For the final entry in Chicago History Museum's 2015-2016 "Out at CHM" discussion series, researchers and others gathered to discuss the phenomenon of online hookups via apps such as Grindr and Scruff.
Brian Mustanski, director of the new Northwestern Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, moderated the discussion. He said that he began researching gay men meeting each other online in the late '90s. At the time, he explained, other researchers largely characterized the internet as being a "high-risk environment," presumably because of the the intrinsic aspect of anonymity there.
"This was the dominant discourse in the field, but that was not what I was hearing from the young men that that I was dealing with," Mustanski said. He noted, for example, that men were using condoms at a higher rate with men that they had met online.
Jeremy Foreshew, who works on Grindr's people and cultural engagement team, said that individuals in the United States often perceive apps such as his differently here than they do in the rest of the world, where the app is a means for gay and bisexual men to converse about issues such as politics or health.
"Grindr itself was a phenomenon that was designed to fill a legitimate need," Foreshew said. "Here, people use it for hookups. Globally, people use it as a lifeline."
Jody Ahlm, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Illinois at Chicago who studies new media and sexuality, tackled an audience member's question: How do women hook up online?
"There's a large cemetery of 'lesbian Grindrs' that never got off the ground," Ahlm said, noting that many women meet one another through Tinder, which is presumably aimed at straights.
The panelists also addressed whether apps and online forums perpetuate racial or other biases, as participants sometimes bluntly discuss their sexual and romantic preferences, potentially marginalizing some in the community.
Michelle Birkett, research assistant professor in medical social sciences at Northwestern University, said, "Technology amplifies biases."
She also noted that many social media and app users cluster themselves with others with the same viewpoint, creating an "echo chamber" effect that reinforces their viewpoints.
Foreshew said, "You have to look at causation and correlation …You have to let people use [the apps] the way they want to."
But he also said that this had at least opened up a much-needed conversation. But even he said jokingly that he was surprised at how specific some people could be once they got online.
"I remember there was a day when I was happy just to get laid, and people weren't so particular," Foreshew said.