Ground Down: Gay Hookup Apps and Depression—a Connection?

Depression & Anxiety 1,883 views
Written by Timothy Pfaff

Evidence is mounting that dependence on “hookup” apps is associated with increased depression, anxiety, and suicide among gay men, with the marketplace still calling the shots.

Ground Down: Gay Hookup Apps and Depression—a Connection?

There’s always the argument that “If we hadn’t done it someone else would have.” It’s a thin, barely self-staining position, hauled out at its most self-justifying by the makers and users of the first atomic bomb.

Yes, who knows what Hitler would have done with it if he had gotten it first? But we do know that it has held the planet hostage ever since, the oxymoronic “fail-safe” its most threadbare guarantee and broken promise.

It is hard to escape the irony that, as a suit-and-tied-up Mark Zuckerberg was defending Facebook to Congress from his butt-raising special chair, there has been a flurry of new stories about gay men’s remorse about their activity on Full-Frontal Book. That would be Grindr, a hookup app for gay men seeking quick sex.

The cynical profit motive that drove its release and, now, that of a small cadre of its competitors, disappeared like condom use in its immediate embrace (a word it has made quaint) by its downloaders and hey-over-here success. The Boston spinsters of undying cliché know what Grindr is, and who knows who hasn’t downloaded it for the mere spectacle?

Anyone with—beyond sperm motility—grey cells, and ten minutes of history, saw the perils. Waiting in the wings was a generation of gay men who had, as sexual beings, become an endangered species now "liberated" into a brave new world in which HIV was a treatable infection. Grindr's techy misspelling notwithstanding, the app clearly billed itself as a fast track to grinding—grinding your meat having been around for more than a century as a metaphor for getting down, or off, sexually.

The history of predatory sociopaths luring gay men into private spaces to torture and as likely murder them long precedes the Internet. And whether the victim was gay or not was either the point or incidental to the barbarity.

Last month, 57-year-old Jeremiah Burroughs was charged with murdering as many as 70 of his co-workers at a meatpacking plant over 17 years of employment. A World News Daily report has it that “The discovery this week of human bones in a neighboring rendering plant which recycles slaughterhouse byproducts had raised the alarm and forced local authorities to crack down on potential suspects.”

“We have no idea why he committed these atrocious crimes, there seems to lack a motive,” Sulphur Springs, Texas Police Officer Emet Rubbens told reporters. “It seems he just processed his victims’ meat as he would’ve done with any other cow. His victims all disappeared somewhere in the meat packing process.”

Only the most famous of these serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer—who ate some of his victims—was killed by a fellow prisoner in 1994. Dahmer remains a “household name” in the LGBT community.

While reports of hookup-app-related murders of gay men never cease to horrify, seldom, either, do they wholly surprise. Statistically, there is no evidence that hate crimes, gay bashings, and murders have increased because of the apps. (There is greater evidence of far-right political administrations driving the acknolwedged increase.) Digitally savvy haters have just changed platforms.

That other death

To judge solely from the Internet articles about—and as of often as not by—gay men who use or have used hook-up apps, as great a concern is about app-related soul death—and actual suicide—the grinding down of vulnerable spirits.

What got my attention was the April 4 Vox article by gay psychiatrist Jack Turban, “We need to talk about how Grindr is affecting gay men’s mental health.” Well into his article, Turban cited a Harvard study that claimed that as much as 50% of gay men deal with active depression. Here’s what he wrote:

“A staggering number of gay men suffer from depression, with some estimates as high as 50 percent. Because gay men’s anxiety and depression often stem from childhood rejection for being gay, messages of affirmation from other gay men are particularly appealing. Unfortunately, these messages are typically only skin-deep: ‘Hey man, cute pic. Looking to ****?’”

Turban downloaded Grindr to conduct some of his research. Here are his creds:

“As a gay psychiatrist who studies gender and sexuality, I’m thrilled with the huge strides we’ve made over the past decade to bring gay relationships into the mainstream. The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Today in Boston, two men can walk down the street holding hands without consequence.

“But I’m worried by the rise of the underground digital bathhouse. Apps like Grindr, with 3 million daily active users, and others like Scruff and Jack’d, are designed to help gay men solicit sex, often anonymously, online. I am all for sexual liberation, but I can’t stop wondering if these apps also have a negative effect on gay men’s mental health.

