Online dating websites and apps are one of those technological innovations that people did not think would ever do well. How can one form a connection without physical interaction? Do you not need to know one another? Virtual is real was a much less known and accepted notion a few years ago. Today, online dating sites and apps are the second most popular way to meet someone. As of 2015, there were an estimated 91 million users of dating apps across the world. There are more and more dating apps coming into the App store and Play Store everyday, each one trying a different USP, ranging from those which match you with people who have the same taste in music as you, to those which match you according to your taste in food. There are even others that match you based on how you like your burrito like Burrit-Oh. And then there’s one called Maple Match that offers US citizens a way to link up with Canadians, saving them from Trump’s America!
In this piece, I briefly review four dating apps, Tinder, OkCupid, Planet Romeo and PinkSofa, especially in relation to the queer community. The latter two cater to gay and bisexual men and women respectively, whereas the former two are open to all sexualities.
With 25 million users as of 2016, Tinder is probably the most heard of dating app. Its interface, unlike other dating apps and website before it, is very image oriented. A location based social search app, it was the first ‘swipe app’, one where you browse profiles by swiping left or right. Unlike most other dating apps, Tinder has a “double opt in” system, i.e., both the users have to consent for any contact to be established.
On Tinder, the user can select whether they want to view only men, only women or both. This was supposed to bring in queer users, which it did. But this alone is not sufficient for an app to bring in other sexualities. I, as a self-identified queer woman, can choose to view only the profiles of women. But this does not mean that Tinder will only show me the profiles of those women who have opted to view only women, but will show me all the profiles with gender female. Yes, this includes heterosexual women. For some weird reason, one is also shown random profiles of men in the middle of this, which can be very irksome. “It’s like Tinder is trying to tell me, hey look, a man. Are you sure you don’t want one?” says an annoyed Reema, a queer woman who has installed, deleted and reinstalled Tinder multiple times.
There is also another very curious trend among the heterosexual female profiles which turn up when you opt to view only women. It’s safe to assume that they are on Tinder to meet men and would have opted to view only men, which is precisely what I thought. Till I started getting matches with profiles which state that they are women looking for men. Thinking they might be closeted and/or wanted to maintain their privacy to an extent, I struck up a conversation with a few. After some pleasantries, I pointed out the discrepancy between their profile and the fact that they swiped right on the profile of a queer woman. In most case, they were women who said that they wanted to meet more feminists and become friends with them. A few of them said that they wanted more queer friends and had hence swiped right. This was such an unexpected turn of events that I didn’t entirely know what to say. Also, this was not an isolated instance. My female respondents who identified as queer in different cities, including Calcutta, Chennai and Delhi, had all interacted with women like the ones mentioned above. I think this was best summed up by Leila who said, “You know, I love the fact that women are subverting Tinder to meet not just other women for friendship, but are actively seeking out feminists. That being said, I cannot help but get a little irked sometimes. As it is, it’s hard to meet queer women. This just adds to the confusion. The least they can do is make it all clear during the initial interactions, just so that they don’t lead anyone on unintentionally. And this does not happen on OkCupid, since you have the option of not viewing straight profiles there.”
In November 2016, in an attempt to also cater to the trans and gender non-conforming community, Tinder allowed users to select not just male and female as genders but also added 37 others to the list. The additional genders include options such as genderfluid, androgynous, pangender, non-binary, gender questioning, transgender and transsexual. But if users still can’t find their preferred option, they can also type in the gender title they wish to be identified using the ‘Trans……x’ option. But when one could identify outside the binary, one could not search for those who are non-binary identified. There was also a major concern regarding the safety of transpersons on the app since it is location-based. Also, these increased gender options were introduced only in the US, UK and Canada.
OkCupid is a largely free online dating site which is very popular in India. Started in 2004 by the creators of SparkNotes, OkCupid is owned by four Harvard students. Unhappy with the existing dating sites, which they felt were scams, they started OkCupid, which was initially called SparkMatch, and said that the site used math to bring up the matches. All the user had to do was answer a series of questions with their response, the response which they would prefer from the other, and the degree of importance of the question. The answers, combined with the data generated by the user through her activities, helpsOkCupid calculate a good potential match.
OkCupid is largely free. There is a premium membership which will get you the privileges of A-List members, which includes no advertisements, a preferential placement and so on. Recently, it upgraded to provide the same swipe options like Tinder, but it has also retained the older mode of scrolling through profiles.
Unlike Tinder, OkCupid does not have the double opt in mechanism. Because of this, women are often flooded with hundreds of messages, mostly from men, in a matter of a few hours. You do have the option of putting in filters, but that is not the default setting.
OkCupid appears to be particularly popular among queer women in India. It is rarely the first site which they come to but the ones who do use it are satisfied with it. One of the advantages of OkCupid is that you can hide your profile from men and straight people, which cuts down on the number of pointless messages which you’d receive. The members on OkCupid appear to be more diligent with regards to filling in their profiles and the various sections on it. OkCupid also gives you a wide range of options to choose from with regard to your gender and sexuality, which is pleasantly surprising.
With a simple yet slick home page, PinkSofa has an air of genuineness, like the site really wants to ensure that you meet someone. Started by Liz James 13 years ago, PinkSofa was made only for the use of lesbian and bisexual women who wanted to meet other women who were attracted to women. It is designed to be a space where lesbians could “meet, talk, learn about each other, and (with any luck!) fall in love.” The logo used to be a pink comfortable-looking couch with the words ‘Love, Friends and Community’ written by its side. But recently, the words have been changed to ‘Quality Lesbian Connections’, making it sound more like a site for Business Majors who happen to be lesbians than for the common queer woman. The landing page also says, “We provide a quality service for lesbians genuinely looking for love and friendship”, which sounds oddly self-righteous, as if casual sex and one night stands are somehow at a lower standing than “love and friendship”.
