Internet as Body Focus Response: Has technology changed the way we date?

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When I first started to toss around the idea of exploring the stories of the gay male community in Taipei I'll admit I was a little overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I was attempting to narrate. How could I tell the varied and diverse stories of these men living, working, and loving in such a large city and focus the narrative enough to make something of the multitude of anecdotes I was hearing? Trying to weave together a thoughtful, honest, and accurate portrait of such a large, diverse community while doing justice all points of view within the group seemed almost too large of a task to take on within a single piece and threatened to kill the project before it even started.

 

As the process began to take on an very organic life of it's own, though, I uncovered that there was a lot to say about these complex and complicated men and about a community that is discovering itself in a society that is still defining itself as well. As Taiwan itself passes through the process of crafting a unique and authentic identity in the face of challenges and opportunities, so too the gay male community living in Taipei (Taiwan's capital and largest city) go through reinvention and reflection as the stories of gay men become more and more visible globally. What follows it based on that process, and while it may not be a compendium of every facet of gay life in Taipei, it does give a perspective on a vibrant community that is evolving into an integral part of the city of Taipei.

In the course of exploring this subject, I knew I had to narrow my focus to a specific facet of the gay Taipei community, and the most obvious choice was to examine the use of geolocating dating apps, a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon that has become an integral part of the gay community in every part of the world. For those unfamiliar with the concept, geolocating dating apps are cell phone based applications designed to let the user build a profile using anywhere between one to five photographs and give a short description of themselves and their interests in a small series of blurbs. Once downloaded, your phone will then scan the area in which you are located to detect other app users and will build a display showing you these users' profiles in descending order of distance.

These applications enjoy a tremendous amount of usage within the gay community; the largest of them can boast over 5 million users worldwide with 10,000 new downloads on a daily basis. While there seems to be a lot of attention paid to the political status of gay men in Taiwan, not enough seems to be known about the more human qualities of the gay community in Taipei, a subject of which the patterns of gay dating app usage helps give a clearer image. To that effect, a survey was distributed amongst the gay population of Taipei with questions ranging from their preferred language of flirtation to their level of disclosure about their sexual orientation to their family.

The survey was released in both English and Chinese and was designed to allow respondents to give open-ended answers to many of their choices in an effort to better understand the individual views of gay men living in Taipei on app usage and dating in the city in general. The survey was conducted over the course of a month and included 44 men of a diverse array of ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds. The majority of the respondents identified as Asian, with some specifying as Taiwanese and a few self-identifying as ABC (American-born Chinese). The remainder of those surveyed (around 25% of respondents) identified mostly as "White", with one person identifying as "Latin" and three as "mixed" or "other". The age range was from 20 to 57, with the largest portion of the group falling somewhere within the 25 to 33 range. The majority (around 80%) identified as single, the remainder as being "in a relationship", and three specifically as being "in an open relationship".

Most of these men answered that they were regular users of cellphone-based geolocating dating apps, with most answering that they logged into these apps somewhere between "a few times a month" to "several times daily" and a very few saying that they logged in only " a few times a year". When asked to specify which dating apps they used, the three most popular responses were Grindr, Jack'd, and Hornet, with a few using less popular apps such as Manhunt, PlanetRomeo, or Scruff. When stating the language which they utilized on their profiles, a roughly equal amount of respondents said "English" and "English and Chinese"; only a single respondent said their profile was exclusively in Chinese.

In addition to the online survey, I took the time to sit down with four of the respondents to ask a series of questions aimed at gaining a more descriptive idea of their personal usage of geolocating dating apps and how they feel about the Taipei gay community in general. All four of the respondents were in their mid to late twenties and used these dating apps on a weekly basis, with all except one describing themselves as single. Though three of these respondents were Taiwanese and one was American, each one named English as their preferred language of communication when using the application, mostly as a matter of convenience when speaking to men who were not Taiwanese by ethnicity or (in the case of the American) because they did not understand Chinese well enough to communicate thoughtfully.

It should be noted during the course of collecting these various thoughts that not all of the people who took the survey or to whom I spoke were looking for a monogamous, closed relationship over a long period. However, though a few of the respondents answered that they were in an open relationship or looking to be in one, this was only a very small minority when compared to other responses. The largest amount of people said that they were looking for friends or dates (or, as a very popular response, just checking out pictures out of sheer boredom) and had no real expectation from these apps. Only a few explicitly stated that they were looking for a boyfriend or partner.

Surprisingly, however, very few responded that they were using these dating apps for purely sexual reasons or were opposed to the possibility of initiating a long term relationship with a man they met via the service. Despite the commonly-accepted idea held among those both inside and outside the gay community that these apps are merely a hookup service for men looking for casual sexual interaction, many of the respondents, when asked what they were looking for from men with whom they chat online, gave non-physical descriptions of their preferred conversation partners. Common answers to the open-ended portion of the questionnaire asking to describe their ideal interaction via dating apps included responses such as "smart", "mature", "people who I could meet in real life", and "not a player".

