A writer reflects on his decade-long search for sex and love in the tumultuous world of gay online hookups.
I am at my local hipster restaurant, in Park Slope. The young straight guys next to me are talking about how the dating website Plenty of Fish has a new GPS-oriented smartphone app that finds women nearby, listing their profiles and proximity, and of course, showing a photo.
“Look at this one!” says one guy, tapping and stroking his phone, “I hooked up with her last week.” They all gather around and look at her. “She’s, like, three hundred feet away from here.” They are practically shivering with excitement at the ease and abundance of potential partners suddenly available to them.
I sit at the end of the bar and laugh to myself like an old, salty sea captain. Once again, gay guys are a step ahead.
* * *
Way back in 2002, I already felt behind the curve when I was finally brave enough (and finally had an Internet connection with enough bandwidth) to go online and try to hook up. At the time, straight people had begun to tiptoe into the world of online soul mate searches on sites like Match.com, a trend that would gradually devolve into the realm of the real-time booty call apps witnessed above. But even before iPhones existed, gay men had already pioneered the use of the web for casual sexual encounters.
My friend told me about this one site he frequented. I went on and created a little profile that I later discovered was too wordy and chatty and not within the strict style parameters that predominate this particular hookup site. I didn’t get much reception, so I had to rewrite it a few times. (It’s best to use grunt-y language like: “lookin for a bud,” “NSA,” and “what’s up.”)
I was so nervous. As I watched my anonymous photo upload, I felt a naughty pang–the type you have surely felt if you, like me, have ever cast your sexual desires out into the two-dimensional, glowing, public/private hybrid world that is the Internet. That first time you pressed “send,” there was a panic that it could all go very, very wrong—but it’s worth it, you think, because you’re kind of horny.
Those first days on the Internet were memorable. In a way, I was an adolescent again, except instead of my desires fusing with my body, they were fusing with the computer. I went from rookie (“Wow! He looks perfect in his boxers!”) to connoisseur (“Hm. The diffused lighting and quarter-turn of the torso may be hiding a potbelly”) to tired know-it-all (“Yea, SURE you’ve got a six-pack and monster cock. Creep.”) This online education moved quickly—the speed of light compared to the fifteen years it took me to realize I wasn’t having fun at big gay clubs that play pounding “oonce oonce” dance music. I am such a slow learner.
* * *
Here’s one timeless truth about mankind that becomes clear very quickly online: there are a lot of people who are hot but dumb. Like the guy I chatted with once who thought Boston was a state. I realize that not everyone is a writer and as obsessed with words as I am, but I can’t help being annoyed when someone spells muscular: “Mascular” (The letters aren’t even close to each other on the keyboard! Or, wait, is that supposed to be witty?)
Often you electronically meet guys who have very strange ways of expressing themselves, or perhaps they are just way too busy to tap the spacebar on their keyboards between words. Guys who write things like “want tobo ttom for yowere ru” or don’t write anything at all. Still, you keep talking to them because you think: “but, he is hot…” Or you just really want to know why someone would choose to call himself “PRBlazedawg.”
After a few days, I finally struck up a conversation with some guy who could spell, seemed very clearheaded and constructed complete sentences.
He confidently sent me additional photos of himself: a smiling face, a flexed chest, a boner close-up, and I mentally reconfigured all the separate images of him into a possible person he could be, my flat thoughts building him up into a whole, like Cubism.
I was surprised to learn he lived five blocks from me. He asked me to come over. It seemed too efficient to resist. As I walked through Brooklyn, amid the busy evening rush of people returning home from day jobs—tired nine-to-fivers taking their dogs out for walks, mothers buying onesis at trendy baby stores, men playing dominoes on a card table outside the old bodega—I looked toward his illuminated apartment windows and felt a sexual version of that familiar New York saying: there actuallyare eight million stories in this city, and I’m one of them.
