The Queer Issue

Facing the Torsos

Scruff and Other Smartphone Hookup Apps Are the Future of Porn

Facing the Torsos

James Yamasaki

You're at a gay bar with a group of searching, horny guys, and you're talking to a bunch of them at once. "Pull your dick out," you say to one of the cuter ones. He does, and it's hard and good-looking. "Nice dick!" you say, naturally.

"Sup," someone else says to you while you're admiring it, but you don't pay him much attention.

One of the guys in the group has been talking for a while, but he's so boring that you turn your back on him mid-sentence and ignore him.

Just a few feet away is a guy who's really attractive but doesn't seem interested. You go up and say hello. When he doesn't respond, you say hi again. Nothing. Well, you'll see him again a few days later anyway, in the same spot, and you'll say hello again.

But look, there's that boring guy you turned your back on. Now that you know what it feels like to be ignored, you reluctantly say, "Sorry. I had a phone call." Or whatever. Then you pick up the conversation right where you left off.

These are the absurd in-person equivalents of phone hookup apps like Scruff, Grindr, Mister, and Jack'd: brief hellos ("sup"), the trading of nude pics, the dance of expressing interest, dropping in and out of conversations, and picking up chats you abandoned days ago.

It's obvious in the imagined bar above that our in-person behavior doesn't mirror our behavior and expectations on the apps. But there's a good deal more confusion as to how much of our behavior and expectations on the apps should mirror real life. This can be seen most clearly in the common declaration of many profiles: "I wouldn't talk to someone without a head at a bar, so have a face pic."

I don't like when profiles don't have face pics, and I wouldn't talk to a headless person in life, either. But neither would I—at least for the most part—ask to see a guy's dick at a bar and expect him to pull it out. And I wouldn't suddenly stop talking to someone with no explanation. So there's a tension and confusion between how much "real life" we're supposed to enact on these apps. This is, in part, because when we download an app, we don't just download the standard features, we download a narrative.

The narrative we're sold is a nice one, and sometimes it plays out: You create a profile, you chat with guys, you meet in person and fuck or even go on a date. I've had the good fortune of having this happen, but that's not what usually happens. Just last night I was on Scruff while in bed, facing the gay man's dilemma of too-horny-to-sleep-but-too-tired-to-go-out-and-get-some. Typical. With my phone hand, I was scrolling through pics, and with my other hand, I was casually and lazily playing with myself. I talked to a few guys, unlocked my photos, jerked off, and called it a night. Also typical.

Masturbation cued me in, as it has more than a few times, to something valuable: These apps are geared not specifically toward sex but toward stimulation, masturbation, and desire. Put another way, hookup apps are pornography—individualized, participatory pornography.

As a porn actor, I've been hearing fearful noises from porn studios and misguided journalists for years now, bemoaning how porn isn't as lucrative as it once was. While a lot of these concerns are aimed at the internet, what's overlooked is that a lot of our sexual attention is being diverted to our devices and hookup apps. Instead of writing about how apps compete with bars, we should be looking at how apps are dovetailing with other forms of sexual imagery. Because the substance of these apps isn't hooking up—it's browsing. All the traditional elements of porn are there, and more. By creating a profile, we agree to put ourselves on display. Many of the photos we post are borderline pornographic, even if they're "G-rated." They're chest pics or pics of us looking seductive, or they're goofy because we've sexualized goofiness. Exhibitionism is part of the agreement of these apps. We turn ourselves into desirable objects for others to look at.

Meanwhile, we're voyeurs, looking into everyone's little windows. The interface is similar to the way we view porn now, not fixating on one scene until we come but flipping through scenes—bringing up the next and the next until we find the one we want to stick with. The ability to chat with the person whose image you're getting off to amplifies the individualization of the experience. While I'm looking at someone's dick, I'm also wondering: Is he a top or a bottom? Does he like the same sexual acts as me? But it goes further than that—everyone on the app has access to what turns them on about personalities, too. Does he like the same movies? Is he into comic books? Will he wear that Thor helmet in his pic when he fucks me?

And the best thing is—unlike porn on the computer—we get to be on the screen, too, displaying ourselves to the other player.

But these encounters often do not lead to meeting. When you get to the point of hooking up, the person you think you're about to hook up with disappears. Or the person says, "I'm busy." Or you call it off because you don't feel like cleaning out your butt or going all the way over to that neighborhood because that's like a 20- minute walk!

