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'856 Feet Away...': My Grindr Experiment

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WARNING: This post describes a sexual experience using language that some might consider graphic. Reader discretion is advised.

Ever thought to yourself, "Gosh, what I'd give to have a no-frills one-night stand tonight without having to pick out an outfit or even converse with other living beings?" Well, as many members of the gay community already know, modern technology has already afforded us this luxury in the form of the popular smartphone app Grindr. For those who are not familiar, Grindr is in many ways like any other dating website: You look through profiles and pick a potential match based on carefully curated personal profiles and a couple of grainy iPhone photos. However, instead of having to go through all the formalities of dating promoted by the more traditional dating websites, breaking a sweat trying to act coy and mysterious and pretending that you're interested in a what the siblings of a complete stranger do for a living (gag), you skip that part and just get right to the naked mambo. Like many facets of modern society, Grindr basically removes the foreplay known as "human connection" from sex.

Despite my big mouth and the fact that I'm very intent on meeting a partner, I would classify myself as highly selective, maybe even a little prudish, when it comes to choosing partners. By gay standards I'm a downright monk. Because my normally outré personality does not thrive in traditional club and bar settings, I am a member of all your basic dating sites: OKCupid, JDate (at the behest of my grandmother), HowAboutWe, etc., but have never had much success with any. One of the primary issues I found with these traditional sites was that I frequently found myself conversing with people who didn't want to meet other people in real life and were merely using these sites for a fleeting online flirtation. Not my bag.

I've always had a passing interest in Grindr, partially because it's the opposite of that maxim: Grindr is all about getting off the Internet and meeting up. I've had friends who have used it successfully for what it was intended for (easy sex), and one who actually met a real-life boyfriend using the app, a feat that should be canonized as one of the modern wonders of the world. However, a myriad of concerns, including a healthy fear of STDs, had prevented me from exploring the app. Even more daunting than a bout with the clap was the notion of having sex with someone whom I'd never even met, not even for a cocktail. Was I even capable of doing this? Historically, the only one-nighters I had personally engaged in had been the result of a full-on date, complete with a two-hour dinner and a few too many drinks before anyone took his pants off. Call me old-fashioned!

As shy as I can be, however, I also have a weird, unpredictable adventurous streak that appears from nowhere, and two weeks ago my curiosity got the best of me. Maybe it was set off by the aforementioned friend who was in a Grindr-born relationship, but more likely it came from an innate desire to test my own boundaries when it comes to casual sex. I downloaded the app on my phone, and for the first few days I just explored it, telling myself that I never had to go through with it if I didn't feel comfortable. Grindr sorts matches based on the not-stalker-baiting-at-all system of how many feet away you are from one another ("Ryan123 is 856 feet from you," a profile will read), and I began a few chats with guys in my proximity. At first I approached it like other dating sites, asking guys what they did for a living, how they were that day, and the other small talk we all use to break the ice in real life. Turns out no one on Grindr wants to talk about work. "Where are you?" and "Do you have a body shot?" are the far more common opening salvos in a Grindr chat. One guy used his first message to forward me a picture of his penis and an attached message: "Be at my house in five minutes or I'm going to the gym." It was 12:15 p.m. on a Tuesday. Ah, romance.

Although I found the more romantic facets of my nature put off by this level informality, I also found myself oddly digging the lack of bullshit. When you think about it, everything that goes down on OKCupid or in your local bar, or in the Le Bain hot tub, could be viewed as one mass of time-consuming, energy-expending, coded behavior masking the overarching, underlying human urge: "Where are you? Let's fuck!" There was something liberating about Grindr stripping away all the mishegoss and game playing inherent in traditional and online dating. After a few days of poking around, I decided that despite my misgivings, I needed to bite the bullet and give the damn thing a whirl. "You only live once," as Drake taught me.

Why the notion that I had to pull the trigger hit me at 5:15 on a Friday evening I will never know, but that's when it came over me, and I knew that if I didn't do it at that moment, I might chicken out for good. I decided that the first adequate candidate whom I was at least fairly certain wouldn't murder me would be the winner. High standards, I know. After a few ineligible candidates (one who insisted on meeting at my house even though my roommate was home, another who seemed like he might be my grandfather's age), I was messaged by a guy who I felt was decent-looking and sweet-seeming enough. At least he was my age. Good enough.

"Hey there," he said.

"Hi," I replied.

"What are you up to, wanna meet up?" he asked.

I took a deep breath: "Sure, where do you live?"

I couldn't even believe I was typing the words. Somehow I managed to grab my long wool coat and throw it on along with a beanie hat and deodorant and walk into the still very bright, early-April evening.

As I walked the seven blocks to his apartment, my mind was naturally racing a mile a minute. Here I was, speeding past all these folks who were casually meandering home from work to begin their weekend routines, and I was heading to some stranger's apartment for sex -- sex that the two of us might never speak of again. And in broad fucking daylight, no less. Like anyone else, I had my own struggles coming out of the closet as a teenager, but I had never viewed being gay or having gay sex as wrong in any way. However, the deviant quality of this brand of sex (i.e., Grindr sex) began to smack me in the face as I walked. This was all a big secret I was keeping from society, which was racing by me as I shuffled up First Avenue. I had at least three if-my-mother-saw-me-right-now thoughts that I had to quickly smush. When I got to his door, my heart was pounding, but not necessarily in the good way that it does before you're going to sleep with someone you know you really want to get it on with. It was pounding because I really, sincerely did not know what the next hour held for me. The door opened. On the other side was some version of the sweet face I had seen, although not exactly as chiseled and clean as it had appeared in his Grindr photo.

