Despite its past and its popularity, cruising sites like Gaydar have outrun their usefulness-and probably do more harm than good

In many ways, Gaydar is a maverick among the so-called dating websites for men in Britain – gay, straight, bisexual and everything in between – and to a limited extent in a few other European countries, Australia and North America.

Indeed, at one time in the not-so-remote past, Gaydar was the third most popular site in Britain after Google and the BBC.

Despite its humble beginnings in 1999, the seemingly innocuous website became rapidly popular among gay men, who relished the opportunity to advertise their bodies and their sexuality, and look for sexual partners in environments of considerable anonymity.

By shifting the focus of random sexual encounters from infamous, and often dangerous, cruising grounds to a seemingly more relaxed and open cyber-reality, it afforded them the opportunity to solicit sex without fear of being arrested for public indecency.

Needless to say, the website might have even proved advantageous to those young souls just coming to terms with their own sexuality.

The sheer number of users who log into Gaydar everyday can be reassuring to some, daunting to others, and a worthwhile endeavour for most.

At first sight, for libertarians like Turing who espouse a near complete sexual freedom for all, and particularly for historically repressed sexual minorities, the website must have seemed an ideal challenge for the largely heterosexist and patriarchal world we live (and surf) in.

Think deeper though, and one readily sees why some of Gaydar’s greatest strengths are also its most crushing weaknesses – and this is true of most gay ‘dating’ websites.

It perpetuates the very myth the gay community must strive to destroy – that of the stereotypical sex-crazed, looks-obsessed, drug-loving, self-absorbed, narcissistic gay man which is ingrained in the heterosexist mind-set of most societies.

Start with the Gaydar profile, and you’ll see what your columnist means.

No, it has nothing to do with categorisations. If people are fine calling themselves ‘active’, ‘passive’ or ‘versatile’, or prefer to declare the size of their penis, and whether or not it was circumcised, there is no reason why they should be proscribed from doing so.

Mind you, most people don’t tell the truth about themselves on their profile, and with enough practice, one learns to read between the lines.

The innocence is lost soon enough though.

In the ‘About Me’ section, expect to find ‘straight-acting’ (whatever that means; people don’t realise how heterosexist and offensive this epithet is);

‘fit’ (yes, most people aren’t, you see);

‘genuine’ (read ‘I’ll ditch you if I don’t like you’);

‘masculine’ (oh right, we thought you were otherwise);

and, of course, ‘not into the scene’ (read ‘I’d rather prefer Gaydar’) or ‘into the scene big time’ (probably means ‘I’d divide my time evenly between Old Compton Street and chat rooms here’).

Cynical? It gets worse.

The ‘Looking For’ section has more classical epithets than your columnist can recall.

‘I don’t have a type’ (read ‘I lie a lot’);

‘Caucasians only’ (no, that’s not offensive or racist, ‘just a preference’);

‘Sorry, not into Blacks or Asians,’ often accompanied by ‘no offence,’ an oxymoron, if there ever was one;

‘No pic, no chat’ (even if you’re new to the site and it takes two days for your profile and picture to be approved);

‘respect my age preference’ or ‘no oldies’ and even ‘no twinks please’(heavens forbid, he might just be 31 or 29 instead of 30, and you always tell the truth about your age, to be sure);

‘not into effeminate guys’ (tells you a lot about internal homophobia, does it not?);

and the best of them all, ‘no time wasters’ (right, you’re so busy you need to cruise on the web for sex).

This is not to say that the profiles ought to be banned, or that Gaydar should monitor for offensive profiles.

Far from it, your columnist just wants to highlight how distasteful profiles on dating websites have become, particularly on cruising sites.

In chat rooms, things get even worse, with blatant misogyny, racism (your columnist has been called a ‘nigger’ despite not being black), and xenophobia.

Far from challenging a world of heteronormativity, the above examples clearly show how gay men end up perpetuating the very cultural concepts they seek to destroy.

These instances might seem infrequent (they probably aren’t); but, again, this just highlights the distasteful image of the gay community that one can get by logging on to websites such as Gaydar.

Most men on the site seem to be unaware of the risks involved in anonymous cruising, particularly in the cyber-world.

The scenario is particularly worrying for the so-called newbies who desperately seek to vent off their sexual desires and hormonal urges.

A prominent gay rights activist told your columnist that the vultures on chat rooms often exploit and prey on the innocence of these young fellows, luring them into a world of drugs, unsafe sex, and painfully, sexually transmitted infections.

A colleague of your columnist in the medical world acquired HIV in precisely this manner, although he has been more than admirable in how he dealt with it all.

The compulsive nature of the websites, and the impulsive tones of the communications therein, often lead to a state of anxiety and depression, and low self-esteem, that affects the social and professional lives of their users, which is probably not what any well-meaning website intends to do.

This has been borne out by the experience of many a gay man, and even by some research studies.

Nor is the internet the best place to go in search of a long-lasting relationship, or even for the classic ‘date’, lest you end up bewitched, bothered and bewildered, all at the same time.

The haunting ‘what are you into?’ or ‘what are you looking for’ are there for good, like it or not.

Finally, there is an international angle that is oft-ignored, or at least ill-considered.

It is easy to forget that most non-European countries are hostile to sexual plurality, and in fact have laws that prosecute and sometimes execute men and women just because they’re ‘gay’.

Once, they found solace in the anonymity of the net.

But, in some countries, that anonymity is being increasingly lost due to abject government-sponsored censorship, and over-zealous law-enforcement officials.

For example, a year ago, Indian police in Lucknow arrested several professional gay men by posing as homosexuals on a gay dating website, effectively ruining their personal and professional lives forever.

Similar incidents have often been reported in Egypt, where they are on the rise, and even in Iran and Nigeria.

Whatever use websites like Gaydar had previously, the risks seem to outweigh the potential benefits in openly homophobic countries.

Discerning readers who have by now become impatient with this column might consider what the point of it all is.

We all know that dating sites have their advantages and disadvantages. Sure enough, they do.

But how often do we realise them? How often do we realise the consequences of what we do, especially when our thoughts and actions are dictated by hormonal and/or sexual urges?

And how often do we use the cyber space to escape our own internal reality, which is far more reliable and trustworthy?

And living in tolerant countries like Britain, one wonders if this is all our freedom and relative equality has come to mean. Your columnist thinks not.