Of Mice and Faceless Men

By Jaime Woo

When I’m bored or restless, I turn to my iPod and open up Grindr, the popular and mildly infamous cruising app for men seeking other men. The app is location-based and uses GPS to determine who else is around: within seconds, my screen is populated with scores of images of men tantalizingly nearby. It's a delightful hit of instant gratification, a marvel of modern technology, and a progressive juxtaposition to a time when gay men hid in the shadows and bushes.

The land of plenty is not paradise, however. There is a cultural brouhaha amongst cruising app users: a divide between the Faces and the Torsos.

The Faces are the more familiar tribe, recognizable from other social media services like Twitter or Facebook. They present through self-portraits, some choosing close-up beauty shots, others going head-to-toe. Many smile, just as many pose, and an oddball contingent try to appear aloof, as if unaware of the camera's eye.

The Torsos prefer chest to cheekbones, cropping their photos from the clavicle to just above the hip bones. Often (but not always) the men are lean or muscular, at once devotees to the societal signifier of male virility yet also a middle finger to that same society’s widening masses. The Old Spice Guy may have popularized the idea of comparing himself to the schlub you’re with, but the gays did it first (and did it better).

Shirtless men are hardly shocking: in gay clubs, attendees strip, strut, and sweat in great swarms. Being topless is the de facto gay male uniform. But on Grindr, Torsos make a willful choice to become literally faceless, one of an often interchangeable series of bodies. This withholding annoys the Faces, who see it as cowardly, brusque or disrespectful.

Growing up in a Chinese household, I heard a lot about face. To "bei meen" to someone, literally to "give face" in Cantonese, was to have respect for that person. As a child, I heard of people who were “without face,” those considered to have little social capital or hadn’t much respect for themselves. (The English saying to “save face” probably has similar roots.) When I first began to think of Grindr’s Faces and Torsos, I assumed that to be a Face was to give face.

Part of this must lie in biology: humans are attuned to seek out faces, and a Torso proves frustrating, dangling the prospect of theirs just beyond the frame of the picture. There's a power dynamic at play as well, in that Torsos can identify Faces but remain themselves anonymous. For Faces, the central conflict boils down to three questions: Are there dubious reasons for Torsos to conceal their faces? What’s more important, a body or a face? And, are Torsos sluts?

That last question is easy to answer and dismiss: it subscribes to slut-shaming. Sure, the Torso is Grindr shorthand for action, a signalling of readiness for sex. The Torso, one imagines, does not dilly-dally with never-ending chat. He is not a romantic secretly wishing for alchemy that transform hookups into boyfriends. Some Faces bristle at this indiscriminate, transactional approach to sex, but—as long as it’s not some form of emotional crutch—I can’t see a problem. After all, sex-positivity means encouraging access to “hot, consensual sex,” to borrow a phrase I heard at SlutWalk.

I also don't think anonymity necessarily means a lack of forthrightness. I can think of many legitimate reasons to desire anonymity, such as not being out, not feeling safe, or perhaps being in a state of questioning. (For a while, there was also the embarrassment of being seen by your friends—or maybe, boss—cruising for sex on Grindr, but that shame has gradually ebbed away given the ubiquity of the app.) The non-monogamous may prefer to be selectively out, worried about publicly revealing a type of relationship that still carries much stigma. Just because someone is on a quasi-public forum like Grindr doesn’t mean that every datum of their life has to be on the table.

The most interesting and complicated issue is the value of the face compared to the body. I was once a Torso, intrigued by what Grindr offered them. Faceless, I had more interactions, many direct sexual offers. Many more people were open to my initial conversations, but many dropped out once I revealed my face. While I can never know exactly why, it was fascinating and troublesome. Race is a contentious issue on Grindr, and on any online service where people connect romantically and sexually. Whopping generalizations remain tethered to race, enough that people unashamedly will write off large portions of the population as unattractive.

Some users use food terms to distinguish what they’re not interested in: “no chocolate” or “no rice” or “no curry,” presumably for blacks, Asians, or South Asians. This lazy reduction becomes laughable when you extend it to other cultures: “no baguettes,” anyone? “No hot dogs?” Another unsavoury example is the (fairly common) stock phrase “No baldies, no fatties, no Asians.” While someone may undergo Rogaine or a diet regimen, there is no known sane course of action to change one’s ethnicity. What makes these statements especially harsh is how widespread they are, how boilerplate they’ve become among people who have very likely never been with someone from the group they’re rejecting.

In matters of race, a Torso then become especially interesting. Without identifying racial features—skin colour is too weak an indicator—a barrier is temporarily removed. Eventually, ethnicity will be revealed, but for a brief while users engage with someone they normally would have rejected. The presentation of body alone forces users to consider that they could be attracted to someone whose ethnicity they may have written off.

Could an outlier shift desires? If it’s true that people are writing off potential sexual partners because of societal generalizations, a hot torso might break people free of it. The head below might be smarter than the one above. Sometimes we can find ourselves attracted to someone we never assumed possible—the eye is caught by something in their laugh, or their good nature, or the way they move.

Let me be clear, there are obvious problems with the current membership to the Torsos, mainly a fixation on sculpted bodies. The Torso outlook can mean subsuming the whole self in favour of the body, becoming a slavish devotee to monitoring body fat percentage. But a bare Torso also strips away many of the social symbols that arbitrarily separate people. It’s the PG-13 version of a glory hole, removing everything but the physicality of the sex.

Without clothes, it’s harder to place someone within a certain clique or within a specific class. The Torso can also complicated age discrimination. Here is the body. You desire it or you don’t. There’s one single question at play: “Do you wanna fuck?”

Personally, my current profile shows both face and skin. It’s the Grindr version of Switzerland.

Want more of my thoughts on Grindr: I'm currently working on Gaming Grindr, a book that asks "What if Grindr were a game?" Click here to read more about the book and help contribute!