Hookup Culture in Today’s World

In this episode, Kirsten and Bey talk to the VP of Communication for Grindr, Patrick Lenihan. Patrick shares how Grindr became a popular hub for gay people to meet, chat, and hook up. Later in the episode, Dr. Jayatri Das is back with her findings on hook-up culture in today’s world.

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Transcript
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Hello and welcome to So Curious, presented by the Franklin Institute.

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We are your hosts.

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I am an incredible rapper named The Bul Bey!

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And I am a mind-blowing stand-up comic!

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I'm Kirsten Michelle Cills.

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On this season of So Curious!, we are

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talking all about the science behind love, sex, and relationships.

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Everything from your brain on love, to why

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we obsess over our favorite television characters, to how science and tech are

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changing our relationships with each other.

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For this episode, we are going to be talking with the VP of Grindr, Patrick

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Lenihan, and we're going to be discussing the popular gay dating app.

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And later, we are joined by the chief

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bioscientist of the Franklin Institute, Dr.

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Jayatri Das, to get some insight into the role science

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plays in the behaviors and social norms around hookup culture.

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Bey, I'm going to be honest with you.

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I am so stoked to talk to our first guest.

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Something that I know about Grindr is that it's less of an algorithm and it's more

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proximity-based, which is, like, pretty ahead of its time.

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So with Tinder, there's more of this

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complicated algorithm, but Grindr is all about proximity.

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Yeah.

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So Grindr presents you with options based on who is closest to you physically.

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Literally, down to the 100-foot measurement.

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And the cool thing about Grindr is it was so revolutionary, because it was the first

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platform to really build community for gay people in your area.

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Have you ever been to New York's Pride? I haven't.

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As a gay myself [laughs], Pride rocks!

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You can't walk more than 100 feet without running into Grindr merch.

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It is everywhere. They are, like, the kings of this.

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And they really found a way to bring together communities, especially in areas

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where it might not be as okay to be outwardly gay, maybe in different parts of

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the country, different parts of the world, to still be able to find each other.

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Yeah. Which is very cool.

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Yeah.

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Not every town in rural America is going to have a gay bar.

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Right. Or just interests, right?

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Interests that kind of intersect in these

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particular communities and pockets of places.

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Yeah.

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How are you supposed to meet your fellow gay people if there's no drag brunch?

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Yeah, right.

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That's where I've met all my closest friends.

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Mimosas...!

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Well, this is a great time to introduce

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our first guest, who knows more about Grindr than most people.

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Patrick Lenahan is vice president and head of communications at Grindr, the world's

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largest social networking app for gay, bi, trans and queer people.

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As Grindr's chief spokesperson, Patrick

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represents the company to media investors and the broader LGBTQ+ community.

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Thank you so much for being here, Patrick.

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Welcome to the So Curious! Podcast.

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Can you tell us more about your history, the history of Grindr, how revolutionary

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it has been for the gay community and beyond?

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I came out as a gay man 20 years ago.

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When I came out -- and I think that a lot of people have this experience -- even

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though I lived in northern suburban New Jersey, which is relatively cosmopolitan,

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and you can sort of like, see Manhattan from certain points in town, you still

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have this impression that you're the only gay person in the world.

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And that has been, I think, a prevailing

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experience for a lot of queer people throughout history: not knowing whether or

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not there are people like them, and not being able to find one another.

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That sense of isolation is incredibly heavy and tough to carry.

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And that's what queer community has been,

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is people coming together around these commonalities.

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This was, like, an early, first-generation app when apps were the sexiest new thing.

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"There's an app for that."

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Right! Those sorts of commercials! And it was invented by this guy, Joel Simkhai in

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Los Angeles, who was like, "I want to find my people, I want to find gay people.

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And it's got to be easier than looking around and guessing." And so

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he developed this really, really simple technology, and it's just

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people who create profiles, and seeing those people in proximity.