He answered the door in a white tank top. I’ll call him Don. He was animated and friendly and actually very cute. His three-room apartment was kept clean. Don was eating cereal and watching “Blade” with Wesley Snipes on pay-per-view. We sat and watched and I talked and talked because that is how I work through my nerves. Don was patient and led me into the bedroom and we stripped down to our underwear. He knew it was my first time meeting someone online and said supportive things like “Don’t worry, if it doesn’t feel right there is no problem in just stopping,” which is what happened after about five minutes. We got fully undressed, but I backed off. Maybe it was the blaring TV in the kitchen/living room, or the strangely large, empty birdcage in the corner, or the fact that Don kept the lights on like we were going to put up wallpaper.
We went back into the living room/kitchen and watched Wesley slaughter vampires. Don offered me Diet Pepsi. When he found out I was a freelance writer, he assumed correctly that I was poor, and, as I was leaving, he gave me a bag of DKNY clothes he was throwing out. I left with a trash bag of clothes and no orgasm.
* * *
You can tell a lot about a person by the way he expresses himself online. People’s profiles alone are elucidating. With just a few words, you get a window into someone’s personality.
There are those sad, cynical entries where someone says, “I’m sick of players and liars!” Those people are depressed and need a hug more than they need sex.
There are those demanding, mean and nasty profiles. “DONT GET IN TOUCH WITH ME IF YOU ARE FAT. BE SERIOUS AND READY TO MEET NOW.” Those guys should be avoided.
Then, there are the weird gregarious profiles by people who seem to have nothing else to do. “If you have a big dick and blue eyes move to the front of the line!” Gross—there’s a line?
I am most fascinated by racist profilers. Those people who say “no Asians!” or “I am not interested in you if you are black.” I am obsessed with people who think it’s okay to say this kind of thing, even when they apologize. “Not into white guys, sorry! Blatinos only! I’m not being racist it’s just what I like.” Okay fine, you are allowed to have your own desires, but I still think you’re a racist.
I always want to ask one of those “No Asians!” guys: if you were a baby and accidentally fell from a plane and landed safely in the middle of Mongolia and were raised by a nomadic Mongolian tribe, does that mean you would have grown up not being attracted to anyone?
It seems in our relatively young Internet age, many people don’t yet realize that the digital representation you create is not a reflection of what you want, it’s a reflection of you. In Out Magazine last year, the writer Alex Chee said it perfectly in his essay on the subject:
“Race-based rejection was, in the old days of real-life cruising, silent. Likewise your reaction. If someone rejected you because of your race, you didn’t usually hear about it unless you pressed your case. But men who put NO ASIANS on their profile are not stating a preference… it’s even weirder than that: You’re looking for a fellow Asian hater to date. You’re using the disguise of a semi–socially acceptable way to say you’re a racist and looking to hook up with other racists.”
That’s one positive thing about the digital world. It exposes secrets: Abu Ghraib, homophobic fundamentalist preachers trolling for sex, racists.
And there’s a flipside: after spending time in the Internet hookup world, you begin to become even more sensitive to the unseeable, etheric quality that emanates from people in cyberspace. After all the initial chatting, you are confronted with someone’s vibrations in person, and then have to compare them with the flat profile version you’ve already constructed in your head. It’s great if the two match up, but sometimes the person has a vaguely unpleasant yogurt smell. Or flaky eyebrows. Or just an all-around demonic aura. Then, you learn to respect and trust the potent yet subtle body and sexo-chemical cues you have within you. Even more than you did before we created a sexual Amazon.
* * *
It’s been a decade since that first aborted online hookup, and Internet dating has changed me and my entire way of being. It’s already difficult to recall the time before the Internet became a part of my sexuality, when guys had real names instead of “hotboi” or “Niptop8inchstud.” Back then I was a victim of pure chance and would go to bars or clubs looking for love or sex or something in between. I would stand there patiently waiting for someone to show up so we could take off our clothes together somewhere. That Portishead song with the lyric: “Nobody loves me, it’s true…” was popular at the time and I would stand there singing it to myself until I realized how pathetic I looked.
The digitalization of my sexual life has been fun, awful, hot, confusing, sexy, occasionally humiliating, but, most of all, an education on what it means to be human. Or maybe how I am becoming partially non-human.
