Oh, What Do You Do To Me? the City says to Tinder

Happy new year! We are welcoming back our readers with this new blogpost by DEPTH researcher Sam Miles, who was recently invited to be interviewed about sex, technology and cities for the Urban Political podcast. Read on to find out how it came about… 

Sam: As well as working with my DEPTH colleagues here at LSHTM on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for marginalised populations, and on the voices and experiences of young people with sickle cell, I have for a while now researched the relationship between sex and sexualities, digital technologies, and space. It’s work that I started for my PhD in 2013 and every year the themes it throws up feel even more relevant – how people find social or sexual relationships, how personal safety operates online and offline, what community means for LGBT+ people, and how we integrate (or don’t integrate) technologies into our daily lives.

I was recently invited by The {Urban Political} podcast to give an interview on dating apps and urban geographies. The {Urban Political} produces podcasts on ‘contemporary urban issues with activists, scholars and policy-makers’ that aim to advance our understanding of urban environments and how we might make them more democratic. They wanted to discuss my research on the relations between online dating apps and the production of urban space, especially with regards to sex and sexualities. I said yes because I was so intrigued by the questions presenter Dr Markus Kip posed:

Do apps like Grindr and Tinder make the city a more loving place? Do they make dating more safe for women or trans people? And do they cohere greater acceptance of queer cultures, or the opposite?

These are important questions. When put to you by someone not in your head, as it were, they have the helpful effect of sharpening focus on what is really at stake when it comes to the reality (and future) of digital technology and the welfare of sexual minorities.

People’s lived experiences are important. Thinking about the consequences of changing physical environments through the use of dating and hook-up apps beyond simplistic readings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ offers us a real opportunity to think critically about what these platforms mean not just for individual users, but more widely for society, community and geopolitics.

urban politicalThat’s not all: in the podcast we also discuss what app companies do with the data that users provide (whether willingly or unknowingly), and what ethical boundaries are being tested in this kind of data sharing – as well as the ethics of app use itself. I’ve argued before that locative media technologies have grown at such a rapid pace that mutually-agreed social codes for use are yet to catch up with the development of these sophisticated platforms, which can lead to clashing expectations between users. I believe these (perfectly valid) tensions will be replicated and amplified across a wide range of social networks and ‘smart’ technologies in the near future as digital technologies become progressively more integrated into our daily lives.

As for the question ‘what needs to happen at an individual, collective or technological level to make online dating more useful or pleasant?’, there are any number of answers, and for me none of them are definitive. It’s become clear over recent years that dating apps are not an alternative utopian world, free from the ugliness of ‘real’ life – numerous reports of racism (special mention for #KindrGrindr), femmephobia and fat-shaming on just Grindr alone exemplify exactly that. But maybe there is space for a future of sociality, solidarity and support for sexual minorities who network online. We already see these kinds of networks in action in queer organising, online communities, and support groups at various scales and in various guises. There is no reason why dating and hook-up apps cannot similarly be collectively co-opted to embrace more ‘promiscuous’ socialisation to combat loneliness, more political solidarity with a range of queer identities and livelihoods, and more support for sexual rights agendas, whether they be PrEP provision or sexual & reproductive health rights. We can make it a 2020 resolution, can’t we?

You can listen to the podcast here, and check out other Urban Political podcasts here. There’s plenty to choose from, from the Hong Kong protests to heritage vs. gentrification.

This article was adapted from Sam’s blog post on Sexuality & the city.

Exploring locative dating technology and queer male practice-based identities

In our latest blog, DEPTH researcher Sam Miles discusses his latest publication for new social science collection The Geographies of Digital Sexuality. Sam’s chapter explores the practices of men seeking men on online dating apps and argues that these practices can be categorised into different identities, or ‘typologies’, of user.

 

geogsI was invited last year by Andrew Gorman-Murray and Catherine J. Nash to write a chapter for their new book, The Geographies of Digital Sexuality. I thought for a long time about what to write about. My work has been moving over time from queer male technologies and fieldwork ethics to sexual behaviour, and from there to sex and sexuality more generally, as our new ACCESS project at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine develops. I’m still fascinated by technology, sex and relationships, but looking globally at some of these relationships in very different contexts – marginalised populations, challenging settings, and complex geopolitical environments in the global South.

