I’ve managed to give a married recruitment consultant in Hackney a semi using only Chaucerian Middle English
I don’t have anything against straight people. I tolerate their Instagram engagement announcements; I’ll ‘like’ their ability to reproduce live young on Facebook. Hell, if I’m pissed enough I’ll even comment “mate LOLLLL!!!” on a photo of a heterosexual man when I’m not even cracking a smile, just to maintain a positive dialogue with that community. What I’m trying to say is: I do my bit.
But everyone’s tolerance has a limit. Mine is listening to straight people talk about dating apps. “Is Tinder ruining good old fashioned romance?”, they ask. “Is it ‘cheating’ if my girlfriend looks at Happn with her friends?” No, kids. No. This topic is one I’m struggling to put up with any longer. My kind have been cruising since 2000BC. They were fucking people they didn’t know in public toilets while Steve Jobs was still how learning to spell ‘Apple’ – there was no ‘right-swipe’ back then: just a wink at a urinal and a prayer. To us, this chat is as stale as your wedding cakes.
It’s such a conversational non-starter with queers that, when gay pop star Sam Smith opined that Grindr was “destroying” romance, he was widely derided and rejected by gay men across the world. Sorry, Sam – it’s like Joss Stone said: “No prophet is accepted in his own country.” Well, it was either Joss Stone or Jesus Christ – I forget. Whichever one wore shoes on stage. My ennui with hookup apps is so bad that I’ve spent the past two years on Grindr creating fake profiles for famous heroines from literature and history, writing bios and conversing entirely in character. Call me a techno-drag artist, call me a pretentious wanker – it won’t change the fact that in past two years I’ve played the following roles with aplomb:
Jane Eyre, Lady Macbeth, Madame Bovary, Molly Bloom, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the Oracle of Delphi, suffragette martyr Emily Davison and Ursula The Sea Witch. I documented them all here on my blog ‘Reader, I dommed him’. Why should you care? What if I told you that when I played the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales a man cheerfully began sexting me and I held character throughout! Frankly, you know you’ve done your time on a topic when you manage to give a married recruitment consultant in Hackney a semi using only Chaucerian Middle English, OK? Now that we’ve established I’m an authority, I’ll share with you my methods and conclusions from my mastery of disguise on the world’s biggest gay cruising app.
My first ever role was Queen Elizabeth I. I set my screen name as ‘Virgin Queen’ (a double entendre) and my bio borrowed words from her speech to her troops at Tilbury in 1588 before an expected invasion by the Spanish Armada:
“I know I have the body of a weak, feeble bottom; but I have the heart and stomach of a top”
Of course, these weren’t Elizabeth’s original words: she used “feeble woman” and “stomach of a king”. I’d noticed that, on Grindr, users tended to gender their physical sex preferences. The top penetrates – so the wording of guys’ profiles who are looking to top point to how overtly masculine they are. Those advertising themselves for the bottom role often state how they only want to meet masculine, dominant men and how submissive or obliging they are. So I began my subversion by taking this (somewhat limited) convention of bio writing and overlaying it with the 16th century gender stereotyping it frequently reminded me of.
Indeed, to play further with this, I actually marketed many of my female alter egos as dominant tops on Grindr. For example, when I wrote a profile from the perspective of the ill-fated historical ship, RMS Titanic, I made it clear she was “not into being penetrated” – for obvious reasons.
SCRIPTING AND DICTION
In 1928, Russian folklorist Vladmir Propp published his Morphology of the Folktale, in which he analysed the basic plot components of Russian fairy stories to identify their simplest narrative elements. Engaging the same process for the script most Grindr users will follow in trying to organise that modern-day fairytale, a casual hookup, I’d suggest the following template:
Greeting / Enquiry as to wellbeing / Declaration of horniness / Ascertaining top or bottom roles / Exchange of indecent pictures / Further enquiry as to particular proclivities / Ascertaining which party is to accommodate the sex / Misc admin / The Sex.
This structure is so recognised as an agreed-upon script by Grindr users, it’s possible to replicate it using only lines drawn from the plays of William Shakespeare without diminishing its familiarity. When I interacted with men using the diction of specific female characters – replying appropriately for whatever point we were at in the script, but using lines only from the character I was playing – they’d often persist with the same scripted flirtation as I replied in character. This surprised me and frankly led me to question how switched-on we all are when using dating apps, or whether the scripts are so embedded, we struggle to recognise literary deviation from them even when it is happening before our eyes.
THE DIGITAL DILDO
Unlike Hampstead Heath cruising or cottaging of yore, modern users of apps like Grindr and Scruff are a change to tradition in one respect. The apps themselves have minds of their own. On Grindr, every hookup is a threesome – the app itself a party. Author Huw Lemmey, whose novel Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse has a plot largely driven by Grindr hook-ups, explains in this interview: “I do dream in drop-down UIs. I do feed upon the pornographic image as a building block of my own desires. I do think the iPhone is the country’s most popular sexual prosthesis.”
Lemmey’s confession is bold but perhaps unsurprising. Apps set the criteria for what people can display in their profile pictures, what stats they give about themselves and so on. On Grindr, ‘tribes’ were introduced in 2013 – these include twink, jock, geek, otter, bear and daddy. Users are encouraged when setting up a profile to pick which tribe they belong to, seemingly based on body type and age.
However, it’s not uncommon to see ‘geek’ combined with a ripped, very un-geeky, torso in a Grindr profile. The use of ‘jock’ (an American slang word perhaps imported directly from American-produced gay porn) is often nonsensical. My favourite, ‘otter’, denotes a man older than a twink, with beard and body hair, who is also skinny. I’d never heard the word so widely used before it became a Grindr tribe, though now it is common parlance even off the apps – “I was talking to this hot otter the other night,” friends may say to me. As if we are all living in fucking Narnia.
These consumer categories are a form of personal branding, as much as anything. Grindr has provided users with a new commedia dell’arte of stock characters as a sexual shorthand. In one sense, then, it’s confusing that – in building my blog – I’ve been banned from the app seven times for ‘impersonation’. After all, using these largely prescriptive interfaces is all impersonation – moulding oneself to a recognisable sign in a language that’s been established the app’s own conventions.
In a way, my blog helped me to realise I don’t closely identify as a twink or otter, a sub or a dom, a bottom or a top – I identify as Madame Bovary, a depressed housewife longing for excitement who’s easily made bored. Grindr HQ punished me for my dishonesty in daring to show this by speaking through her, but was I any more dishonest than if I said I was a submissive geek ready to be any man’s slave? The 19th-century French heroine is genuinely closer to my true sentiments when I use Grindr than the porn-inspired manic pixie wet dream girl the latter suggests. Yet I was quickly reported by other users for falsely projecting myself through her instead of the authorised stock characters and signs on offer to me.
Sam Smith was wrong to say that Grindr, Tinder and the other dating sites are destroying the mythical bygone mores of ‘old-fashioned romance’. Digital hookup culture isn’t destroying anything old for a new era of cheap, fleeting promiscuity. If I’ve learned anything, it’s more about creating and entrenching a new mythology, a new language and a very standardised set of expectations – just as boring and conventional as the old ones were.