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

Why modulating, not masking is key to autistic social success

Essy Knopf autistic social success
Reading time: 4 minutes

Achieving autistic social success isn’t necessarily about mastering certain skills. At its essence, it’s about bridging the autistic-neurotypical (NT) communication divide.

This divide stems from the fact that NTs often demand that autistics observe and conform to social norms. Some even demonstrate ableist privilege by painting neurodiverse approaches to communication as somehow lacking, or even inferior.

So, rather than treating difference as a source of enrichment, they reject and punish autistics.

This attitude stems from a deficit-based approach, which involves focusing on the apparent shortcomings of autistics rather than our strengths.

A strengths-based approach acknowledges that many autistics are endowed with unique qualities which can actually help us shine in many social contexts. 

Autistic social strengths

Autistics are hyper-systemizers, interested in learning and mastering the complexities of our world. Marrying this thinking with one of our “special interests” can actually make us super interesting conversation partners.

For example, our extensive knowledge of these topics and our enhanced powers of analysis allow us to discuss topics in great detail. Many of us are exceedingly eloquent, sporting rich vocabularies and speaking with surprising exactitude.

Autistic folks are renowned for being truth-tellers and straight shooters who are compulsively honest about our thoughts and feelings. We bring an authenticity to our interactions that many NTs find refreshing. (Assuming we don’t feel compelled by society to mask.)

Autistics can challenge social conventions in other positive ways. For example, we prefer not to speak in subtext. We don’t infuse our communication with secret meanings, so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

We also inherently trust others, taking them at face value and believing their stated intentions rather than ascribing hidden motives.

Social challenges

But there are some downsides to operating outside of the bounds of social convention. 

Many autistics know what it’s like to unwittingly say something that is insensitive, inappropriate—or outright offensive—only to receive a swift rebuke from an NT.

In such instances, many NTs will condemn our behavior and even shun our company. These reactions can leave autistics feeling misunderstood, attacked, excluded, and abandoned. 

Realizing that we may not always be treated with grace, we remain perpetually on guard, ears pricked in anticipation of criticism. 

In some cases, we may even go on the defensive, thus deepening the relational rupture. 

In others, we shut down and withdraw. When a world of pain can be just one interaction away, it is easier to absent oneself, internalize others’ criticisms, and self-stigmatizing.

An overprotective reaction makes sense—at least initially. But what starts as adaptive quickly becomes maladaptive, at least when it comes to achieving autistic social success.

Socially shapeshifting, or “masking” in order to present a version of ourselves that is more acceptable to NTs means stymying spontaneity, swallowing our emotions, and stuffing our authentic selves out of view.

Worse still, when we withdraw, we deprive ourselves of opportunities to build and refine our social skills. And it prevents others from getting to know our brilliant authentic selves. 

Ruptures happen

What’s important to recognize here is that misunderstanding and conflict play out in all relationships, whether NTs or autistics are involved.

Years ago, a friend offered to make some tea for me. As he didn’t have a kettle or a stovetop, he proposed microwaving my water instead.

While my friend saw this as a convenient solution, something about the idea of blasting water with microwave particles rubbed me the wrong way. So I expressed my discomfort, suggesting we skip making the tea altogether.

Rather than listening and respecting my request, my friend decided he would try to persuade me to agree. Drawing upon his background in physics, he explained in great detail the mechanics behind the microwave. 

When I again declined his offer, however, my friend grew angry, telling me I was just “choosing to be stupid”. But what he failed to understand was that my initial refusal was rooted in fear and anxiety.

The breakdown in our communication began when my friend decided the remedy for this fear and anxiety was logic. When logic didn’t work, he concluded that I was stubborn and illogical.

Speaking for myself, as an autistic, I have often resorted to logic in the place of empathy. This is of course not to say we are wholly incapable of it, an incorrect charge that has been leveled against autistics in the past.

But what strikes me most about this story now is that while I was hurt by my friend’s allegation, I understood where he was coming from. As our minds functioned in similar ways, I inferred (correctly, I believe) the source of his frustration, but also his ultimately good intentions.

Had I been NT however, the case might have been quite different. Rather than absorbing my friend’s words in thoughtful silence, I might have lashed out at him or stormed out of his apartment.

The double empathy problem

Previously, it was believed that autistic individuals suffered from “mindblindness”, the inability to understand others’ thoughts, emotions, and intentions.

Researchers believed “mindblindness” impaired autistics’ social cognition, resulting in behaviors that are potentially inappropriate, insensitive, or offensive to NTs, and inhibiting autistic social success.

They now acknowledge however that the reality is much more complex; that mindblindness may in fact be a mutual phenomenon, what is referred to as the double empathy problem.