All my thoughts about the Internet and my sexuality can be reduced to two questions. No. 1: is our super-connected modern life ‘damaging’ me as a person? Is it changing all of us so that we no longer want simpler things like love and family? Or, No. 2: are our desires the same as they’ve always been, deep, uncontrollable, timeless, as old as mankind, no matter the means of communication (websites, 900 numbers, Skype, raised red lanterns)? Basically: am I just a horny guy like all those before me?
If you give me a website to join I will do it because I love communicating. I may be addicted to communication, because I keep doing it even though I know I have reached a kind of connective saturation point. I am on every single social network, friend manager, media organizer—even LinkedIn. And I have toyed with several gay hookup sites that all have the words Dudes or Man or Sex or Hunt in the title. I have even tried sites where I don’t belong, like Beardaddies and BDSM (And I don’t even like that kind of thing! Don’t hit me!) Although, so far, I have avoided Grindr and Scruff and other gay smartphone-centered GPS hookup sites. I don’t want to be given any more opportunity to look at a screen and find someone to sleep with than I already have, especially if they are next door. Giving me the power to do that is like giving Keith Richards a crate of heroin.
I honestly don’t think I have any more emotional bandwidth for additional virtual life. I have become one with my laptop, and if I also become one with my handheld device I won’t have any hands left to eat or manipulate things like steering wheels or elevator buttons or ATM machines.
Science fiction depictions of an electrosexual world are numerous. I always think about the scene from “Logan’s Run,” when Logan, played by Michael York, goes on the Circuit to find a date for the evening, accidentally conjuring the beautiful fugitive Jessica.
And then there are director David Cronenberg’s films (“eXistenZ,” “Videodrome,” “Naked Lunch”), which often involve visceral flesh-machines, human bodies fusing with their creations. In 1983’s “Brainstorm” (Natalie Wood’s last film), scientists create the ability to record brain activity and can replay their experience in someone else’s head. One lab assistant loops a sex act over and over and sits in his basement in his bathrobe in a creepy coital state until Christopher Walken comes in and rips the contraption off his head.
Sci-fi visions of an electrosexual future: “Logan’s Run” (left) and “Brainstorm” (right)
Of course, all of these depictions try to be sexy even when they are dystopian. None expresses the scrolling and tapping and time-eating mundanity of it all—the multifarious cross attempts at meeting, the confusing juggling of names and profiles and handles and facts, all filed away in both your brain and computer. Eventually, you become, more and more, one being with fingers that type and eyes that scan and a boner searching through a grid of code.
* * *
I constantly check my various profiles hoping to meet someone new, and, of course, there is always someone new. I send out my messages and signals and scatter my hellos in various mailboxes. I turn on my computer and it pulses with potential. Every day I get emails and friend confirmations and constant invitations on Facebook from someone named Akkad to attend “Big Booty Thursdays.”
Michael, whom I really don’t know why I linger over, said he suddenly had to meet a friend tonight. Doug the bartender said he would call me. Carlos said, “Papi you are so sexy” on Tuesday and that he would call me on Thursday, but now it’s Sunday and he hasn’t. Brian said he had my email in his junk folder. The other Brian texted me that he saw me walking across 34th on his way to Fire Island. I texted him back and said “how are you?” but he didn’t answer. Matthew the stable teacher—the one who joins me on sensible, sexless, getting-to-know-you-dates—is just so busy. I just got a message from BigMascHOmbre who has a profile that reads “Be true to yourself. I am an honest person and Brad Pitt lookalike!” Also, probably because my email has been served up to every sexual spam merchant by this point, I have this message from Gooface Moneyshot in my junk mail folder: “Oh you, cuddlesome varmint. you do have eyes for a gratis hardcore, I know this.”
Just today I heard from someone named Jake, on Facebook. His body is covered with alluring tattoos. He has four hundred photos of himself on the beaches of Ibiza, well organized into folders based on color, time of day, mood. I have never met this man but he sends me attentive messages every week or two, just to make sure I am still there. I am here, Jake, I am here.
