In early 2020, Leigh Grey was in a funk: Her dad had recently died and her boyfriend had just dumped her. “When I started dating again, I didn’t want to really go about things the same way,” the 42-year-old sex worker told me from her New Orleans home. The man she’d been dating wasn’t satisfying her sexually. “The things that I like to do in the realm of my bedroom are generally not things that straight men want to engage with,” she said.
For instance, she wanted to have threesomes with two men, but because she’s pansexual, men kept proposing threesomes with her and another woman instead. “I wasn’t doing it for me — I was doing it for them,” she said. So she decided to stop dating straight men. She swiped through dating apps, including more queer-friendly ones like Feeld, but couldn’t find many bisexual guys. That’s when she turned to Grindr, a dating app originally designed for gay men. She thought she would feel safe there, and be able to “duck the heterosexual male gaze a little bit further,” she said. “I find the attitudes in gay and queer communities a lot more tolerant and understanding when it comes to sex work. It’s more acceptable to be a sex worker in these spaces.
“Bisexual men are not given a place to admit their bisexuality with any kind of safety,” she said. “I’ve made some amazing friends, and I’ve had some really great experiences.”
Grey is one of the 10 women (five cis and five trans) and two nonbinary femmes I spoke to who have used Grindr to find men to sleep with or date. It’s hard to know exactly how many women have joined Grindr (the company said it doesn’t keep data on its users’ gender and sexual orientation), but among the 27 Grindr users I spoke to, there was at least the perception that women were joining the app in droves. One gay man from Iowa who has been using Grindr since 2011 told me via Reddit DM that “the uptick of cis women on the app happened in the past 3 years, absolutely exploding this year.”
When he started using the app, he said he saw one or two profiles of cis women a year. Now he sees about three a day. ”Wherever cis women go, cis het men follow… The biggest worry is that if Grindr becomes the place where everyone looks for casual sex, it will stop being safe for LGBT people,” he said.
Grindr calls itself the “world’s largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people,” but for about a year, Grindr users have been complaining about an influx of cis women seeking hookups with bisexual male partners, although they’ve been allowed on the app since about 2017. “When did Grindr become a place for cis women to join 😭😭 we can’t have anything :(” wrote one Reddit user last year. Another user said that there were so many cis women on the app that male users were writing in their profiles “NO MEN,” indicating that they only wanted women to contact them. A complaint about a lack of a gender filter on Grindr surfaced in 2019 on Grindr’s feedback site, but in the past four months, the complaints have intensified.
Another man, who has been using Grindr since 2017, said, “I first noticed women on there when I reinstalled Grindr [in 2020] after a couple of years break while in a relationship. First time I thought it was a joke: Did she know what Grindr was? Maybe they were looking for a gay bestie? After all, everyone on TV has one of those, right? Then a few more showed up. I even saw one who was demanding you be a certain height. Once again… did she know where she was?” he said. According to longtime Grindr user Randy, in 2016 and 2017 more women started to show up on the app. “All of a sudden, I felt like now you could be a cis woman on there,” he said. “For every four or five profiles, you’d see one female profile.”
“When did Grindr become a place for cis women to join 😭😭 we can’t have anything :(”
Jesse, a pansexual 45-year-old makeup artist from Los Angeles, said she joined Grindr in fall 2020 because she “had a light bulb moment,” she said. “At the time, I was complaining to my gay (male) bestie about [being] tired of guys on dating apps not being into butt stuff…He half-jokingly said ‘get on Grindr.’” She told me she loves men who present as feminine: “For as long as I can remember, even as a little virginal preteen, I was swooning over men in makeup,” she said. Her pursuit of femme men has led her to “develop a love for all ass-related activity (as the top) and the easiest way to access that is via gay bars and Grindr.” She found some men who were into ass play on Grindr, though she said her experiences haven’t been great.
One included an awkward moment involving a double-sided strap-on. “You need Kegels of steel to keep that thing in and I thought mine were strong enough but they were definitely NOT,” she told me. “These guys want you to have well developed thrusting skills.”
Jennifer Vencill, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in working with LGBTQ+ clients, said that according to her research, women seek out bisexual men because they are looking for an alternative to the traditional masculinity exhibited by some straight men. “Women who are attracted to bisexual men consistently say these are men that have kind of shed toxic masculinity by identifying as bisexual or pansexual,” she said. “[Bisexual men] have at least maybe done some interrogation of their own biases around rigid sex and gender roles, so it doesn't surprise me that we're starting to see more women lean towards dating bisexual men,” she added.