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If you download Grindr today,

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You see, upon creating an account, the

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first 100 people who are closest to you, who are also on the app.

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And you see the information about those

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people that they choose to share with you, a profile photo, their gender, their age,

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what they're into and interests, whether or not they want to share photos, whether

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or not they want to meet up, things like that.

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And you can see whether they're online,

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and you can chat with anybody who's sort of in your area.

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And then there's a variety of feature sets

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that are sort of behind some paywalls and that expand your reach and your ability to

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talk to other people to 600, or unlimited....

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We have roughly 12 million monthly active users, which is a lot of people, and

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they're all queer, and they're all looking to connect with one another.

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And so our mission, which -- this is now a

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13-year-old company, and so it's been through different leaders and groups of

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people running it -- but I think the mission has stayed more or less the same.

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And the way we describe it is, it's our

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mission to connect queer LGBTQ+ people with one another and with the world.

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And you mentioned proximity just a second ago.

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Why is that so important to building community?

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The Internet has opened up the world to everybody, and we can create community

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online, but speak really quickly to proximal communing, and just connecting.

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I think a lot of social media aims to BE

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your social relationships, to completely intermediate them.

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And that is not what Grindr does.

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Grindr is there to accelerate your social relationships with people offline.

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And so the point is to actually meet people and to get to know people.

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And yeah, you can chat on the app for as

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long as you want, and if that's where you're most comfortable and feel like

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connecting there is what's right for you, then that's great.

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But the idea is that people who are close

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to one another will want to meet up in person, and we are encouraging of that.

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Obviously, you have to be safe and we have

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this very detailed, robust safety guide that we share with all of our users.

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But we think people meeting people is really important.

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It's sort of like the foundation of it's,

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somewhere in the middle of Maslow's hierarchy.

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So we think it's pretty important.

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Well, first of all, I just want to say I

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love what you just said a few minutes ago about growing up in a smaller town, and

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then just really feeling like you're the only queer person there.

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I'm from the suburbs outside of Philly,

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and it's so interesting how Philly is such a....

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I mean, famously gay! You know, we have

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the Gayborhood, and that's where I ended up going to college.

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But prior to that, I remember feeling the exact same way.

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It's like, "oh, I'm the sole gay person in

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the world." And then I moved into a place called, on Google Maps!, called the

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Gayborhood, with rainbow signs on every street sign and, you know...just amazing.

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So. I love that thought.

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I've never put that into words before, but can you tell me, in your personal

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experience, did you use Grindr prior to working for Grindr?

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Oh, yes, funny story!

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We love those.

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I was living in the Middle East in Doha,

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Qatar, and a friend of mine came back from the US.

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And was like, "you would not believe what they have now!" I was like, "What?!?

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Like, there's an app just to find other gay people, what?!?"

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And you couldn't download it there, and there are reasons why you couldn't

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download it there that you could fill a whole other podcast about...

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But, so, I didn't really download it until

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after I left. I was in Doha for two years, and then I moved to San Francisco.

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And then I got to San Francisco -- I land there -- I spent years in the Middle East.

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I'm not acculturated to

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[laughs] Northern California, and didn't have any gay friends there.

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And so the first thing I did was download Grindr.

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And even though I lived like a mile from the Castro, that was still one of the ways

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where I started to make gay and queer friends right off the jump.

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And I was like, "oh my God, there's so many of us here!"

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Grindr does not feel like Match.com, Tinder, Bumble.

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It's not designed the same way it came

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before these apps, and it's designed very differently.

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So those apps all, it's like a swipe model, right?

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You're like shown a card and you see some information, you see a picture, you see

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some pictures, it's left or right and you make a decision.

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And maybe you match, maybe you don't.

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There's basically a control valve these companies have of how many people they're

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showing you, and it's algorithmically determined.

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And it's probably a little bit like gambling, right?

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Like, they're going to give you a match

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one in every 125 swipes to keep you interested and engaged.

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We don't do that.

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That's not the point.