“Since there’s little published research on the men using Grindr, I decided to conduct an informal survey and ask men why they’re on the app so much and how it’s affecting their relationships and mental health.”

Despite being a gay man raised on a tide of gay politics that found sexual freedom at or near the core of gay liberation, and someone living with depression, I was knocked back by the Harvard statistics. If you’re looking for compelling statistics, complete with charts and graphs, Turban’s got them. But it’s his analyses that hit home.

“La petite mort”

With characteristically mordant wit, the French call orgasm “the little death.” Here’s Turban on the matter in cut-to-the-chase modern English:

“The most common reason users gave for going on the app is that sex feels great and Grindr makes it accessible, right at your fingertips. The screen full of half-naked men excites users. With a few clicks, there’s a possibility of meeting a sexual partner within the hour.

“Neuroscientists have shown that orgasm causes activation of pleasure areas of the brain like the ventral tegmental area while deactivating areas involved with self-control. And these patterns of activation in men are strikingly similar to what researchers see in the brain of individuals using heroin or cocaine. So when a neutral action (clicking on Grindr) is paired with a pleasurable response in the brain (orgasm), humans learn to do that action over and over again.

“This can be a normal pleasure response or it could be a setup for addiction, depending on the situation and individual.

“Grindr, intentionally or not, also leverages a psychological concept called variable ratio reinforcement, in which rewards for clicking come at unpredictable intervals. You may find a hookup immediately, or you may be on your phone for hours before you find one…. Variable ratio reinforcement is one of the most effective ways to reinforce behavior, and it makes stopping that behavior extremely difficult.” 

Turban is rightly wary of the term sex “addiction,” but he cites Yale School of Public Heatlh gay mental health expert John Pachankis. “I don’t know if it’s an ‘addiction,’” Pachankis told Turban, “but I know it causes a lot of distress.”

Remorse, sometimes literally “buyer’s remorse,” is part of the lore and even humor about male sex. “I don’t pay him/her for sex,” the familiar saying goes. “I pay him/her to leave as soon as it’s over.” You don’t have to be gay to know this dismay.

Turban echoes countless Internet gay writers and bloggers when he writes:

“The users I interviewed told me that when they closed their phones and reflected on the shallow conversations and sexually explicit pictures they sent, they felt more depressed, more anxious, and even more isolated. Some experience overwhelming guilt following a sexual encounter in which no words are spoken. After the orgasm, the partner may walk out the door with little more than a ‘thanks.’

“And yet they keep coming back for that temporary emotional relief. One user told me that he feels so bad after a hookup that he jumps right back on the app, continuing the cycle until he is so tired he falls asleep. Every once in a while, he deletes the app, but he finds himself downloading it the next time he feels rejected or alone."

“’We see patients like this almost every day,’” Pachankis told Turban. ‘Apps like Grindr are often both a cause and a consequence of gay and bisexual men’s disproportionally poorer mental health. It’s a truly vicious cycle.’”

What others say

“Worldwide, a typical Grindr user spends approximately two hours a day on the app,” Mike Miksche begins his article for gay magazine The Advocate, “Grindr, Tinder, Scruff: A Recipe for Loneliness.” He continues:

“That’s more time than we spend eating, and more time than most of us spend exercising. Mobile geolocation dating apps are relatively new (Grindr was launched in 2009), but unlike the desktop online experience of chat rooms and forums, the mobility of the mobile app means it can be used at the office, or on the toilet, or at dinner with your parents, or even at a gay bar. Or all day…. Daily use of Grindr has increased 33 percent within the past three years alone.”

Miksche quotes Steven Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCLA, as calling app-generated social connections as “like ‘empty calorie’ socialization — fun snacks but ultimately not deeply nutritious for our sense of belongingness and deep connection. They don’t cause literal isolation but instead promote brief relationships that may sometimes come to substitute for or even displace a deeper sense of connection to others.”

The core problem: loneliness

Miksche also references the work of John T. Cacioppo, founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Miksche summarizes Cacioppo’s study of primate behavior as follows (verbatim):  

“Social species respond to loneliness and isolation, in the short term, by going into a self-preservation mode, designed to get the individual socially connected once again. This increases the immature white blood cells being produced and released into the circulation.