At first, this difference seemed slightly odd. People were not forthcoming in saying that they were looking for a boyfriend when they were asked to give an open-ended response in the questionnaire, but yet gave very non-sexual responses when asked to describe their ideal interactions via these applications. It seemed that although people were not blatantly searching for love via their cellphone, they were seeking to get to know someone on a person-to-person basis and establish a connection rather than cruise through profiles looking for one-off encounters. After recognizing this unusual pattern within the results, I set out to discover why gay men in Taipei continued to use these apps despite the seeming incompatibility of their responses.

After discussing the issue with a few of the people I interviewed for this article, the root of this seeming disconnect started to come to light as the disparity between users' expectations and the reality of what they are finding online. Many of the men within the gay community in Taipei had lowered their expectations when it came to using these dating apps, hoping to find a meaningful connection with someone via the service but hesitant to invest their time and energy into anyone they met online because of the assumption that the other person was not seeking the same thing. One of the men to whom I spoke about this subject stated that although he was exclusively looking for a boyfriend and had no interest in a casual sexual relationship, he had removed all of his photos from his online profile because he had found it too difficult to meet anyone who was seeking the same thing.

It seemed that men in Taipei had significantly devalued their expectations of the relationships that they would form through the usage of these online dating apps, and that many of them were using the applications more as a distraction than as a serious way to meet other interesting, like-minded individuals. More than half of the English-language survey respondents said they "rarely" meet in person with individuals with whom they chat online, while about 70% of Chinese-language survey respondents said they "sometimes" meet in person. Among both groups, only 10% of respondents replied that they "frequently" meet. In a similar vein, when asked to rate how successful they had been in finding what they were looking for through the use of dating apps, only 25% of respondents replied "successful", with the remaining 75% answering evenly between "somewhat successful" and "extremely unsuccessful". Only a single user responded that they had been "extremely successful" (this same user was one of the only four to respond that they "frequently" met their conversation partner in person).

Taiwan prides itself on well-developed economy and society, and Taipei in particular is a highly-educated, professional city when compared to much larger cities in the Asia Pacific region. Despite this, gay men living in the city who participated in this study did not seem to enjoy the same level of personal fulfillment in their relationships and interactions as they did in other aspects of their lives, despite a large dating pool of successful, eligible potential romantic partners. When asked about why this seemed to be the case, the men to whom I spoke nearly always named the culture created around the usage of dating apps as the culprit. It was hard for people to sustain an interpersonal relationship for longer than a few months, they claimed, when the accessibility of so many single men at the touch of a button made any one particular person merely the best option among many at that moment.

Regardless of what they were looking for, though, most of the respondents expressed an idea that the inundation of these dating applications to the community had radically changed the way that the gay community in Taipei was interacting with each other as well as altering the overall atmosphere of Taipei's gay community. Especially among those people I spoke to who had grown up in the generation before the apps really gained popularity, there was a sense of loss about the way that being gay in Taipei used to be when people weren't glued to their phones. One of the respondents who spoke to me about his frustrations with being unable to find a relationship with anyone he met on his cell phone lamented the days when there were gay volleyball clubs, gay swimming clubs, and gay coffee shops were men could meet each other for conversations and discover shared interests and passions. It was a far cry, he told me, from today, when people will stare incessantly at their screens even when they are in bars and clubs with eligible guys just feet away from them.

It would be easy to say that people are just shallow, and that given the opportunity to treat dating like ordering take-out that men will default to hyper-sexualization and a dearth of emotional intimacy. When I spoke to men who were using these apps, however, what emerged was a completely different picture from a sex-craved community of technology-savvy city dwellers. Most of these guys were open to the idea of meeting other gay men and sharing things about themselves and their lives through conversation and activities. What was telling, though, is that they all felt like they were in the minority in this point of view. Many of these men had given up on trying to find any sort of meaningful connection with other men on these dating apps and so had resorted to casual flirtation and quick, disposable interactions without any sort of personal fulfillment behind them.

One of the men with whom I spoke in person had not been out of the closet before dating apps became widely used and therefore had never experienced dating in their absence. Though by almost any standards he would be considered a handsome, charming, and educated guy more than capable of finding a romantic relationship, he bemoaned the fact that he had no idea how to interact with other men in person simply because it was a skill he had never developed. Though he expressed an envy of those men who are able to approach other men they are interested in personally, he said that whenever he was in a situation where he was in the company of potential romantic partners he would wait for the other person to approach him in lieu of breaking the ice himself. Being accustomed to meeting new people from the relatively safe distance of a cell phone screen creates a situation in which men in Taipei miss out on opportunities to connect with interesting men in the physical world.

With the exception of a few respondents, most people who took the survey or with whom I had the opportunity to sit down and chat responded that they would be open to having an intercultural relationship, with a few stating that they would exclusively prefer such an arrangement. There is obviously a decently sized population of non-Taiwanese living in Taipei and a large enough percentage of these people are gay men looking to meet other men that the phenomenon of intercultural dating is not rare in this city. Dating apps are a great way for men who arrive in a new city without knowing anyone to quickly meet new friends and potential partners, but the resulting interactions can quickly sour if room is left open for cultural misunderstandings.

