Although gay dating sites provide a useful platform in allowing men to meet each other, Christopher Halton writes for PinkNews of how they can also put some gay men at risk.

On Monday, I was one of 30 or so men to take part in the filming of an advert for Survivors UK, a lottery funded charity set up to support men who have been raped or sexually abused. Fortunately, I have never been a victim myself, and attended the shoot merely as an extra.

Beforehand, I researched the charity and read the testimony of a young man who had met someone he had been chatting to on an internet dating site. It was the first contact he had had with other gay men. Initially the date had gone well, but it ended badly and he was raped.

As a user of gay dating sites, this made me think about the danger inherent in meeting men who I know nothing about, other than what they choose to tell me, which may or may not be true. My experience of meeting men from these sites has been overwhelmingly positive, and I have always prided myself on being a good judge of character. But as the saying goes, pride comes before a fall. In reality, I never really know if the person I am about to meet is a safe bet. It’s a risk I take.

This realisation was further compounded when I recently re-joined Grindr. My love affair with Grindr has always been more of a regrettable fling which invariably ends with me deleting the app from my phone within a couple of days. My latest foray is the last one I will make. If previously, my feelings towards the platform were ambivalent, they have now been crystallised: I actively dislike it.

Grindr has acquired a somewhat iconic status in the gay community and understandably so. It was the first geosocial networking based site and as such, it made the gay-dating game mobile in a way which no other site had achieved before. It allowed men to identify and meet other men wherever they were, and therefore, implicitly at least, it promoted sex-on-the-go for which there is considerable demand.

Personally, the McDonald’s Drive-Thru approach to dating has never been my thing. I’m not aggressive enough, I don’t like engaging in anonymous sex and to be frank, I am too neurotic to clamber up nine flights of stairs to the dingy flat of a man I have never even met before to partake in intimate relations. I always figured that there would be other guys like me on Grindr. And I’m sure there are. I just haven’t met any of them.

What really put me off the whole thing was a message I received within 24 hours of re-activating my account. It is unprintable in its original guise, but the subtext was that this ‘gentleman’ was going to come and find me and then forcibly penetrate me whether I liked it or not. I duly reported him and made the decision that I just didn’t need Grindr in my life. I’m confident it’s one I will stick with.

What this all too common sort of unwanted communication illustrates is that whilst gay dating sites provide a useful platform for meeting men you may never otherwise have had access to, they also further diminish the importance of intimacy in favour of instant sexual gratification. That’s not to say that anonymous sex is inherently wrong, it’s merely an observation I have made, and one which has greater implications for our gay youth than any other demographic.

Sex education in schools is, at best, perfunctory, and for gay kids it’s largely non-existent. For most young gay men, sex education is something that is acquired through exposure to sex itself, via porn, and later with partners who are often more experienced than they are. In many cases, these will be positive experiences, but not always.

When I was younger, more inhibited and less trusting of others, I used to hang around on Gaydar for hours, chatting with men I wasn’t even brave enough to meet. At the time, I used to berate myself quite severely for it, but I may have been doing myself a favour. If any of these men had been abusive or put pressure on me to do things I wasn’t comfortable doing, I could well have found myself going along with them. A decade ago, I just didn’t have the emotional confidence to refuse.

I suspect that while there are a lot of young gay men who are sexually empowered and psychologically well-adjusted, there are also many who suffer from low self-esteem as a result of having grown up gay in homophobic environments. They may also be uneducated in regards to gay sex, isolated and emotionally vulnerable, with the result being that they look for validation in the arms of strangers.

The problem is that by doing so, these young men are making themselves incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, sexual abuse and even rape. They are risking both their physical and mental health, and they are willing to do it because they crave the love, acceptance and security they haven’t found at home, in their communities or within the educational system.

Anyone who has spent time on Grindr or Gaydar will know that it is common to receive sexually aggressive messages accompanied by photographs of the sender in provocative poses, often naked. Sometimes, the only photographic evidence of themselves they wish to send are close-up shots of their penises. It has always baffled me that these men presume that a picture of a disembodied phallus should be enough to warrant me arranging a ‘meeting’ with them. I can’t envisage the same trick working for heterosexual guys on straight sites.

Perhaps I’m uptight and maybe this is all the bait some men need to be lured off to a not-so-glamorous location for some afternoon delight, but the practice makes me uneasy. If sex has been debased to the level where men are willing to submit to each other on the basis of the size and shape of their respective members, then surely this is symptomatic of a larger sexual dysfunction. Whilst sex should be fun and experimentation should be promoted in order that we can all have fulfilling and liberated sexual lives, simply using each other as receptacles for penises totally negates the emotional and psychological aspects of healthy sexuality.

More pertinently, the most vulnerable individuals on these sites, the young, inexperienced men who really need positive sexual role-models are being taught that in order to receive the attention and intimacy they crave, they must allow themselves to be used as sex objects. Unfortunately, many of these young men do just that, and acquire for themselves a sex education which dictates that submission, relinquishment of power and subserviently allowing yourself to be used sexually are the modes by which you can most expediently access affection, however fleeting and ephemeral it may be.

Gay dating sites have revolutionised the way we connect with each other and have provided opportunities for interaction that were impossible before. They have an important place in gay culture and will continue to positively affect the lives of millions of gay men around the world. They also have a responsibility to their users though.

Maybe it’s time for these sites to moderate more comprehensively the types of photos people are allowed to send, especially when the individuals they are sending them to haven’t even asked for them. Maybe it’s time stricter policies were put in place so that men who send abusive and sexually threatening messages can be identified and penalised. It’s hard to police and I understand this, but I think we owe it to our gay youth to make the attempt.

Most of all, we need to ensure that gay youngsters are made sexually aware and that’s a matter for our educational infrastructures. As a society, it is time we provided adequate sex education that includes everyone so that all gay men learn how to respect both themselves and each other.

As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessary reflect those of PinkNews.co.uk