Walking home down Grey Street in St Kilda with my partner recently, I noticed an entire wall around a building site was taken over by billboards for a new gay dating app called “Squirt”. The image on the poster depicted three muscle-bound near-naked men looking provocatively at each other under the banner “non-stop cruising”.
Partly out of curiosity and partly out of a morbid desire to gauge where this new crop of dating apps is taking us, I downloaded it. Turns out Squirt is a rehash of an old online gay cruising website. What I soon realised was that it was little more than a gateway to US gay porn sites dressed up as a gay matchmaking site. The main discernible difference between this one and others of its ilk such as Grindr, Hornet or Scruff, seemed to be that there were no restrictions on having uncensored profile pics and the banner ads for sex sites were much more in-your-face.
In other words, I’d stumbled into the sleazy end of hook-up apps thanks to a gargantuan advertisement in my rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood.
I know I only have myself to blame since I chose to download the app, and my boyfriend gave me a hard time about it later. Yes, I’m in a relationship but we don’t try to control each other’s online activities. I know he has Grindr on his phone – but beyond that I don’t want to know.
I met my partner six years ago and we’ve been living together ever since. We met in the middle of a hot Melbourne summer in a gay nightclub when we randomly started chatting beside the water jug at the edge of the dancefloor. After just a few minutes we decided to leave the place and go for a walk in the balmy January night. We never looked back.
As one of our dearest friends pointed out to me recently, this makes us pretty unusual among our peers: both that our relationship has endured and that we met in person rather than hooking up online. To be honest, he was one of the first guys I met who seemed to genuinely believe in love and romance. Before that, I was a frequent user of dating apps, which were really only useful for one thing, and it wasn’t a relationship.
Nowadays it seems like everyone is using dating apps – whether gay or straight or somewhere in between. So much so that I’ve started to wonder if people go out to bars anymore.
Where I live in Melbourne’s south side, an entire gay district in Commercial Road Prahran has all but disappeared to make way for trendy cafes and delis. I know in Sydney, also, much of the gay culture has moved further underground, as even iconic gay bars like the Imperial Hotel in Newtown (where The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed) have in recent years become mixed clientele rather than gay venues.
Whatever happened to the infamous alternative queer bars that used to be packed to the rafters every night of the week, like Melbourne’s infamous Q&A (Queer and Alternative) where we used to dance all night to bands like Blur, the Smiths and the Dead Kennedy’s? Places where we used to make the effort to dress up (or dress down, depending on your taste), get drunk on cheap beers, and form enduring friendships and relationships.
Perhaps there is simply no need for exclusively gay venues anymore, in an age where many people simply seek connections online. No doubt online dating apps have done wonders for connecting people more readily, but I wonder what has been lost in the equation.
In the LGBT community, dating apps have become deeply imbued in the new commercialism of gay culture. “Community events” such as the Pride march in Melbourne and the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney have become places where you find entire floats and stalls dedicated to Grindr and Manhunt. These parades that were formed as a brave act of political rebellion are now places where gay dating apps advertise themselves prominently, even though there is nothing remotely subversive or liberating about their products. These sites are not designed as a community service, their primary motivation is profit.
I get the appeal of instant gratification that people seek with dating apps. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having safe consensual hook-ups for fun. They can provide a temporary tonic for loneliness and have even occasionally led to real friendships and long-term relationships.
But what of romance? My story of meeting my partner at an actual bar now seems almost quaint and of another era. I worry that under the addictive neon glow cast by flickering pixels of bodies on dating apps we have inadvertently sacrificed some of the edgier aspects of our culture to be replaced by the curse of being alone with our phones chasing superficial titillation.
This article first published in The Guardian