Hookup App Helps Users Navigate Sex During a Pandemic
COVID-19 has impacted most Americans in one way or another. For queer people, men who have sex with men (MSM) specifically, the impact is not just social but sexual as well. While many apps continued business as usual, one new site decided to take immediate action to help keep users safe and prevent the further spread of the virus. Sniffies, a site founded in 2019 for the purpose of cruising and anonymous sex, removed the ability for users to host groups, glory holes, and post in known cruising locations. For a site that was meant to promote and encourage these sexual activities, it was a risk that could have brought down the platform premaritally. It was a risk that the founders were willing to take if it meant that their users could be kept safe.
In the early onset of the virus, fear and panic swept through communities already marginalized and many survivors of the AIDS epidemic were reminded of a time when newly found sexual freedoms were stifled by the threat of death. Because there was little information about the novel virus, it was not known how easily COVID-19 would spread or how long incubation was in the human body. Hookup apps and sites were slow to react, and many MSM were at risk without knowing they could be exposed. City and state ordinances closed bathhouses, sex clubs, gyms, saunas, and other cruising spots where discreet MSM and their admirers would cruise. However, seeing the impact the virus had in China and abroad, Sniffies founder decided it was best to act in caution rather than hold out and risk exposing their users to a deadly condition that was starting to overwhelm hospitals and public health organizations across the globe.
Sniffies founder, Blake Gallagher, said that the platform was built so that MSM and other queer men could enjoy a sexual journey of their choosing with other men. Part of that journey, he said, was in understanding the risks and being able to make informed decisions about who, when and where users were hooking up. As such, Gallagher and his team decided that it would be best to take a preemptive step to keep users safe.
“Sex is a huge part of every culture and society, right? Like everyone is out there having sex, look at anyone 35 and younger…vast parts of that age group are in hookup culture, and part of hookup culture is being out having fun with each other. And and then suddenly, you have a global pandemic show up,” Gallagher said. “The other dating apps aren’t saying anything. So we immediately realized that it was on us to say something.”
Say something they did. Sniffies was one of if not the first platform to immediately disable features that promoted in-person cruising and hookups in attempts to curve the rate of infection.
“We’re still new and we’re still growing quickly, but we knew we really needed to make a statement and just get information out there to our user base that would be useful in navigating a fundamental part of all of our lives in response to a global pandemic, so that part was clear,” Gallagher said. “You have a virus out there that spreads and you might have it without even having symptoms, so of course you need to be thinking about that with the decisions you’re making to physically meet up with somebody.”
Gallagher said that in the early onset of the pandemic terms such as physical distancing and social distancing, were not being referenced in terms of what they meant with regards to hooking up and sex. The decision was made to get that message out to users of the app “because we felt strongly about it. Like, you need to take it seriously, you need to know the impact you’re having on other people.” That, Gallagher said, was fundamental to who they are and the platform that they are trying to create which according to Gallagher is all about the journey much more than it is about the destination.
“It’s about much more than than just the hookup,” he said.
The shift from allowing users to connect physically was one that required much thought with regards to their users. “We couldn’t pull that whole journey away from people right away,” said Gallagher. “Now it doesn’t make sense to be actually hooking up but we are still providing probably the more important part of that whole thing which is the experience of connecting with other people and exploring your sexuality with each other.”
This is where Gallagher and his team put their heads together to look at the features available at the time, the future of the app, and features that were planned on the future roadmap. With that in mind they reprioritize things and one feature immediately rose to the top of their list.
“Video chat quickly bubbled to the top of our list. It was like, okay, this really, really makes sense in this new world,” Gallagher said. “We saw that in other businesses as well. I mean, zoom suddenly blew up because of this. But people still need to connect. And in our case, they need to connect sexually and video is one way to do that.”
The option to go live on video was a success, and the platform was one of the first to launch the option for all users to connect live. It took weeks before major platforms like Grindr launched a similar feature, at which point the pandemic was already in full swing.
The steps Sniffies took to protect users was not always followed however. Although the public group chat where users could post notification for hosting sexual encounters at different locations was disabled, users were still willing to risk the spread of the virus by meeting up.
“I think since this pandemic started I’ve hooked up with like 20 guys at a glory hole I made in my home,” said one user who asked to only be named by Jim. “I loved that Sniffies had those options before, and when they went offline I just let guys know privately that my glory hole was still open.”
According to Jim, he knew there were risks of having men over anonymously but he wasn’t worried because he was “on PrEP,” an antiretroviral treatment that prevented the spread of HIV and that some medical professionals were using to treat patients with COVID-19. Jim added that even though he has been hooking up, he hasn’t contracted the virus and is confident that he still won’t catch the virus.
“I’m young, I’m healthy and I take my vitamins. Just because I suck a dick or three doesn’t mean I’m exposing myself more or less than those idiots in Huntington Beach,” Jim said. “I’m glad the app is still running, it works better for anon hookups than anything else. I get what they were trying to do when they shut down some features but that hasn’t stopped me. I’m still a cock-hungry pig.”
As the country begins to open up so do places that men use to cruise for sex. Among all of this, Gallagher and his team encourages users to be mindful and aware of their health and make the best decisions for themselves and their partners.
“It’s up to every individual to make the right decisions for themselves,” Gallagher said. “And they’re only going to do that if they have enough information.”