And Grindr can provide a more positive space for bisexual men than more hetero apps like Bumble or Hinge. One 2019 study by Neil Gleason, Vencill, and Eric Sprankle looked at how cis people rate potential partners on fake Tinder-like profiles. The study found that cis straight women rated bisexual men as less attractive, less desirable to date, and less masculine than straight men. Vencill said that biphobia is driven by monosexism, which she defined as an “internalized assumption built into our culture, that being attracted to more than one sex or gender is somehow unnatural or deviant.” Bisexual men are often assumed to be in denial of their gayness, she said.
Women have seemingly been trying to get on Grindr since it launched in 2009. Founder Joel Simkhai “received tens of thousands of requests from women asking for a straighter, female-friendly version of Grindr,” according to a 2011 piece in the Guardian. (Simkhai’s solution? A straight version of the app called Blendr, which debuted in 2011, but never really caught on, especially after Tinder debuted in 2012.)
In 2013, Grindr added a feature allowing users to identify themselves with “tribes,” including “daddy,” “otter,” and “trans.” As Rose Dommu wrote in Paper Magazine, this made it easier for trans users to be found by trans-amorous users. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the app expanded to allow categories for trans and cis women (as well as trans men and nonbinary people).
Now that Grindr has become more inclusive, Grey, the New Orleans sex worker, hasn’t experienced much pushback being on the app. If a man questions why she’s there, she said she tells him, “I’m not there to hound down gay men… I went to where the fish I wanted to catch were,” meaning the bisexual men who don’t feel comfortable being out as bi on other dating sites. Grey said she tries not to come on too strong. “I only overtly approach people who’ve mentioned that they’re bisexual,” she said. “I really make an effort to be respectful of the community.”
Is it the digital equivalent of drunken bachelorettes stumbling into gay bars, invading one of the few spaces available to queer men?
Vencill, from the Mayo Clinic, said that it’s important for users to be sensitive about identity and power in spaces designed for particular communities. “It’s very important for straight cis people to be aware [that] they bring a lot of power and privilege into those spaces that oftentimes they're not aware of, and they can cause a lot of harm without intending to,” she said.
Not everyone thinks women, particularly cis women, should be on Grindr. Is it the digital equivalent of drunken bachelorettes stumbling into gay bars, invading one of the few spaces available to queer men? While other apps like Scruff do have women users, there are far more cis women on Grindr, according to the men I spoke to who use both. “I can’t remember seeing a trans woman or a cis woman on [Scruff]. Scruff is a different kind of feel and clientele,” said Christopher McKenzie, a bisexual man who serves on the board of the Bisexual Resource Center. “I definitely saw more cis women and probably trans women too, on Grindr, because Grindr is kind of your garden variety app,” said Rich Juzwiak, who coauthors Slate’s sex advice column. Scruff is “kind of hairier and bear-ier and more (in heavy scare quotes) masculine.”
Jesse said she was “not hesitant at all” to join Grindr. “When I’m in male gay spaces…gay dudes are drawn to me without any effort on my part… It’s not unusual for somebody to come kiss my boots, kiss my hand, buy me drinks, sometimes sneaky grope me,” she said. “I thought Grindr would just be like a virtual version of a gay bar and they’d welcome me with open arms there as well.” But she wondered what gay men thought, so recently she posted a question on the Grindr subreddit: “How do gay men on Grindr feel about seeing cisgender women on the app?” Reactions were mixed. “I’m a bisexual man and love when I see women express an interest in that part of me,” one user replied. “Many women respond to bisexuality with attitudes of disgust.”
But many responses were hostile. “Get the fuck off our app,” one user told her. “Stop invading our spaces.” “I’m not your fetish, nor do I want to be pegged...by a woman,” wrote another. Jesse told me these reactions have led her to disable her account on Grindr.
“I think women should be encouraged to seek the app for sex and romantic relationships because for guys that are openly bisexual it’s kinda hard to find girls that are okay with this sexual orientation,” one bisexual Grindr user from Bulgaria told me. Still, he said he’s tried to find cis women on the app but the “cis women there that I’ve seen go there to find a ‘gay best friend,’ which as a bi guy I found really annoying.”
