Love Is a Stranger

Can a hookup platform re-create the radical spontaneity of cruising?

In the mid-to-late 2010s, as dating apps moved from the fringe to widespread public adoption, a slew of articles appeared advancing what is now a well-established critique of apps like Grindr and Scruff. A few of the many include the Guardian’s 2015 Op-Ed “Goodbye to all the gay bars,” Vox’s 2018 article “We need to talk about how Grindr is affecting gay men’s mental health,” and Michael Hobbes’ viral 2017 piece, “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness,” for the Huffington Post. Articles of this nature tended to blame apps for intensifying, if not causing, a broader crisis in gay men’s mental health, promoting loneliness, alienation, and materialism. This gripe wasn’t unique to media commentators; the same concerns were echoed by reluctant app users themselves. 

The articles point to a real crisis. Hobbes’ piece, more ambitious in scope than others of its genre, makes a point of mentioning the lingering effects of the trauma of being in the closet, along with research that suggests the mental health of queer people worsens when homophobic legislation is on the docket — a dispiriting reality already taking shape in Florida, which passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law in March. In a poll, two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youth said that their mental health was negatively impacted by debates surrounding the bill. 

Further, the critique of the apps themselves, and of Grindr in particular, is undoubtedly warranted. Last year, for example, Norway fined Grindr for selling sensitive personal information like GPS location, age, and gender identity to advertisers. In 2018, the app admitted to sharing users’ HIV status to external companies. Until just a few years ago, Grindr allowed users to sort by race, exacerbating racism that was already prevalent within the gay community, so often shrouded by vague claims of “preference.” But the anti-Grindr critique rarely focuses on the perniciousness of big tech. Instead, it tends to fall back on a vague and well-worn claim that tech by nature makes us lonely and alienated.

What makes cruising radical is its persistence on the periphery

Such oversimplification leads us to oblique solutions. This brings us to Sniffies, a relatively new addition to the ever-growing slew of hookup apps geared towards gay men. Technically, it is not an “app,” but a website, since the only way to access the service is through your web browser; this implies a lack of the sort of commitment involved in downloading an app. (There may be a more practical reason: Apple’s App Store has strict rules regarding sexual content, but Sniffies allows you to choose any image you’d like for your profile photo.) The site employs a map-based interface, which works self-consciously in the vein of Pokémon Go, showing your profile as a little blue bubble near your exact location, along with the location of every other profile that has used the website in last few hours.

The Sniffies map is an anatomical smorgasbord. Photos abound of asses spread wide, backs bent invitationally, mouths slathered in cum. There are images of sex toys, some haphazardly displayed, others so meticulously arranged that you might from the single photo imagine the user’s entire array of obsessive tendencies: perhaps he keeps his books organized by color, his pens by length, his vegetables by cook time. There are torsos. There are faces. Mostly, there are dicks. Sniffies leans into a focused and unabashed licentiousness: “We don’t disguise ourselves as a dating app,” said CMO Eli Martin in an interview last summer. “It’s very sex forward.”

For anyone who has used Grindr or Scruff or Jack’d — or any of the gay hookup apps that have arrived off of the Silicon Valley conveyor belt, with their one- or two-syllable names that scream hefty, crude, himbo-like masculinity — the idea that these apps do not place sex at the forefront will probably ring as strange. The apps already encourage you to break yourself down into your most fuckable constituent parts: height, weight, race, dick size, sexual position, kinks, HIV status, last time you were tested for venereal disease. Most of Sniffies’s more “sex-forward” features are far from novel: The options for listing your fetishes are extensive, for example, but you are liable to find a straightforward approach to fetish on any hookup act meant for gay men. 

The Sniffies map is an anatomical smorgasbord

In recent years, these more mainstream apps, responding to the legitimate criticism they’ve been levied with, have made attempts to seem more respectable. Scruff, which has a reputation for being friendlier than Grindr, advertises itself as such: “Whether you’re looking for friends, dates, hookups, or more, connect securely on your own terms.” Grindr has lately tried to revitalize its image, deemphasizing the depersonalizing elements of its interface and showing a side distinctly more romantic and platonic than its reputation might suggest. The Grindr Instagram account has on ongoing series called #MetOnGrindr, which spotlights couples who met on the app, with a particular focus on the ones who have married. 

