Relationships

Butting In

On Grindr, the sex app, a surprising policy change is bemusing users and cyberlaw hawks alike.

A man's rear end, censored.
On Grindr, these images are no longer so hazy. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Road Trip with Raj /Unsplash.

If you’ve logged into Grindr, the sex app, in the past couple of months, you may have noticed the slow but steady influx of a new kind of profile picture popping up alongside all the headless torsos. Suddenly, it’s not uncommon to be confronted with a selfie of a gentleman’s posterior in front of a mirror—or maybe even a close-up shot of some expectant cheeks.

No, you’re not going crazy. Grindr now allows users to post their bare butts as their public profile photo. And not everyone is so sure about it.

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For the uninitiated, it may come as a surprise to learn that despite housing one of the most extensive collection of dick pics and amateur pornography on the planet on its servers, Grindr has long been known for having stringent restrictions on nudity. It was only last year that the company would even allow users to publicly post images in their underwear. Butts on full display on the grid really is a startling change, especially if you’re used to the coy dance once required to avoid Grindr’s censors slapping you with a “sexually suggestive” admonishment. Could the app’s blushing moderators finally be loosening up?

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Not completely. It’s clear the new ass policy itself is somewhat half-assed. In a post on Grindr’s blog, Alice Hunsberger, Grindr’s head of customer experience, explains that, while new image policy intends to allow space for “people of all bodies (all ethnicities, all sizes, all genders, and all identities) expressing their sexuality joyfully,” the images must still be “non-graphic and without an overly sexual context.” Now that doesn’t sound too joyful!

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“There will always be images that push the limits of what is clearly allowed,” Hunsberger continued, “and we do have to draw the line to prohibit what the app stores consider pornography. It’s extremely difficult to accurately define what is and isn’t pornographic.”

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Luckily, the post came with a visual aid:

Various butt poses allowed, and banned, on Grindr.
Grindr Blog
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When I reached out to Hunsberger for clarification, she told me that Grindr was in the process of evolving its moderation process in the last year and a half. The decision to allow some nudity was to “make our moderation process more fair and less prone to bias, as well as to allow our users to express themselves more freely, based on our own user’s feedback.”

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Hunsberger was likely referring to past and present accusations that certain kind of bodies—typically svelte, white ones—got more leeway than others on Grindr. (“Grindr allows ass pics and pubes for muscular men. But won’t allow my belly & nipples since I’m fat,” one user wrote online recently.) It wasn’t quite clear how inviting users to submit content that is essentially at odds with most of Grindr’s content policies will address this alleged bias or improve moderation, especially given the inherent absurdity of parsing what is or isn’t “sexually provocative” on a sex app. Hunsberger didn’t explain further.

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Still, experts on online user policies like these welcomed the news, at least somewhat. “I have a million questions about what’s going on over at Grindr and their biased butt-related content moderation policies,” Georgetown professor and cyberlaw scholar Amanda Levendowski told me, “but if users want to consensually share pics of their of-age butts, this seems like a win for them.”

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Levandowski pointed out that butt profiles could actually be an improvement on traditional face-visible photos, at least from a privacy perspective. “Unlike faces, not everyone you encounter sees your butt. It seems like butt avatars could be more privacy-protective (in an identification sense, if not an intimacy sense) than faces.”

Users themselves have seemed somewhat perplexed by the development. Dissent on the subreddit dedicated to Grindr and elsewhere has popped up: “So looks like Grindr is running short on moderators? Or they just don’t care anymore,” one aggrieved user wrote. “There are bare ass pics. And they’re NOT even nice ones, at that.” Others found the change didn’t produce the result they hoped for: “I have my whole butt exposed on Grindr and one guy said ‘nice phone.’”

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There were also plenty of shrugs. Vivek Tanna, a Stanford undergrad who recently authored a series chronicling his experiences on the app, was nonchalant about the changes when we spoke. “Opening Grindr used to mean opening a sea of faceless torsos and blank profiles. And now I guess there will be some asses thrown in the mix,” he said. Many people I spoke to were concerned less about the butts than the ability of Grindr’s automated and human moderators to assess content appropriately, especially in light of the app’s history of mishandling racism and transphobia. (This is to say nothing of Grindr’s checkered history protecting its users’ privacy and data.)

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In general, when I asked other users how they felt about all the ass on Grindr, they were largely positive but tended to theorize: Maybe the move was a direct attempt to keep up with competitors like Sniffies, a newer sex website that not only allows users to post full nudity but also builds and improves upon the geolocation social-networking concept that Grindr helped pioneer? That site is also doing more to link users to sex in real-world places like gay bars, public spaces, and private parties that ultimately feed into a sense of community and connectivity absent from the dated confines of Grindr’s grid.

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When I reached out to Sniffies to ask about this, a representative said the company was well aware of the content policy changes at Grindr, as well as its adoption of “sex positive” language. In a statement, Eli Martin, the chief creative officer, said “we’re happy, but not surprised, to hear Grindr is working to catch up, although it does seem to be lagging behind ever-evolving user expectations to express and explore their sexual identities online.” He added, “The new butt rules are just that—another set of rules and restrictions around what qualifies as an acceptable photo.” (Grindr didn’t comment on this, and it’s worth noting Sniffies isn’t an app but a website, and won’t face the same issues with overtly sexualized nudity that may arise for an app on Apple, for example.)

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As our lives—and sex lives—become increasingly enmeshed with digital services, it’s important to keep track of the degree to which seemingly banal issues like content policy and data management can impact who we meet and how we have sex. This is especially true in the LGBTQ community, where sex may be more precarious or harrowing for a variety of overlapping reasons. Even so, whether or not Grindr’s new stance on butts is truly in the service of sex positivity or somehow ending bias on the app or a calculated ploy to catch up with times, it’s hard to deny that, at the end of the day, it’s nice to see more butts.

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