“If social connection isn’t re-established, however, the ongoing experience of social threat tunes the white blood cells in a fashion that makes them much more likely to get triggered in a pro-inflammatory way. This then secretes inflammatory cytokines proteins, resulting in depression and lethargy, which may, in turn, perpetuate loneliness.” 

“In previous studies," Miksche continues, “Cacioppo and his colleagues had also found that lonely people exhibit higher vascular resistance, a tightening of the arteries, which raises blood pressure.

"Loneliness also affects the immune and nervous systems. Epidemiological studies have found that socially isolated people have an increased risk of infections and heart disease and that those with poor social skills consume more alcohol, exercise less, and eat poorly.”

Cacioppo himself told Miksche, "'You don’t hear people talking about feeling lonely, and that’s because loneliness is stigmatized—the psychological equivalent to being a loser in life, or a weak person.”

Les Fabian Brathwaite begins his first-person reflections for Out magazine, in an article entitled “Friends without Benefits: Ending My Love/Hate Relationship with Grindr,” with a comparably stark sentence: “I’ve had a far longer relationship with Grindr than with anyone I’ve actually met on Grindr.”

Brathwaite continues that an article he wrote three years ago, “Why I’ve Given Up on Hooking Up,” in which he called his relationship with Grindr an “addiction” based on “insecurity,” got a response he called “overwhelming” and “gratifying.” “I wasn’t the only one who felt these things.”

The way out

To the extent that hookup apps can become an addiction, breaking the addiction may begin in the time-honored experience of hitting bottom (absolutely no pun intended) with it. Some of the people writing articles and posts in the readings section had that experience.

Many have reported that it was as important not to vilify the apps themselves. Brathwaite recalls “good times” with the app, and sees some good things about it. “But,” he concludes, “the greatest realization I've ever had about Grindr is that I'm never going to meet anyone on it. It may, from time to time, have what I want, but never what I need. Which is something real.”

Apps such as Grindr are now eager to be seen as something other than a hazard as the users increasingly enjoin them to be. There’s little gainsaying the apps’ potential as educational platforms for their users, and developers are clearly making steps in that direction. But many observers see those efforts as modest so far, and they speculate that sexual-health information on the platforms may be as likely to enrage users as to engage them.

Treating the addiction part

Perhaps tellingly, the writers who have delved into the topic most deeply have proposed substitution behaviors as remedies. “Rather than using these apps to respond to loneliness, we can combat it by developing a trusted relationship with someone whom we can confide in, and who can confide in us,” The Advocate’s Miksche writes.

He turns again to Cole, who told him, “Instead of trying to ‘find people to spend time with,’ it may be easier to forge new deep bonds if we focus more on finding a cause or purpose to devote ourselves to. When that happens, we are much more likely to easily encounter others who share our aspirations and inspirations, our backgrounds and values, and this can be a powerful way of re-establishing connection.

“In other words, to cure a disease of disconnection, it may be more efficient to pursue some sort of purpose or mission or hobby, rather than consciously seek companionship….

“Devotion to a cause or purpose, other than just finding someone, is a great way to accidentally find someone who really works for you. And it’s the ‘really works for you’ part that is the ultimate solution to loneliness.” 

Turban ends his article with ideas about treating the “sex addiction.” He seems to prefer cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) over medical treatments, but he notes that there are also treatments such as hormonal transplants.

And there are medications whose efficacy remains a matter of conjecture. “Citalopram, a common antidepressant, was shown in one small study to be helpful with sex addiction in gay men, Turban writes. “Naltrexone, a drug commonly used for other compulsive behaviors, may work as well.”

What seems clear from available writing is that acknowledging the addiction without vilifying either the agent or the addict is key, or at least an important beginning. Everyone, it seems, is pressing not just for more research, sometimes a deterrent to more urgent action, but for governmental support in funding treatment.

Still, if there’s a lesson to be learned from America’s opioid crisis—and what savvy members of the mainstream media are calling Congress’s attempts “to friend” Zuckerberg—it's that capital gains are likely to overwhelm the incentives toward appropriate and lasting treatment.

Help may be on the way, but the help needs help. Off in the distance there’s Frank Zappa still singing, “Too much business is wrong for you baby. Too many deals in the day.”

Sources/Reading: (about Turban’s article)