"Hi," he said in a very soft-spoken, high-pitched, effeminate voice that caught me severely off-guard.

"Hi, there," I said, my voice stuttering from anxiety.

"I can tell you're nervous," he said.

I chuckled, although I was totally debating turning on my heels and running. "I am. I've never met someone off Grindr before," I told him.

"Don't be," he said assertively. Somehow, my nerves were not quieted.

Although I have never been a superficial type when it comes to choosing partners, I found myself fixated on his appearance. The more I looked at him, the more removed he seemed from the pictures from the app. Beyond how much the tone and nature of his voice threw me, he was also much shorter and pudgier. What I was quickly realizing through my haze of anxiety (and a little bit too late) was that when it comes to sex this casual, it had to be purely based on looks. You aren't provided with anything else to hook into, nothing on which to build a deeper sense of attraction beyond a face and body. Here, I was not feeling that physical attraction in the slightest. We proceeded to introduce ourselves.

"I'm Louie," I said.

"Hi, I'm Ted," he replied (real name withheld for obvious reasons).

From that point it became abundantly clear that Ted did this regularly. Within 30 seconds of the door shutting, he had ushered me into his tiny bedroom, big enough for his slim single bed and not much else, and had begun to aggressively make out with me. Despite my mounting apprehension, I had gone through the pain of getting myself there and was determined to do my best to roll with the situation. However, I was finding it hard to get my head in the game. Before even a minute had passed, he broke our awkward kiss, and without even attempting to remove any of his own clothes or mine, lied down on the bed, pulled his dick out through his jeans, and began to play with himself. Not knowing quite how to handle the situation or having time to sort out how I was feeling, I lied down next to him, still fully dressed in my long wool coat and hat. We continued kissing, even though it didn't seem like he cared whether I partook in any activity beyond the kiss as long as he could keep pleasuring himself. He made little attempt to touch me. It seemed like he just wanted someone to be in the room with him, everything beyond that perhaps being a bonus or maybe even inconsequential. Eventually, however, he cued into how turned-off and anxious I seemed with the experience and, rather graciously, asked me, "Should we stop?"

"Yeah, I think so," I quickly responded, feeling an extraordinary sense of relief.

"Can I cum?" he followed.

Feeling bad that I had led this guy on for the purposes of my own neurotic Grindr experiment, I replied, "Sure. Just not on me or any of my clothes." I was now standing next to him while he sat on the bed, one foot out the door. He pulled me close to kiss him, which I did, and he finished the deed on his pillow. I waited approximately 0.5 seconds before I followed with my most casual "K, well, bye!" I turned for the exit. "Sorry, I suck," I felt the need to add as I raced toward the door.

"Sorry, you don't!" he shouted after me as I closed the door.

As I practically ran home, a whole host of shit was going through my head. It goes without saying that this was one of the most awkward experiences in my already-pretty-awkward life, but I knew right away that I was happy I did it. Mainly, I had achieved one of my main goals with the experience, which was to get a sense of my own sexual boundaries. While some form of casual sex is possible, sex this casual was not. In the often-daunting world of the New York gay scene, knowing who you are in these ways is a great comfort.

On a broader scale, though, I felt a great sense of sadness. I had always known that a lot of gay men view their sex lives as inherently deviant, something I believe to be the result of society, which has historically, and in some cases legally, fortified this notion for young gays and lesbians. But in this kind of experience, that deviance, the idea that gay sex had to be this secret, completely animalistic need fulfiller that completely lacked any sort of human or emotional connection whatsoever, put me in touch with a new level of destitution. It's not that it's wrong by any means to have casual sex; whatever works for you sexually works for you, and that is different for each person. It is that this kind of soul-free sex is, if not the norm, at least highly acceptable and common in the gay community, so common, in fact, that as I write this at 6:40 p.m. on a Monday evening, there are over 200 guys in my 10-block radius who are logged on at this very moment.

Of course, casual sex exists in straight, lesbian, and alien couples throughout the galaxy, but what my Grindr experiment left me feeling is that gay sex is still a long way from being viewed as normal and acceptable. Many gay men still see Grindr, a vehicle for keeping gay sex emotion-free, secret, and out of view of the general public, as the best way to hook up. What I felt as I left Ted's apartment was that perhaps many gay men still see themselves as only worthy of this kind of hookup as opposed to a more fulfilling sexual and perhaps even romantic experience. That's certainly how I felt about my tryst with Ted.

I know firsthand how hard it is when you're searching for a real relationship as a gay man in New York, and I would venture to say that for many reasons, it is markedly harder than it is for straight people. Think about the fact that in any public situation, save a gay bar or a Britney Spears concert, everyone, including me, assumes that everyone else is straight until proven otherwise. Two gay guys even being able to casually meet in a real-life situation is still not common and has a multitude of difficulties inherent in it ("Is he gay?") that straight people do not confront. I can see why one might be attracted to Grindr, because I was. But I also hope that at some point, at least a portion of the gay community on the whole can view itself as deserving of something deeper than having sex with whomever is the fewest feet away from you, and perhaps deserving of sex, however casual, that includes the human soul.