Real Talk: Is Dating Dead? Finding Connection in the Age of Apps

At the latest Real Talk event hosted by San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the saucy, sex-positive mr. Pam, director of gay adult films for Naked Sword, and four San Francisco community members facilitated a lively discussion about dating, hooking up, and finding love in our fair city by the bay.

“We’re sex-positive. And getting off is fabulous. But sometimes you want a little more,” mused mr. Pam, by way of introducing the topic up for discussion.

Dating is evolving

The audience and panelists agreed that dating is not dead, but it is evolving and in an ever-changing state of flux.  

Panelist Trevor, Mr. SF Leather 2015, described himself as a “hopeless romantic,” and said that a date—for him—can be anything from a candlelight dinner to being tied up in a date’s dungeon.

Another panelist, Graylin, a self-described “leatherman and kinkyman” described his idea of dating in the context of his leather family—a group of people who date and have sex with one another. “I think our lives are a bit different than people who are not [kinky]. We tend to create families of daddies, of boys, of puppies. The puppy could have a lover who has a boy, or who is married to someone else. It creates these structures of three or 15 people, and within that structure, people date. I’m used to that sort of environment and most of my friends do the exact same thing. And I really like that.”

A date, summed panelist Troy, a personal trainer, “can be anything you want it to be.”

How sex fits in

The vast majority of the audience, weighing in via text poll, said they prefer to have sex first, then date, and the panelists agreed. “Ninety-nine percent in San Francisco, it’s fuck first; then one percent is date first,” said Troy.

The difference seemed difficult to parse, however, since the room seemed to agree that getting together with someone else to have sex could be considered a date. When asked to consider what he sees as the difference, Trevor clarified, “Am I seeing your dick before I get to know your personality?”

An audience member chimed in, agreeing that men in San Francisco seem to have sex first. But he added that, “It’s really up to you to take it where you want it to be.” Oftentimes friendship evolves in place of a romantic relationship, said many men. One audience member shared that he and his now-closest friend had sex first. Troy added that many of his closest friends—although they don’t have sex now—did a long time ago, and this was how the friendships first began.

The good, the bad, the ugly

Panelist Kenshi, a Bay Area transplant from Salt Lake City, said he is “tired of the chase,” and the “meat market” feel of the dating scene in San Francisco. “If it’s connection and something beyond six inches, or eight, or ten is what you’re looking for, you have to be willing to put the time in. And I’ve found that a lot of people either don’t have the time, or are not interested.”

The worst dates, said Troy, are when the “connection” is missing—when the conversation is one-sided and all the guy does is talk about himself. “If there’s no sharing, that’s a problem.” For Kenshi, it’s when a guy he’s with hits on other people or gets other people’s phone numbers in front of him. “I just find it really disrespectful,” he said. “I hope that people can have a little more class than that.”

It wasn’t all shared horrors stories, though, although the experiences of “best date” varied widely between people who shared. 

Graylin’s best date was one where “the thrill of danger made it the best date I’d ever been on.” After teasing a date, Graylin found himself handcuffed and forced into submission. “He could have hurt me, but I would gladly have done it again.” In stark contrast, Kenshi shared a sentimental story about a date who re-created a rabbit-shaped cake that his mom made him for his eighth birthday. And Trevor said that a connection with a guy who made him feel “like I had known him for my entire life” made their time hanging out drinking whiskey, eating pizza and making cookies the best date he’s ever had.

Are apps helping us find what we’re looking for?

“Is it a generational thing?” questioned one audience member. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ll go to a designated gay bar, and as I’m in line to get beer, three-quarters to 90% of people in line are on their phones. And I’m looking to see why are you on your phone—what’s so important, and it’s like Scruff, Grindr and Jack’d. Are you serious? You’re at a gay bar. It’s a real-life Grindr right here!”

Trevor, who uses Scruff, Grindr and Daddyhunt to connect with guys, says there’s almost a peer pressure to be on the apps. Another audience member observed that—for younger guys especially—if you’re not on hookup apps, “it feels like you don’t exist anymore.”

Another shared that in his experience, as an “older white guy with a few extra pounds,” apps widen his dating pool and help him actually find people who he’s interested in and who might be interested in him. “There are thousands of people who are looking at it. And you only need to get one at a time—usually. So that’s why they’re kind of valuable.”

Apps can also help guys avoid having to face rejection, observed one audience member. “This was years ago, but I remember coming out of 440 [Castro, a neighborhood bar] and overheard a guy with his friends, saying, ‘Oh, that guy was super cute. I’m going to go home and see if I can find him online. That made no sense to me at the time. That’s why I wonder if it’s about rejection. You can go home and safely chase that person without having that person turn you down or say no. That relationship is mediated by your computer or phone—there’s no fear there, because you can just kind of switch it off.” 

Another benefit, said one attendee is that you can get a lot of information up front about potential partners. Another audience member shared that he appreciates being able to mention that he’s transgender up front. “Scruff has a way to filter people by trans, so there’s that advantage.”

One downside to this is that apps may encourage users to filter people on relatively arbitrary or superficial criteria.

Graylin, an African-American man, said that it’s an immediate turn-off for him when he sees profiles that say things like “white for black.” “To me, what that’s saying is that ‘I just want a black guy, and you’ll do.” Trevor shared that he feels the same way about age—as a younger man, he sometimes doesn’t appreciate being sought out just because he’s in a particular age range. 

One attendee noted that apps give users a way to share, “your stats, and your dimensions, and you’re a top, and this is how hung you are, and this is what your chest, biceps and dick look like.” He said that—while this is sometime well and good, a lot of times, it causes guys to diminish their self-worth through these apps. “Because they’re putting themselves out there and what they really want is a deeper connection, but what they’re trying to sell is what their body looks like. I want to be seen as a whole person, not just a chest or a dick or whatever my sexual tastes are.”

These apps may lend themselves to being superficial, said Kenshi. “But you can use them however you want. I used my Scruff app at the White Party to sell my ticket.”

The point, said one attendee, may be that “it’s awesome if you want to use an app—go for it. But it should not substitute for real-life community.”

To find real-life community, consider joining Bridgemen, a San Francisco AIDS Foundation volunteer and social group for gay and bi guys in the Bay Area. Learn more about Bridgemen including how you can get involved here.

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