Earlier, at least as far back as in 2012, a new member was given a trial period of two weeks on the site, during which she could contact the other members using the private message option, which was not available for Basic Members otherwise. Back then, after the trial period expired, a Basic Member could still use their ‘Smile’ option to get the attention of another member and interact with other members on the public ‘Chit Chat’ column. You are not allowed to share any private contact details anywhere on the site except in a private message. Now, the trial period has been cut down to 5 days, and your contact options are severely limited. The subscription fee is $30 for a month, $60 for 3 months and $120 for 12 months. This is a lot of money, especially for anyone who is not earning in US dollars. “I had met some of my first queer friends on PinkSofa. They became my support system when I was coming out. It’s really sad to see that the site has gone so capitalist now,” said Reema. “Back then, you could at least get the attention of another member, even after the basic trial expires. You could sneak in an email ID and it was fine. They have become stricter about all this now. It’s quite sad. None of the other platforms aimed at queer women has so many members from India,” she added.
There is this dominant idea that women are not interested in one night stands or meeting someone simply for having sex. My main contention with PinkSofa is the fact that it conforms to heteronormative ideas of sex and women. PinkSofa appears to be modelled around the same stream of thought, and does not acknowledge the fact that queer women might simply want to meet someone for having sex, and don’t always come with the infamous moving van. The only vague reference to this is the ‘Casual encounters’ check box in the ‘What are you looking for’ section. On the other hand, they have 27 options under ‘Interests’.
There is also a query on ‘Children’ when you fill in your profile with a dropdown menu of options next to it. When I had first visited the site in 2012, there were 4 options. It has now expanded to 9 options.
My contention with this will become clearer when I go to the next dating site, Planet Romeo, for gay and bisexual men.
Earlier known as Gay Romeo, PR was started by a German who, tired of the sites which demanded insane amounts of money to contact other members, decided to start PR in 2002. Run by mostly gay, bisexual and transgender people and “gay-minded” people, as it said in the ‘About Us’ section of the original website, PR aimed to grant everyone the freedom to communicate without having to pay through their nose for the same. After gaining some popularity, they merged with guys4men.com in 2009. One of the possible reasons for their popularity in India is the fact that they give out their PLUS subscription, which is the paid membership, for free to those living in countries where homosexual sex is illegal.
When you sign up at PR, you have to answer a number of questions by choosing an option from the drop down menu available for each question. It starts with birthday, height, weight etc. including ‘tattoos’ and ‘piercings’ followed by ‘sexuality’ and age preference etc. which are similar to the questions on PinkSofa and OkCupid. Again similarly, there is space for you to write a little about yourself. Following this, there is an entire section dedicated to ‘sexual preferences’ with a significant number of options. The first question is about your preferred sexual position, which can be answered by choosing an option between ‘bottom’ to ‘top’ with ‘versatile’ being the intermediate option. You are then asked about your opinions regarding ‘Safer Sex’, ‘Anal’, ‘ SM’, ‘Fisting’ and then, you state your penis size by choosing an option from S to XXL. The second part of this section looks at ‘Fetishes’ with fifteen options. The questions on marriage and children don’t appear anywhere here.
As a complete opposite of PinkSofa, Planet Romeo seems to be focused on sex and sex alone. Most of the members’ profile pictures are disembodied body parts, often the abs, the pelvic region or the posterior. The profile descriptions are graphic, and those who have mentioned that they are looking for a relationship often do not get responses. “I went on Planet Romeo since I got tired of the men on Grindr who only wanted to have sex. But this was not any better. I have had men who messaged me calling me a pussy and chakka since I have mentioned that I didn’t want one night stand and am looking for something serious,” says Pranav.
The social disparities which exist between men and women across the world is inevitably reflected in virtual space as well. The queer community is not immune to misogyny and the effects of a patriarchal society. This extends to the ways in which virtual spaces are constructed for gay and bisexual men versus those for lesbian and bisexual women. The contrast can be seen at almost every step at the socialising spaces, starting from the way the space is built to the questions asked to the patrons and their main motives for accessing the space. In spite of PinkSofa and Planet Romeo aiming to be queer safe spaces (which they are to an extent), they end of conforming to heteronormative ideas of how “men” and “women” are expected to be.
In 1984, Donna Haraway in her iconic essay A Cyborg Manifesto, spoke about the cyborg, a fusion of animal and machine which will transcend the restrictions placed by nature on culture. This meant that technology could be used to counter things which are considered “natural” and hence permanent. Though she wrote this in reference to feminism and on how women should use technology to fight patriarchy (which in turn gave rise to ‘cyberfeminism’), it rings true, if not truer, for queer people as well, especially queer women, who have fewer physical spaces than gay men and transgender people. Cyberspace has given the queer woman a chance to problematise the existing gender and sexual identities which, like any identity, is not static (Miyake, 2004). It allows her to create and occupy spaces which will give her freedom and power in a way that the misogynistic physical world cannot provide. The very act of creating a public profile on a dating website is an act of rebellion for a lot of queer persons. At the end of the day, these dating apps, in their own twisted problematic ways, still provide that space to an extent. But it is essential that we don’t stop just at putting up notes asking users to boycott browsers whose CEOs were homophobic, or introducing gender options in select countries. We need to push boundaries of queer spaces to ensure that they don’t comply to heteronormative stereotypes, or are even more restrictive to certain classes. These spaces need to be queer in the truest sense of the word to do good.
 This has been changed to “Just like our users, we are gay and diversified,” in the new version of the website, which was released a few weeks back.
Cover Image: (CC BY 2.0)