This concept acknowledges that both autistics and neurotypicals experience mindblindness when it comes to reading one another correctly. It goes a long way to explaining the source of the struggle many autistics face in social contexts.

It also highlights that the difficulty individuals experience communicating across the autistic/neurotypical divide is mutual. Neither autistics nor neurotypicals bear full responsibility for misunderstandings.

It follows, therefore, that the onus is on both parties to do what they can to bridge this divide.

Modulating, not masking to create autistic social success

In a series of subsequent posts, I will discuss a range of “classically autistic” behaviors I myself have exhibited. 

I acknowledge these behaviors have on occasion been a source of misunderstanding and conflict during social interactions with NTs. But I want to stress that my focus here is not problematizing autistic behaviors, but rather problem-solving the resulting communication breakdowns. 

For this reason, I will refer to these behaviors as “challenges”, while presenting some “alternatives” that fellow autistics may consider engaging in, as they see fit. 

These alternatives represent hard-won lessons from many years of personal struggle. They are not concerned with “masking” one’s autistic identity or interests; their focus instead is “modulating” one’s conduct. 

Modulation—that is, selective and strategic presentation of the self—is a practice all individuals engage in during everyday interactions. Modulating helps to win the acceptance of others while bolstering an atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect, and preserving social order.

In my experience, NTs have an easier time modulating than we autistics, especially given how extensive our loyalty to our truth-telling natures. 

But I’m a firm believer that with enough observation and practice, we can match—and even exceed—our neurotypical peers in this regard.

More to come in a follow-up post.

‘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.

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 to avoid becoming a gay dating app sociopath

Essy Knopf dating app sociopath
Reading time: 6 minutes

Much of the small talk that happens on gay dating apps is, in my experience, a preface to a request. 

“What you up to?” someone may ask, and behind this seemingly polite question, invisible gears are turning.

Maybe this stranger will hear my response and respond authentically, or maybe they will continue with the subterfuge of trying to gauge whether I’m willing and able to sustain a fantasy – or fulfill a desire.

This is very much in keeping with the commodified, gamified nature of online dating, where chat apps involve little more than a mutual cranking of slot machine handles.

For someone who is seeking to build connections, these obvious attempts at assessing sexual eligibility can quickly become soul-sapping.

So the last time someone asked “What you up to?”, it was hardly any surprise that I responded with, “Getting a frontal lobotomy”.

I was in my own way trying to shake my chat partner out of automaticity, but all I got in return was the acronym “lol”. 

Clank, went the invisible gears, and within seconds, my chat partner was proceeding with his script. 

“Cool. You looking?”

Some people may describe this kind of attention as affirming. Personally? I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m being treated less as a human being, than as a prospective reward.

Apps are basically Skinner boxes

Previously I compared gay dating apps to Skinner boxes. For those of you who don’t know, Skinner boxes are small glass cages used by experimenters to teach animals how to perform certain actions, like hitting a lever.

These boxes reinforce desired behavior by dispensing a reward such as food, or punishment in the form of a shock from an electrified floor grid.

Andreas1/Wikimedia Commons

Skinner boxes are a perfect analogy for gay dating apps. The difference here is that messages, or more specifically, the attention they represent serves as the reward while being ignored is a form of punishment or negative reinforcement.

As app users, we maximize reward and minimize punishment using strategic and even deceptive self-presentation and engagement. We tailor profiles and our behavior in ways that will gain and sustain attention, even if they aren’t necessarily authentic

We may boast about our preferences or prowess while using erotic photos as bait for our chat partners.

Some of us may go so far as to create fake profiles or message someone exclusively with the aim of receiving a response. 

Messaging purely for attention, however, may be the first signs we’re developing a process addiction. Here’s why.

Why gay dating apps are addictive

At one point during his studies, the inventor of the Skinner box – American scientist B.F. Skinner – modified his boxes to dispense food pellets according to a random number of lever presses. 

His pigeon test subjects, rather than being deterred by the unpredictability of the exercise, quickly learned to press the lever at random, even when no pellet was immediately forthcoming. 

What Skinner realized was that this very same unpredictability had created a tension of expectations, which was released the moment the pigeon received their reward.

Skinner credits this tension-reward loop, also present in slot machines, as being the main driver behind addiction.

We can see that loop widely incorporated today in video games, social media, and even dating apps.

Consider the unpredictable nature of “rewards” on Grindr, Scruff, or Tinder: users log on and off at random, and the rate of replies can vary completely, sometimes even within the span of a single conversation.

Meeting someone off the app may begin as a tantalizing fantasy, but it’s one that ultimately can’t compete with the dopamine-seeking reward-loop offered by the back-and-forth of instant messaging.

