Toronto
7 min

Video killed the cruisey bar

How the web personals are eroding real life

EFFICIENT OR LONELY? The web offers the promise of more sex without the hassle of booze and smoke. Credit: Xtra files

Steve, a 51-year-old software consultant, is a friendly outgoing guy and he’s never had trouble meeting guys in bars. He still occasionally meets people in the real world. But these days if he goes out it’s not with the intention of cruising. “The bars per se are dead for that kind of stuff.”



It’s a view that’s specific to Steve (not his real name), and a reflection of his age, schedule and changing interests. But it’s also a view you’ll hear echoed by everyone from website operators to bar managers. If people want a drink, goes the current wisdom, they’ll go to a bar. If they want sex, they’ll go on-line. It’s way more efficient.



On the surface, this looks like just another innocuous little trend, a slight shift in social habits. “Oh, it’s just another way to meet people.” But in fact it’s a radical departure with grave implications for the gay male community. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to get laid, you had to go out. Now you have options.



People are still going out, says Dean Odorico, general manager of Woody’s. “But if you’re horny and you’re looking for sex I think people are more apt to use the phone lines and the Internet.” He doesn’t think the ‘net is a threat to the bars just yet, though he thinks it might be “hurting the cruise bars a little bit.” At the moment, not enough people have access to the ‘net.



But what happens when they do? For the last half century, the bars (and to a lesser extent the baths) have been the most visible, accessible and egalitarian part of gay life. Most of the community’s political and social organizations remain tied to specific goals, interests and social classes. The bars, on the other hand, are open to anyone with who can pay for a beer. More to the point, they’re always there. Love ’em or loathe ’em (and lots of people loathe them), the bars remain the only consistently available source of public gay space in the city. If you want to be with other gay people, and you don’t want to make an appointment or join an organization or grab a lover, the bars and the baths are the one space available seven days a week.



Anything that affects these institutions, especially the underlying cruisiness that remains their raison d’etre, also affects one of the basic building blocks of the community. The Internet is a threat not just to smokey rooms, bad music and unrequited lust, but to a certain kind of easy association that makes the community what it is. And already, just 10 years after the launch of the first web browser, the ‘net has changed the nature of gay sex.



Gay.com launched in 1995 in the US and together with Planet-Out.com now boasts more than 2-million on-line personals. The popular British site, Gaydar.co.uk, launched in November 1999 with the slogan, “What you want, when you want it,” and was expected to boast 1-million members by the end of last year. Closer to home, Squirt.org has 300,000 members and attracts more than 30,000 visitors a day.



An on-line study of gay and bisexual men conducted for the City University Of London found that 47 percent of the men preferred to meet people on-line rather than off-line in the bars or other venues – versus just 17 percent who preferred to meet off-line.



At the moment, there are significant financial barriers to Internet dating, not the least of which is the cost of a decent computer and speedy access. Neither comes cheap.



But sooner or later, it seems, everyone tries the Internet, and the pattern, according to David Halpern, vice president and chief operating officer for M4M4Sex, is the same in every city. At first, it’s the sexually open and adventurous, which often means leather men, then it’s the circuit party crowd and then it’s the mainstream, conservative crowd.



The popularity of the new technologies has changed not just the way sex is delivered but the expectations surrounding it.



“Ordering in,” a term borrow-ed from the fast-food industry, has become synonymous with on-line sex.



“Sex has really become a commodity,” laughs Colin Brownlee, the founder of Cruiseline and now the Vancouver-based director of marketing for Squirt.org. (Both Cruiseline and Squirt.org are operated by Pink Triangle Press, which also publishes Xtra.) “There’s your headline, ‘Don’t go out, order in.’ When I used to run the phone lines, I used to say it was quicker than pizza.”



Nobody has done more for the pizza-fication of sex, of course, than M4M4Sex, the web-based offshoot of a privately-held phone-sex company based in New York. It started in about 1999. At the time, says Halpern, “AOL was really where gay men were in the US.”



But the AOL technology was fairly rudimentary and the on-line discourse was heavily censored. You had to kinda code what you were looking for, says Halpern. Websites still hoped to profit from banner ads and tried to keep their sites “clean” for mainstream advertisers.



M4M4Sex decided to go in the opposite direction with a membership-supported site that would give people what they not so secretly craved – and no pretending that they were looking for friends or relationships.



