Carl Sandler wants guys to get laid—especially older guys. But he wants more for them, too. He wants them to be physically healthy and emotionally happy, to make fulfilling connections that may include sex but that don’t necessarily stop there. As CEO of DH Services, the company behind Daddyhunt (which is aimed at mature men and the guys who love them) as well as the more widely targeted app Mister, Sandler—a handsome, grinning fella in his 40s—believes the so-called “hook-up apps” can do more than just coordinate quickies. To his mind, apps like his—and even competitors like Grindr, Scruff, and Jack’d—have the potential to educate, provide support, and facilitate new and better modes of gay social interaction. In fact, he’ll go so far as to suggest they may have the power to reinvigorate a seemingly old-fashioned concept: gay community. We talked about these and other issues on the eve of the launch of the Daddyhunt app.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Both Daddyhunt and Mister seem like they are pitched as a solution to a problem. What is the problem that you guys are trying to solve?
We started Daddyhunt, the website, back in 2006, in part because there really wasn’t a good space for older guys and younger guys to meet each other. And we knew we were meeting a need, because we started growing very fast. We built a very loyal audience. We didn’t charge initially, and then when we did start charging, it was a sliding scale, and we had people giving us the highest rate because they really felt like they were being seen for the first time.
Also, the environment and the culture of Daddyhunt was really about telling people who don’t hear it very often: “You are still attractive, lovable, desired, needed.” You know, an older gay guy—and I’m in the category now myself—who goes to Grindr, who goes to Manhunt, who goes to a lot of other places is going to find it very hard to find consistent, believable affirmation and validation. Because often people’s profiles are already like, don’t contact me if you are over 28. (Let alone 50.) People are very merciless.
So Daddyhunt, both the website and the app, really have a mission to show that, because of the beauty of the Internet, there are actually tons of people who think that an older guy is attractive. And the mission was also to create a user community that is more supportive of the idea of community.
What do you mean by that?
Look, the amount of time people spend on these “hook-up apps” does not align with actual sexual encounters—no one has that much prowess. So what are they getting out of it?
I think in the gay community in general there’s a certain frustration with the apps—yes, people want to hook up—but they also feel like they’ve lost something. They pine for the days of when you could go out to a bar and, for example, not know if someone was a top or bottom until you brought them home. Now it’s all in the apps. I think the older generation misses that even more because they remember it, they want to feel like they have that social thing again. So that’s why we’ve been trying with our products to provide people a way to interact that isn’t just one-to-one, that’s also about sharing things and uploading things and commenting [as with Instagram or Facebook]. That’s not just about evaluating each other based on what you look like with your shirt off.
It’s interesting that you bring up the phrase “gay community” a lot, both in this conversation and in other statements and interviews; that’s an idea that’s really out of fashion, especially among younger people. So it’s striking that you seem to be designing your products to almost socially engineer community in that environment. Have you thought about that tension?
I think that for a modern, younger gay person who lives in New York City, or in some other large American city, what you say is true. But we forget how big the world is. Mobile apps have really become a revolutionary way for gay people to connect to each other in ways that those of us who live in a place like New York take for granted. We forget that so many people around the world don’t have their own computer with privacy settings. But they all have a phone. The phone has opened up the idea of being in a small place and being able to find local gay people secretly and quietly in a way that even websites were never able to. The mobile apps provide that access in a different, more acceptable way. And for these people the idea of a gay community is so new and interesting. The desire to connect—for sex or anything else—remains strong all over the world.
We are at the very beginning still of what these apps have the potential to be. If you look at something like Grindr or Mister, people will put up things like, Hey, I just moved to New York, and I’m looking for a job. Or, I’m traveling in this city and I’d love someone to show me around. (Genuinely! Not just I’m traveling here and I need someone to show me around their bedroom.) So I think people are using these apps for a lot more than just hooking up, and I think they have the potential to evolve into so much more. I mean, they could become political action tools. There’s so much potential there—if it’s harnessed.
Can you talk a little bit about the “Mister Code”? You have certain expectations about how members of your community interact that touch on emotional health, physical health, honesty, and other ideals. Where does that come from?
One of the things that many of us fail to realize is that the apps and the websites for many people—younger and older—are their only connection to the gay world. It’s very easy to assume that people know what condoms are and what they’re for, or what an STD is, or what sexual health looks like. But the fact is, we have so many members that are joining that have no clue. You’d think that they would know things, but they don’t, and they’re spread all over the world. So the things that we write in our profiles, and the way that the apps present the gay community is actually what people understand the gay community to be.
Imagine you’re an 18-year-old overweight Asian kid who’s gay. And you say, Hey, I heard about Grindr, and I’m going to get on it, and I’m so excited that I can connect. And you encounter profiles that say no fat people or no Asians or whatever. There’s so much shit that’s going on, people not thinking about the effects of what they do.
So with Daddyhunt and Mister, I decided to start cluing people in, from the very beginning, that we’re not going to allow certain things. If someone has in their profile “no Asians,” and we see it, we’ll have customer service email them and say: Hey, please find another way to write your profile.
We also asked people to explain their “sexual health strategy,” to encourage people to start talking about it in a more nuanced way than just “positive” and “negative.” Another thing was not to limit characters in self-description, again to encourage more nuance. And we also ask people to indicate if they are willing to date people of any status.
We’re trying to see what we can do to create more of a sense of community and a different level of conversation. And we know from members writing back to us that they appreciate it.
If you could distill three dreams for apps—yours or the entire field—in the coming years, what would they be?
Look, if you want to reach and inform and educate the gay population, whatever it’s about, between all the apps, you can reach tens of millions of people in a second. The most important thing to me is that the apps are able to provide validation and support to people. That could be in a billion different ways; there are so many different kinds of people who use these apps who need support.
Two, I would like the apps to play a bigger role in helping the community stay safe. There is an ethical obligation that we have as app owners to do everything that we can to protect our members—from each other, from the police—there are a lot of complex issues at play. But fundamentally, we should be providing basic information about safer sex and remember that not everyone knows everything already.
And finally, from Daddyhunt’s point of view, I would love if it grew so big and powerful that it could support this idea that it’s OK to be a daddy, that being older is pretty cool. I want people to realize: You know what, being over 40 is great, and here’s a place where you can feel good about yourself as your get older. I think that as a community we really haven’t dealt with aging—the issues that people face around retirement, around loneliness, around aging gracefully, around HIV. We seem to want to pretend it doesn’t happen. I want for us to build a powerful community where people feel like they are getting a lot of value related to all these challenges.