The result is an experience that could be broadly described as ineffective, at least where it comes to generating face-to-face interactions.

Of course, if you were to canvas a group of gay men at random, I’m not sure a consensus would ever be reached on what constitutes an “effective” dating app chat session. 

After all, everyone’s definition of a reward will vary from interaction to interaction, day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Yes, humans are a fickle bunch. 

How addiction creates dating app sociopaths

Dating apps don’t help, in that, they all seem designed to facilitate any variety of interactions. Some may use the app with the intent to meet, while others are simply looking for a distraction or the thrill of erotic chat or photo exchanges. 

Suppose we come to the apps with a specific goal in mind. Gamification in many cases will nudge us towards abandoning specificity, towards being open to any and all interactions, if only for the momentary gratification they promise.

Our sole purpose thus becomes the maintenance of the tension-reward loop.

Sustained use will lead many users towards a nebulous middle ground, simultaneously craving all of the above, yet never finding true satisfaction. And yet we keep coming back. Why?

Notably, Skinner found that pigeons in his experiments continued to peck a lever even once their appetite had been sated. His conclusion: the action of cranking a lever had in and of itself become “fun”. 

You can see the same behavior among users. Like edgy, risk-averse stockbrokers bidding in an incredibly volatile market, we hedge our bets, messaging indiscriminately just to see who will bite.

After firing off scores of messages to multiple chat partners, we wait for the replies to trickle in. 

Too much tension and frustration – not enough replies, significant delays, or “inferior” rewards – and our sense of enjoyment will diminish. 

Our only recourse then is to either adjust our expectations or spread our net more widely in order to maintain the loop. 

Profile grids and swipe stacks will come to resemble an ever-shifting buffet in what feels like a perpetual famine. 

Prolonged use of gay dating apps thus sees other users reduced to mere units in a digital meat market characterized by extreme scarcity. An environment in which the dating app sociopath flourishes.

essy knopf gay dating apps sociopaths

What is a dating app sociopath?

In the 10+ years in which I’ve used gay dating sites and apps, I’ve often caught myself logging in just to see who had messaged, less interested in the content of the communication than the sheer fact of its existence. 

It became clear to me that so long as I was caught up in tension-reward loop – in the split-second objectification, relational multitasking, devaluation, and dismissal that seems baked into digital modes of interaction – I could hardly expect to form healthy relationships with other gay men.

How, when I was treating chat partners as mere levers to be pulled for personal gratification?

The single-mindedness with which we perform this action, according to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is the antithesis of empathy:

“Single-minded” attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind at the very same time… When empathy is switched off, we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too. 

It is in the absence of such empathy that we adopt sociopathic behavior. And just like the sociopath, many of us – consumed by our process addiction – will go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of satisfaction.

Consider these traits, as laid out in the seminal work on sociopathy, The Mask of Sanity

  • superficial charm
  • absence of anxiety or guilt
  • undependability, dishonesty, egocentricity
  • complete inability to form lasting intimate relationships 
  • failure to learn from punishment
  • absence of emotion
  • lack of insight into the impact of our behavior
  • failure to plan ahead

For those of you who have or continue to use gay dating apps, I ask you this: have you not experienced or dabbled yourself in superficial charm and unpredictability?

Or worse still: deceit, manipulation, and outright nastiness?

The system is hopelessly broken

Chances are you’re alone. Tragically, the addictive qualities of gay dating apps have created an environment where sociopathic behavior is now the status quo.

Strangers will issue demands and unsolicited erotic photos, interrogating our sexual preferences before blocking us at random.

While these tendencies are not specific to gay men, app-based reward loops positively reinforce these behaviors while failing to offer real accountability. 

The result is an endless chain of victimization in which bad behavior is normalized and internalized and we all unwittingly find ourselves either in the company of or becoming, gay dating app sociopaths.

It’s no secret that gay dating apps aren’t designed to foster genuine, heartfelt connection, or for that matter to enforce personal accountability.

Their goal, rather, is to gamify interactions with the goal of sustaining use, indefinitely. But in so doing, they train us to associate self-worth with constant affirmation

In our pursuit of that affirmation, we will find ourselves pulling out all stops to feed it, even if it means completely disregarding and discarding others along the way.

The system may be broken, but it remains profitable for app makers, so there is little motivation for change. But as individual users, we can and must hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal conduct.

We can do this by:

  • Exercising self-awareness: curbing usage motivated only by the desire to get a “fix”. 
  • Empathizing, rather than objectifying: treating people with kindness, consideration and courtesy. Being honest and upfront with our intentions and not stringing people along when we aren’t interested in them. 
  • Voting with our feet: registering our protest by quitting and pursuing more wholesome forms of interaction, offline.

