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Sex by sat-nav

Theo Hobson is depressed by the media’s rapturous welcome for Grindr, a new software device that helps gay men locate each other for impromptu sex

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

7 July 2010

12:00 AM

Theo Hobson is depressed by the media’s rapturous welcome for Grindr, a new software device that helps gay men locate each other for impromptu sex

I am not a homophobe. But I suppose I might be a pinkophobe. I do not think that homosexuality is wrong, bad, inferior, hateful in the eyes of God. And yet I find male homosexual culture objectionable. I think, especially in the last decade or so, that it has come to have a corrupting influence on sexual culture generally.

The heart of the matter is the fact that male homosexuality has a special relationship with promiscuity, and gay culture fails to be ashamed of this. Instead it glories in it. And because it is (rightly) seen as wrong to discriminate against homosexuals, there is a huge fear of condemning gay culture, though it has promiscuity at its heart. The ancient taboo has reversed, and criticism of the practice, rather than the practice itself, is forbidden. So strong is this new taboo that all of sexual culture is affected. Thanks to gay rights, sexual licentiousness in general finds itself protected from public criticism; it even has a sort of righteous air.

My argument only makes sense if I dare to put my Mary Whitehouse hat on and say it straight: I think that the celebration of promiscuity is a bad thing. I think that a flippant attitude to sex, one that separates it from committed relationships and treats it as a hedonistic opportunity, is to be condemned. I also think that pornography is a fairly serious evil. There. I am, if you like, a pornophobe, an objector to the culture of hedonistic sex. Gay or straight.

My thoughts on the issue were clarified by a couple of articles in the Observer this week. A report on the Gay Pride event in London noted with alarm that no senior Tories were present this year — as if this camp jamboree were Remembrance Sunday, a cultic event that could not be shunned without serious repercussions to one’s reputation. (In fact, Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, did attend, but the outrage remains telling.)

I then moved to the Observer magazine, where there was a long article about Grindr, a new device for mobile phones that lets you know if there are any up-for-it gay people in your vicinity. It is a sort of sat-nav cruising tool. When you activate the ‘app’, your phone fills with little thumbnail pictures of other men — often naked — who’ve signed up to Grindr, a list of their vital statistics, and their current distance from you in feet. Sometimes even half-feet. Testimonies from users made it quite clear that Grindr has transformed their sex lives. There are 700,000 users worldwide in 162 countries, even in Iraq, Albania and Ethiopia. ‘Wherever you are, there’s bound to be a Grindr guy near you!’ promises the website cheerily. Grindr has turned the world into Hampstead Heath.

I’m not criticising the technology, which is clearly thrilling — you can imagine it being used to connect individuals with all sorts of different shared interests: people looking for an impromptu game of Frisbee, for instance, or fellow trainspotters, or mums with children the same age. But in this case, the technology is simply being used to en-able impromptu sex between total strangers. Is that progress?

What’s so interesting about the first wave of publicity for Grindr is the utter absence of disapproval. The more I’ve thought about it this week, the more I’ve realised that the liberal press in fact demands that we give our enthusiastic approval to Grindr and to gay culture generally; that we actually rejoice in the fact that it is openly and wantonly promiscuous. Though none of us, gay or straight, wishes our partner to be unfaithful; though everybody, of whatever sexual inclination, is looking for ‘true love’; even so, it’s not on to object to compulsive cruising.

But doesn’t heterosexual promiscuity exist too? Yes of course it does. Most men and some women find it almost impossible to be monogamous and the papers are always full of some celebrity kiss and tell. But the important difference is that if a heterosexual sleeps around, more often than not we condemn it, we make it clear that such behaviour has disorderly and abusive consequences: families are broken up by it, and young women come off badly. When the footballer Ashley Cole cheats on his pop star wife Cheryl, for instance, the papers are full of photographs of Mrs Cole in tears and the nation tut-tuts. Of course it happens, but there is a pretty strong cultural mechanism that frowns on it.

The rise of gay culture threatens this mechanism, lobs a spanner in it. For here is a form of promiscuity that is not frowned upon but is instead protected from criticism. And modish heterosexual culture is, I notice, increasingly attempting to follow suit.

Let’s go back to that Observer article on Grindr. The author, Polly Vernon, is of course non-judgmental about the new cruising craze. In fact she’s not exactly neutral, she’s wide-eyed excited. This is ‘the world’s sexiest phone app’, ‘sex in an app’. ‘It marks a major evolution in how all of us — gay, straight, alive — will meet and interact with each other.’ All of us? My mother, for example, has never been online, and I don’t think this will change that. Maybe she doesn’t count as ‘alive’.

Polly observes that many gay men are, thanks to Grindr, having far more casual sex than they used to. She meets the tool’s founder, an American called Joel Simkhai. With a straight face, he tells her that he is a bit uncomfortable with its image as a sex-finding tool; it just facilitates human interaction, he says, and ‘his main hope for Grindr is it [sic] will help young gay men through the process of coming out’. Does Polly laugh in his rich Californian face for playing the gay victim card in this context? Of course not. She is ‘moved by Simkhai’s passion, by the tales of the non-sexual impact of Grindr. I appreciate that it is still not easy to come out, and how important that sense of geographical proximity, of being part of a visible and accepting community, would be.’

She reports that a version of the tool is being developed for straight folk. She wonders if it will catch on — she’s not sure it ‘could fully accommodate the complexities of male-female interactions’. But she admits that the possibility excites her: ‘I find myself thinking: however straight Grindr plays out for us — even if it opens up a Pandora’s box on our sexuality, alters forever the way men and women relate, leaves us vulnerable to a whole new world of emotional and sexual complications — bring it on. It’s going to make life more interesting.’

This is the authentic voice of our sexual culture: the straight person (male or female) who wants to be more like a gay man, who wants to combine sexual hedonism with edgy liberated virtue. The most famous expression of this urge can be found in Sex and the City, which is about women who want to imitate the hedonistic detachment of gay men. And a hefty proportion of the media are its cheerleaders. It’s not interesting so much as very depressing. I am bored of it.

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