Side: A new sexual role 

Grindr and the Education of Desire

It is well-known to everyone who has ever used a gay dating app, like Grindr, that sexual positions play a major role in gay male -not only- sexual life. The recent addition of the option ‘side’ in Grindr has sparked a renewed interest and a heated discussion among gay men regarding the uses and abuses of these descriptors with many major gay media covering the story and many more gay men commenting fervently on social media. In this blog article, I am going to share a few thoughts of mine on this timely issue on the occasion of this event in order to create a space where gender and sexuality could be thought together in the context of the LGBTIQA+ community, and more specifically in reference to gay men and masculinities. For this reason, the article at hand is one of those reads on Ecce Homo’s blog that provide short yet sharp commentary on pieces of news from the global queer public sphere that put in the limelight and further problematize wider issues at the heart of queer politics and the everyday lives of queers. Among our past entries, one can find such posts on the conversion therapies bans, the restrictions and bans on blood donation by MSM, the transphobic rise of TERFs, and the Russia-Ukraine war. So, let’s get to it!

In its own words, Grindr is a location-based online dating application for ‘gay, bi, trans and queer people’ that has launched in March 2009, and since then, it has become ‘the world’s largest social networking app’ of its kind with the declared mission to ‘connect queer people with one another and the world.’ But to put it in lay ‘gay’ terms that perhaps do more justice to the lived reality of the users than the firm’s wishful self-presentation, Grindr is mostly a hookup app used mainly by gay men, and rather than ‘representing a modern LGBTQ lifestyle that’s expanding into new platforms’, many scholars have argued that this digitalization of sexual relationality is constitutive and formative of the ‘real’ analog life that it supposedly merely mirrors. In other words, it seems that we have entered a new era in the history of (homo)sexuality where the digital mediation of intimacy ceases to be exactly that, a mediation, and instead it becomes the major driving force behind the emergence of new sexual identities, practices, desires, and types of sociality.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Grindr has approximately 13 million active monthly users who spend on average an hour per day on it ‘in almost every country in every corner of the planet.’ Given this, it should not come as a surprise that in May 2022 Grindr announced that it will go public with rollover equity to be valued at ~$1.6 billion and an estimated post-transaction enterprise value of $2.1 billion. All these will make Grindr one of the most lucrative queer brands worldwide. This financial prowess in combination with its global reach and high popularity renders Grindr an integral part not only of a queer neoliberal economy but also of the everyday lives of millions of gay men around the globe. Grindr has become during the last decade a synonym for the gay male lifestyle and a pop culture sensation. But more importantly, Grindr has provided gay men a common globalized cultural grammar, a shared lexicon of sexuality-related terms via which gay men make sense of their selves and their desires leading to the internationalization of gay identities.

One such term that has recently entered our vocabulary via Grindr is the term ‘side’ as a category of sexual position or sexual preference next to the already existing categories of top, vers top, versatile, vers bottom, bottom, side, and no response. Despite the fact that gay sexuality has always been perversely polymorphous, fluid, and up for experimentation with new erotogenic zones and pleasures, the term ‘side’ has been popularized by psychotherapist Joe Kort in a 2013 HuffPost article. As the author puts it, ‘sides prefer to kiss, hug and engage in oral sex, rimming, mutual masturbation and rubbing up and down on each other, to name just a few of the sexual activities they enjoy. These men enjoy practically every sexual practice aside from anal penetration of any kind. They may have tried it, and even performed it for some time, before they became aware that for them, it was simply not erotic and wasn't getting any more so. Some may even enjoy receiving or giving anal stimulation with a finger, but nothing beyond that.’

The author underlines the huge importance gay men lay on the sexual roles in terms of compatibility for a future sex date or a relationship and how this binary construction between tops and bottoms has detrimental effects on gay men’s psychology. On top of that, the implicit injunction -itself naturalized until recently by Grindr itself by its offering only the usual options to its users- to enjoy only these two sexual positions and under the requirement of anal penetration by a penis is a tremendous source of shame for sides, says Kort. ‘They secretly believe that they should be engaging in and enjoying anal sex, and that something must be wrong with them if they are not. Often they won't publicly admit to not engaging in anal sex, because of the judgments that other gay men might (and most likely will) make about them.’ I would also add that this kind of effacement of different sexual practices and pleasures goes hand in hand with an unexamined masculinism that sustains the erotic fantasies and sexual scripts on the basis of which gay men have and enjoy sex. 

 It seems to me that in many cases, our oppressors make us horny. By this, I mean that we tend to find attractive physical traits and -by association- behavioral characteristics that are typical of a certain type of toxic masculinity, a masculinity that is usually performed in heteronormative terms and which is one of the vectors of homophobia, among others. An aspect of this masculinism among gay men is the phallicization of their sexuality. Don’t click the X button just yet! I know that deep inside you hear with a smirk on your face this tiny sexy word phallus in the jargon I just blurted! The term ‘phallicization’ derives from the Greek word ‘phallus’ which in turn means penis, and I find that it’s well worth lingering on it for a moment as it names something that we usually take for granted about our innermost desire and as such, the naming itself creates a reflective distance necessary to inquire what is really at stake here. The very existence of side as a sexual possibility feels to many users of social media that commented on this piece of news like a desexualization of gayness, like taking away what is most elemental in being gay. And this is telling of the popular understanding of gay sex as unconditionally phallic. 

But that’s just one perspective since this phallic sexuality is understood mostly in highly gendered terms and it requires the further casting of sexual roles among two or more sexual partners that comes with the sexual roles of top and bottom. Research has shown time and again that these roles are further structured across the rigid gender binary. It seems that what we have been calling sexual roles have turned out to be gender roles all along! But let me be clear. By this, I don’t mean that tops are identifying with the gender category of men and bottoms with the gender category of women. Rather, each perceives and desires the other in the context of a sexual script in which the masculine gender is performed in a way that both solidifies and resignifies masculinity in its unavoidable interpenetration with its opposite femininity, both understood as socially orchestrated performances rather than referring to a sexed body. And we should also not lose sight of the fact that where gender lurks, power asymmetries flourish, but that’s a whole other story for another article! 

 To sum up, the heated debate that Grindr’s addition of the option 'side' has generated touches upon the interconnections between gender and sexuality in the most intimate sphere. While this addition is for some a welcome one since it puts under scrutiny the gendered power dynamics that sustain the sexual roles and offers a way out of the phallic sexuality, others find it to be just another instance of the education of desire that Grindr has put forth the last decade, an insidious way of teaching gay men how and whom to desire by offering them the identity categories via which the present themselves to others and as such eroticize the others. But that’s another long story!