Takeaways

  • Gay dating apps employ a reward loop to keep us addicted.
  • Addiction leads to single-mindedness and a temporary loss of empathy.
  • In its absence, we may behave in antisocial ways.
  • Be self-aware and empathic. Be accountable for your own behavior.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 1: ‘I am sending you’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 9 minutes

This is a story about how I almost died. Almost. Well not exactly. But I COULD have died. I could die anytime, as a matter of fact. Is that a lump I feel in my armpit?”

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

“I think we have good energy.” I stared at Derrick, trying not to laugh. 

“You realize horses cost a lot of money, right?”  

“A few thousand dollars, at most,” Derrick replied.

“Really,” I said. “And where would you keep it?” Our tiny apartment was hardly big enough for two people and a dog as it was.

“At the stables,” Derrick said. “See, I think it would be a great investment. I could rent it out to other riders. Before long the costs would cover themselves. I’d even be able to turn a profit.”

I was on the verge of disputing the claim when the pointlessness of it all struck me.

Derrick was mercurial when it came to life decisions. This I figured was him trying to persuade himself as much as me. 

And sure enough, when Derrick returned from his riding lessons a week later, he was under a cloud.

“Bitch,” he muttered. I gave him a look. “The trainer,” Derrick added. “She quoted $12,000 for the horse. Can you believe it? Then she had the nerve to ask for a commission.”

I knew better than to rub vinegar into my boyfriend’s wounds. But still, I had to ask the question.

“So…are you still going to buy a horse?”

“I’m not giving her a damn cent!” Derrick said, storming into his room.

Reality had dealt his modest dream a death blow. But by the next day, his mood had changed.

“Good news,” he said, bouncing through the door. “I’m going to buy a motorcycle.”

“You’re- What?” I replied.

“I sat on one today,” Derrick explained. “It was so cool. Look.” He showed me a photo.

“But you don’t even know how to ride,” I pointed out. Derrick scowled.

“I’d learn,” he said.

Still, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this latest obsession. Last time it had been a trip to Coachella. And the time before that, an overwater bungalow in Tahiti. Derrick was quietly treading the waters of a mid-life crisis.

I made myself a bowl of cereal. Derrick’s expression got all furtive.

“So… How’s your therapy going?”

It was a fishing expedition – I was sure of it. I tried to keep my tone neutral.

“Pretty well so far.”

“Have you told her about us?” I hesitated.

“No, not yet. See, she’s Christian,” I said. “I’m worried she’ll pass judgment. You know, about us.”

“You should really tell her,” Derrick insisted. As if doing this might somehow help crystallize our relationship.

Right now, Dr. Kukosian was impartial. Trying to keep your private life private while stretched out on a therapist’s couch might sound like a losing battle, but the last thing I wanted to do was incite her prejudices. 

Defending one’s “lifestyle choices” was not a task I particularly looked forward to, especially when it might result in me being more or less kicked out of therapy. 

The therapist pickings were slim. Los Angeles was a city ripe with dysfunction, with not enough sympathetic ears to go around.

Though if I was being honest with myself, Dr. Kukosian’s religion was an excuse, and Derrick had good cause to be worried.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
This picture captures my initial joy and optimism during the first few weeks of my relationship with Derrick.

II

Dr. Kukosian’s office was on the ninth floor of a high-rise at the heart of Glendale. This floor, I eventually learned, had been rented to a private Christian college. The doctor’s counseling room – more of a booth, really – occupied a far corner.

Dr. Kukosian sat in an armchair, clad in a cardigan, capris, and an unfaltering smile, listening patiently as I ran through the week’s events.

Fifteen minutes into the session, I ran out of things to talk about. Dr. Kukosian’s encouraging smile loomed before me.

Her non-directive therapy style had left me with a chronic fear of silence. Broaching the subject of Derrick was no longer a choice, but a necessity. It was time to let the homo out of the bag. 

I opened by mentioning that I had a partner. Then I casually slipped in a masculine pronoun, carefully watching Dr. Kukosian’s face for a reaction. Nothing. 

“So you moved in with him after only two months of dating?” she asked. Her lack of disapproval was anticlimatic…disappointing, even.

“Well, my lease was up at my old place,” I said. “He had a spare room. The rent was cheaper. I wanted to save money.”

Here I was, trying to justify my decision, less worried about being condemned for being gay than I was for being, well, reckless.

“Seems like that happened very quickly,” Dr. Kukosian observed. 

“Anyway, it’s just temporary,” I said, hearing a criticism where there wasn’t one. Dr. Kukosian processed this with a sagely nod.

“And how are things between the two of you?”

