By Jack Turban
When I open the Grindr app on my smartphone, I see there’s a 26-year-old man with tanned abs just 200 feet away. He’s called “looking4now,” and his profile explains that he wants sex at his place as soon as possible.
Scrolling down, I find 100 similar profiles within a one-mile radius of my apartment in Boston. I can filter them by body type, sexual position (top, bottom, or versatile), and HIV status.
As a gay psychiatrist who studies gender and sexuality, I’m thrilled with the huge strides we’ve made over the past decade to bring gay relationships into the mainstream. The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Today in Boston, two men can walk down the street holding hands without consequence.
But I’m worried by the rise of the underground digital bathhouse. Apps like Grindr, with 3 million daily active users, and others like Scruff and Jack’d, are designed to help gay men solicit sex, often anonymously, online. I am all for sexual liberation, but I can’t stop wondering if these apps also have a negative effect on gay men’s mental health.
Since there’s little published research on the men using Grindr, I decided to conduct an informal survey and ask men why they’re on the app so much and how it’s affecting their relationships and mental health. I created a profile identifying myself as a medical writer looking to talk to men about their experiences. I received about 50 responses (including propositions).
It’s a small sample size, but enough to give us some clues about how Grindr is affecting gay men. And it doesn’t look good.
Apps like Grindr are designed to make finding sex easy. And that can make them hard to stop using.
The most common reason users gave for going on the app is that sex feels great and Grindr makes it accessible, right at your fingertips. The screen full of half-naked men excites users. With a few clicks, there’s a possibility of meeting a sexual partner within the hour.
Neuroscientists have shown that orgasm causes activation of pleasure areas of the brain like the ventral tegmental area while deactivating areas involved with self-control. And these patterns of activationin men are strikingly similar to what researchers see in the brain of individuals using heroin or cocaine. So when a neutral action (clicking on Grindr) is paired with a pleasurable response in the brain (orgasm), humans learn to do that action over and over again.
This can be a normal pleasure response or it could be a setup for addiction, depending on the situation and individual.
Grindr, intentionally or not, also leverages a psychological concept called variable ratio reinforcement, in which rewards for clicking come at unpredictable intervals. You may find a hookup immediately, or you may be on your phone for hours before you find one.
Variable ratio reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to reinforce behavior, and it makes stopping that behavior extremely difficult. Slot machines are a classic example. Because gamblers never know when the next payout will come, they can’t stop pulling the handle. They hold out hope that the next pull will give them the pleasurable sound of coins clanking against a metal bin, and they end up pulling for hours.
Now imagine a slot machine that rewards you with an orgasm at unpredictable intervals. This is potentially a powerful recipe for addiction and may explain why one user I spoke with stays on Grindr for up to 10 hours at a time, hoping to find the perfect partner for casual sex.
The phrase “addiction” continues to be controversial when it comes to sex and technology, But as John Pachankis, an LGBTQ mental health expert at the Yale School of Public Health, described the impact of Grindr to me: “I don’t know if it’s an ‘addiction,’ but I know it causes a lot of distress.”
For now, it’s hard to know just how many Grindr users feel their use of the app is problematic. Early research on app use and health has focused only on sexually transmitted infections, for instance, rates of HIV among Grindr users, using Grindr to get people tested for STIs, etc.
Just last week, Grindr announced that it will start sending users HIV testing reminders and the addresses of local testing sites (on an opt-in basis). In less pleasant news, BuzzFeed revealed on Monday that Grindr has also been sharing the HIV status of its users with third-party companies. (The company later said it would stop sharing the information.)
Though there is this new attention to sexual health, both Grindr and the research community have been silent on mental health. Yet since 2007, more gay men have died from suicide than from HIV.
This suggests it’s time we start thinking about Grindr’s health effects more broadly. Other dating apps, like Tinder, for example, are now the subject of early research looking at mental health implications. It’s time to do the same for gay hookup apps.
Grindr may provide men with some relief from their anxiety and depression. But it’s temporary.
For some users I talked to, the allure of Grindr was not just the rush to feel good. It was to stop feeling bad. Users told me they log on when they feel sad, anxious, or lonely. Grindr can make those feelings go away. The attention and potential for sex distract from painful emotions.
A staggering number of gay men suffer from depression, with some estimates as high as 50 percent. Because gay men’s anxiety and depressionoften stem from childhood rejection for being gay, messages of affirmation from other gay men are particularly appealing. Unfortunately, these messages are typically only skin-deep: “Hey man, cute pic. Looking to ****?”
