Dr Lukasz Szulc and Dr Andrew Shield discussed sex, race and migrants on hook-up apps

By January 28, 2020Blog, Events

Member of the Migration Research Group at University of Sheffield, Dr Lukasz Szulc, joined forces with Assistant Professor at Leiden University, Dr Andrew DJ Shield, to discuss race and queer migrants on hook-up apps. The event took place in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield on 9th December 2019 and was entitled ‘Cruising the Interface: Sex, Race and Migrants on Hook-Up Apps’.

The starting point for the discussion was an observation that while the majority of the most popular social media do not ask their users to identify by race, many hook-up apps do ask about race in their registration interfaces. Moreover, different hook-up apps provide different predefined race or ethnicity options to choose from. The panellists started the discussion by asking: Why does race matter in online self-presentation for romantic and/or sexual purposes? What are the differences in conceptualising race or ethnicity in the predefined options of different hook-up apps? And what do users do with them?

The first part of the discussion focused on the design of ethnicity and race options on gay hook-up apps. The panellists pointed out that the most popular hook-up apps are designed in the US and tend to reproduce American racial imaginations (e.g. categories including ‘Black’, ‘Native American’, ‘Pacific Islander’), which are then imposed on users located in different cultural contexts. They also emphasised that the design of the hook-up apps often allows filtering users based on their ethnicity or race, which paves way for sexual racism.

In the second part of the discussion, the panellist turned towards users of hook-up apps. Drawing on their recent research with queer migrants, the panellists discussed how migrant queers navigate the racialized interfaces of hook-up app in their everyday lives.

Dr Szulc drew from his recent research with Polish LGBTQs in the UK, which are summarised in the report Queer #PolesinUK: Identity, Migration and Social Media. He noted how his participants casually reproduced the categories found in hook-up apps. At times, they used English terminology, even though the research was conducted in Polish. Dr Szulc suggested that this points to the influence of global hook-up apps in delineating how race and ethnicity are imagined by the apps’ users around the world. He also pointed out that the great majority of Poles are white and whiteness tends to be taken for granted in digital social interactions in Poland, which indicates that the racialized interfaces of hook-up apps also naturalize the alleged importance of race or ethnicity for romantic and/or sexual relationships.

Dr Shield reported the results of his research with migrants from especially Muslim-majority countries to Denmark, detailed in his recently published book Immigrants on Grindr: Race, Sexuality and Belonging Online. With regard to Grindr’s ‘ethnicity’ menu, Dr Shield explained that many users identify with two labels (e.g. Middle Eastern and Asian, Black, or White) but must ultimately choose one, due to the app’s restrictions. Rejecting the menu is also an option, one which some interviewees described as a ‘political act’; however, narratives also revealed that leaving the menu blank could be a strategy for avoiding racist and Islamophobic messages. Dr Shield suggested that some participants chose a label that they deemed more desirable within an online sexual culture, even when they did not identify with that label. In short, drop-down-menu technologies shape the ways users understand racial difference, and can foment hierarchical and exclusionary online cultures.

The event was hosted by the Digital Society Network’s Global Digital Popular Culture Hub and the Migration Research Group, and has attracted a diverse audience of graduate and postgraduate students as well as staff members from the Departments of Sociological Studies, School of East Asian Studies and Sheffield Methods Institute.