New sexual-networking apps present same difficulties

Don’t rely on a smartphone app to bypass your real-life awkwardness.

I downloaded the Grindr app when I first got a smartphone because it seemed like a novelty, and it felt like my duty as a gay man to explore it.

In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s how Grindr works: you create a simple profile with a picture, hopefully of your face, and a few lines of bio and basics. The main interface is a grid of all Grindr users in your area, ordered by their proximity to you. Want to talk to someone? Just go to their profile, send them something civil and away you go.

Grindr plays a role as a “sexual networking” device for gays who might not be aware of other men around them who swing the same way. Are you straight and in the need of a sexual network? Look all around you: there it is. But for everyone else, determining who is and isn’t available is less clear, and apps like Grindr serve to address this gap. (And if you’re straight, Blendr and Tinder offer similar interfaces.)

Sexual networking apps are on the rise in general, a comforting departure from the dark days of Craigslist personals and AIM chat rooms. Launched last month, BangWithFriends gives you the opportunity to declare interest in your Facebook friends without their knowledge. Currently limited to heterosexual couples, the interface is deceptively simple: all of your opposite-sex Facebook friends show up on a list. (Don't worry, they’ve already weeded out your family members.) If you want to fool around with someone, you select their name. If someone you selected happens to also select you, you each receive a notification, and there you have it: a new hookup buddy.

In case it’s not already clear, I’m not a sexual moralist. I support promiscuity. I believe in sex, and I don’t think it’s whorish or unchaste of anyone to want some playtime. So certainly apps like these are an exciting new dimension of the sexual experience.

But I think it’s important to be skeptical of sexual-networking apps because the speed at which you’re able to secure a one-night stand does not guarantee the success of your interaction. This seems painfully obvious, but it’s easily forgotten when you’re optimistic about a new sexual prospect.

The problem is we’re caught up in the mediums through which we express sexuality, rather than the actual content of our sexual expressions. Is real life too awkward for you? Get an OkCupid profile. OkCupid too tame for you? Get a Grindr. These are new mediums but not solutions to our underlying inability to start a conversation, effectively communicate our interest and potentially even get it in.

As I argued last week, digital realms like pornography can offer possibilities you might not have known existed, but integrating what you’ve seen online into your real-life sex can go horribly wrong. Much in the same way, it’s so easy to "sext" and send "selfies" on Grindr while forgetting you’re communicating with a real person whom you’ve potentially never met. Regardless of your sexuality, all of the fun of flirtation stops when reality strikes: You have to pick a location, encounter a stranger and expect it all to run smoothly.

I cannot and will not offer advice on how best to find a sexual mate. I’m not here to push a single agenda, nor would my opinions (based on my experiences) be very effective for you. All I can say is if you’re considering downloading a sexual-networking app, keep your expectations high and your motives transparent. Apps like these can be sexy and positive if you’re safe and able to accept it’s not always going to go as planned.

Sex is always going to be a little awkward. It will probably be year 2200 and young 20-somethings will still be doing test brushes on the knees of their crushes to gauge their attraction. But at some point, we have to grow up a bit, be honest and transparent and not merely sit around hoping our potential mates will be the first to make a move.

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