I just read that Out magazine article that's going around about Manhunt, and I'm trying to think of something to say about it other than the too-easy observation that a certain sort of urban (and let's just be open about it: white) gay man always seems to think that his and the gay men around him define the gay male experience.
The author, Michael Joseph Gross, discusses some of the problems related to community building with Manhunt in the way, but his accounts of gay male culture, and, more specifically, the type of people who cruise online for sex, seems to come from mainly himself and a few sex-negative psychologists he found. Consider:
When we logged on, I don't think most of us realized we were creating new secret lives. I don't think we knew what we were getting into. But we got into it. For most of us, this is not working.
Um, where was the survey, the study, the anything that proved that it isn't working for "most" people who cruise online? "Most" is a pretty specific term, implying more than 50%, and, last time I checked, he doesn't account for more than 50% of gay men who cruise online.
I'm not trying to diminish this one person's experiences, but his account of Manhunt and his indictment of online cruising culture is far from complete.
The basic idea behind Gross's article is that many men sign up for Manhunt, so much so that it's pretty much become the center of gay male cruising culture. It's worse than other cruising options because it hyperobjectifies male bodies, and, by extension, makes gay men much lonelier. In the end, all the men there are looking for a life-long partner, but they're unlikely to find him. They can't stop because they're addicted.
I'm not going to pretend like there aren't more than a few men for whom that's true, but I don't think that's it's reaching the epidemic proportions that the author implies.
As a normative way of socializing for gay men, online cruising is a disaster. We need to recognize its effects -- including its tendency to isolate us, encourage objectification, and diminish our sense of life's nonsexual possibilities -- as disasters. We need to recognize that too many of us, too much of the time, are cruising online because it is easier and feels safer than thinking about the love we are missing and the power we do not have. Too many of us, too much of the time, are cruising online because it's easier and feels safer than mustering the courage, patience, discipline, and imagination required to help ourselves and each other become the men that, in our strongest moments, we want to be.
What in the world does that even mean? Instead of cruising, we should be reading books and advancing in our careers? And we're all cruising so much that we can't do anything else?
Not to mention the implication that the reason gay men cruise is because they can't find the man of their life right away. As much as I'd love to see that myth die out, the one where we're all going to find that special someone, that we all want a life-long, monogamous partner and everything we do related to sex and sexuality is to further our quests to that ultimate goal, it seems it's just too ingrained in our culture's discussions of sexuality to simply go away.
In fact, I think that's where my central problem with this article lies. I've used internet personals, chatrooms, and cruising sites to do pretty much all of my dating and socializing with queer men when I'm in the US. I've had a few relationships come from those encounters, some good friendships, and quite a few wonderful, short-term connections and conversations with people I would have never otherwise met. I never approached the online world as a way to meet "Mr. Right," but in that process I've gotten to know many people beyond the numbers and stats they put up online.
I know that my boyfriend's done pretty much the same thing in the past. He's still in contact with a man from Quebec who he met in a bear's chatroom several years ago and visited in person. He ended up visiting another man he met in another cruisey chatroom, and had a great time staying at his place in Sicily.
One of my old college roommates and his boyfriend, who lived out in a small town in the mountains, about 7 hours from the nearest major city, met many men in the area on Gay.com and invited them over to hang out. I visited them often (calling myself their gay Kimmy Gibbler) because they were always having someone over for a movie, to drink, to eat, or just to talk. After, before, or without sex.
This article ends up silencing many gay men's experiences, because it starts with the assumption that everyone has the same problems as the author himself had with online cruising, and ends with the assumption that everyone's looking for the same things that he is. Both simply aren't true.
It makes the article read more like an ex-gay's account of the horrible gay lifestyle, something we'd expect to see ex-gay-for-pay Stephen Bennett write up about how he "played house" when he lived with men and how he hated the hyper-objectifying gay male culture so much that he just left it. And became straight. And married a woman. And lived happily ever after. And now wants all gay men to do the same because they're all as pained as he was.
The point is not that there aren't parts of gay male culture and people in the community that are like that. Instead I think the author should reexamine his participation in that subculture and search and create other possibilities instead of, well, just complaining.
When I say all of this to Larry Kramer, he asks, "Do you realize you're quoting me?" In Faggots, Kramer's satirical novel of gay New York and Fire Island, published in 1978, the protagonist, wandering through a culture that has reduced its members to meat, exclaims, "I'm tired of using my body as a faceless thing to lure another faceless thing, I want to love a Person!"
Gay urban life has always been a meat market, and cruising, you could argue, has always been a form of consumption. For gay men seeking sex, as for all kinds of shoppers, the Internet removed constraints of space and time on access to the market -- and at the same time offered an unprecedented range of products to choose from. Basile says that, from the start, he wanted Manhunt to be "like eBay for men," where users could find anything they wanted.
Yet cruising, unlike shopping, requires a buyer to also make himself a seller. And selling yourself online, unlike selling yourself in the meat markets of bars and clubs, requires you to create a sexy image that stands separate from your physical self.
Really? It requires that we participate in a market like products? Personally, I've never really felt hyperobjectified in online cruising forums, and I didn't even feel like I was "selling" myself.
Obviously, different people approach these venues with different goals in mind. If the first and foremost goal is to connect with others, that's probably what people are going to end up trying to do. If the goal is to get something specific accomplished (find Mr. Right, get laid immediately), and if someone fails, he feels like a failure.
I have never used Manhunt specifically to any extent, but Gross's criticism, while inexplicably focusing on Manhunt, is really of online cruising in general. While he presents gay bars as better alternatives to online dating (because no objectification goes on there. HA!), he seems to brush aside the benefits the internet has had for people who live in rural areas or states with smaller queer populations. Where there are no bars, there has to be some way to meet gay men, and the internet has been wonderful when it comes to solving that problem.
I'd list that as my problem #2 with the article (after the lack of acknowledgment that many people approach online cruising with different goals in mind and from different angles than he did), the way the author brushes aside the fact that many gay men don't have access to any alternative. As someone who's spent almost all of his life outside of urban areas when in the US, I can honestly say that online meeting places for gay men are a God-send.
But embedded in the poo-pooing of small-town and rural gay men is a close-mindedness I've seen often in gay men who live in big cities' gayborhoods. They are the center of the gay universe, whether you'll admit it or not! Everyone else is a bumpkin who didn't get out!
Then again, maybe the bumpkins are having a better time:
Beyond a certain point, though, perpetually settling for Mr. Right Now becomes a failure of hope. When you came out, you did it because you wanted something. Part of what you wanted was sex, but part of what you hoped for was the possibility of being loved as your true self. And when, as often happens while cruising online, we diminish the hopes that drew us out of the closet, we reduce sexy to a purely physical act.
Thanks for telling me why I came out. Really appreciate it. And, no, I actually have a lot more hope at this point in my life, after years of using the internet to meet gay and queer men than I did when I came out.
There are definitely some people who have had vastly different experiences than I've had with the internet. And maybe they should stop, I don't know. I don't pretend like my experiences are any more valuable or normative than theirs.
But the author of the Out magazine article sure does, describing gay male culture, people who cruise online, and gay men in general using his personal experiences and a couple of pop psychologists who agree with him. When he says that it's "not working" for "most of us," he's still talking out of that part of his body that got him into so much trouble all those years cruising online: his ass.