I considered how best to respond.

“Well, he has an anxiety problem,” I began.

My therapist would have to be deaf not to hear the irony of this. I was here, after all, because my own anxiety had recently migrated to my face, leading to weeklong bouts of jaw clenching.

“Derrick’s a workaholic,” I continued. “He’s often go-go-go all day, night, and weekend. We don’t have any time together. He forgets all our couple’s appointments and blames me for not reminding him. I’ve basically become his maid and dog-minder.” 

“And how does that make you feel?” Dr. Kukosian asked, perhaps sensing my exasperation.

“Like I’m a…a fixture in his household,” I said, grappling for a metaphor. “Like a lamp or a chair. Like my needs don’t matter. The dog isn’t mine. She shouldn’t be my responsibility.”

That, however, wasn’t the worst of it. I’d known from the beginning that Derrick had anger management problems.

Early on in the relationship, he’d mocked my taste in music during a car ride. I’d mimed slapping him and an instant later his fist connected with my face. 

It had not been deliberate, but rather a knee-jerk (or should I say elbow-jerk?) reaction. Still, it had made me cry, and in an unexpected show of contrition, Derrick had pulled over and gotten down on his knees to apologize. 

A few days later, on the return drive from a visit to see his family in Sacramento, Derrick had woken from a nap to hear me telling his dog, who was misbehaving at the time, that she was “out of control”.

“Maybe you’re the one out of control!” he shouted, before turning over and promptly falling back asleep.  

At first, I was bemused. But the outbursts had continued, eroding my sense of security.

Another time, we were driving through his friend’s neighborhood while he was in the car. I made what I believed was an inoffensive observation, noting that the houses around us looked “rather squat”.

Perhaps Derrick thought I was, by extension, insulting his friend’s home, because his reaction had been to snap at me.

“Just shut up, okay?”

And when Derrick wasn’t taking his frustrations out on me, he was usually humblebragging.

As a manager at a tech startup, Derrick had crossed paths with more than a few industry luminaries. But after weeks of namedropping, I’d taken to joking about Derrick’s claims to fame.

“Elon Musk and I are totes besties,” I’d once exaggerated. “You don’t believe me? I’ve got his father’s number on my phone. Look, see? Wes Musk. We’re on great terms.”

Derrick retaliated by threatening to kick me out of his apartment. 

Derrick was in his 40s, so my expectations had admittedly been skewed towards him possessing a certain degree of maturity. Skewed, if not faulty.

Over the course of months, Derrick had gone from charm offensive to lashing out at random, until finally, I’d withdrawn into my room, taking with me all my goodwill.

Our lives from then on had been parallel, occasionally crossing but never connecting. When my attempts to bridge the divide had been ignored and even scorned, parting ways had seemed the inevitable conclusion.

“It sounds like a very stressful situation for you,” Dr. Kukosian said. “Maybe for the sake of your relationship it would be best if you just moved out?” 

Later, after the session, as I stood at the university urinal relieving myself, I noticed a poster taped to the wall.

“I am sending you,” it read. It was a quote, attributed to none other than Jesus Christ.

Sending me where, I wondered? And more importantly, why? 

I considered the Korean characters beneath the quote. Supposing this wasn’t just a mistranslation, the phrase could have once made sense, in some other time and place. It was also equally possible it never had, and never would.

All the same, I decided to take it as a sign. Jesus or no, I was going to leave Derrick.


III

The following day, Derrick asked if I would be willing to volunteer my services as a personal assistant at his startup.

The business was short-staffed, and given Derrick had helped me with picking out my first car, I figured I owed him the favor.

But shortly after I arrived, I witnessed Derrick ball out another manager in front of several other employees.

Over lunch, I hinted to Derrick that I was worried about the possible fallout.

“Perhaps it would be better next time if you just walk away?” I suggested. Derrick glowered.

“Well, maybe next time I just won’t ask for your help,” he replied.

I studied my lunch. For the better part of the morning, I had been running around doing errands on Derrick’s behalf. Was this his idea of gratitude?

That night, Derrick missed yet another couple’s dinner, returning home hours later to find me practicing yoga. Trying to look as defiant as I possibly could from my position on the floor, I announced I was moving out.

“Okay,” Derrick said. Uncertainty flickered across his face, hardened into something else entirely.

“I don’t have any hard plans yet,” I said, trying to soften the blow, “but I have started looking around.”

I braced myself. Having laid the groundwork, I figured now was as good a time as any to pull the trigger.

“I was thinking,” I began, “it might be best if we both took some time out from the relationship.” 

The subtext being forever – not that I was going to spell that out. Right now, Derrick was a powder keg I had no intention of lighting.

Derrick leaned back on his heels.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.

