Friday, February 18, 2005

What you want, when you want it?

Gaydar can probably be best thought of as an online marketplace rather than an online community. Despite its public chatrooms (many of the non-sex ones tend to stay empty - funny that), most people who use gaydar are looking for sex. In some ways, Gaydar is to be applauded for taking cruising out of the streets, parks and public toilets and allowing men to find sex from the safety of their own homes. The chances of being arrested and/or beaten up are severely restricted. And we can't stop men from cruising for sex, so we may as well faciliate a safe online space for them.

However, Gaydar brings with it a new set of problems and amplifies many of the old ones associated with cruising. One term that most Gaydar users will be all-too familiar with is "timewaster" - one of the cruellest epithets you can call another user. And there appear to be lots of timewasters out there - people who arrange to meet and then don't show up. People who appear interested for 10 minutes and then the chat you're having with them suddenly dries up (most likely they've got a better offer), people who always ask to see your photo first and then they won't send theirs if they don't like the look of you. Yes, Gaydar is a perfect case study of commercial, advanced capitalism in motion - market forces at its most brutal and everyone has their price-tag. Rejection has never been so readily available to so many at once. And because of the nature of Gaydar, where chats and contacts are made on a 1-2-1 basis, rejection is much more explicit than it would be in a cruising ground or sauna, whereby men can select and dismiss each other in dozens of much more subtle non-verbal ways designed to ameliorate the loss of self-esteem. If you send someone your photo on Gaydar and they don't respond it can be a lot more hurtful than if they simply pass you by in a corridor or path and choose not to make eye contact or smile. And unfortunately, all Gaydar users are caught up in a chain of rejecting and being rejected - do unto others as you would have done.

The issue of rejection leads to another problem - that of lying. Here's something - what's your gaydar age? Answer - it's your real age minus 10-20% of your age (depending on how haggard you look these days). So if you're 20, say you're between 16-18. If you're 30 you're now 24-27. Forty-year olds can get away with being 32-36 and so on. The older you are, the more years you should feel free to take off. How about photos? Well don't pick a recent one that's for sure. Or take one where you're a speck in the distance. Or use Photoshop to take out the wrinkles and bags under your eyes. Or simply cut out a picture of some hunk from a magazine and use their picture. If you've got grey hair, say it's "light-coloured". If you're fat, say you have a rugby-build etc. And because so many people do lie, there's little point in telling the truth. Say you're 36 because that really is your age, and people will assume you're really 42. With real-life face-to-face cruising, this sort of deception is harder to get away with - because you see the goods that are on offer. But if you've already invested in driving 5 miles to meet someone and they don't look like their picture, but you're horny, there's a good chance you'll go through with it anyway. Which is what the liars rely on - the difficulty of an explicit face-to-face rejection.

A good (and bad) aspect of gaydar is that it has made finding sex much easier for closetted gay men (and unfortunately there are still far too many of them around). In the past, a closetted gay man might have stayed away from a public toilet or cruising ground, through fear of being arrested. But the advent of online gay porn, instant access to horny guys and the creation of anonymous identities has meant that a whole generation of closet-cases are now semi-closetted. Yet this brings its own problems. Closetted gaydar users will not find the support systems that are designed to help them come out safely. They will simply find easier ways to lead a double life - getting the sex they want, without having to make any further move to be honest. The impermenance and abruptness that encapsulate so much gaydar interaction will simply reinforce their view that to be gay is something to be ashamed of. Gaydar is the closet's halfway house - offering all of the trappings of gay behaviour with no sense of community, political awareness or pride.

In addition, gaydar profiles can actively erode the notion of community even among "out" gay men, by providing the appearance of something "real" which means that all the time you're using it, you're not actually making friendships. If you just meet people for sex, it gets harder to make friends with them afterwards. Sexual networks are incredibly transient and unstable. And what if your non-sexual friends are gaydar users? Do you really want to find their profile by accident or have them mistakenly send you explicit photos of themselves? Do you want to know a tick-list of their sexual fetishes? Sometimes Too Much Information isn't a good idea.

So what's the answer? Gaydar is hugely popular and is unlikely to go away any time soon. If anything, it is gaining more power - a recent development on the site are its lists of "Top 10" profiles, voted by users - which have the effect of validating and creating hierarchies of attractiveness - simply another way in which the "arms race" in terms of biceps size continues. Gaydar is a game, very similar to a casino. And eventually - the House always wins. The longer you play Gaydar, the lower your market value is going to be - and as you a) get older and b) exhaust your local supply of men it will be a game of diminishing returns. Perhaps the only way to win is this - take the chips you have and walk away from the table while you still can.