Am I ever truly alone now? My vast ability to long has been pulled like taffy into a thin stretch of desire while I keep searching for that fresh feeling I think I remember I felt sometime before 1998.
I keep longing for something weighty, some kind of emotional anchor in the connection ocean. Or maybe that is antiquated and I should just embrace my robot side, and fall backward into the network, like one of those Nestea Plunge Commercials.
* * *
In a 2008 piece for Out Magazine, I interviewed Joseph Kramer, the founder of The Body Electric, a workshop in intimacy that includes a non-ejaculatory orgasmic massage technique he created. He started the workshop in the early 80s, months before AIDS began its terrifying trek through the gay male population. At the height of the epidemic, he was teaching traumatized gay men how to enjoy touch and intimacy, safely, when they weren’t even sure if they could or couldn’t transmit a deadly virus merely by kissing.
Kramer waxed nostalgic about living in New York during the glory days of gay life in the ‘70s, when men were having sex everywhere. When he lived here, he had a boyfriend but still enjoyed the highly charged sexual culture of the city. He described gay men in that era as being in a tribe. “There were four hundred or five hundred guys and maybe two hundred more on the weekends,” he told me.
I hear stories like this often from my older gay friends who were sexually active back then, those who survived through the dark days of the early AIDS epidemic, and have lived to tell about it. In their memory, people were hooking up any time of the day; sex was everywhere. They tell me about the legendary cruise spots: the piers, the trucks on 14th Street, the basement of the Spike, a gay bar on the West Side Highway. A friend of mine, the comedian Nora Burns, recalls living with her gay best friend, David, who died in 1994. “He would say, ‘I’m going out to get some milk!’ and come back six hours later having had sex all over the place.” Recalling the numerous sexual encounters he had in New York, Kramer described it in an all-embracing way, “I understood sex as a communal experience,” he told me. “I didn’t feel it was personal.”
Back then, the city seemed to be a hive of men who crisscrossed and ran into each other on a grid of streets, over and over, seeking satisfaction. The abundance and possibility sounds more playful than today’s online sex world, but it also doesn’t seem that much different. It just sounds like back then Manhattan was the Internet.
I always wondered about those glory days of the gay ‘70s, if those freely sexual gay men ever felt suffering as I sometimes do. Did they experience jealousy and racism and cruelty—aspects of human behavior that are at least as old as Greek tragedy—that I also see often chirping out of men’s profiles on the Internet? Did they ever experience rejection? I asked Kramer if he had ever fallen in love and not had the feeling returned.
He stared at me calmly and said, “Sex felt like a communal experience then. There wasn’t a lot of pair bonding.”
It leads me to conclude that the Internet, as well-designed as it may be to find love and sex and even pet supplies, may also be very well designed to serve up rejection.
Something has changed since the time when gay sex was about liberation and communal efforts. It’s difficult to articulate this because it can verge on marmishness, but sometimes it just feels like sex is becoming systematized. And in any system, things become more and more arcane and part of that system, until you forget you are even inside a system anymore and you come across a profile for PSstud, who feels the need to clarify his name: “PS stands for palm springs not piss.”
* * *
A couple weeks ago, I met an old friend for an ironic margarita at Pieces, a West Village gay bar that is full of rainbow decor, and pumps diva-screaming pop hits loudly through its speakers. My friend was a little late, so I sat in the corner and became transfixed by the TV over the bar, which was showing “To Die For” with subtitles. I watched Nicole Kidman and recalled the last time I saw this, in a theater back in the ‘90s.
A few nights later, online, I said hello to a profile of an erect penis that I know. “How r u,” I wrote.
“Why do you care? Didn’t seem to the other night,” the erect penis wrote back.
“Huh?” I wrote, “I’m sorry but I don’t recall talking to you this week!”
“Pieces. Two nights ago. You looked right through me.”
“OMG! You were there? I’m so sorry I didn’t see you! Why didn’t you say hello?”
“You looked right at me.”
“Hey, I honestly did not see you. Please don’t assume I was ignoring you!”
