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Jeremy Helligar Headshot

Happy Birthday, Grindr! Thanks for Taking the 'Fun' Out of Sex

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"How do you numb your skin after the warmest touch? How do you slow your blood after the body rush?"
--Jann Arden, "Insensitive"

I used to want to be that G.U.Y. -- not the one Lady Gaga is singing about in her latest single, but the one Jann Arden was pleading with in her mid-'90s hit. I've given up trying to emulate him, but I still encounter him regularly, in bars, in clubs, in restaurants, on Grindr -- especially on Grindr, the number-one agent for the one-off sexual experience between gay men, which turned 5 on March 25. Sometimes when I scroll down the meet-market app and see all those attractive faces and headless torsos looking for "NSA" (that is, "no strings attached") and "fun" (that Grindr-age euphemism for sex), I get a little green. How much easier life would be if that were all I wanted!

I've been told by sex suitors on Grindr to take my search for something more than Mr. Right Now elsewhere because Grindr is for hooking up only. What a curious conclusion to draw about an app that bans public nudity and sexual explicitness in profiles! I remind them that Grindr can be whatever you want it to be. After all, I have friends who met their boyfriends there. You'd think that gay men, of all people, would know better than to impose their own sexual proclivities on others. It's reverse-moralizing, not so unlike what straight people have done to gays for decades. If you want people to respect your choice to sleep around, shouldn't you respect theirs not to -- even if they're on Grindr?

I've now used Grindr on five of the six continents I've called home -- South America, Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa -- but still not in North America, because the last time I stepped foot on my home continent, in March 2010, I was still two years away from opening the app for the first time. Throughout my travels and relocations, the top opening lines among locals may have varied from continent to continent, country to country, city to city -- "¡Hola! ¿Cómo va?" in Buenos Aires, "How are you going?" in Melbourne, "Sexy!" in Berlin, and, inexplicably, "Chemical fun?" in Bangkok, to name four -- but very little else has.

The men you meet at work, at the gym, or at the beach are on it, even if you're not, as are guys who are closeted, partnered, and straight, and Grindr has changed the way they interact, online and off. Instant gratification now rules, and if you won't put out on the first date (during which those important texts he keeps responding to might very well be incoming Grindr messages), there are plenty of Grindr-ers who'll give it up before the first date.

Guys who just want to indulge their horniest impulses with a beautiful, anonymous stranger before returning to their regularly scheduled lives don't have time to be paragons of patience -- or excellent conversationalists. "What are you up to?" becomes "wuu2," and "How are you doing?" translates to "hud?" Words, especially sentences, are useless, for it's all about the nookie. In general, I ignore them or, if they push for a response, politely decline without judgment. God knows I've been there.

Rather, I've tried to go there.

Years before Grindr revolutionized how gay men hook up, I used to tell everyone that the key to happiness was mastering the art of the one-night stand (which, in the Grindr age, is more like the one-hour stand). I was trying so hard to be the "Insensitive" guy. If I didn't care, I couldn't get hurt. But what works in your head at 24 doesn't necessarily work there at 44.

A 23-year-old on Grindr recently told me why he's obsessed with uncut penises: "You don't see a lot in South Africa." When I told him that if you've seen one, you've seen them all, I realized that that rationale could apply to sexual partners: If you've had a million of them, will the next one change your life? Maybe he should, and that might be reason enough to pass, because he probably won't.

Regardless of what I used to say about mastering the art of the one-night stand, my libido has always been greater than my desire to actually have sex. I screw for the human connection, not the physical sensation. Even if I'm not in love or don't know the guy at all, I'm open to sex leading to something more. Sometimes I've craved that other connection so intensely that it's hindered my enjoyment of the physical one.

At 26 I briefly dated a Swedish guy in New York City, and after our first tryst he looked into my eyes and said, "I can tell you aren't gay for the sex." There was no language barrier, and it wasn't his way of saying I was terrible in bed (although I very well might be). He could clearly see that I was searching for something that transcended the physical. All that talk about mastering the art of the one-night stand had just been talk. I hadn't mastered anything. I wasn't necessarily looking for love, but I was looking for more.

I still am. After years of one "Insensitive" guy after another, one-offs have become increasingly undesirable, Grindr has seen to that. It has nothing to do with moralizing, or even with wanting to settle down. My feeling is that if it feels right for you and doesn't hurt you or others, then go ahead and do it. But as I get older, I'm more likely to evaluate my own actions based on their range of benefits. I'm less likely to do anything just for the physical thrill of it. I'm always looking for some other reward.

What else is in it for me?

In my bed, casual sex is more enjoyable the further it is from anonymous sex, when it's with someone I like (if not love), someone with whom I've had previous non-physical interaction (a good conversation is the best foreplay), someone who might want to stick around for afterglow and beyond. Give me strings or give me celibacy.

OK, I'm exaggerating. I haven't given up hooking up completely. Unless The One shows up on my doorstep soon, I'm fairly certain I'll catch one-night fever again. But immunity is kicking in.

I miss the dance, the days when gay men had to approach each other in-person and at least pretend to be interested in more than "Top or bottom?" and "Hung?" Now Grindr is everyone's wingman. Guys are less likely to talk to me when they spot me at Crew in Cape Town, or at Villa Market on Narathiwat Road in Bangkok, or walking down Chapel Street in Melbourne. Instead they'll find me on Grindr after getting home and then cut right to the crude chase: "NSA?" "Fun?"

If I could fool myself into thinking that the anonymous sex they're offering would come with the option of growing into something else the way I could in 1995 at Wonder Bar in New York City, I might give in to temptation more. But if Grindr has accomplished anything, it's made gay men more honest about what they don't want.

And then there's the law of supply and demand. The easier it is to hook up, the more demanding everyone becomes. On Grindr my own physical requirements are considerably more rigorous than they are when I go out, mostly because I have less of anything else to go on, but also because with so many options, one has to draw the line somewhere.

My expectation, which probably doesn't differ much from that of anybody on Grindr with a laundry list of desirable physical attributes, is that the more stunning the stranger, the better the sex will be. And it had better be the best, for I extend the rule of dieting (why waste calories on average food?) to sex: If it's going to be just about the act and nothing more -- not even breakfast in the morning or a 30-minute conversation before he splits -- it's a waste of calories unless it blows my mind.

Alas, even with the most perfect stranger, it rarely does. So why bother?