with this person may put you in an untenable position. 

You may find for example that in trying to help, you become a codependent “fixer” who prevents your partner from taking charge of their situation. Or you may find yourself forced to keep the other person at arm’s length as a matter of self-preservation. This is not fair for either party. 

Addiction: Unless gay men are seeking help for an addiction, whether it is substance- or process-related, the concerns are very similar to those outlined above. For most addicts, their habit will almost always come first, and often at a significant cost to their personal relationships. 

Even if you feel you are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and tolerance required to deal with an addiction problem, you still run the risk of becoming an enabler or being dragged into their habit.

Personality Disorders: When left untreated, personality disorders can wreak devastation not only on the lives of gay men but on those in their immediate vicinity.

A full list of diagnostic criteria is beyond the scope of this article, but here are some telltale signs you could be dealing with someone with a personality disorder:

  • Ongoing emotional instability
  • Chronic temper problems
  • Excessive self-involvement 
  • Excessive neediness
  • Callous disregard for your feelings or wellbeing
  • Deceptive, manipulative, exploitative or destructive behavior

Again, I am not attempting to dissuade you from dating someone with a personality disorder, but rather flagging the possibility that, should you decide to go down that path, there may be some rough terrain ahead.

3. Irreconcilable differences

There are differing tastes in music, and then there are incompatible value systems

Had there been some value overlap between Hayrik’s political views and my own, things might have gone okay. As it stood, there was not. Our value systems were incompatible.

Even the most casual behaviors can be telling in this regard. Watch, for example, how your date addresses the restaurant server. Is he polite? Patronizing, or cutting without cause? 

How does he behave when he encounters an aggressive driver? Does he laugh it off? Or does he fly into a rage, vowing retribution? 

If you’re a person who values treating others with kindness and courtesy no matter the circumstances, a person who acts this way does not share your values

essy knopf gay men dating

4. Dealbreakers

These are myriad and often subjective. You may not be justified in ending dates when these arise, however they should give you pause. Here are some telling examples.

Aggression: Everyone has their triggers, but gay men with a hair-trigger are people you should definitely steer clear of.

Meanspiritedness: If someone intentionally attacks or puts you down on the first date, don’t stick it out. That said, this person could be having a bad day. If it happens once, be on alert. If it happens twice, be on your way. Leaving sends a clear message that you have personal boundaries and are willing to protect them. 

Disrespect: This can take many forms. Personally, I consider a lack of punctuality on a first date a form of disrespect. Of course, your date could have gotten stuck in a traffic jam, an accident, or can’t find parking and forgot or was unable to communicate. You can offer some leeway here.

But if it happens more than once, there is a good chance this person is lacking basic consideration for others.

When Hayrik, for example, failed to clean up after his dog, he wasn’t just shirking personal responsibility. He was signaling a lack of basic respect for other people. 

Complainers and bad-mouthers: Complaining, blame-mongering, and backbiting should set off internal alarms. Why? Because it often speaks to serious self-esteem problems. Ask yourself if this is a trait you’re willing to stomach in the long term. Chances are it isn’t.

Immaturity/Game playing: Personal interactions shouldn’t be treated like a game. Hayrik’s attempt to lure me into an unwinnable political debate spoke to an immature desire to prove his intellectual superiority – and not a desire to connect as equals. Without such equality, any kind of healthy relationship will be impossible.

Your mileage may vary

This article is not meant to be treated as a definitive list, but rather as a jumping-off point for identifying your personal limits. The message is: know your deal-breakers, and know that you have the right to walk once one has been identified.

If revelations are made mid-date that bring to light fundamental incompatibilities, you have grounds to end the interaction. There are perfectly polite ways of doing this. 

One I swear by is setting a timer on my phone and only feeding my parking meter for that period of time. This gives me a legitimate reason to get up and leave, no charade required.

How long should you set your timer? For a first date, one hour is more than adequate. When the alarm goes off, explain you have another commitment you need to get to. Thank the person for their time, pay for your bill, and leave.

This tactic can also be useful for those instances when you haven’t identified any dealbreakers but the interaction leaves something wanting. 

Sometimes the repartee is listless, the other person is nervous to the point of paralysis, or they may say something that rubs you the wrong way. If the interest – and effort – is mutual, these challenges can be overcome. 

Takeaways

  • Keep an eye out for discrepancies, causes for concern and irreconcilable differences.
  • Know your dealbreakers and what you’re willing to tolerate.
  • Have an exit strategy in place, should the date go south.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

How gay dating apps have sparked a vulnerability crisis

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 5 minutes

My first real contact with the gay community was not through gay dating apps, but one of their predecessors: the website Gaydar. 

Aged 17, I had just left the family home and moved to a new city where I knew no one. Being not yet of legal age, I was unable to attend gay nightclubs, so Gaydar swiftly became my exclusive means of contact with other gay men. 

Similar to the Scruff of today, Gaydar allowed users to set up a profile along with a private gallery. 

Occasionally I’d get a notification that another had unlocked theirs for me. I’d brace myself, dreading what the invitation must inevitably hold.

And sure enough, the moment I clicked through, I’d receive a barrage of “anatomical exam” photos. For many people I’ve talked to, nude photo swaps are more mundane than titillating. 

Gay dating apps demand that we market ourselves as a commodity, as an ingredient in a fantasy that can then be mentally reconfigured at will.

When we are presented as just another face or torso in a sea of countless others, we have to take any chance we can to stand out. 