Not too long ago, I went a date that I had arranged with a local guy with whom I had been chatting pleasantly online. The date started enjoyably enough at a local cafe in Xinyi District until the guy launched into a tirade about the white men he had met in the past: how they had taken advantage of him emotionally, flaked out when they made plans to meet up, or stopped talking to him after a few weeks when they met someone new. He proceeded to say that white men in Taipei are arrogant, predatory, and living in Taiwan soley to take advantage of unsuspecting locals, all while I was sitting across the table from him wordlessly eating my pasta. Needless to say, there was not a second date.

However, the survey also seemed to indicate that cultural misperception was a knife that cut both ways. One of the survey respondents who identified as ABC stated that he didn't like dating local Taiwanese men because of the perception that "more often than not, they [local Taiwanese gay men] are just looking for sex, especially with a foreigner". Some of the respondents who identified as Taiwanese also responded not only that they would not consider dating other Taiwanese or Asian men, but that they would also not consider dating black or Latino men and would only be open to dating white men.

Not to argue that this is necessarily representative of all intercultural interactions between men occurring in Taipei (I personally know intercultural couples who have healthy, stable relationships in Taipei), but the environment fostered by geolocating dating apps (several of which allow users to filter results based on race) at times seems to contribute to these sorts of mishaps. Indeed, this is not an isolated phenomenon, and the conversation about the prevalence of racism on gay dating apps is prolific and insightful. Reducing complex individuals to labels like "potatoes", "rice", "spice", or "curry" is as simplistic as it is distasteful, but this kind of lingo thrives in the fast-food style dating that occurs on dating apps, where people are forced to make shallow (and often racist) assessments of other men based on a few pictures and a paragraph or two.

Encouragingly, however, among the survey respondents in Taipei of all cultures, the majority responded that they would be open to meeting men of all cultures on dating apps (about 75% of English-language respondents and about 85% of Chinese-language respondents). The men were also asked to give reasons behind their responses as to which races they would or wouldn't be open to dating and the responses produced a more nuanced view of their desires. Similarly to when they were asked to describe the type of man with whom they enjoy chatting, most of the respondents did not note physical appearance as a factor in their decision. Many of the respondents stated that they find men of all races to be attractive and interesting, and several stated they would like to meet people of different cultures because they are interested in their stories and getting to know more about their world view. Of course there were respondents who answered that their responses were based on "preference", but these tended to be in the minority of the answers (around 1/3 of the English-language respondents and around 1/5 of the Chinese-language respondents).

Despite some of these more frustrating aspects of being gay in Taipei expressed by the study participants, Taiwan continues to remain among the most progressive places in East Asia for gay people (I would argue THE most progressive, but I realize this is up for debate). According to a recent survey, 76% of the Taiwanese public supports equal rights for LGBT people, with an impressive 53% supporting same-sex marriage. Large gay rights events such as the mock "wedding banquet" held near the presidential office in Taipei in September 2013 draw crowds of more than 1,000 people, and gay issues are regularly featured in the works of Taiwanese cultural icons like director Ang Lee and the popular Taiwanese musician A-mei.

Beyond these numbers, however, it is important to get a more human image of the gay community in Taiwan underneath the politicized narrative, so that the lives of gay men living in Taipei can enjoy the same amount of recognition and dignity as their straight counterparts. While the development of geolocating dating apps was undertaken out of a need to provide gay men with a safe space to make connections with each other, the quality of relationships between men within the gay community hasn't necessarily improved as a result of the usage of these online services. It seems that many gay men living in Taipei, regardless of ethnic background, are frustrated with the lack of significant and affirming interaction with members of their own community, partially as a result of the culture fostered by the heavy usage of technology in their daily interactions. Indeed, this kind of frustration doesn't seem to be unique to Taiwan, and is part of a larger conversation among psychologists about why it seems to be so hard for gay men to find personal fulfillment in relationships over the long term.

Though most of the respondents indicated that they were seeking a closed, monogamous relationship as their ultimate goal when dating, their actions seemed to indicated a more fluid notion of interpersonal relationships. Given these results, it is worth pondering whether the end goal of a closed, monogamous relationship is something that genuinely arises from gay mens' personal desire or if it is a normative and deeply-rooted ideal based upon a cultural upbringing (regardless of which culture one was brought up in). However, for those who have given the issue serious thought and decided that a closed, monogamous relationship is best for them, the cyclical dating culture fostered around dating apps, in which the grass is always greener on the other side, may not be the best option. If gay men in Taipei are truly wanting to find a long-term partner, we should be using the apps to allow ourselves to get off them and start spending more time investing in face-to-face, meaningful interactions while having realistic expectations of the other person as a complex, multi-faceted individual (not just three pictures and a paragraph). Perhaps it is time for a change in the way gay men view ourselves and the nature of our relationships with others."

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 July 2014 13:56
Garrett Dee (葛瑞迪)

Raised in Texas, transplanted to Taipei. Studied International Relations and History at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Tweets @grrtt

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