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We hope people make connection.

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And at the core of the queer LGBTQ

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experience is sex in one way, shape, or form, right?

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Sexual expression, sexual exploration, identity.

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So at the core of any gay app is going to be sex.

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But it's much more than that, I think.

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And the app's structure of the application speaks to that.

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My own personal experience with Grindr has

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been way better when it's about just making friends and chatting with people in

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new places than getting into the whole hookup-y thing.

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That's fine and good and great, but personally, I have been, in my life, less

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frustrated when I'm just on there looking for friends and people.

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Did the community create Grindr or did

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Grindr help cultivate the community, how people interact and talk to one another?

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I will say definitely Grindr did not create the community.

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Absolutely not. Yeah.

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And specifically, "hookup culture."

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Did the app create that culture, or was the culture already there?

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Definitely not, I think.

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Okay, great.

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The great thing about being gay is there's actually this incredibly long and well

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There's some pretty fascinating history

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documented of LGBTQ people, whether or not they were called that.

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And more recently, you've got books like

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"The Answer from the Dance," and "Faggots," and "Giovanni's Room." And

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these are all books that were written in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and they describe a

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culture that anybody who's in the queer community today would read and go, "oh,

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yeah, that sounds like Saturday night at 3-Dollar Bill!"

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I think hookup culture existed

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for sure, although most of my adult sexual life has been since Grindr was out.

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But at the same time, Grindr is not so much a product of the community.

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Grindr is like so many pieces of

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technology, kind of like a mirror or a cipher for human behavior.

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At its core, it's a very simple and basic piece of technology.

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It's literally just accounts on a proximity grid.

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That is like, really basic stuff.

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And all of our competitors have copied that [laughs].

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So it's really how you use it.

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And I think it's really with all pieces of

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technology, like Jia Tolentino's, "Trick Mirror," where she talks about, we look at

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this thing and we see human behavior on this unbelievably massive scale that we

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probably were never supposed to see it at, right?

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And I think a lot of what we see in this

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giant, giant "Trick Mirror" is stuff that we don't particularly like sometimes.

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And sometimes it's stuff that we do really like.

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We have I think a tendency to focus on stuff that we don't.

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In any event, I think that it's definitely a product of gay culture in many ways.

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I mean, I don't know, we could go deep on this for a long time.

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To just straight answer your question,

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Grindr is more the product of the community than anything else.

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Yeah. And I feel like one of the beauty of

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Grindr specifically is that it's creating, it's taking something with

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so much history -- like you said, that had to, at many points in history, be

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underground -- and making it visible and then as a result, safer in so many ways

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and making it more transparent, which is incredible.

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And so I'm curious because, for example, during New York Pride or

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Philly Pride, there is so much Grindr merch everywhere, right?

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Which is amazing.

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What would you say is Grindr's presence offline?

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What is your mission in supporting local queer spaces?

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This is something about which I personally care a great deal, and the company is

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really committed to. We've talked about how we see ourselves as facilitating and

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accelerating social relationships, not replacing them.

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And there is a whole and the sort of hyper-local nature of our business is

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showing people things like, right there, that they can go and walk to and meet.

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And we want that to carry over into how we

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support queer businesses, bars, nightlife and experiences.

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That, over the last two years has been

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something that's been pretty hard to do, with COVID.

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And we've sort of fought that fight as everyone else has.

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We've done a lot to partner with a group called Save Our Spaces, which is focused

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specifically on helping keep LGBTQ bars and nightlife venues open and thriving.

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And we've, I think, done 30 different bar

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activations, all COVID-protocol compliant, just to keep

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driving traffic to those bars where we traditionally have showed up.

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And we want to make sure those bars continue to be successful.

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There is no Grindr without gay spaces.

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There's really not, right?

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I think that there's a lot of...

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One thread of things that I hear, and I've been at the company three months, so I've

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heard everybody has called me to criticize the company, and to praise the company,

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and I've sort of heard everything from every side.

