Thus It Has Always Been...
Casual sex is nothing new. People have sought the intense dopaminergic stimulation offered by new, unexplored sexual partnering since the dawn of time. So whether married or single, in pre-history or the digital age, men and women have always enjoyed (some more guiltily than others) the pleasurable pursuit of no-strings-attached sex. In modern times, heterosexuals who were in the mood for new and now tended to frequent places like singles bars, swingers clubs, brothels, and the like, while homosexuals (especially the men) found themselves cruising in bars, bathhouses, and hidden alleyways. This is probably similar to the ways that horny cave-people searched for booty - hanging around in overgrown copses and out-of-the-way grottos. The point here is that hooking up for mindless sex for the sake of pure animal lust and pleasure is and has always been (with a few exceptions) a natural and healthy part of life.
Oddly, people today seem to think the Internet is solely responsible for creating the human hookup culture, even though that is rather obviously not the case. In reality, what digital technology has done is modernize the hookup culture - making it a whole lot easier to find a willing partner. This modernization began in the early 1990s with BBS systems (electronic bulletin boards) and the advent of Internet dating websites. These venues provided, right from the start, ample opportunity for meeting, flirting with, and being sexual with strangers. Note, please, that over the course of the past two decades something that was once viewed as nothing short of desperate (placing a “personal ad”) has now become de rigueur for single (and sometimes not-so-single) men and women, regardless of age, race, creed, color, or sexual orientation.
Amazingly, the social impact of dating websites pales in comparison to the impact of “adult friend finder” smartphone apps. Whereas traditional dating websites are at least ostensibly focused dating and relationships, “friend finder” apps are typically geared toward the here and now. Using the same geolocating technology that helps smartphone users find a nearby sushi bar, museum, or mall, adult friend finder apps like Ashley Madison, Skout, Blendr, Grindr, and PinkCupid, among many others, are used to locate currently available and geographically accessible potential sex partners. In other words, these apps pair sexual intention with immediacy. Upping the ante is the fact that smartphones are eminently portable, allowing users to take their sex-seeking act on the road, so to speak, searching for and planning hookups no matter where they are - at the movies, in class, at work, on a family outing, eating dinner with friends, vacationing, on the road for business, etc.
When “Finding a Friend” is So Much More
“Adult friend finder” hookup apps are quick, convenient, and discreet. Essentially, after you’ve created and posted your profile, all you need to do is log on. The interface immediately displays a grid of pictures of potential sex partners, usually arranged by location (from nearest to furthest away). Oftentimes potential hookups are within a few hundred feet, especially if you’re at a ballgame, a concert, a dance club, or some other large social venue. Tapping on a user’s picture brings up a brief profile of that person, along with the option to initiate a digital chat. If the interest is mutual, you can “get to know each other” via chat, sexting, and the like, and then make a plan to hook up in person. No muss, no fuss, just the sex, thank you very much. Even if you’re not interested in (or available for) an immediate in-person hookup, you can still “play” with an online partner using suggestive texts and sexts. And if you’re not in position to actively search for sex, perhaps due to a business meeting or a family reunion, you can simply set your phone to silent while leaving open your hookup app of choice. On other user’s phones and pads you are listed as online and available, encouraging interested parties to contact you via text messages, to which you can respond as time permits.
Sex Whenever I Want? No Problem Here…
As a therapist specializing in addictive sexual and intimacy disorders I am often asked: Isn’t this sort of technology a little bit dangerous? And my answer is yes, for some people it can be. As is the case with any intensely stimulating, potentially pleasurable substance or behavior, individuals predisposed to impulsivity and compulsivity can become addicted. Essentially, people with an underlying psychological condition such as depression, anxiety, an attachment deficit disorder, unresolved childhood trauma, and the like can learn to utilize virtually any pleasurable substance or activity as a form of escape - a way to self-soothe, self-medicate, and dissociate from life on life’s terms. Over time, this can become a pattern of behavior that creates directly related, easily discernible negative life consequences, including diminished physical and emotional health, loss of interest in other previously enjoyable activities, relationship problems, trouble at work or in school, and more.
As of now, approximately 60% of the individuals being treated for addictive/compulsive sexual behavior at The Ranch and the Sexual Recovery Institute report “frequent use of friend finder apps” as a significant contributor to their problem. These individuals, whether or not they meet the (unofficial) criteria for sexual addiction, often have several such apps on their phone, and they leave them on 24/7, eagerly anticipating their next encounter, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to exchange sexts or meet someone, even agreeing to hook up with people they’re not attracted to or in locations that are inconvenient and possibly even dangerous. They report irritability when no one is contacting them or responding to their overtures, and they nearly always have begun to experience negative life consequences as a result of their obsession. In this respect, smartphone hookup apps are the crack cocaine of compulsive sexual behavior.
Despite the potential for abuse, smartphone hookup apps are, for the vast majority of the population, little more than a source of amusement and pleasurable distraction. Some people even use these friend finder apps to find friends, or, better yet, a healthy, appropriate, long-term intimate partner. For these folks, apps fit beautifully into the modern, time-crunched world. Single people no longer need to join clubs that only marginally interest them, play sports they don’t like, and beg friends to find potential dates. Instead, they log on, find someone interesting, and start the getting-to-know-you process right away - all the while fishing in an ocean rather than a pond.
Certain apps are especially useful to specific groups of people. For instance, gay men and women in small cities and towns where there are no obvious venues for LGBT socialization can meet and chat digitally, making friends and scheduling dates in ways that weren’t even remotely possible just a few years ago. Interest-specific friend finder apps are a similar boon for people with any number of fetishes, allowing those into BDSM, specific body types, certain items of clothing, and just about anything else you can think of (and a few things you probably can’t) to meet and greet and feel the heat.
Before you grab your smartphone and start downloading an app, though, I want to advise that even healthy individuals need to clearly decide what it is they want from this experience. For those seeking a long-term relationship, traditional dating websites are probably a better option. If you do opt for an app, be clear not just with yourself but in your profile about what you are seeking, be it intimacy and lasting connection or a hot but fleeting sexual encounter. And make sure that anyone you interact with is looking for the same - keeping in mind the fact that a lot of people will tell you whatever you want to hear in an effort to get you into their homes and beds. In other words, be careful when getting to know complete strangers, just like mom always told you.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is the author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Ageand the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.