Cuffed to Scruff

For many queer men, smartphone-enabled sex apps mean community. So what happens when you lose your connection?

A smartphone displaying a Scruff screen, pixelating and dissolving away.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Scruff.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

I weep as my sweet baby-blue iPhone 5C flickers on and off. Over and over, for no apparent reason, the screen jumbles and pixelates, then blacks out. Though my phone isn’t dead yet, I am already considering how I’ll move on, how I’ll persevere. Financially, I’m not on the verge of anything big except despair, and despair surely won’t cash in enough to pay for a new smartphone. Definitely not an iPhone XR to the tune of $750.

Four years ago, I rescued my 5C from a pawn shop in Sheepshead Bay, and now as it lays dying before me, I enter a desert I never knew existed. Not as a hiker or vacationer or to make an amateur porno, as I once did on my 5C. I take the first steps into this bleak desert as an exile on the eve of excommunication from the plethora, the abundance, of gay freedoms that can only be had through smartphones. Here I stand stripped and bare-assed under the pounding sun, alone.

I know that many millennial and Gen Z folks are voluntarily opting out of smartphones, and good for them. But I’m not here to reclaim personal liberties. I am here to say farewell to the Scruff community that has made me who I am, helped me come so far.

Scruff, for the uninitiated, is an app (much like the more infamous Grindr) where one chats, connects, makes plans, and infrequently meets up with guys who are around the block or across the globe. Moments ago, I used it to send ass pics to old friends and nearby men, and just before that I searched new guys in Chelsea, Zona Rosa, and Kreuzberg. Only now do I realize that those maps, those faces that received my jockstrapped ass, were a distinct privilege I should have savored. For so many months I delayed the Scruff Pro upgrade, thinking that I had time where I didn’t have money. I look back now with regret that I’ll never have access to the videos, unlimited private albums, and the full grid. It’s over.

In this polarized world, there are only Democrats and Republicans, smartphones and Jitterbugs, and these classes of people certainly don’t mix. I am about to be a Jitterbugger, and I don’t know where to look for solidarity, for community. Back to the red Midwest? To a retirement home? I’m being dramatic and reactionary and fatalistic because this really is traumatic.

Back when it was just me and my 5C, I used to feel desperate when I scrolled up and down the same grid from bed without a flicker of excitement, barely a blood rush to anywhere. The grid was full of familiar faces, not of people I’d met (except for my boyfriend, I’ve met him). They were familiar because I’d done that purgatorial scroll every day for months. So few men ventured through my vicinity. No one new came through the gates of that waiting room, and anyone deemed eager or hyperfriendly had already been blocked. Now that I’m leaving, I curse my callousness. I’m off to a hell where a lack of headless torsos will be my torture.

A new desperation consumes me.

I face a world where booty calls are limited to people I already know. No more anonymous men will find me blindfolded and waiting in Shape-ups. No more falling asleep while clutching Scruff. No more waking up to Scruff in my palm, the same five conversations from the night before active and ready to blow. No more gym mirror selfies to spur my imagination. I face a world where aggressive locked eyes, furrowed brows, and red-faced cruising are the only option, because without the Scruff safety net, it’s now or never.

I suppose I should dive into the gay archives to learn the language of cruising. Thank you, Edmund White, James Baldwin, Dennis Cooper, etc., for your contributions, but they’re fucking useless. Twenty years ago, maybe that would’ve worked, but today, horny men don’t cruise the streets or sit around Christopher Street Pier and do anything but suntan. We stand divided at public urinals, more scared of each other than enticed.

There’s one more serious obstacle. If I cruise men and don’t sleep with them immediately, they will expect text-courting and, of course, dick pics. How will I tell them that my Jitterbug doesn’t have a camera? Perhaps I should say that I am concerned about the safety of our digital information, the commodification of our messages? No. Boner killer. The denial of a pic request, no matter the excuse, triggers a red flag, and that flag reads: below average. And who am I to judge? Exchanging dick pics establishes trust throughout the gay community. It guarantees that even if the guy sucks, his dick is still worth blowing. I wonder, would it be a waste of paper to distribute handouts with my recent nudes and dick pics?

All banter aside, my concern is real. As interaction increasingly takes place on apps, digital space becomes the only space. The app once allowed me to program my exact erotic fantasies to be as indulgently weird, raw, and anonymous as possible. I filtered men from a distance and flaked in a pinch. I excluded nonsense, the unknown, the known, all the unnecessary, in favor of constantly changing and exciting prospects, just one screen away. Now, there’s simply no way to achieve all the assurances that Scruff provided. Without a smartphone, without the apps, I too am deleted.

After a couple days teetering between depression and hysteria, it turns out I underestimated some details. Twenty bucks and a new phone screen later, my baby-blue 5C is back on the grid. Nothing can come between me and my community (that is, unless my 5C can’t handle Scruff’s latest update). But then, as I refresh the grid for the 12th time in an hour, a thought occurs to me: Maybe something already has? Maybe it’s not great that I feel like I need an app to mediate my gay existence? Maybe.

But the thought doesn’t last long—UrNutMy_Butt just unlocked his pics.