We know that gay and bisexual men in Europe and north America are a comparatively privileged sexual minority (although MSM – men who have sex with men, but don’t identify as gay or bisexual – are often less privileged), especially compared to lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The lives and experiences of a wider range of people need further amplification – especially given common misunderstandings about technology use in socioeconomically disadvantaged settings; people are often surprised to hear that smartphones are used almost everywhere in the world. This includes within seriously deprived settings, where it may be the single most important object for a family’s livelihood or income. That does not mean it is not also used for communicating, partner-seeking, or pornography in any number of these settings.

Photo by Martin Tod, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Nevertheless, one of the things that people still ask me a lot about when they hear about my PhD and its research into smartphone dating apps is about people’s behaviour online: things that people complain about seeing again and again. It’s as if there are a list of the ‘usual suspects’ to be wary of when using dating or hook-up apps, from the ubiquitous time-waster (‘talk, talk, talk, and yet never agrees on concrete plans to meet up) to the catfish (‘Amazingly good looking but interested in me!’, or ‘keen to meet but there’s something weird about the photos’). It provoked new questions based on online identity: Could we sketch out different ‘types’ of dating app user? Would those ‘types’ translate between queer and heterosexual? Do different apps host different types?

My qualitative fieldwork suggested that male-male apps contained ‘types’ that were far more specifically defined, and more commonly recognised by a whole range of users, than anything I was reading about being theorised elsewhere, so I looked into it further and developed three ‘types’ of user: the Embracer, the Timewaster, and the Minimalist. Whilst the vignettes I write in the chapter are fictional, they are amalgamated from a range of real-life users I spoke to, augmented by the profiles of other users that my participants discussed repeatedly (and usually in strongly positive or strongly critical ways). These profiles build an interesting picture of different modes of use for a market-dominant app like Grindr or Tinder. These ‘types’ of user, and the strong feelings they provoke in others, also speak to an argument I bang on about a lot: that the social codes of these GPS-enabled apps have yet to catch up to their digital sophistication. The result is user enthusiasm for what these platforms can offer in meeting new people – especially important for sexual minorities – tempered by real frustrations about other people not taking the app seriously, or taking it too seriously, or just not reflecting the user’s desired path to encounter.

Even more fascinating perhaps is the finding that the Timewaster – an app user who is keen to chat, seemingly reciprocates interest, and yet keeps postponing a date or other physical meeting, seemingly content to exist only in cyberspace – is almost universally criticised by users. Yet many of these same users sometimes exhibit precisely this behaviour themselves. This paradox serves to emphasise that we must not think of ‘types’ or user typologies as somehow fixed, but instead flexible categorisations that users might adopt, consciously or not, at different times in their app use over time. You may not see yourself as a time-waster because it’s not a trait you think is very attractive, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes you’re not that person to another frustrated user.

dating app.jpg

The picture built up by this qualitative work is one of seriously mixed feelings. Users characterise their time using online partner-seeking apps with as much ambivalence as enthusiasm. Thinking more about what the categories I have sketched out above might mean for online partner-seeking, and how social and/or sexual connection happens (or doesn’t happen) online can help us to think about larger questions far beyond the scope of dating apps. These include who we are when we’re online, and why that still feels ‘removed’ or disembodied from what should by now be a more taken-for-granted, hybridised digital-physical reality.

The chapter is called ‘Going the Distance: Locative Dating Technology and Queer Male Practice-Based Identities’ and you can read it here, or view the full book listing here.

This post has been adapted from Sam’s original blog at Sexuality & the City.

What do you think? You can comment below (if you’re reading this article on the DEPTH blog mainpage, click on the title of this post and comments will open at the bottom). We’d love to hear from you.

Let’s talk about sex

How do researchers go about interviewing people about sex and sexualities? To what extent do we – or should we – share our own experiences? And what kind of ‘spaces’ do these highly personal conversations fit into?

DEPTH researcher Dr Sam Miles was invited by the academic journal Area to write a blog for their outreach website Geography Directions, based on his recent article ‘“I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research’. In the blog, Sam explores the ethics of fieldwork in sex and sexualities research. Have a read… 

The (in)famous male-male dating and hook-up app Grindr recently celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the anniversary, a whole range of articles have cropped up variously celebrating and lamenting Grindr’s influence across the world (by which I mean literally across the world – it counts nearly 4 million active users across 234 different countries (Grindr, 2019)). What makes this generation of mobile phone matchmakers different from the online platforms that went before them, for example Gaydar, match.com, Yahoo chatrooms? Apps such as Grindr are GPS-enabled, which enables users to ‘rank’ other users of the app by proximity, ensuring that potential matches can be discovered and introduced in real-time across physical space.