While Grindr and Scruff downplay their impersonal elements, Sniffies wants to use the depersonalization inherent to tech to its advantage. If the anonymizing aspect of gay dating apps is thought by critics to be alienating, Sniffies — not a dating app, but a “cruising platform” — hearkens back to pre-internet ideals that cast anonymity in a more utopian light. Eli Martin says a goal of the app was to get “back to the old days of cruising… allowing guys to explore in this real-life way, seeing where people are on a map, is just so much more fun than looking at a grid of guys.” Quoted in Mel Magazine in 2020, he called it “a place for queer sexual liberation without shame or judgment.”

The website’s software allows users to “check-in” to known cruising spots, which appear on the map with little icons (a dumbbell for the gym, a tree for a park). Users can also post messages on the specific cruising spot’s chat board: Is it busy at night? Anyone want a blowjob? Paying users can delete their chats, which wipes the conversation for both users, dispensing with the pretense of a lasting connection. More than any individual feature, though, Sniffies sets itself apart by its invocation of cruising as a concept — in-person, serendipitous, occurring outside the hegemonic structure. It means to conjure a gritty excitement, a nostalgia for the bygone days of gay liberation: an antidote to the apparently soul-numbing sterility of the apps, which reduce attraction to an array of stats. 

Defining the exact history and contours of a practice like “cruising” is an unwieldy exercise. Alex Espinoza, in Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, discusses the problem of trying to pin down a specific history of an act that is by nature furtive, clandestine. Citing historian Tim Blanning, he writes that the word itself “is derived… from the Dutch kruisen, which, in the simplest terms, means ‘to cross’ or ‘intersect.’ But kruisen also means ‘to breed’ or ‘to arrange the mating of specific plants or animals.’” Blanning, in his book The Pursuit of Glory, found 18th-century court records to indicate “an embarrassment of riches when it came to places of assignation,” particularly in the Dutch Republic: “Public toilets, the Amsterdam town hall, a wooded area near The Hague, numerous pubs such as The Little Dolphin at The Hague or The Serpent at Amsterdam, innumerable parks and churches, the tower of the cathedral at The Hague, and even the very grounds of the building in which the Court of Holland held its sessions.”

These are the same sorts of places gay men continue to cruise: public restrooms, wooded areas, libertine bars. Cruising encompasses the sexual encounters that went on at sea ports in the early 20th century, which Jean Genet wrote indulgently of; the energy of Times Square that John Rechy experienced and wrote about in his 1963 novel, City of Night; 1970s Los Angeles on “Robertson Boulevard between Third Street and Beverly, especially the little park where bare-chested men sun or work out,” as Edmund White described in his States of Desire: Travels in Gay America; and endless other iterations.

Sniffies means to conjure a nostalgic antidote to the soul-numbing sterility of dating apps

Espinoza writes that there is a randomness to this form of cruising: “It could happen anywhere at any time. It followed no logic.” But there were, eventually, guides to help one out. I spoke once to an older gay man who told me of books that functioned like travel guides for cruising, that laid out the various areas where one could go and search for sex. Espinoza makes mention of these books as well, though says he never came across one — they were passed covertly from one gay person to another.   

Grindr, of course, was not the beginning of gay men’s move to the internet to find encounters. Espinoza discusses his use of chat rooms in the 1990s, which both detailed areas to cruise as well as allowed gay men to meet one another directly and anonymously. Sites like Men.com, Adam4Adam, and Craigslist were all early pioneers of internet cruising; chat boards still exist for this function, like GayMapper.com and the occasional Reddit thread. Those early sites were riddled with bugs and clunky web design — a reflection of what the internet used to look like — and today, this is part of their nostalgic appeal: an anarchic environment where information is crowd-sourced, communal, and, above all, there for collective benefit.