“We’ve fooled around three times and you couldn’t even acknowledge me. Fuck off! LOL.” And with that, he blocked me.
It seemed unjust, but maybe he was right. Maybe I am so desensitized to the in-the-flesh world that I didn’t see him right there in front of me.
* * *
The Internet is changing the way we look at people and what we think it is we want. Our desires get sharpened into micro details that you select like you are filtering your travel itinerary on Kayak.com. If you want someone with a hairy chest and a 32-inch waist and a beard, now you can check these little boxes and order it. The Internet has made the search more particular than before, and people have to change who they are to appeal to it. For instance, I have been alive long enough to know that there was a time when the common gay man did not measure the circumference of his cock, but that inaction, it seems, is no longer an option.
It freaks me out how the Internet has fused advertising with sexual desire. You have to be attention-grabbing and snappy and quick to get noticed online, using your sharpest skills at packaging and branding to draw attention to yourself—like a jingle with pecs. It’s all about the sell, it seems. How American. No wonder we are so into it.
Best example of the desperate advertisement tonality of Internet sex is this gem I found on Craigslist: “Start off your day or evening with a great bj! Got powerful suction. Intimate! Discreet!”
One of the most difficult things to witness is when you see some young boy, at 23, who has joined a hookup site and has a dorky and witty profile with a photo of himself in glasses and a frumpy blazer. He says things like “Well, I don’t know what I am looking for but maybe to get together with someone and explore! I love Harry Potter and big ideas!” And then, over the course of a year, you see him understand how he needs to signal, and he ends up naked, on all fours, with a practiced porno look on his face, exposing his anus.
* * *
Last summer I decided to take a break from my computer for a weekend. I spent most of my time alone. I went to Coney Island and strolled around, saw a couple friends, wrote a lot, went up to Prospect Park and painted an amateurish watercolor. I listened to podcasts on mindfulness meditation, trying to find ways to enjoy quietness and silence. Sunday morning, I went to my neighborhood coffee shop to read the paper. Two young guys in tank tops sat down next to me. One had floppy hair and handsome, precise features. The other was tall and hunky and very cute. He had a loud deep voice and was carrying a Frisbee. I could tell they were on a date. “So where do you work?” Floppy Hair asked the tall one. “Oh. I’m ‘funemployed’ right now,” he answered. He was trying to be funny, but the other guy just stared at him like he was watching a tepid sitcom.
I felt for the tall one. He seemed nervous but willing to give things a shot. That is exactly the kind of guy I could be with, I said to myself. But there he was, on an honest, real world date doing simple honest activities like coffee and Frisbee. I sat there feeling a sadness swell inside me like a gust of wind. People are around me, effortlessly dating and in love, and I am a clunky keyboard, typing out my emotions to anyone who will hear them, spread too thin.
I left and tried to breathe and went up to the park. “Feel your loneliness and let it open you up,” said the dharma talk on my iPod, and I tried to let this lonely feeling suffuse itself through my body, hoping it would crack me open into some less achy state. “If there was another passion as strong as desire, we would have no spiritual life. We would be consumed by both passions,” said the speaker.
The next evening I broke down and went online. A headless torso said hello and I said hello back. I revealed myself to him. “You look familiar,” he said. “Were you in a coffee place yesterday morning? I was the guy with the Frisbee.”
It was him, the tall guy. It was almost magical. I told him this. He told me he saw me and wanted to talk but was on a date. He came over that night.
He entered my apartment and we smiled. We sat down and he told me that crazy coincidences like this happened to him frequently. He was funny and talkative and loud. “Oh man, you are exactly compatible with me,” he said, “this is crazy!”
He told me he had been to a therapist last year because he worried he was sexually compulsive. “It felt like it was harming my soul,” he said. “The therapist told me that sexual compulsion isn’t the right word, but that I may be using sex to relieve anxiety.” I was impressed that he sought out therapy.
We made plans to meet later that week after I got back from a work trip. All week, I felt good about life. Things were moving forward and my Apple computer and wifi were helping me achieve my goals in love and career. Here is an example of the benefits of modern communication, I thought. If I wasn’t on the internet, I would have just stewed in my lonely story.