And of course, there's the possibility that the person in the photo is not who he seems to be, that he'll look different than his photos, or that maybe he's expecting too much from you.

So instead of meeting up, the next step is turning the app off (or leaving it on) and masturbating. After the interaction has, um, come and gone, you "star" or "favorite" a guy's profile and revisit the scene again—like a replay, only better.

With apps, we create living pornography on the spot; they embody exhibitionism and voyeurism par excellence. They're portable, they're accessible when we want them to be (in your office! In the Starbucks bathroom!), they're not one-way like much live cam porn, they're not expensive, and everyone who signs up is agreeing to the same basic premises.

Some features are even optimized for the pornographic experience. The Global feature on Scruff, for example, allows you to engage in chatting and pic sharing without the promise of an encounter. If the person you're talking to lives in Papua New Guinea and you live in Chicago, you're probably not getting it in anytime soon. In other words, the Global feature presents a more realistic expectation of what's probably going to happen when we sign on.

This kind of realistic expectation can help save us from becoming dependent on these new technologies or trapped in the nervous energy that propels them. We've all seen people at bars staring into their phones, chatting up the very same sorts of guys they feel unable to approach in person. When we use the apps too frequently or depend on the narrative we're sold—one of meeting rather than browsing—it can become a crutch and diminish our skill sets for approaching others. We all know someone (or may be someone) who checks his apps constantly or inappropriately. I'm guilty of saying hi to someone via app when he's sitting four tables away from me at the coffee shop (embarrassingly, he didn't respond even as I watched him check his phone).

If we can see most of our time on these apps for what it is, we can access the apps' potential. Seeing the apps as pornographic allows us to interact with our desires rather than try to approximate in-person experiences. Engaging in—rather than just receiving—personalized sexual imagery can afford a degree of healthy detachment through which we can explore the contours of what gets us off. Right now, because the apps are clinging only to the prepackaged narrative, their potential isn't yet realized. Not expecting our devices and apps to approximate the same experiences we have via in-person contact will let us drop real-time expectations for them. Then we can face the torsos, whether they have faces or not. recommended

Conner Habib is a writer, lecturer, porn star, and anthroposophist. Follow him on Twitter @connerhabib.


Comments (12) RSS

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That whole article really rung true but esp the first bit. I've always wondered what made guys think just because you aren't face to face that's a free ticket to being a rude c**t; wouldn't do that in a bar would we... Well there was that one guy; I should have lamped him!!

10 years of online BS drove me INSANE! It's just live porn to me now!

Posted by BADW0LF on June 26, 2013 at 5:05 PM · Report this
Interesting POV. I am 50 years old, (real years, not gay years) I came of age in the bar and anonymous sex scene, before the internet. The behavior you say is a result of the apps is really not that uncommon. In the bar scene, back in the day, it was quite common to excuse yourself to "walk around" or "go to the restroom" when you got bored with someone, you just never came back to that person unless it got late and you got desperate It is also very common to give cues, eye contact, even say hello and someone not responding or just giving short answers that basically give the non-verbal response, "I'm not interested in you, go away" I've also seen people ask to see a dick and it was pulled out. In anonymous sex encounters in restrooms, sex clubs or adult bookstores, it was quite easy to ignore the ones you didn't want to and only focus on or chase the ones you wanted, very easy to ask to see cock, force yourself or push yourself into an encounter that was happening, you took the risk of being included or having one of the guys shake his head at you which basically told you to "go away".

Now maybe you never had that happen to you, or you never went to bars where that happened, but quite honestly, people are people and their behavior has not changed as they use the apps the same way. (In no way am I saying you are special or shielded from that behavior, we just came of age in different eras and you might not have the same experience as someone a bit older would have.)

I would not say the apps replace porn, because there is so much "free" porn that is available, but it has opened up that whole anonymous cruising world to a new group of people that never went out or see bars as something different now. I don't think the behavior of people is different in the apps versus the bars and bookstores of another era - It makes it easier, yes, because you don't have the face to face encounter you would have in a bar or sex club and there are soooo many more people that have access to the apps versus those that would risk going to a dark club anonymously. In that respect, I do agree with you that the apps do become a crutch and people forget that around them there are real people they can interact with. The apps become that safe zone where they can be their avatar and not have to put themselves out there on display to be rejected or ignored in person. It's not porn they replace, but personal interaction and teaching people how to actually have a real conversation and get to know someone. In all the bars, even with the rude people that would behave that way, there were still a few people here and there that wanted to talk to you and saw you as more than a piece of meat. I would say that the same thing is true of the apps, I have talked to many people that are after one thing, but I have also talked to a few here and there where we have a real conversation about something other than a dick pic.