“It would basically just be about what everybody seemed to be going to these sites for anyway, which was to find sex, to cruise, to hook up,” says Halpern. So they picked a name that said it all and took it to market.



M4M4Sex, which now has 22 sites in cities around the world, started with sites dedicated to New York, San Francisco and LA, and moved into Toronto in 2000. “It was really slow going [in Toronto] until about a year and a half ago and then it’s been exponential since then,” says Halpern. “We hit some critical mass at some point.”



Today, Toronto is the biggest city in an on-line empire that contains more than 200,000 ads and more than 100,000 active users (people who log on at least once a week). That’s “biggest” in terms of volume, use, members and log-ins.



Nobody knows how well ‘net cruising works for people, sexually speaking, but both Squirt and M4M4Sex point to high levels of customer satisfaction.



“A large percentage of people who joined us many years ago are still using us,” says Halpern, “and I assume that means they’re getting what they want.”



The question, though, is what do they want, and is it a substitute for off-line encounters or something else again?



To some extent, the ‘net is tapping a whole new market: bisexuals, closet cases, married guys and other folks with little inclination, comfort or (in the case of rural or small-town users) opportunity to frequent an openly gay venue.



“It’s like Squirt,” says Brownlee. “It’s full of all these people who cruise parks and washrooms and yet you would never see them in a gay venue.” So to that extent, the ‘net is expanding the queer community.



But it’s also cannibalizing the existing market which is why so many bars and bathhouses run cross-promotions with websites and phone lines. It’s a case of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. There are only so many sexually active people in any gay community, no matter how large, says Halpern, and “it’s beneficial to everybody to send them back and forth.”



That’s why M4M4Sex does cross promotions with Woody’s and Spa Excess in Toronto and maintains similar relationships in the other cities in which it operates. Ideally, people would meet on their website and rendezvous at a local bar or bath.



Halpern doubts the ‘net is cutting into the bars’ appeal. For him, each milieu – bars, baths, phone lines and websites – has its own unique attractions and advantages.



“I think some people are using the ‘net as a cheaper alternative to the baths,” says Bob (not his real name), a 40-something professional who used to use M4M4Sex quite regularly. Why go out when you can sit at home and arrange a date for free?

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in fact, you could further: Not only is on-line cruising cut-ting into real world socializing, it’s a poor substitute. I suspect that many people who use on-line hook-up services aren’t even hooking up. Why bother to connect at all when you can gawk at “boys” on-line? For all the vague talk of on-line community, the ‘net is closer to a TV than a bar. Steve admits he likes looking at the “pretty pictures” even if he doesn’t want to hook up.



“A lot of people just fool around on these things,” says Brownlee. “They use it more as home entertainment just because they’re bored and when people are bored that’s a lot of times when they cruise.”



On the ‘net, sex, like everything else in modern life, merges with entertainment. Internet dating isn’t necessarily any faster or more convenient, says Halpern, but it is entertaining. It’s fun seeing who’s on-line and reading profiles of people you see on the street or at the gym. M4M4Sex encourages that sort of intimate voyeurism because unlike Gay.com or Gaydar.co.uk it gears its sites towards specific cities.



So it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Internet isn’t improving on the efficiency of the bars – it’s creating a world of isolated wankers. If that’s all the web is – just another glib, visual diversion – then there’s really nothing much to worry about. We already have millions of people slouched in front of monitors; they’re called couch potatoes. The ‘net is a threat only to the extent that it creates an alternative social reality and the jury, as they say, is still out on that one.



Everyone agrees ‘net dating delivers great “product” – a certain kind of guy willing to get you off at a certain time. What’s not at all clear is whether it fosters even the most basic elements of community – connection and communication. The Internet stands or falls on its ability to bring people closer and anecdotal evidence suggests that, once the novelty has worn off, the Internet may founder on the same shoals that bedevil all other bids for human connection – confusion, ambivalence, shyness, mixed signals and miscommunication. No amount of technology seems able to save us from those problems.



Bob has been using M4M4Sex since the beginning and he says he started because he was involved in the leather community and he was “looking for people of like mind who had like interests.” Initially he got what he wanted. He met bisexuals, out-of-towners and other people he might not normally have met. He even had one extended affair.



But recently he’s begun to feel a little jaded. Once this past winter, he was stood up four times in one weekend by guys with whom he’d made on-line dates. Even when dates do show up, he says, they often misrepresent themselves. Wrong age, wrong interests – he’s seen it all.



“It’s as much work as the bars were,” he says.