“… You do?”

“I’m pretty busy right now with work,” he said, playing it cool. “And you want more than I can give you.”

Was that a jeer I heard in his voice? If Derrick was hoping I would rise to the accusation, he was going to be sorely disappointed.

“Are you sure you’re okay with it?” I pressed.

“Fine,” Derrick insisted. His refusal to meet my eyes told me he’d suspected this was coming. 

And really, how could he have not? I’d told Derrick on multiple occasions how his behavior was driving me away. His response had been to label me “too sensitive”, or worse still, ignore me completely.

Fearing my short credit history and lack of savings would hinder me in my search for a new apartment, I’d dragged my heels. But then my mental health had taken a turn, and moving out had become a matter of survival.

Over the next week, Derrick wavered between anger and brittle formality, staying away from the apartment. I began to walk on eggshells, fearing that if I wasn’t careful, Derrick might try to evict me on the spot.

A friend heard I was looking for a place and asked if I might want to take over his lease. The studio proved tiny, but it had recently been renovated, with exposed brickwork and a kitchen sink the size of a drydock. Cute, serviceable, and – most importantly – available right now.

In less than 24 hours I’d signed the lease, packed my belongings, and booked a moving truck. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I suspect Derrick thought I was bluffing, that sooner or later I was going to “come to my senses”.

IV

Moving day rolled around and I received a text message from Derrick, stating in precise detail the condition in which he wanted my room left. 

“Make sure when you move out to vacuum,” he wrote. “I want you to clean all the dust off the skirting boards.”

This, from a man whose idea of cleanliness involved letting his dog defecate in the house while the Rumba was on.

All week conflict had been brewing. And soon it would explode.

At 9.30 pm, I made my final trip back to the house to collect some potted plants. While collecting the last one, I spotted movement through the open front door.

After a day’s absence, Derrick had returned home. His earlier silence over text told me he was itching for a fight. 

I leaned over the threshold and dropped the keys on the TV stand. 

“Here’s your keys!” I called, turning to leave. Derrick poked his head out of the bathroom.

“Wait a second,” he said, drying his hands and hurrying over. “I want to talk to you.”

“Really – I have to go,” I replied. My friends were waiting outside in the car, and we were long overdue for dinner.

“That’s fine,” Derrick blurted, using a word I’d come to associate with its exact opposite. Then he launched his opening salvo: “You need to stop talking shit about me.”

I stared, deadpan. Derrick forced a smirk.

“It’s actually kind of sad, the fact you need to go around talking about other people behind their backs.”

Yes, I had complained to a mutual friend about Derrick’s emotional abuse. So far as I was concerned, I could shout my story from the rooftop if I wanted to.

Suffice to say, Derrick didn’t really want an apology. He wanted a scene. But I was not going to give him one.

“Bye,” I said. And off I went, bounding down the front steps. Derrick rushed out onto the landing after me.

“Good luck with your writing career!” he screamed. “I hear it’s going really well so far!”

It was a knife twist out of some soap opera playbook. 

Giddy with the ridiculousness of it all, I launched myself into the waiting car. 

“What happened?” my friends wanted to know.

I looked back at the security gate to Derrick’s apartment complex. Any second now I expected him to burst into view, a spurned lover set on shrill revenge. The idea left me torn between laughter and mortification.

“Just drive!” I said. “Quickly!”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My new studio apartment.

The next day I received a text message from Derrick, written in the frosty prose of a job rejection letter. I was hereby notified he would be invoicing me for all outstanding bills. Derrick also demanded I remove myself from our shared auto insurance plan. 

“Well ahead of you there, buddy,” I wanted to reply. Derrick was so out-of-touch he hadn’t even noticed when I’d cut the tie two weeks prior.

If I’m being honest, the relationship had been a slow-motion train wreck.

It was not the first, and as circumstances would soon prove, it would not be the last.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 2: ‘Too soon bro’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 2: ‘Too soon bro!’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 7 minutes

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

My tendency to plunge headlong into things often created problems that could easily have been avoided. My relationship with Derrick was just another case in point.

“It’s the anxiety,” Dr. Kukosian said at our next session. “Anxious people move too fast.”

A politer version perhaps of “fools rush in”. But was there anything I could do to fix it? 

“My patients who have overcome their anxiety continue to face this problem for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Kukosian explained. I stared at the ceiling.

“You’re saying I’m stuck with it?” She nodded slowly. 

I eyed a canvas print of an oil painting on the wall behind her. It depicted a scene of biblical rapture. What right did these apostles have, being so happy?

“So… What should I do?” I said, feeling more than a little helpless.

“Every time you feel yourself rushing into something, slow down,” Dr. Kukosian said.