I don't think the apps have caused changes in the way people interact, but they have made it easier to be impersonal and brought that mindset to a whole new generation of people that never would have known that existed.

Posted by Tazz602 on June 26, 2013 at 5:46 PM · Report this
I love you, Conner Habib!
Posted by JonJ on June 26, 2013 at 6:44 PM · Report this
Another way that grindr et al have changed pornography is its extreme accessibility. In a 5 minute bathroom break at work - heck, even when having a conversation with your boss, you have porn at your finger tips. I personally had to give up all that kind of stuff to deal with sex addiction problems but for people who can control it, more power to ya.
Posted by pranagraphic on June 27, 2013 at 11:23 AM · Report this
I live in the middle of nowhere where these apps are pretty much useless so I never got into them.
Posted by Cosmic on June 28, 2013 at 6:24 PM · Report this
I know a lot of this already in the article a very long time ago! As a bisexual person,I tend not to frequent the gay bars,clubs and bathhouses,because it gets annoying and I am not the social type and very shy...however,I don't use a lot of gay apps because they are loaded with BOTS and fake accounts...(just check out craigslist for a example) and as for looking at your face,SKYPE is just as good as those can SKYPE TO SKYPE as much as you like and get to know the person more...I have a few sexy mates that I do that with all the time and I meet people from around the world...for example, I have a mate from Italy and one from Australia...
Posted by Private on June 28, 2013 at 8:46 PM · Report this
This is an interesting perspective, but I think that it is a case of "both/and" -- as often is the case. The apps have definitely changed the way we cruise in person (or don't!) and the social norms of the sex lives of gay men. But, you're right: there is a certain pornographic/masturbatory element to it. Clearly, not all the browsing on these apps is not meant to illicit a hookup every time; just witness all the "Just looking" profiles online.

It seems to me that the apps have created an intersection between increased masturbation and a broader gay social isolation in which gay men come to, say, San Francisco, and sit in their downtown hotel rooms cruising Grindr rather than go out in the Castro or SOMA. It's safer and more likely to yield whatever result one is after: the before-bed-jackoff or an actual hookup. I do think that this compartmentalization of gay sexy, though, is unhealthy. In person, guys now go out with their friends to even the old seedy bars, stay in their safe social circles, display about as much sexual energy as, say, a nun in the Vatican, then go home or back to their hotel and get on Grindr or another app and let the cruising begin. The art of in-person cruising/hooking up is largely lost.
Posted by Mark V on June 29, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
To add to what Tazz602 said above, not only is the behavior Habib describes not all that different from the anonymous sex culture of yesteryear, it's also strikingly similar to what came between those days and the advent of apps: more than a decade of Internet chat rooms and hookup or dating sites, which is curiously absent from his analysis. The sexual consumerism, which the endless availability of porn on the Web has certainly played a part in facilitating, and the impulse to jack off and call it a night are if anything more extreme with hookup websites than with apps given that with the former one is likely to be more tied to a computer and therefore in a home or hotel room one is reluctant to leave.

Internet profiles also tend to be wordier and therefore more conducive to encouraging the kinds of personality fantasies Habib describes, and the comparative ease and speed of typing on a real keyboard allows for the possibility (though not the inevitability) of longer, more complex chats, for better and for worse. It's also worth noting that now that hookup websites often also have apps, it's easier for clashes of communication styles to occur between a chatty Cathy on a computer and a terse, typo-prone app user.

That said, I think the mobility and somewhat greater brevity associated with apps makes them somewhat of a bridge between bar/bathhouse hookup culture and hookup website culture. My experience is that hookup websites are more likely to involve endless negotiations and a need on one or more of the users' parts to know everything that's going to happen in advance, whereas apps sometimes allow a little of the spontaneity and mystery of bar hookups to return. Often (by no means always) there seems to be a little more willingness with apps to hook up with someone without needing total certainty as to how exactly how big his dick his or exactly what will go down.
Posted by reliable on July 1, 2013 at 7:36 PM · Report this
Sure, I'll wear the Thor helmet when I fuck you.
Posted by DJSauvage on July 2, 2013 at 9:59 AM · Report this
Arsfrisco 10
Actually, you can choose how to behave on an app just like in a bar.