Historically, and until quite recently, the reason for these furtive measures was simple: Such places were the safest options for gay men to pursue sex without being found out; the sex they were having was illegal, and engaging in it could well have led to death. That made cruising a radical act in itself. Theorist Leo Bersani, in his essay “Sociability and Cruising,” writes of cruising’s potential for spawning new forms of sociality: “In cruising I’m proposing another sexual model — one in which a deliberate avoidance of relationships might be crucial in initiating, or at least clearing the ground for, a new relationality.” 

Cruising’s anonymity, far from alienating, holds the potential for a kind of “impersonal intimacy.” At the bathhouse, Bersani writes, we are stripped of our “social personality (economic privilege, class status, taste),” and brought into a kind of unmediated contact with other people. Espinoza expands on this point with nearly religious reverence: “Cruising has provided a safe outlet for sexual exploration. It is devoid of the power dynamics that plague heterosexual interactions and exists outside of traditional hierarchies. True cruising allows people to set the terms of their desire and both leave satisfied. It is founded on equality.”

What “true cruising” entails isn’t explained. But if the ideal form of cruising is the bathhouse, which strips away signifiers of wealth and class (aside from the ability, of course, to pay at the door), Grindr may well represent its antithesis. By allowing users an endless array of identifiers to sort through their grid — height, weight, body type, and, until recently, race — users can avoid even having to see those they think they might find undesirable. This kind of presorting serves to reaffirm hierarchies and prejudices. (Although to say that cruising is devoid of traditional hierarchies is to assume that attractiveness and sexual selection does not involve internalized hierarchies in the first place.) Espinoza writes that as a Hispanic man in California, he often felt othered — and if not othered, then fetishized — by the white gay men of the bars of West Hollywood and San Francisco. 

On Sniffies, you can’t sort through a grid in the same way you can on Grindr. You might not use their Foursquare-like cruising spot check-in to presort guys at the local glory hole: Maybe you see that the spot is there, and you head over later, in the dead of night, because you’re curious. When I used the app for the first time last summer, not long after its release, there really was something erotic to the web browser: It reminded me vaguely of the feeling I would have as a preteen sitting with my straight friends on Chatroulette, pretending to be shocked and disgusted when every fifth person we came across was a dirty-looking man jerking off.

Still, I’d venture to say that the most common kind of interaction on Sniffies is no different, really, than the interactions you’d have on any other app. You upload a photo, you list all your preferences, you find a guy who seems to fit your mold, you chat and, finally, meet. That’s a fine way to have sex. It’s just not what cruising, in Bersani’s idyllic conception, is really about. Sniffies is ultimately bound by the same problem as its competitors: it prioritizes sorting and selection over chemistry, circumstance, and surprise. 

Sniffies’s marketing makes it seem as though the radicalness of cruising could be captured in a product — and that this product might be to the liberationist’s benefit, allowing shareholders and queers to live happily side by side. But what makes cruising radical is its rejection of the larger system, its persistence on the periphery. 

Sexual liberation aims to eventually create new structures to exist within, ones more mutually beneficial than the rigid ones of the present. Such a change must occur at the community level, rather than the corporate one. We might consider, as an example, the ways queers have learned to use platforms like Grindr for more than just sex that makes them feel badly afterward: users often employ Grindr and similar apps for making friends, finding communities in unfamiliar cities, experimenting with new forms of relationships outside of hegemonic structures. 

As Grindr prepares to go public, we would do well to heed the difference between practice and platform. In their announcement, the company touted its “mission to connect LGBTQ+ People with one another and the world.” But Grindr’s casual handling of data has already shown a disregard for the safety of its users. As queer rights remain under threat both within and without the U.S., suspicion is the only valid response to the corporation’s performance of benevolence. And this applies to all such corporate intermediation, no matter how genuine — or fun — it might seem. 

Matthew Gallatin is a writer in New York.