Slow down? I only had one speed, and as far as I could see, the gear stick was broken. But if the Derrick experience had taught me anything, it was that I shouldn’t jump into another relationship ever again.

My new resolve lasted a total of four months.

One day, while scrubbing myself in the shower, I caught myself talking to my dead dog. By talking I mean babbling, something between doggolingo and baby speak.

“Oh Deedeesco, bwye you so kyute?” I said in a singsong voice. “I bwanna sqbuish dat. Gib cuddle?”

To the casual listener, it would have sounded like I was suffering from pathological echolalia. But it all made perfect sense to me.

Soon I was babbling while dressing and cooking dinner. I stopped strangers in the street.

“Can I pet your dog?” I’d ask, my hand already halfway to their pet’s mane.

“Oo… You iz berry sbweet, isn’t you?” I’d coo to the dog. “Oy loik dat.”

The owner would force a smile, but their body language would be practically screaming: “Could you just please get AWAY from my dog?”

Before long I was staying up nights, scanning pet adoption websites. 

Many of the ads read like personals, some adopting a pitiful, pleading tone.

“Marisol is a sweet, affectionate pit bull cross. Her previous owners were, unfortunately, unable to keep up with her energetic nature.”

Other ads bordered on insolent.

“Must have a large yard. No small children. Adoption possible after two weeks of successful fostering.”

Some came with detailed questionnaires or requests that struck me as a tad over-the-top.

“In the event your dog became ill, how much would you be willing to spend for treatment? $500? $1000? $3000.”

“Record a video tour of your home to give a sense of where the dog would be living.”

Most hotels didn’t even offer a video tour, and yet here was a pet adoption agency demanding a visual guarantee you could offer their homeless dog a picture perfect abode.

I winnowed my options and made a few calls. The first on my list was a scruffy, adorable-looking Chow by the name of Thompson. 

“That dog is not available for adoption,” the lady at the pound told me.

“Well, why not?”

“He has aggression issues,” she said. “He’s only available for adoption to specialist shelters.”

“So why list him at all then?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. The woman hung up on me.

Moving my way down the list, I fired off emails. My selection criteria, as it turned out, were entirely superficial, cuteness prevailing over practicality. 

One response arrived. Yes, Sandra the low-slung black mutt with tender eyes was still available. I sent an email back, expressing my interest in meeting her.

“Unfortunately you cannot meet her until after you have adopted her,” went the reply.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
If I’m being honest about myself, my tendency to plunge headlong into things almost always resulted in disaster.

Say what? The lister confessed then that Sandra actually lived in South Korea.

Only once I had forked over the adoption fee would the agency fly Sandra out to Los Angeles to begin her new life with me.

It was potentially the canine equivalent of a catfish – a dogfish – and a risk I was not willing to take.

A few days later, a shelter contacted me about a tan Jindo called Ki.

“Ki’s foster Miska has offered to come by and talk you through the ins and outs of Jindo ownership,” the email read. “Miska will bring Ki along for you to meet. Please do not touch Ki during the meeting, as Jindos are generally wary of strangers.”

I crammed information about the dog breed in preparation for the meeting.

There were a few warning signs. Jindos for example were wary of strangers. But as had been the case with Derrick, I chose to focus only on the positives.

Wow! Jindos were a breed known for their bravery and their loyalty towards a single person – traits largely absent in the people I dated. What was not to like?

That afternoon Miska arrived with Ki in tow. 

“First thing you should know,” Miska began, sitting on the edge of my desk, “is Jindos kill.”

“Er,” I blurted.

“They have a high prey drive,” Miska explained. “Ki kills something about once a week.” 

“How-” I began, and stopped.

“Just last week we were walking and he suddenly pulled free,” Miska went on, oblivious of the effect her words were having. “Next thing, I see him tossing a rat into the air.” She mimed, laughing in what I hoped was chagrin. “Then he broke its back.”

My eyes went to the dog perched on the windowsill, staring intently at something I couldn’t see. Prey.

“He’s killed pigeons before, and a few stray cats,” Miska added. My eyes returned to her.

“How do you know they were stray?”

“They didn’t have collars,” Miska said, as Ki came over to study me. I dry-swallowed.

“Otherwise Ki is just lovely,” Miska said, as if this would negate everything that had come before. “He’s so protective. As a woman I can walk him anywhere at night.” She stared down at her foster pet. “I’m going to really miss him.”

“I bet,” I said dubiously. Doubts piled on. “So the shelter told me Ki would need more than an hour of walking every day?”

“At least,” Miska said.

“But Ki wouldn’t like it if my friends touched her, right?”

“Definitely not,” she said. “Sometimes if I touch her while she’s lying down, she growls at me.”

