By David Goldberg
Phone batteries will be scorched dry this month, as singles look downward to find love on their smartphone screens. Whether you’re craving dates, booty calls, or mundane conversation with vaguely attractive strangers, there should be an app to sate your desires. But as members of a minority that has sometimes been defined by deviance, can we ever really play by the rules of algorithms and interfaces? For some Valentine’s Day insight, OutSmart explores seven of the hottest dating and sex apps available for free on iPhone and Android.
Before straight people discovered the sexual rush of swiping right, gay and bisexual men were fast-tracking their sex lives with Grindr, the original phone app for geographically organized funny-business. And while a first whirl through the boys in your ’hood feels like a Black Friday shopping spree for orgasms, the de rigueur Grindr shot—a headless, flawless torso—soon begins to feel antiseptic and void of all culture. Grindr’s sex-first, questions-later policy defines the body-based economy of the gay men’s world, but it doesn’t offer much in terms of where we go next.
Of course, for men who want to bypass the pretense of conversation, there’s Squirt, whose mobile site gets shockingly specific about sex preferences (you can select “truck stop” and “movie theater” as favorite spots for anonymous nookie). You’re unlikely to find many faces on this mobile site, which, for some men, means getting down to business faster.
Scruff, the “mature” man’s app, lets hairy, muscley men show off their beards, tattoos, and glasses, yielding a colorful surge of personalities, bodies, and backgrounds. Conversation tends to move nicely on this app, which lets clever, confident men chat about what gets them hot. But the aestheticism that defines this culture is also its greatest flaw. Like Grindr, Scruff allows users to filter their searches based on ethnicity, height, weight, and body type. This may sound liberating, but it puts the type of people who don’t look like white porn stars in the margins. I’ve chatted with countless men of color who define themselves as “multi-racial” so as not to be filtered out of “black.”
But what is worse: outright racism, or something more subtle? When answering profile questions on Hinge, a dating app that connects friends-of-friends from Facebook, I was asked if I’ve ever played lawn sports or traveled to the Caribbean. There were so many pictures of men with bowties. Bumble, which was designed as a kind of women’s Tindr, gives hetero ladies 24 hours to start a conversation with a match before he vanishes. For girl-on-girl or boy-on-boy pairings, it’s anyone’s game.
But the prominence of college degrees on a Bumble profile makes the Ivy-educated white cream rise to the top. I’ve spoken with handsome men of color on both Hinge and Bumble, but only after sorting through scores of die-hard fratboys. While racial pedigree isn’t built into these app’s interfaces, there’s a certain look to the men who score big. Still, Hinge and Bumble’s swiping allows for fun, quick matches, and removes the grim feeling of desperation from messaging hot torsos out of your league on other apps. If you’re a match, you’ve got something.
If the gallery of bodies on Scruff and Grindr gives you angina, and you find yourself swiping for hours on Hinge and Bumble without actually meeting anyone, then Coffee Meets Bagel will help you focus on one person at a time. Based on a taxing personality quiz, the app will generate a match (or “bagel”) every day at noon. There’s some nonsense about beans, and the “give and take” interface on the app has the unfortunate effect of exposing you to straight users not interested in you (which proves to be a real confidence builder). But in a better dating world, the idea of taking seriously just one person at a time could prove to be healthy.
At the far end of the spectrum, OkCupid promises to connect those of us who just want a decent connection, free from questions of sexual positions and acronyms (NSA, DTF, DDF, to name a few). Like Hinge, Bumble, and Bagel, this app was originally designed for straight people. Compared to some of the carnivores on Scruff (“Ass pic is a requirement before saying hello!” one profile states), the lads and ladies on OkCupid seem innocent, almost sanitized of danger and desire.
After all the ways we’ve been socialized to put our carnal cravings front and center by porn and sex apps, how do we teach ourselves to seek out mates based on personality? It’s the age-old divide between The Phantom of the Opera and Raoul, only digitized: Grindr brings us the steamy stranger from our darkest fantasies, and OkCupid delivers the sensible dude with the conservative lapels. Why must we always choose?
But regardless of the functionality or approach of these apps, the real measure of their success lies in our choices. If you log into the Grindr playground feeling confident and clear about your boundaries, you can soar with a one-night incubus you’ll never forget. But enter in desperation or insecurity, and you’ll be chewed up and spit out by one of many inconsiderate animals. As for OkCupid, users must decide if they are really ready to take a risk and book several dates—involving talking—to find that person they connect with on a deeper level. Make sure you know which game you want to be playing.
Bottom line: in terms of sex appeal, quality of conversation, and variety of men, Scruff comes out on top of our app faceoff. Ladies will find luck with OkCupid or Bumble, which were both designed to release them from hungry male eyes. But the winner—or loser—of this app faceoff is, inevitably, you. Happy hunting.
David Goldberg is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.