Screen Love: Queer Intimacies in the Grindr Era

by Tom Roach, State University of New York Press, 2021, 222 pp.  
Hardcover $95.00, Paperback $22.95, ISBN: 9781438482071, ISBN: 978-1-4384-8208-8.

Anyone who has been single during the last decade will be at least cursorily familiar with the affective dimensions of dating apps (the excitement, disappointment, and inevitable miscommunication).  Many have exclaimed the negative impact of these technologies on romantic love. Tom Roach’s Screen Love: Queer Intimacies in the Grindr Era provides a reparative reading of one of the most popular and infamous hookup apps: Grindr, the geosocial app primarily used by men seeking men.1 In this book, Roach argues that virtual cruising is a way to imagine connection “beyond the paradigms of biopolitical identity and neoliberal relationality” (63). 

Roach builds on his previous book Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement,2 and applies the notion of shared estrangement – in simplified terms: solidarity in our differences – to the virtual cruising happening on apps like Grindr. He also reclaims the concept of fungibility from economics and suggests that the Grindr-grid of profiles introduces a mode of relating to others beyond the individualistic market logics of neoliberalism that permeate all aspects of contemporary life. Roach argues that “an ethics of fungibility emphasizes vulnerability, egolessness, and self-substitution,” something that today’s “normatively socialized American men” are in desperate need of learning (22). Crucially, the concept of fungibility in this context does not mean assuming that everyone is exactly the same. Through a comparison of the Grindr grid to Andy Warhol’s pop art works depicting Campbell’s soup cans, Roach highlights how singularity is highlighted in a collection (149), with the result that the subjects on Grindr come to see each other as alike but not identical.  

The racism, classicism, effemephobia and gender- and body-normativity that flourish on Grindr are addressed by Roach, but rather than advocate for regulation of its users, he points to the “moralizing, panicking, and prohibiting” that accompanies the history of social regulation of sexuality (56). Instead, he makes a compelling case for “sitting with the discomfort to mine it for its ethical potential” and, with a nod to Audre Lorde, attempts to “use the tools of neoliberalism to conceive of a way to dismantle the master's house: a house that should not merely be renovated to shelter historically excluded groups but destroyed and built anew” (56, 127).  

In the venture to use the tools of neoliberalism to claim new and more capacious ways of relating, Roach provides an insightful breakdown of contemporary constructions of sexuality. Building on a Foucaultian understanding of sexuality as the lynchpin of biopolitical identity, he shows that two competing concepts of sexuality are at play: “a neoliberal sexuality evaluating how well we ‘employ’ our sexual desires, and an identitarian sexuality concerned with how authentic we are in our sexual beingness” (173). The idea of sexuality as a true essence that is revealed in confession still permeates the cultural landscape and urges us to desire relational norms and romantic myths (this is particularly the case in the mainstream LGBTQ-movement, whose primary goal is to make heteronormative visions of the good life more inclusive). These are also the myths that dating app corporations use to entice users, a promise of finding true love and the singular one. But, as Roach points out, the business model of dating apps is dependent on users not actually finding love and instead coming back to use their technologies. Contemporary sexuality then puts us in a double-bind where we adapt “to the illogical and incommensurate demands of relational norms and romantic myths, on the one hand, and, on the other, we slug it out in an unforgiving marketplace in which such norms and myths are liabilities” (173). The connection between the virtual marketplace of sex and love and the economic labor market is emphasized throughout the book, and Roach’s analysis makes clear how present-day sexuality is inextricably linked to the economic realm.  

Screen Love will be of interest to queer theorists and gender and sexuality studies scholars looking for alternative ways of imagining the future of LGBTQIA-politics beyond the confines of identity politics and homonormativity. Roach presents plenty of openings for non-identitarian modes of thinking about sexual practices and queer futures. The book will also be relevant for scholars studying the digitalization of all types of sexual and romantic relationships, as the connections between the neoliberal marketplace and contemporary romance are laid out in convincing detail.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003).
2 Roach, Tom, Friendship as a way of life: Foucault, AIDS, and the politics of shared estrangement (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012).

Fredrika Thelandersson, Lund University