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And one criticism is, oh, well, Grindr's killing gay bars.

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I was like, I don't actually know if

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that's true because, yes, you can now go on Grindr and meet people.

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And before you could only really go to gay

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bars, at the same time, it's become much more socially acceptable to be gay.

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So I think gay people are showing up sort

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of everywhere, and everywhere is a little bit of a gay bar now.

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And you can take it or leave it, but I'm a big believer in having space that is

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specifically for queer people and puts queer people first.

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And I think we are looking for, now that we're moving into sort of this next phase

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of COVID where things are -- we know how to handle things -- I think we're going to

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be doing more stuff offline that we're really excited about.

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Just for people who may be listening and

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aren't super familiar with the logistics of Grindr, can you just tell us how you

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specifically provide that info to other users?

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Totally. So when you sign up, we walk you

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through it, you sort of have to click all the boxes and say all the things.

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And we encourage you to take a look at our privacy policy.

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And we will regularly push into the

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Inbox -- which is just where all your messages show up -- we'll push messages

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letting you know about things going on in your community.

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We'll let you know about, if there's safety things going on, or there have

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definitely been times when there's been an STI outbreak in a particular area, and

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we've been able to push a notification to encourage testing, things like that.

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So that like really basic. It's really basic.

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It's just literally sending messages to people, based on where they are, with the

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information that we think that they're going to need.

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And this becomes particularly helpful in countries -- because we're not just

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operational in the US, we're operational in nearly every country in the world, and

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that includes countries where it is illegal to be gay.

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And we don't operate in those countries

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because we think we're going to get subscription revenue or anything.

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We operate in those countries because the third-party LGBTQ+

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activists who are operational there have asked us to stay operational in those

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countries, because we create opportunity for people there to connect with one

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another that they really wouldn't have otherwise.

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There's a greater burden of security in those places.

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So in places like Egypt, we push daily

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safety messages to our users, letting them know about what's going on.

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And we do that in a number of different

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places where it is much more risky to be gay.

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And again, that information typically is coming from -- it's not our information,

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it's information from these nonprofits and third parties.

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We're just acting as connective tissue again, and making sure our users stay

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safe. W e don't monetize or make any money

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off it, this is purely like, this is just the right thing to do, to stay in these

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countries and to help people connect with one another, even if there are risks.

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Which is amazing.

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And I'm really happy that you're here to share that.

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So people know that Grindr extends beyond connections.

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It's also information, it's also safety,

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it's all these different things rolled into one.

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So, Patrick Lenahan, thank you so much for taking the time to come on here and talk

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to us about not just the app and not just the culture, but the overall community.

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And just learning these different

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dynamics, it certainly was enlightening for me.

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Yeah. Thank you so much.

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We really appreciate your time. Thank you guys for having me on.

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I really appreciate it.

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[show music]

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So what surprised you most about this conversation around Grindr?

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Oh, my God. I thought I knew everything about Grindr.

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My biggest takeaway from that is how

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Grindr works in other parts of the world and areas where it might not at all be

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okay -- it's sometimes illegal -- to be gay, and so then they have the whole not

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just their usual community and all that, but then they also have the ability with

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those extra features in places like that where they have notifications to keep

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yourself physically safe, keep your health safe.

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That is dope. No, it's really important.

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Like, if there's an STI outbreak in a certain pocket of a place, you can

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know about that, and have information about your health, that is always good.

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it's not all about sex.

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Some of this was just about building

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community and meeting people with similar interests.

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You might be in a space where... Obviously we live in a cis-hetero-dominated

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narrative space in most of our communities.

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So being able to navigate and meet new people is always fun and always great.

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We're social animals.

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We need to always build and grow, no matter what our orientations are.

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Yeah. Not everyone gets the luxury of living in

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the Gayborhood in Philadelphia, like I did all through college.

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I'm sure that was fun. Oh, buddy...!

