I squandered my 20s by not having enough sex. If I were rating my sex life in that decade through emoji, I behaved like the yellow one with his eyes closed and a straight line where a smile should be. I should have acted more like a cross between the eggplant and the one no one I know uses to signify raindrops. I wish I had been more of a slut, and while I am well aware that it is never too late to join the team, there are certain consequences that come with lateness. For me, that is a sense of stunted development.
I reflected on my struggle with intimacy, and its source, an early exposure to AIDS — by way of my AIDS-stricken uncle's funeral when I was just six years old — in an essay for xoJane in 2014. After that, I decided to correct the problem. Strangers online were encouraging in a “You go boy, don’t press eject on your erections anymore!” fashion, but some of my friends – the gay male ones – were a bit more pointed in their commentary. I remember one person in particular advising to “be a better gay,” and get laid without the getting-to-know-you process. What followed was the suggestion to try “the apps,” which I admittedly rolled my eyes at.
Hook up apps like Jack’d and Grindr are an acquired taste. For the longest time, I didn’t like anything about them. In my mind, I am a Beyoncé, so to partake in the apps - which are basically like Seamless for sex - felt degrading, like lowering myself to the level of former Destiny’s Child member turned reality star who refuses to sing on air (LaTavia Roberson).
And then I had a change of heart.
For months, I flirted with the idea of meeting people, only to punk out. “These motherfuckers could be crazy” were the exact words I used. Ultimately, I truly gave in.
The first time I actually met someone from Jack’d, which is described as a “gay men’s social network” but is majorly used for what I would describe as “ho shit,” I thought it was going to end with me becoming the inspiration for a future episode of Law & Order: SVU. In my profile, I make it very plain that such a scenario is not ideal, my bio reads: “I don’t ever want to end up the inspiration behind an episode of Law & Order: SVU.”
Once we finished and he exited, I could no longer find my keys, prompting my suspicion that this man, whatever his name was, was good with his mouth but not at following directions. I was suddenly paranoid and sure he had stolen my keys and was planning to return to my apartment to slit my throat. Or something.
After two hours of searching my (not that large) apartment, I found my keys in a kitchen cabinet.
What’s most interesting about this story is that when it comes to hook up apps, this is not the most embarrassing one.
Not long after that incident, people started recognizing me.
I was using “Slim Shady” as a screen name on Jack’d, but getting messages like: “Hey, Michael. I love your blog, The Cynical Ones! You’ve been such an inspiration to me.” Other inquiries were related to whether or not I was “@youngsinick from Twitter,” and again, came conversations about my work as a freelance writer.
I never dawned on me that to some — namely those younger or around the same age as me — I am one of the few working gay black male writers they know. I’m not nearly on the level I want to be, but I am not necessarily living in obscurity as I thought, either.
When I shared this with my friend, Alex, he said, “I don’t get how you feel like you wouldn’t get recognized. You’re an openly gay journalist who writes everything, everywhere. All these Negroes aren’t illiterate, ignorant bottoms.” Fair enough.
Because the Internet churns out so much, so often, a writer can worry about getting lost in the shuffle. I forgot that there are many — but few of me. I'm not the only gay black male writer, but I am one of the few who are 30 (youngish), and sharing my experiences in spaces outside of gay media. It turns out that Places where black aunties and uncles primarily read (EBONY, Essence); sites my niece likely frequents more than I (BET.com); where straight men are (Complex); and sites that feel as white as that new gentrified coffee shop in Harlem with amazing vegan cookies (Time). Since I work from home, being clocked on a hook up app is my realization that people might actually read me.
So, one the one hand, it was flattering to be recognized and to be complimented about my work. On the other: That is not the point of a hook app up. Moreover, because I know there is a stigma attached to those who use these apps, I worried that being visible on Jack'd would eventually lead someone to question my character.
Two months later, I was told that someone screen capped a conversation I had on Jack’d with some other stranger that ended up in some Facebook group. I don’t know what the group is for; one presumes it’s for bitches that don’t know how to mind their own business.
I never asked what was said. I just immediately deleted the app. A month later I reinstalled it, then days later deleted it again. It’s been an on again, off again process ever since.
A lot of people have an attitude about apps. Others have told me that they wouldn’t dare use something like Jack’d. It seems seedy, desperate, lazy, or some other adjective that describes behavior one should be “above.”
So while I could talk about my sex life, or lack thereof, on an NPR program as I did last summer with Michele Martin, I was embarrassed when confronted about Jack’d. The stigmas attached stuck with me.
I remember a lot of gay men dissecting the Huffington Post essay “Why I've Given Up on Hooking Up,” in which writer Lester Brathwaite laments about how the apps invoke his insecurities about masculinity, femininity, body image, and a desire to “make real connections in the real world.” Brathwaite’s truth is his, but my takeaway was that he’d come across those same issues on any social media platform and in the real time in “the real world.”
I’m not sure if the intent was to dissuade everyone else from hookup culture, but it was cited plenty by peers to make such a case.
Likewise, in an interview with Metro, Sam Smith argued that apps like Tinder and Grindr are “ruining romance,” explaining, “We’re losing the art of conversation and being able to go and speak to people."
This is British bullshit. The men I have dated are men I have approached. I know how to have a conversation and I know how to walk up to someone. Sometimes I just want to use technology for the sole sake of securing sloppy head from a stranger I don’t have to be bothered with ever again.
It’s the iPhone equivalent of the “Independent Women (Part II)” line: “Only ring your celly when I’m feeling lonely, when it’s all over, please get up and leave.”
Why should I feel about guilty about it? This question is something I had to finally confront. Not only did I carry with me the paranoia about what happens if you don’t have sex safely, I dragged along the notion that certain ways of getting off is worthy of shame. As a runaway Catholic, I often feel guilty about everything even when I shouldn’t. And as someone who was raised to keep everything private, public acknowledgement of such behavior sometimes feels more of a burden than it needs to.
But if Marc Jacobs can admittedly use Grindr and Tinder, I’ll should be fine. In an interview with Paper magazine, Jacobs professed not having “hang-ups about those kind of things,” explaining, “I just think it's so much better to sort of be honest about those things. I always find it very dubious and I don't really trust people who deny human instincts.”
I know from experience that if I want to have sex, I can. And if I want to be Mariah Carey one day (sex as a lullaby with some Disney prince), Janet Jackson another (acrobatic sex on the third date), or behave like a rapper in some video model’s DMs (thirsty and will likely run when done), it’s my Bobby Brown (prerogative). Without even the slightest hint of shame.
But if you do recognize me on an app, know that I’m probably not there to talk about work.
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University educated writer who wants a show that'll allow him to recite UGK lyrics with Beyoncé. He's working on his first book, I Can't Date Jesus, for Atria Books.