I. The Underground Digital Bathhouse
A recent article on Vox raises questions about the mental health implications of gay “dating” apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d. The article, written by a gay psychiatrist in Boston, opens with what reads like a caveat regarding the “huge strides” that have been made in the last decade to “bring gay relationships into the mainstream,” including the Supreme Court recognition of gay marriage as a constitutional right.
From here, author Dr. Jack Turban, pivots to discuss what he calls “the rise of the underground digital bathhouse” - the proliferation and growing use of apps like Grindr, which now has 3 million active daily users. These apps provide users with a streamlined process of identifying and connecting with sexual partners who are available, quite literally, at their fingertips. Users have the ability to sort potential partners by age, body type, sexual position, and many other physical and behavioral characteristics.
II. The Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain
In many important respects, this is a great thing. Risks associated with visibility are reduced, adding an element of safety, especially in places still rife with homophobia and transphobia. Sex is easier to arrange, and compatible partners are easier to identify. And, since a big part of sex is pleasure, more sex is a good! Indeed, when Dr. Turban conducted an informal survey of approximately 50 men on Grindr, this - sex feels good and Grindr makes it more accessible - was the most common reason cited for using the app.
The primary purpose behind this survey, however, was to provide Dr. Turban - and by extension other members of the medical, mental health, and research communities - with a window into the mental health consequences of using these apps. While Dr. Turban acknowledges that 50 participants is a small sample size, it still provides meaningful insight. And these clues, he concludes, paint a picture that “doesn’t look good.”
Dr. Turban draws a number of conclusions about the mental health effects of gay dating apps based on the data he compiles. These include:
The use of variable ratio reinforcement (rewards - in this context, sex and the potential of orgasm - that come at unpredictable intervals) make the apps both very easy to start using, and very hard to stop.
The majority of Grindr users feel regret after engaging with the app (this from a recent survey from Time Well Spent), and some end up feeling more anxious, depressed, and isolated.
The emphasis on sex first may impede efforts for users to form and sustain lasting romantic relationships.
The lack of research about mental health effects means that the most effective therapy treatments for harmful app use are underdeveloped
III. The Role of Therapy
Dr. Turban points out that one of the challenges of identifying harmful app use is figuring out what motivates the behavior. On the surface, of course, users are most often looking for casual sex. But there are lots of different things that we can get from casual sex. Dr. Turban asks: “Are you self-soothing anxiety? 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?” He also asks if participants are struggling with compulsive sexual behaviors or with attraction and desire in monogamous relationships. All of these are possible reasons a person might feel pulled toward casual sex.
And they are questions that a therapist can help identify and discuss. As Dr. Turban asserts, “Therapy can help clarify these kinds of thoughts and feelings and lead to insights that bring about a healthy change.” Here at G&STC, we wholeheartedly agree!
Therapy can be a helpful environment to separate two things that Dr. Turban seems to conflate in this article. As he lays it out, it isn’t clear where the anxiety, depression, and isolation that users feel after engaging with the app find their source. It might be in broader social narratives about who uses dating apps, what this says about them, and how this relates to more “appropriate”, or possibly, permitted, behavior. Or, it might be a consequence of the experience the user has on the app itself. Each case, once clearly identified, will have a different approach in terms of developing strategies for understanding and managing the feelings that emerge.
On a positive note, the article acknowledges that people do use the app in ways that are fulfilling and positive. Dr. Turban mentions a user who met his fiance on Grindr, as well as the many others who use the app for sex without any of the challenges outlined above.
One thing that we’re sensitive to at G&STC is how societal narratives about sex can create feelings of shame and disgust around behaviors that are, in reality, fun and rewarding. Enjoying a lot of sex is an admirable manifestation of one’s desire and doesn’t always have a correlation to someone’s desire for long term romantic endeavors, a need to soothe anxiety, a need for acceptance, compulsive sexual behaviors or someone’s relationship orientation.