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