Reflecting on Grindr’s first decade, The BBC identifies a ‘rocky relationship’, whilst VICE magazine explores Grindr’s relationship with identity fraud and drug-based ‘chemsex’; meanwhile, Gay Times reports that 56% of Grindr users believe they can find true love on the app. Whatever your opinion on it – and there are many – there is no doubt that this mobile phone matchmaker, along with its competitors Hornet, Scruff & Jack’d, has had a profound impact on gay and bisexual communities. These apps have also opened up new avenues for men seeking sex with men (MSM) who for whatever reason – familial, cultural, or religious – do not identify as gay or bisexual.

Grindr Stock image

The bigger question raised by these recent articles seems to be: how do dating and hook-up apps impact on same-sex and queer relationships today? This question cannot be answered by quantitative usage data alone. After all, we know that high usage does not necessarily mean high popularity. We need to explore peoples’ real life experiences in order to more fully understand the impact of dating and hook-up apps on same-sex and queer relationships.

I decided that the best way to get a detailed understanding of how these apps influence sexual and social behaviours would be to interview users about their experiences online, offline, and in the ‘hybrid’ space bridging the two, where virtual introductions result in real-life encounters. My doctoral research revealed some important findings: (1) that dating and hook-up apps play a significant role in how men now meet other men, especially within wider debates about the ‘death of the gay bar’, and (2) that the relationship between mobile phone dating app users and the people they meet can be awkward, with social cues yet to catch up to the sophistication of the technologies in use.

The sensitive nature of the research topic meant that there was an array of ethical and practical challenges for me to grapple with during my doctoral fieldwork. In my recent Area paper, I reflect on some of these challenges and explore how researchers and participants can work together to create a meaningful space that not only enables data collection, but facilitates honest and valuable conversation. I consider what the researcher’s responsibility should be for a participant’s safety in this discursive space. I also reflect on how ‘involved’ I should be as a researcher. I’m a person, not a robot, and several decades of feminist research has already explored the strengths and issues bound up in bringing ‘yourself’ into the research field (for example, see Bain & Nash (2006) and Smith (2016)). But the opposite extreme of the objective, positivist robot researcher is the inappropriately involved one, a role which would be both institutionally unethical and personally unacceptable. I therefore identified my own boundaries as well as the participants’s boundaries. The result was a co-constructed discursive space that we worked together to construct, perhaps surprisingly, in totally public venues and in one-off, hour-long interviews rather than more private or longer-term meetings. These were not ‘intimate’ spaces in a traditional sense, but nevertheless the space-within-a-space that we constructed invited app users to speak about highly personal experiences, some for the first time ever.

I also make the case for the using public places for staging sensitive conversations. The assumption that private matters cannot be discussed in public requires a rethink. Public spaces like libraries or cafes enfold within them more private spaces – not just actual booths or nooks, although these can contribute – but I’m thinking here about more conceptual spaces. These are built simply via one-to-one, in-person conversation in a space where a hubbub of background talking, or the hiss of coffee machines brewing, provides a backdrop to conversation that can be very productive.

Finally, when it comes to dating and hook-up apps in particular, I suggest that people are particularly keen to share their views because the social norms of dating app use are so complex and still so poorly understood. For lots of people online dating remains taboo. In this context, the chance to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences when it came to the digitally-introduced, physically-involved relationships these platforms offer may have been liberating.

Love dating apps or hate them (or both), what I hope the article communicates is that we need to talk more with users about the ways in which technologies impact on our personal lives, in order to think about the social codes developing from their use that will inform a whole range of wider contexts.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below…

References:

Bain, A., & Nash, C. (2006) Undressing the researcher: Feminism, embodiment and sexuality at a queer bathhouse event. Area, 38, 99–106. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00663.x

Damshenas, S. (2019) 56% of Grindr users believe they can find love on the app, study finds. Gay Times. Retrieved from: https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/community/119691/56-of-grindr-users-believe-they-can-find-love-on-the-app-study-finds/

Fox, L. (2019) 10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47668951

Grindr. (2019) Grindr.com. Retrieved from: https://www.grindr.com/

Miles, S. (2017) Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1595-1610: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1340874?tab=permissions&scroll=top

Miles, S. (2018) Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass. e12407. ISSN 1749-8198 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12407

Miles, S. (2019) “I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research. AREA. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/area.12550

Smith, S. (2016) Intimacy and angst in the field. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 134–146.