If you subscribe to that logic, “showing the goods” is a necessary requirement for a “sale”. I have always questioned however whether this is a tactic that results in face-to-face encounters. 

In-person interactions it seems have become an increasingly pallid substitute for the heightened reality of app-based instant gratification.

Exchanging sexual messages and photos with multiple dating app suitors is undeniably fun, especially given it carries none of the effort or consequences of real-life – and double the reward. 

These apps by design promote self-objectification and the validation that inevitably follows. They encourage us to respond to others not merely in order to maintain a conversation, but for the inherent reward of receiving a reply

That reply by implication is an acknowledgment of our romantic or sexual appeal. The positive neural feedback we receive when someone messages or sends us photos reinforces the desire to be objectified, which in turn keeps us coming back for more. 

But if we are not mindful, we can develop a single-minded focus on “winning”, leading in some cases to a gay dating app process addiction. 

In such cases, the process of dating becomes entirely divorced from its proclaimed purpose: to facilitate real-life relationships.

Gay dating apps demand we sacrifice vulnerability

Gay dating apps discourage exclusivity and encourage the fielding of multiple suitors. It’s a juggling act that necessitates efficiency. With so many options on hand, selecting a romantic or sexual partner must inevitably become a game of elimination. 

We screen people, dishing out and receiving rejection over and over again. In order to protect our egos, we give up making genuine approaches.

Instead of being present with the person, we’re speaking with, we slip into safe automaticity: talk round and round in talk circles, replace sentences with monosyllables, prompt people for information we have demanded from countless others before them. 

We list requirements and apply filters as if our tastes will maximize our gains and shield us not against failed connection, but an apparently far greater loss: suboptimal pleasure.

In effect, we trade connection for selection, and authenticity for subterfuge. In order to shield our feelings against the possibility of being hurt, we often disengage them entirely. 

essy knopf gay dating apps nude photos

Why you should say no to nudes

We play it cool, we play it sexy, but we don’t play our complicated, nuanced selves. Why? Because of the inherent limitations of instant messaging, the high levels of scrutiny to which it subjects us, and the wide latitude for misunderstanding.

Our conversations consequently become the rapid informational relay of stockbrokers. Stuck in the emotional deep freeze of gay dating apps, we fall to assessing, objectifying, categorizing and rejecting, arranging and manipulating people as if they were chess pieces, rather than living and breathing beings. 

We devalue both our humanness and that of others, and vulnerability dies a quiet death.

The irony is that to be naked is, in a very real, physical sense, to be vulnerable. Exchanging nude photos asks us to put ourselves on display for summary judgment by strangers

It forces us to be mercenary in our attitudes towards our chat partners, and cavalier about exposing ourselves in a way we normally reserve for intimate occasions. 

Arguably one of our primary needs as human beings is to connect with others. To connect, we need to be vulnerable. By sending nude photos, we are denying ourselves that right. 

In most cases, my app-based interactions have died in the water the moment I refused to exchange nude photos. To me, others’ demands were reductive and objectifying. 

It seemed to be that complying meant becoming yet another item on the app buffet menu. It also rewarded what I saw as unconscious, addictive “lever-pulling” behavior, the kind of thing you would expect of a rat trapped in a Skinner box

I am sad to report that after such refusals, my chat partners almost always chose not to meet me “sight unseen”. Instead, they continued to linger online, hedging their bets and scoping out all the available options. 

Many I suspect never intended to “choose” in the first place, preferring instead to forestall meeting anyone, often for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Consider the example of the much-maligned “pic collector”, who lurks on the app for the sole gratification of collecting sexual photos.

gay dating apps

Be valued – on your terms

Gay dating apps only add to the pressure we face as gay men to conform to a certain ideal image of masculinity, which is often used as the basis for how we are assessed and treated by our romantic or sexual partners. 

But this oft-celebrated ideal – perfect cheekbones, chiseled jaws, and an athletic, muscular build – is problematic on several fronts.

First of all, this image is for, at least for a majority of gay men, simply unattainable. 

Even those of us blessed with good genes would still be required to invest a significant effort and time into crafting a picture-perfect physique. This is effort and time that most of us are unwilling, or unable, to spare.

Secondly, I believe this image is part and parcel of a toxic cultural perception of masculinity. Namely one in which men are unemotional, self-reliant ubermensch, impervious to any harm.

Beyond popular representations by TV and movie stars, such men do not, and never have, existed.

Thirdly, subscribing to this ideal asks that we divorce ourselves from our inner emotional selves – the same selves for which we crave acceptance.

It follows that the more we try to displace this need in favor of objectifying ourselves on gay dating apps, the more unhappy we are likely to feel. 

With such pressures, it’s no surprise that we are living in the midst of a slow-churning mental health epidemic. Gay men are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to suffer from a mental health condition. They are also at a higher risk than the general population for suicide. 

For this reason, it’s crucial we avoid activities that are likely to put our sense of well-being in harm’s way. Choosing not to expose our naked selves to total strangers before meeting them is not an act of defiance. It’s an act of self-preservation.

Nudity should be an earned privilege that should occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not summary judgment. 

By refusing to send nude photos, we are reclaiming the right to be valued – on our own terms.

Takeaways

  • Gay dating apps keep us trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to maximize gains.
  • The positive reinforcement they offer may lead to a cycle of automatic behavior.
  • This cycle may cause us to lose touch with vulnerability and our desire to connect.
  • Nude photo exchanges allows strangers to hold our bodies up against some unattainable ideal.
  • By not swapping nude photos, we are safeguarding our mental health.