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[laughter]

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On the topic of hookups, first of all, we can see how insane the

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changes in science and medicine -- the positive changes -- have been, from as far

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as hundreds of years ago to 50 years ago to even five years ago.

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And it really changes the risks and the perception of hookup culture, right?

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Because now we have a lot more of an ability to do it safely.

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Absolutely. I haven't hooked up a bunch, and I'm in a

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relationship right now, so I don't hook up at all.

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But what I really appreciate is just how that's really being held as a "normal

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human behavior," the nee,d or desire, the urge, to want to connect with someone and

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be intimate or have a moment, a brief moment, but do it safely and do it in a

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way where we're not dehumanizing anyone or jeopardizing anyone's health.

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So I appreciate that.

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Really entering the space of science and

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behavior and medicine and so on and so forth.

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As with all questions that come up, we got a consult with our girl, the chief

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bioscientist at the Franklin Institute, Dr.

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Jayatri Das. Hey, Bey.

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Hey, Kirsten. How are you?

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Good. How are you?

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Good. So we're talking hookup culture, right?

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Uhhh...Yeah.Hell, yeah.

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Aren't we always?

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Well, I think what fascinates me as an

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entry point into this topic is just how common it is.

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I was looking at some data, and some of the most recent data actually suggests

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that looking at college students, 60% to 80% of college students have had some type

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of hookup experience, and it's common among younger teens as well.

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But this is clearly, like,

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a very common experience that's kind of embedded in our culture these days.

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60% to 80% is a large number. That's a big number.

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Yeah.

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So, Jayatri, tell us a little bit about

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your research in the topic of hookup culture.

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Well, one of the things that I was interested in, from a biological point of

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view is, where is this culture coming from?

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Because maybe it's always existed, but

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we're also seeing some changes in physiological trends about how our bodies

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work that intersect, again with some social trends that I think people are

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looking at, as a reason for why there's this prevalence of hookup culture.

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And so if you look at the United States,

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the age at which people get married and reproduce is getting later and later, and

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that's definitely tied to a lot of social factors.

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And at the same time, the age at which

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kids are reaching puberty is getting younger.

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And so there's this longer time span in which young adults are ready for

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reproduction and physiological interactions in that sense,

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but they're not psychologically or socially ready to settle down yet.

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And so that increased time frame, I think, is part of the reason that scientists and

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social scientists think, that has given rise to the prevalence of hookup culture.

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Interesting. So if I'm understanding you correctly,

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there's a much larger gap now between when you're physically able to, and might have

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the physical urges to have sex versus when socially and logistically and all of that,

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you can actually be building relationships.

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And so that gap is sort of leading to things like hookups.

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Yeah, that's right.

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So if you look at some of the causes of why we think kids are entering puberty

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earlier, you look at just the fact that we're healthier across the board.

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So there's lower rates of disease.

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Nutrition is changing.

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People have more stability in terms of their health, their food, their shelter.

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There's also some theories that there's potential environmental exposure to

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chemicals that might disrupt our hormone function.

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There's a lot of questions.

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We don't really know why.

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But you can see trends in that the average

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age of puberty has decreased by almost a year, which is pretty significant when

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you're thinking about the lifespan of kids.

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Yeah. What was the prior average age?

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What did it downgrade to?

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So you're seeing shifts from age 11-12 down to nine or ten.

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Hundreds of years ago, we were looking at puberty at age 15-16.

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Wow. Right.

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When people were really facing a lot of

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hardships in just sort of getting to that age beyond childhood disease.

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Yes.

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Which is interesting, because I feel like in older days, at least, the way it's

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portrayed in movies, yeah, you did go through puberty later, but then that was

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immediately the age you, like, got married!

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Exactly. Right.

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There was no gap. You didn't have time to hook up.

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Yeah. Right.

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Aww, no time. Yeah.

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I'm starting to notice that there seems to be like, some legitimacy around just

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sexual pleasures and developing a language around that.

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Maybe hookups are part of that. I don't know.