When I got back, I texted him and told him to let me know when he was free. He was with friends in the park one night, and seeing a movie the next. Well, maybe we can meet up this week, I suggested. “Yes, let’s try to have a coffee during the day,” he answered. I didn’t hear back from him for over a week. Then, when he finally texted me again, my little busy calendar was all filled up. Hopefully we will find time to meet again. But we are both just so busy.
* * *
Sometimes I fear my desire for love is being unfairly sharecropped without me even getting a percentage of the profit. The constant searching concerns me the most. You are always looking for results, constantly hitting refresh, and this is a contraction of identity that the market forces are only too happy to keep you trapped within. There is this feeling that you will never be satisfied and it hovers over you while you look and look. You may want something permanent, but it’s difficult to grasp onto anything permanent when people flip through each other’s profiles like magazines.
My tall friend with the Frisbee is right: it is an anxiety that we are often trying to relieve, an anxiety that is self-perpetuating. But it is also something more. Under that word “anxiety” and the frantic desire to scratch it like an itch, there is an un-met need for love, for sex. In the electronic world, this need can become something you shop for just like a flat-screen TV, or the perfect shoe on Zappos.com.
You can be kept spinning in a hamster wheel of wanting, thinking that is just what you wanted, when what you really yearned for was intimacy, love, or maybe just an orgasm so you could get on with your day.
Look once again to the gay scene and you’ll find early examples of how sex is commodifying across our culture. On many hookup sites you find ads for flavored lube or anal douche-wands and other accoutrements needed for an overcharged sex life. Then, there are ads like this one, which was stenciled onto Church Street in Toronto during Gay Pride last summer:
I don’t want to be preachy and negative about online dating or online sex. I know several happily married and partnered couples, both gay and straight, who met online. Also, it doesn’t help to make our super-connected lives the villainous antithesis to some more “pure” way of being. That just makes us all feel worse about ourselves. It only deepens our cycle of seeking and relieving. (I guess I should just say ‘my cycle’; maybe you are perfect and your sexual desires are neatly organized in clean boxes as if your brain is the Container Store.)
I still do believe in the glorious Wired magazine ethos that our technology connects humanity. I want to believe that our increasing interconnectivity can help us integrate our sexual sides with ourselves instead being shamed by what we are feeling. In this dream world of mine, I imagine a time when we will all just be totally naked on our Facebook pages.
But I have a feeling that won’t be happening anytime soon. Desire will continue to be something more shadowy. We are all sexual beings, and our desires seem to be able to transmute into whatever new realm is borne, whether it’s a city, an entire Internet or some totally innovative and weird fetish in Japan. Desire has always existed in all its dark, passionate, heart-curling ways, and now desire has found a more perfect mode of expression: the underground tunnels of our messaging.
* * *
Maybe I am just trying to convince myself that it’s okay to be a total ho-bag, but I think sex can be a spiritual pursuit—a less-acknowledged path to finding out who you really are, even if it has has become as convenient as Fresh Direct.
I have to keep reminding myself that as blissful as sex may be, it is not the ultimate pursuit, or a mere product to click on. Underneath all that searching, underneath those potential encounters, there is something deeper and constant within each of us. Desire is a lens inward, and love is beyond value, or it should be. It is more expansive than any realm, and every single one of us deserves it.
For now, I am closing all my little hooky-uppy profiles. Pulling down the gates on my storefront selves. Or maybe it’s more like I am pulling up my pants. Anyway, I am returning to the solid, fleshly world—with its open air and bars and streets and happenstance.
Look up from your smartphone and you’ll find me there—in the overlooked, occasionally lonesome, three-dimensional space of now.
* * *
Mike Albo (@albomike) is a writer and performer who lives and loves in Brooklyn. He has written the novels Hornito, The Underminer (co-written with Virginia Heffernan), and, most recently, The Junket, a novella available as a Kindle Single. This essay is based on a reading given at the Red Umbrella Diaries series.
Alison Brockhouse is a visual artist living in Brooklyn.