Sex: There’s an app for that. But only if you're gay.
As a single lady with little time or inclination to go on traditional dates, I’ll admit it: I’ve long been jealous of my gay friends' access to Grindr, the location-based casual-hookup app. For almost as long, I've been telling just about anyone who will listen to me that we need a heterosexual version of this technology.
We’re all adults here, so let’s just be honest. Grindr is about sex. Casual sex. For this reason, there is a standard refrain I hear when I express the need for a hetero Grindr: It won’t work because women won’t use it. Indeed, a New Yorker piece on online dating earlier this year pinpointed the biggest hurdle in transitioning hookup apps from the gay to the straight world: “making it work for straight women, who may not need an app to know that they are surrounded by willing straight men." This is an outmoded view of the sexual economy. Data from online dating websites actually shows the opposite: Men are picky, and women are far more forgiving and flexible when it comes to seeking a partner.
But even if you believe that ladies can have their choice of partners, knowledge and access are not the same thing. Hence, the demand for a location-based app to broadcast who's single and looking. Grindr has finally caught on and released a hetero-centric version called Blendr. OkCupid is also getting into the location-based dating game with an app called Locals. Well, “dating” isn’t the right word for it. Unlike Grindr, which is overtly sexual, Blendr bills itself as a way to "find friends."
Still, I wanted to try Blendr for myself. Since I’ve got an Android phone and the app is only available on Apple devices right now, I enlisted a close gay friend to download it, create a profile for me, and tell me how it compared to his experience on Grindr. We selected a pseudonym ("Taylor Dayne. Only the gays will get it."), and I deputized him to pull images from my Facebook page and use real details about me.
Blendr profiles hinge on hobbies and interests. Grindr profiles, on the other hand, are about physical description and sexual preferences ("You need an ab shot, an arms shot, a face shot, and a cock shot" to get anywhere with Grindr correspondence, my friend explained to me matter-of-factly). "Status" on Grindr refers to whether you're HIV-positive. On Blendr, it's a space to indicate whether you’re currently eating a burrito or at a concert or whatever. The search results for users in my area included gay men and straight women, even after we set my profile to indicate that I'm a woman who's into men.
This is Blendr's problem. It's meant to be for everyone looking for everything, so it's not working for anyone. One of the primary benefits of Grindr is its clarity. Users know it’s for sex. My friend and I found that some people are coming to Blendr in search of a true Grindr analog. Logged in as me, my friend send very straightforward messages to men ("Hey, what are you up to tonight?"), who almost immediately replied with dick pics and winking emoticons. Somehow, penis photography is even less appealing in Blendr's "just friends" trappings. Alas, to quote my friend: “What’s gay-efficient is hetero-creepy.”
Clearly Blendr isn't the hetero hookup app I've been waiting for. But using it has given me some good ideas about how I'd create one. Let's call it "GrindHer":
1. Clarify the purpose. For a straight-Grindr to work, it also needs to position itself as clearly about casual sex. It's nearly 2012. Can we please stop pretending that only men are interested in no-strings hookups? Bonus: No need for weird penis photos as indicators of sexual interest. We all know what we're here for.
2. Allow only women to search. Even for the modern woman who knows she wants a casual hookup, declaring this on a public profile will result in such an avalanche of attention, potential social stigma, and legitimate safety concerns that it negates the ease of using such an app. To make women comfortable, you need to put the control in their hands. Allow men to sign up and make themselves available, but allow only women to search. Of course, men would be free to reply to or ignore messages from women, but only women can initiate conversation.
3. Add endorsements. To create another layer of security, a successful app would replicate the real-life dynamic of a friend’s “he’s a good guy” endorsement: In order to be searchable, each man must have recommendations from women who already use the service. These don’t have to be from sexual partners—just guarantees he’s not, you know, a murderer. I know I'd happily write such recommendations for my single male friends.
In other words, the only way to make a straight version of Grindr work is to make it woman-centric. Given the gender gap in the tech-startup world right now, I'm guessing I have a long while to wait for such an app.