And there it was: the soft hiss of escaping air. The balloon of my Jindo aspirations had been pricked and was rapidly deflating. 

Maybe Miska was trying to be funny. Maybe she’d overstated her case. But truth be told, any murderous tendencies were for me an immediate dealbreaker.

My reservations expressed, I thanked Miska for her time and saw her and Ki out.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
The dog I would ultimately adopt would prove to be a husky-corgi called Cash. 

II

Days later, I got a callback for an ivory-haired husky-corgi called Cash. 

There had been a lot of interest in Cash, the adoption agent informed me. Given how cute he was, it was any surprise he was such a hot ticket. But, the agent told me, I was still welcome to come by and meet him tomorrow.

Nursing the beginnings of a cold, I drove to the adoption center in Eastside Los Angeles. As I walked through the door, I spotted Cash sitting beneath a chair, a red bandana twined about his neck.

He peered up at me, bushy tail wagging, and I was smitten. To hell with all the other contenders – this dog was going to be mine.

I sat down beside his current owner Anja, a silver-haired woman with a voice as soft and sweet as cotton candy. As Anja gently patted Cash, she explained she’d only recently adopted him, but that he hadn’t been the right fit for her household.

“He kept jumping all over my other dog, who’s pretty old,” she said. “Once he scratched her in the eye. I had to take her to the vet for treatment.”

The excitable fur ball between her knees strained to the end of his lead, sniffing the gap beneath a door.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My first glimpse of Cash. I was smitten.

I made kissing noises to get Cash’s attention and he trotted over to lick my hand. Next thing I was squishing my face into his. This was my attempt at affection – and probably the textbook definition of the worst way to introduce yourself to a dog.

Cash gave a Husky growl of protest.

“I’ve never heard him make that noise before,” Anja said, fascinated.

The adoption agent came over to ask how things were going.

“I want him to adopt Cash,” Anja said. “Can he take him today?” 

The face squishing trick, it seemed, had worked. Anja had sensed our special, instantaneous bond; had recognized that there would be no greater owner than I.

The agent frowned.

“There are still a few families who would like to meet Cash first,” she said. Anja insisted. A gentle tug of war ensued, until, finally, the agent caved.

An hour later I strolled out of the agency, Cash’s leash in one hand and a box of dog supplies in the other. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash following his arrival at my apartment.

III

Getting my newly adopted child into the car proved something of an ordeal. The instant Cash realized what was happening, he flailed, bracing his paws against the frame of the door, like a cartoon character resisting a lifetime of imprisonment.

It took two of us to get him inside. Cash immediately settled on the floor, unmoving and unresponsive.

I searched for “dog relaxation music” on YouTube then connected my phone to the car’s audio system. Soft, languorous synths oozed from the speakers.

These were the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in a crystal shop…and probably the closest thing to musical waterboarding. Whether Cash enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell, huddled as he was beneath my chair.

When we got home, I carried my new pet over to the bath and ran some warm water, rubbing strawberry-scented shampoo into his fur. 

Cash struggled with a desperation born of certain hydrophobia. I drew the shower curtain to prevent him from leaping out, and when that didn’t work, blocked the path of escape with my body.

Afterwards I dried him and he sat, staring at me with doleful eyes as I ran a brush through his tangles. The adoption was beginning to hit home.

But so was my cold. My throat in the last few hours had grown raw, and my nose was watering.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash lost about half his body weight after I brushed him. He had that much hair.

Binning a fist-sized wad of hair, I flung the brush away and sat, exhausted, on my bed. An uncomfortable pressure built inside my sinuses, giving way to pain.

“Cash?” Cash wandered over. I sat him on the edge of the bed, buried my face in his fur, and proceeded to cry.

Cash was having none of it. His eyes bulged. “Too soon bro!” they seemed to say.

He leapt down, vanishing into the kitchen. 

I lay back, trying to repress a sneeze and failing. Lying on my back, with my face parallel with the ceiling, this had the unfortunate effect of simulating rain.

There came a noise, like someone trying to squeeze ketchup from a bottle, and levered myself up. That was when I spotted Cash squatting, in preparation to defecate.

“No, Cash! No!” 

Diarrhea spattered the tiles. Completing the motion, Cash stepped backwards, directly into the puddle.

“Cash stop- No! STOP STOP STOP STOP!”

At the sound of his name, Cash trotted back over to the bed, leaving a trail of muddy pawprints.

His pale, arctic-fox face peered up at me. Wary, expectant. My tear-stained face stared back.

Here we were: two sick, miserable beings in need of love and comfort. It was, if anything, a promising beginning.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 3: ‘You’re weird’.