I turn to Scruff for hookups with nice guys, and mostly it works. I suggest these rules:

1. Always respond.
2. Be honest and respectful.
3. Post recent, clear pics showing face (no hat, no sunglasses) and body type. He's gonna see everything eventually, right?
4. FIll the profile with wants, not don't-wants.
5. Get to the point. Don't be non-committal.
6. Tell a guy if you're not attracted; don't make him "figure it out".
7. Be on the app for a right-now purpose.
8. Use the block button liberally and the favorites button strategically.
Posted by Arsfrisco on July 2, 2013 at 10:11 AM · Report this
I got my start in the bar scene as well, and I think there are some key differences between the cruising that went on there and what you see in these apps.

First, the apps (both online and mobile) present themselves as greatly lowering the opportunity cost of hooking up. You don't have to spend a lot of time and money and effort to go out to a bar or bath that might very well be dead when you get there.

But it's a bit of an illusion. Inertia always takes over, because when it actually comes to meeting up with someone online, you're not invested in haven't put forth the time, money and effort that heading to the bar requires. Easier just to stay home and jack off, which is what so many guys actually end up doing.

Second, online sites and apps create a kind of consumerist expectation of sex. You browse through Scruff like you browse through Amazon, looking for the guy you want. It creates a terribly selfish approach to sex.

Back in the days of barroom cruising, you'd have to have at least some interaction with the guy before you ended up leaving together. Now, that's minimized. And I'd point out that the duration of hookups has gone down immensely. Back in the day, it wasn't unusual for your guest to stay the night, maybe even go out to breakfast with you. Now people almost always leave as soon as the sex is over.

Third, and related to the first two points, there's the overabundance of choices online. It's a similar problem to what supermarkets run into if they offer too many kinds of mustard. As a result, you end up constantly cruising and never willing to quite make a commitment because that perfect guy could be the next one to sign on.

Bars actually had a great way of overcoming this problem. First, most bars were too small to hold more than a fairly small number of potential hookups to choose from. And then, they also had that absolute cutoff at last call, which provided an incentive to choose someone before that happened. This typically led to all of your options being on the table by about 10 or so, followed by a mad dash around midnight (assuming a 2 AM close).

Fourth, I wonder too if part of this is the idea of HIV/AIDS getting deeply internalized by the gay community. There was also something a little exciting/scary about hooking up with someone you don't know very well...might this seemingly normal guy be a Jeffrey Dahmer? But HIV added a whole new dimension of risk to sex.

What the online apps might offer is sort of the apotheosis of safe sex: you get some degree of human interaction in the form of sexting and sending X-rated pics back and forth, but you cut out all the risk (and, let's be honest, a lot of the excitement) of actually hooking up.

Look at what @6 said above: cruising online allows for the wussification of gay sex.

To be honest, I haven't really seen much evidence that the phone apps have really changed the online experience that much, at least not in the ways they promise. Both really offer the fantasy of sex, rather than the sex itself. That's pretty much the dictionary definition of porn.
Posted by Corydon on July 2, 2013 at 5:18 PM · Report this
Sheker 12
Why headless shots on apps?Let me educate Ya'll. I encountered this issue many times,theres a reason why people don't want to put their mug shots for public view.Majority of gays have a nasty habit to save pictures that you share with them and in some cases you encounter your own photos posted on craigslist or other websites or your friends will tell you that they received your photo from someone else or someone you don't know or never seen before starts talking to you at the mall like they knew you for a while.Reality sucks,there are different people out there,some are good, some are not.Some have issues and some have complexes,some-just want to play pranks or just have an urge to discuss with or show your photos the next day to coworkers and friends.It's not right to be judgmental, and I hate to be one,neither I want to be judged.My suggestion is- do not share Your face photos if you are not sure who is on the other side of the line and remember that not everyone take these apps and websites seriously.
Posted by Sheker on January 28, 2014 at 12:51 PM · Report this

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