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Okay, so we're going to switch gears to part two of "Body of Knowledge."

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We went to the Internet to find out what people are asking about hooking up.

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We typed in, "how do hookups," and we let the Google algorithm do the rest.

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I'm so curious to see what comes up.

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We saw some of the most commonly asked questions about hookups were, "how do

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hookups work?" I would love to know as well.

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If I ever find out, I will let them know.

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Yeah, I mean, should I try to answer that?

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Yeah, go ahead.

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How do hookups work?

For me, what stood out was:

:Well, it's normally after:

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I don't know.

For me, what stood out was:

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Okay, so the next question that we put into the Google search, right, is "how do

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hookups," and the autocomplete" "how do hookups start?"

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How do hookups start?

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I mean, you know, a little, "wink, wink, nudge, nudge."

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Yeah. Wearing your hottest outfit, feeling good.

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Yeah.

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I would imagine it's different for everyone.

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There are different entry points. I guess.

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[Laughter] That may have been a terrible framing [laughter], but...

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There are platforms and apps and numbers and groups and communities.

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:nt ways, I guess, to do it in:

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Some of the work I was reading really focused on the fact that both the

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motivations to hook up as well as the reactions afterward that people experience

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are really complicated, and we don't understand them very well.

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So, for example, in one study, they looked

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at people who are experiencing, maybe feelings of loneliness or depressive

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symptoms, who might look at a hook-up as a way to feel better.

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And in those people, they did see a

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decrease in those feelings after hooking up.

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So there's like a positive impact there.

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But in the same study, if you looked at

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people who had fewer of those depressive symptoms starting out, then often these

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casual engagements end up feeling more depressed afterwards.

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So it's hard to figure out and just really

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pinpoint why people are doing this for any specific reason.

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I think it really differs and there's a

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whole spectrum of reactions and feelings that people feel afterwards.

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Next, we continued typing in, "how do

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hookups," and the next question was, "end."

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How do hookups end, Bey?

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Hopefully pleasantly, with everyone being okay with what took place.

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Hopefully, amicably?

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Yeah.

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And...quietly?

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[laughter]Great. Okay, Jayatri, what do you think?

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How do hookups end?

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There's a whole spectrum, right?

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There's a little bit of data in terms of

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what makes people more likely to feel regret.

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And some of what I read was that one-night stands, or hooking up with somebody that

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you've known for less than 24 hours, are two factors that are more likely to

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predict whether you'll feel regret afterwards.

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Damn, that tracks though.

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I mean, it seems like common sense there.

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Yeah, right.

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I wasn't really surprised to read that.

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Jayatri, as always, thank you so much.

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And thank you so much to Patrick for being on this episode of So Curious!

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Next week we are going to talk about what is going on under the surface when we fall

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in love -- literally, like biologically, what is going on?

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This and more on next week's episode.

For me, what stood out was:

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And don't forget to subscribe to this podcast. Wherever you listen to podcasts

For me, what stood out was:

:

and music and content, just subscribe right now.

For me, what stood out was:

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Do it. So Curious!

For me, what stood out was:

:

is presented by the Franklin Institute.

For me, what stood out was:

:

And special thanks to the Franklin

For me, what stood out was:

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Institute producers, J oy Montefusco and Dr.

For me, what stood out was:

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Jayatri Das.

For me, what stood out was:

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This podcast is produced by Radio Kismet.

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Radio Kismet is Philadelphia's premiere podcast production studio.

For me, what stood out was:

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The managing producer is Emily Charish.

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The producer is Liliana Green.

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The lead audio engineer and editor is Christian Cedarlund.

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Head of operations is Christopher Plant.

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And the editors are Lauren DeLuca and Justin Berger.

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The science writer is Kira Vallette.

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And the graphic designer is Emma Sager.

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And I am The Bul Bey, signing off for today.

For me, what stood out was:

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And I am Kirsten Michelle Cills, also signing off for today.

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