Staples, L. (2019) Grindr Users Talk Highs and Lows After Ten Years of the App. VICE Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59x83d/grindr-users-talks-highs-and-lows-after-ten-years-of-the-app-1

Still getting it on online

Our latest blog is by Dr Sam Miles, who discusses the recent publication of his academic article ‘Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies’ in the journal Geography Compass.

By way of introduction, I thought I’d borrow from my latest article to give you a snapshot of what I’ll be talking about in this blog post:

I call on contemporary scholarship to demonstrate how [mobile phone] platforms offer a way into answering larger cultural questions about cruising, queer social life, and space. I conclude that these locative digital media occupy a distinctive position in the history of queer technologies and signal a shift in how gay male online spaces are both conceptualised and experienced.

In the social sciences, theories of sex and sexuality have long been tied up in ideas of space and place. There are any number of examples we can think of, from the spaces of sex work and how these spaces are regulated or policed, to the rise (and more recently, fall) of the commercialised ‘gay village’ in the global north, which is often discussed in terms of its relations with economics and gentrification. 

Trying to better understand the relationship between sex and sexuality and space is important because beyond theoretical ideas, it has an impact on how a location might influence sexual identity, practices or safety. For example, healthcare interventions for sex workers might depend on a safe space accessible from their working space. Civil rights demonstrations or an LGBTQ pride parade in a repressive political environment can be read as a temporary ‘queering’ of the orthodoxy or regime by making space for sexual difference in streets normally controlled by the mainstream.

My own research has focused on digital technology and sexual practices. I have been interviewing ‘MSM’ (men who have sex with men, including but not limited to gay and bisexual men) to learn more about how recent developments in technology mean that queer male space is not just physical, but virtual too.

 Geography Compass invited me to write an article for them reviewing the history of queer male online space. I think this topic is particularly fascinating is because the social sciences have long tracked physical queer spaces, and this research is widely known; less is known about how online platforms contribute to producing or re-making queer spaces. What I specialise in is locative media – by which I mean GPS enabled mobile phone apps – that are now very popular amongst MSM to network and meet others for social and/or sexual connection. These locative apps include Tinder, Grindr and Hornet, and have a huge user base around the world. Grindr alone counts nearly 4 million users per day.

I argue that the development of mobile internet over the past decade, and the GPS abilities that are now built into even basic smartphones, strongly influence how men meet other men for relationships and sex. This in turn has an impact on ‘offline’ LGBTQ venues such as gay bars or cruising sites, as well as traditional understandings of ‘queer community’ and what that might mean. As I write in the article:

Male–male locative media can strengthen and extend social‐sexual networks, facilitating meetings with like‐minded men across a borough, district, or city. This is especially true among the users for whom a queer community is out of reach because of their isolation, whether familial, social, or geographical.

Of course, being connected to other sexual minorities through an app does not automatically constitute a community, but some users do report a sense of like-mindedness, even if this does not match up with the more established ways in which we define community.

Beyond MSM populations specifically, this idea of technology redefining community, whether for better or worse (or indeed both!) is crucial to how we understand how technology mediates human behaviour. In a public health context, technology needs to be harnessed in ways which are alert to local conditions, whether that is in terms of unequal access to technology, or an affinity (or restriction) to certain kinds of communication device. At the same time, the widespread adoption of mobile phone technology – 5 billion people worldwide now have access to mobile phones – shows that digital technology ‘on the go’ will become ever more central to daily life. The job now is to extend research carried out on mobile digital technologies and sexualities to different populations to help us understand more about how these platforms will impact on social and sexual practices in the near and distant future.

You can read Sam’s article here and follow him on Twitter here.

Sickle Cell, Sociology, Scotland: Report-back from the BSA Medical Sociology conference

What is the legacy of medical sociology? How has it shaped other disciplines and practices? And what is its role in challenging the status quo of inequalities in health?

These were some of the topics discussed by very talented people at this year’s MedSoc (Medical Sociology) Conference in Glasgow. These were also some of the issues that drove our aim to explore how transitions to adulthood for young people with sickle cell could be improved and how healthcare services could help support these. The conference provided a great opportunity to present our sickle cell research.

Our presentation focused on how health transitions shape the identities of young people and how this contributes to the ways in which young people develop into adult patients. Transitions to adulthood can often bring challenges, and for young people with sickle cell, the challenges often faced in education, social and emotional transitions to adulthood are complicated by their condition, and they must navigate these complex changes as well as changes in their hospital care that can bring problems as they move from child to adult health services.