McKenzie, the Bisexual Resource Center board member, remembers the first time he saw a cis woman on the app, about a year ago. “It was almost a strange novelty on a website that has plenty of strange novelties,” he said. “But I also did get that feeling…that somebody has invaded the clubhouse.” He told me inevitably the tenor of the site changes when women come into the mix.
“Get the fuck off our app,” one user told her.
When talking to men, the conversation quickly turns to frank discussions of sex, but with women, he said he feels more reticent bringing up sex. “I was very uncertain of whether or not I was getting catfished…Because this is not an app designed for women to be on there. So it’s kind of like a fish out of water,” McKenzie said. He’s only connected with one cis woman on Grindr and said they sparked a virtual friendship and talked for a few months on the phone, but “it didn’t lead to a hook-up.”
Trans women appear to be more welcome on Grindr than cis women and nonbinary people, according to the trans women I talked to. “The Grindr boys accept me,” said Mo’Dest, a trans woman from Atlanta. “Before I transitioned, I had a different experience. A lot of people would harass me for having my nails painted, not being manly enough, weird stuff like that. Now that I’m trans the only people that talk to me are the straight/bisexual men. And GIRL those boys worship me fiercely.”
Not every trans woman has had a positive experience on the app, though. Lilith Ivey Jarvis, who has been using Grindr for a year, said she felt both “welcome and grossed out” when she joined. “I say funny things on my profile such as ‘send dick pics and be cursed,’” she said, but told me she still receives 30 to 40 a day. The unsolicited nudes aren’t the only problem for her on Grindr. “Many of what we’d call ‘chasers’ or fetishizers are using that app to find hook-ups for trans women, femboys, AFAB enbies…Out of hundreds of men who have contacted me via Grindr, I’ve met with two and dated only one.”
Jarvis supports Grindr’s inclusion of cis women, but fears the consequences. “It would be discriminatory to not allow cisgender women to use the app, but at the same time if we see so many fetishizers, adding more women to the mix would just make the issue even worse.” A nonbinary transfemme person I communicated with on Grindr DM also had doubts. “They’re usually on here with their boyfriends, which always feels sketchy,” they said. “And they’re usually looking for women like me to be their third, which feels fetishistic.” But one trans woman I spoke to was open to the possibilities. “As a bisexual, I would love to have a new source of women into sex,” she said. “From my point of view the gates are open, come in!”
The anecdotal increase of women joining Grindr in search of bisexual men could be reflecting larger trends. Data on women dating bisexual men is scarce, but more people are identifying as bisexual than ever before: 3% of U.S. adults in 2018, compared to 1% ten years earlier, while nearly 12% of Gen Z says they’re bisexual, compared to only 5% of millennials. Juzwiak says he has seen more inquiries to his sex column than he expected from bisexual guys and the women dating them. “It does seem like bi guys are less stigmatized these days, which probably has something to do with 1) the proliferation of queerness, 2) the transformation of HIV from certain death to a manageable condition (depending on access to meds), and 3) general bi visibility that counters the previous “one-drop”-esque approach to men who have had sexual contact with other men,” he said.
There has also been increased visibility of bisexual men in pop culture; in recent years, male celebrities like Alan Cumming, Brendon Urie, and Shane Dawson have come out as bisexual. The 2020–2021 GLAAD “Where We Are Now” survey found 33 bisexual male characters on TV, over four times as many as there were in the 2012–2013 survey.
McKenzie says he’s seen a “marked shift” in how women have responded to him. “Some of the things I’ve heard gay men say when they find out that I date women burn the ears. And with women, I have not heard that level of animosity and skepticism in the past five years or so…certainly not the way that I did in the early aughts,” he said. “When I was in 2002, dating online, a woman I talked to finally looked at my profile enough to see that I was bisexual. I could almost hear the ‘Ewww’ coming off the screen… There’s definitely been more acceptance and less of those snarky comments.”
Grey said her experience on Grindr has been transformative. “I don’t ever really want to be with a fully straight guy… part of my thing is to be fully seen by my partner and understood. And I don’t think a heterosexual man could really do that,” she said. “I’ve had some really lovely sexual experiences… I’ve had some of the most mind blowing sex of my life. And that’s saying a lot for me, because I’ve been around the block once or twice.” ●