Amid the phenomenal rise of dating apps like Grindr, Tim Marshall has set out to meet the men behind the profiles and get their real gay sex stories. Jonathan O’Sullivan meets a man on a mission.
Like many gay men, I have had an on/off love affair with hook up apps on my phone. A lot of the frustration was my own fault, because I didn’t know what I wanted. Did I want a friend, a boyfriend or a bed-friend? I didn’t seem to make any real connection with people, often not having the energy to respond to the repetitive patter of “Hey, how are you?” and “Pics?”
I obviously wasn’t alone in my dissatisfaction; other people’s dating app profiles seemed to become increasingly filed with negativity. Rather than using their profile to advertise what they wanted, they used it to display a list of what they didn’t want. Cue the body fascism (no fats), internalised homophobia (no fems), and casual racism (no Asians). It was enough to make me delete the app on numerous occasions, but curiosity mixed with horniness always lead me to reinstall.
Director, Tim Marshall, shares my love-hate fascination with Grindr, Scruff and the like. So much so, he has created TORSO – an international video experiment that aims to uncover the stories behind the profiles and document their experiences.
Hi, Tim. How did the concept for TORSO come to you and how did you go about developing it?
I was addicted to Gindr, like all of the other single gay men. I was living in Darlinghurst, which is where the gay scene in Sydney really exists. There’s a lot of torso profiles in Darlinghurst, where you don’t see the guy’s face, and I was starting to find my self confidence was beginning to dwindle. Every time I’d log on, it would just be all these gorgeous torsos on there. It starts to get to you after a while and people ignore you.
Did you feel pressure to conform?
You start to feel like, ‘maybe I need to go to the gym more, I need to get a better looking body, I need to get more attention’. I really hated that I was starting to think that way.
I have so many friends that think that way and those thoughts lead to making snap judgements about people. Nearly everyone who has Grindr has taken a screenshot with their phone of someone’s profile and sent it to their friends, making a judgment about that person.
I knew everyone on this app was a human being like me and I knew that everyone was having similar experiences. I really wanted to explore that, so I wasn’t left feeling so jaded by my use of the app, because I knew there was so many good things that could come out of an app like this.
I really wanted to find the humanity behind Grindr, to find the light and shade – what good it’s done for people in the gay community and what harm it’s done, and look at the balance of that.
Did you find much harm?
Yeah there were a few stories, one of which was a guy that I met in LA, who was 20 years old. He contracted HIV from the age of 16 and it was from someone he had met on Grindr who had spiked his drink when they went on a date and took advantage of him. So there is harm and you do have to be careful. But his story is that he’s taken great strength from that now.
How do you manage to convince people, who are essentially looking for sex, to appear as part of your project?
It’s tricky! Quite often I have to convince the person that it’s not porn or that it’s not going to turn into porn after the interview is over.
I’m very up front about it with my profile. I state what I’m doing and I have a link to my website there as well, so that anyone who actually does read the profile can see that. I do get a lot of people saying no and they don’t have the time, or they’re too shy, or they ignore me because they’re just looking for sex – so it can be quite tricky.
In the TORSO interviews, I notice that there are more ‘naturally shaped’ bodies than muscled clones. I presume it was quite hard to get generically attractive ‘gym fit’ body types to take part?
Yes and no. In LA, West Hollywood is the area where you expect to see all of the gym bodies. I thought I could get someone who was stereotypically West Hollywood to share their story and then break the stereotype on that sort of image, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get anyone like that to be involved. No one would give me the time of day.
Not everyone is going to be like this, but they’ve got a great body, they just want to talk to someone else that has the same. They look at my profile and they don’t care what the profile says.
From interviewing people in three very different locations, Sydney, LA and Reykjavik, what were the main similarities?
Nearly everyone had an awkward experience where they had shown up at a house and the person was not what they expected from the photo. They were either older or a heavier weight, or something in a way that they had duped the person online. Everyone in every location had that experience.
One of the TORSO profiles in Sydney put it very well when he said that people become very disillusioned with dating apps. Did you come across some disillusioned torsos?
Well… somewhat. There’s a guy in Sydney who had a scar on his abdomen. He wasn’t disillusioned, but he was very particular about what he did and didn’t like – for example: ‘I don’t like Asian guys because they’re looking for automatic boyfriends’. He had this idea of something he didn’t want because of a certain stereotype, and obviously that’s not the case. When I was in LA the racism on dating apps was something that we spoke about a lot more.
You’ve turned the series of short documentaries into a rather unique interactive exhibition.
I premiered LA with the installation, which is kind of how I want to keep the TORSO experience happening. Essentially, I built an app that’s similar to Grindr as a way to exhibit the videos.
We had iPads in a foyer and we had the torsos in squares and people could go up to each iPad and choose what video to watch, depending on the torso.
The idea is that it’s similar to Grindr in the sense that you would choose what video you were going to watch based on the physicality, and have those assumptions and stereotypes before you can watch.
So are there plans to merge the shorts together into a cinematic experience?
I never wanted it to be on the big screen or anything like that – it’s all about the one-on-one experience to really simulate the experience of dating app use.
It’s also different to other dating app documentaries, due to the fact that it’s wholly anonymous.
Yeah, people have made Grindr documentaries but they all have people showing their faces. I remember I saw one that was made in Sydney, and it was a great documentary, but my first thought was, ‘Well, hang on a second, you can’t really show the diverse range of people on Grindr if you don’t allow some anonymity’.
Have Grindr or Scruff or any other gay dating applications been interested by the project and have they approached you about it?
No. I specifically didn’t put it out there to them when I was in LA and looking for sponsorship. They haven’t come across it yet and it doesn’t really fit in the image that most apps put out there on their marketing. It’s very opposite to that.
What’s next and where do you see the TORSO project finishing?
I’m going to be exhibiting TORSO at the Reykjavik international Film festival in October and premiering it there. And LA is premiering online now.
I do have plans to expand it. I’m really hoping to take it to a non-English speaking country, and also a country that the gay culture isn’t as widely accepted. I really want to explore an online gay community somewhere like that.
I don’t really foresee a wrap-up at this point. I really want to keep trying to document different cities and different cultures this way. The way I would like it to evolve is the way I exhibit it. I’m going to really try and get the TORSO exhibition out to more art galleries and rather than show one city, show a mix of cities.
I’d really like to try and evolve the way in which people interact with the app and at one point once that’s sort of built enough, I’d like to try and make the app downloadable to the public as well, so that it can sort of become this interactive resource where everyone can investigate different cities and compare.
What do you think you have discovered on a personal level from the project so far?
Where I started out being really jaded by the whole dating app experience, I’m now actually a big champion of Grindr.
I’ve learnt is that it’s what you put out there to start and that there are incredible people you can meet through dating apps like Grindr. You can network through them and you can do so many things other than sex through them. It’s really an incredible tool and such a great way to bring a community together in a sense.
I’ve met so many people and I’ve learnt from this that there are so many like myself that don’t like going out on the gay scene. Before Gindr they had fewer options to connect with people that were similar to them and now they have this incredible way that they can.
I’ve made friends with some of the TORSO contributors. One of the guys I filmed in Reykjavik. He’s a 50-year-old fire fighter and his husband of 10 years had died a year before. He was using Grindr as sort of a grief counselling service. He actually managed to find people out there who were experiencing a similar sort of grief and who grieved with him, which I found amazing. He and I are good friends now; it’s a really incredible thing.