There was a range of interesting presentations to choose from. Martyn Pickersgill’s fascinating talk about the dialectic between patient experience and diagnostic practice, resonated with some of our findings on the hybridisation of knowledge through the dialogue between ‘subjective’ patient experiences and ‘objective’ evidence. Charlotte Kühlbrandt’s ethnographic paper helped to shed light on the intricate relationship between citizenship/non-citizenship and patienthood/non-patienthood in the context of Roma Health Mediation in Romania. In this case, health mediation becomes correction in the production of normative forms of citizens and patients. In our case, we showed how healthcare transitions become self-disciplining ‘at a distance’ and form part of a relentless process of self-governance through which young people try to become the types of patient and citizens they ought to be.

Eva Krockow made us think about how we balance the individual versus collective good when we make choices about antibiotic prescribing.

 

The panel plenary, with a focus on inequalities, was fascinating. The keynote papers from Professor Ellen Annandale discussed the ‘gendering’ of health inequalities and the embodiment of global gender power relations such as the health consequences of biogenetic trade. Professor Hannah Bradby pointed out barriers faced by forced migrants across Europe, the stratification of migrant status and how this interacts with “acceptable” forms of vulnerability.  Some migrants find themselves having to amplify and enact their vulnerability (mental health) to access care and citizenship status. Professor Graham Scambler’s keynote paper on “What’s Left of Class for medical sociology?” encouraged discussion about our role as sociologist activists in challenging health inequalities.

With Scambler’s call to action, I left the conference eager to continue my commitment to medical sociology and critical engagement with inequalities in health. You can keep up to date with our work in these areas via our website, DEPTH twitter account and our This Sickle Cell Life project twitter account.

Presenting at the forthcoming BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference

Last week, we headed to Glasgow for the BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference to share a sneak preview of our findings from This Sickle Cell Life: voices and experiences of young people with sickle cell.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder disproportionately found in minority ethnic communities in Britain. It is a chronic debilitating condition that both causes cumulative damage to multiple organ systems, and causes acute pain.

This Sickle Cell Life is part of the work of DEPTH research group at LSHTM. The project explores how people move from using child to adult healthcare services and asks young people about their experiences of living with sickle cell. Transitioning to adulthood is obviously not just something that affects clinical experiences and so we also explore education and relationships, and ask young people what is important to them.

At the BSA MedSoc conference we talked about how healthcare transitions shape the identity of young people, and how these transitions help ‘make’ particular kinds of patients.

Why focus on identity? Health transitions need new health knowledge and new behaviours to develop, but they also need development of self-perceptions and understandings of how a person should behave as an adult (rather than a child) patient. In this way, identities play an important role in shaping health practices and beliefs. Understanding identity development during transitions can help explain why some young people transition smoothly or less smoothly into healthy adulthood.

In our presentation, we talked about how ideas and discourses about self-management and healthy lifestyle within healthcare today act as a way to discipline young people “at a distance”, to quote Miller & Rose (1990) and influence their behaviour. These healthcare self-management discourses intersect with demands from schools that are often not compatible. For instance, schools demand that young people excel and become entrepreneurial, competent individuals, but excelling at school is far more difficult for young people who have to spend time in hospital, or who have to rest regularly to avoid having a pain crisis. These intersecting demands can translate into conflicting “self-disciplining” identities.

For young people with sickle cell, we found that transitions to adulthood involve relentless self-disciplining and self-surveillance to try to be as healthy as possible, while also aspiring to work hard so that they can develop and meet educational and career goals.

You can check back on our updates from the BSA conference on the Sickle Cell LifeTwitter account, here.

Welcome to our DEPTH research blog

 

Hello readers,

Welcome to our DEPTH research blog here at LSHTM. DEPTH stands for Dialogue, Evidence, Participation and Translation for Health. We are a research hub in the Public Health & Policy faculty of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The research hub is made up of LSHTM staff members Cicely Marston, Alicia Renedo, Catherine McGowan and Sam Miles, along with doctoral researchers who you can read more about here.

We’ve recently developed our own website, including academic publications, updates and links to our research areas including This Sickle Cell Life, sixteen18 and patient & public engagement. To ensure maximum interaction with readers, we have made this WordPress website to allow (indeed, to positively encourage!) reader comments. We feel that this is a crucial part of our work. We see our blog as a space for communication and conversation – not just with academic colleagues, but also in policy debates, in education systems and with the wider public.

Welcome in!