Hooking Up & Checking Out: The Emotional Consequences of Gay Dating Apps

 “In my work with gay men and couples I have observed some concerns with compulsive and distracting use of “gay hook-up” apps.  In my observation, many men have never had the opportunity to gain the social skills associated with healthy dating.  The ability to approach someone they are interested in, the ability to deal and sit with rejection, hold conversation, make eye contact, and perhaps most important to stick with something even when something goes wrong.  My fear is that the upcoming generation has no experience with life before smart phones and the internet.  My fear is that relationships will become disposable and impulsive and coupling will become fake, temporary, and convenient”.  - Nathaniel Currie, LICSW

How many times are you on your favorite hook up app a day? Do you find yourself having difficulty completing tasks or being social because you are constantly on apps? How has your hookup app use impacted the way you see your body? Has it made you appreciate your body more?  Has it made it easier to see gay men as disposable? Has it made you bitter or joyful? Or both?

The answers to these questions are not black and white. While we know that apps have made it easier to connect, what we don’t know is how they have impacted our emotional intelligence, social culture and wellbeing as gay men.   To get some insight on this, I reached out to Nathaniel Currie, a therapist working in Washington D.C with extensive clinical and community based experience with Black and Latino gay men. Nathaniel and I explored questions of how online culture may be helping to connect us and at the same time exacerbate issues of sexual compulsivity and more.

Akili:  Many hook up apps encourage the sharing of stats and measurements in a manner that puts us in direct competition with other “bodies” on the market.   How have you seen this show up in our communities?

Currie: Too many times I have had men come into my office and make statements about people or themselves based on pictures they have seen of other people posted on social media or compare themselves to men they find attractive. Stats and measurements are not just ways to identify how someone might measure up in terms of attractiveness but in gay/bi culture it is also a way of qualifying people… as to say a person is placed in some sort of hierarchy based on levels of fitness, attractiveness and body shape….The bombarding of images is overwhelming to even the most confident, well-adjusted individual.  I don’t know how anybody could not fall victim to some sort of “ego-self” self-doubt in this day and age.

Akili: What are some of the things, in your opinion, that we have gained through having online opportunities to connect? And what do you think we have lost?

Currie: Perhaps the most important thing, in my opinion, is that we have literally begun to function as a global village. [But]  I think with so many perceived options, so many attractive pictures to look at, so much of what we want available, that as a dating community we have, and will continue to have, more and more trouble sticking with one person, making a commitment.  As we find ourselves acting out these behaviors of continuous hooks-ups, month long lovers, and date after date, our perception of love and partnership begins to change. It starts to become something to do, or something you should do.

For example, so many of the men I see treat and/or speak about other men as if they are disposable.  If one guy doesn’t fit the idea of fun or of companionship, you can let him go because you know you have an inbox of a hundred messages waiting for you. So is this what it comes to? All options, but nothing solid? Lists upon lists of disposable men. Is dating dead or has it changed beyond recognition?

Akili: How have you seen the apps impact sexual addiction? Or compulsive sexuality?

Currie: What I have observed is the behavior of impulsivity and compulsively become exacerbated through online or smart phone apps. Many men have shared with me in session instances where they have used these apps for sex because they were bored, or lonely or drunk or upset.  Additionally, some men have stated that they have engaged in sexual acts through these means even when they were not attracted to the person for a whole host of reasons… because sex is so easy to access and carries with it no expectations for dating, sharing feelings or sharing personal information.

While addiction may not be the focus here, compulsivity is. That is where I see so many men stuck.  In compulsivity and with it impulsivity, which continue to distract those engaged from daily activities, relationships and establishing ongoing intimacy.

Akili: What are some things you propose black gay men can do, if we find that the dominant manner the culture interacts is changing us in ways we do not want?

Currie: Much of what we speaking about here are behaviors that are associated with attachment. Attachment challenges are the inability to form loving and lasting relationships, to give or receive love or affection, form a conscience, or trust others. Attachment difficulties are on a continuum of disturbance that range from attachment issues all the way to attachment disorder, so you don’t need to fit the criteria of a disorder to have issues with attachment. People with attachment issues desire love and acceptance. They just don’t have the cognitive tools to reach that attachment with others. Think “I want you, I need you, go away”. Simply put, someone experiencing an attachment issue sabotages the very thing people with attachment issues want and need the most—love and acceptance. When we talk about attachment we also talk about trauma. Many gay black men come from family systems and communities that do not support and promote healthy attachment, think absent or abusive or domineering mothers/fathers, resistance of communities in acceptance of sexuality, health and wellness disparities, limited community resources, and violence.

Now let’s try to conceptualize this in an arena (social media) where gratification and self-fulfillment are at the forefront and so fulfilled that the behavior becomes impulsive and compulsive (think the “like function on Facebook or “matches” in Tinder). That is where I believe we are at today.

[Ultimately] we have to hold men, both peers and patients, accountable for their behavior, their engagement and their intentions. We have to model and promote healthy relationships and we must stress the importance of self-regulation. Think one hour a day on Jack’d/ Scruff/Grindr/ Tinder, or three sexual encounters a week, or just chatting, or going on dates over hook-ups, whatever the case.

So how have the apps impacted your relationship to your body, mind and spirit? And if it’s in an undesirable manner, how can you change that?  Whether we choose monogamous relationships, polyamory or open relationships, spending some time critically thinking about it, may give us some great insight into our emotional and intimate lives.

 -NN-

Yolo Akili  is the author of the social justice themed affirmation book  Dear Universe: Letters of Affirmation & Empowerment For All Of Us  and has written for the Huffington Post,  Ebony, The Good Men Project, TheBody.com, The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Everyday Feminisms– and his work has been featured on BET.com, Huffington Post Live,  The Daily Princetonian and The Feminist Wire. His most well-known work is on Gay Men & Sexism, African Americans & Emotional Health, Masculinity and Emotional Justice.

Nathaniel Currie is a Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Educator, specializing in the treatment of Mental Health disorders, Child Welfare, GLBT issues, and HIV/Hip-C education and post diagnosis therapeutic intervention.  After obtaining his Master of Social Work degree from Simmons College School of Social Work in Boston, MA, and advanced clinical licensure, he has gone on to work for Johns Hopkins Medicine, Us Helping Us People Into Living, the District of Columbia Child & Family Services Agency, and in multiple community and private practice offices as both a clinician and clinical consultant.  Nathaniel is the owner and operator of Nathaniel Langford Therapeutic Consulting. Nathaniel is a practicing clinician, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Nathaniel is a native New Englander currently residing in the Washington, DC area.  In his spare time Nathaniel enjoys travel, mountain biking, home improvement projects, and outdoor activities with his dogs.  For more information on Nathaniel’s clinical and scholarly work visit his website at www.NathanielCurrie.com.