The users I interviewed told me that when they closed their phones and reflected on the shallow conversations and sexually explicit pictures they sent, they felt more depressed, more anxious, and even more isolated. Some experience overwhelming guilt following a sexual encounter in which no words are spoken. After the orgasm, the partner may walk out the door with little more than a “thanks.”
And yet they keep coming back for that temporary emotional relief. One user told me that he feels so bad after a hookup that he jumps right back on the app, continuing the cycle until he is so tired he falls asleep. Every once in a while, he deletes the app, but he finds himself downloading it the next time he feels rejected or alone.
“We see patients like this almost every day,” Pachankis told me. “Apps like Grindr are often both a cause and a consequence of gay and bisexual men’s disproportionally poorer mental health. It’s a truly vicious cycle.”
Not all Grindr users are addicted and depressed, of course. Some users I interacted with seem to use Grindr in a healthy, positive way. One man I interviewed met his fiancé there; they are excitedly planning their wedding. Some I spoke with said they use the app for sex but haven’t suffered any negative consequences and have control over their use.
Using Grindr may keep men from finding lasting relationships
Why do so many of these men turn to Grindr to begin with? Perhaps Grindr’s popularity is a sign we haven’t made as much social progress as we think for same-sex relationships. The general population seems comfortable with the idea of gay marriage, but it’s still difficult for a gay man to find a partner.
One 23-year-old user told me that the only places he can find gay men are clubs and Grindr, and both are hypersexualized. The cultures of both intimidate him. According to Pachankis, gay culture is often “status-focused, competitive, hierarchical, and exclusionary.” He explains that these traits are common among men generally, but in the gay community, they become amplified in a group that “both socializes and sexualizes together.”
The 23-year-old is afraid of rejection, and Grindr shields him from the pain of in-person turndowns. “My framework now is sex first. I don’t know how to date people in person.”
His relationships, he says, start with casual sex on Grindr. They first meet at 2 am for a hookup. He’ll try to schedule the next sex date a little earlier, maybe 11 pm. Then the next step may be drinks.
But this sex-first approach hasn’t led to lasting relationships and is affecting self-worth and identity. “My self-esteem now is all about my sexual ability,” the 23-year-old said. “I don’t feel confident about myself as a partner in any other way.”
Another user told me he downloaded the app hoping to find a husband. Now he says that when he and a boyfriend (he’s gone through several) fight, his natural response is to open Grindr to “find an alternative” instead of working through problems. He can’t maintain a monogamous relationship because he is constantly cheating.
There may be ways to treat men with problematic Grindr use
The mental health professionals I spoke to are seeing problematic Grindr use in their clinics. And there is little published guidance on how to help those who are struggling.
Doctors I spoke to say the best available tools for treating problematic Grindr use are the ones they use in general sex addiction treatment. Citalopram, a common antidepressant, was shown in one small study to be helpful with sex addiction in gay men. Naltrexone, a drug commonly used for other compulsive behaviors, may work as well.
For more extreme cases, patients could request hormonal implants that turn off testosterone signaling, making sexual cravings less intense. However, even these treatments have modest empirical support at best, and none have been studied for hookup app use specifically.
Dr. Shane Kraus, the director of the behavioral addictions clinic at Bedford Veterans Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says the most promising treatment for problematic Grindr use is likely talk therapy techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can teach patients to engage in other behaviors that are more productive (though often more difficult and time-consuming than Grindr) to help them feel loved or supported.
Another psychotherapeutic technique known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can help teach patients how to better tolerate the feeling of being alone without logging on to Grindr.
The dynamics of Grindr, though, are complicated, and it can take time to work through all the angles. Are you self-soothing anxiety? Are you addicted to sex? Have you lost interest in your monogamous relationship? Do you think you can’t attain love, so you’re settling for hookups? Did your parents tell you being gay is wrong and you’re searching for acceptance? That therapy can help clarify these kinds of thoughts and feelings, and lead to insights that bring about a change.
He also believes it’s only a matter of time before states and the federal government sponsor research exploring Grindr use and mental health. Grindr did not respond to our request for comment on this piece. But if future data supports what I suspect about the link between Grindr and mental health problems, even small interventions like advertising mental health resources on the app may help to address these users’ suffering.
We continue to fight to bring gay relationships into the mainstream. We need to keep an eye on Grindr and how it both reflects and affects gay culture. The bathhouse is still around. It’s now open 24/7, accessible from your living room.
Jack Turban is a physician and medical writer at Harvard Medical School, where he researches gender and sexuality. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, and Psychology Today, among other publications. Find him on Twitter at @jack_turban.