Chinese dating apps have provided LGBT people with rare spaces for community building as well as personal connections. But the same apps can end up reinforcing heteronormative hierarchies and excluding some queer groups.

The Politics of Dating Apps: Gender, Sexuality, and Emergent Publics in Urban China

Lik Sam Chan

MIT Press, 2021

Dating apps are no strangers to many people today. Swiping left or right and searching for partners on platforms based on geolocational systems have become daily routines for people active on romantic or sexual markets. Although dubbed “dating apps,” these digital platforms are used for various purposes: not just hookups or marriage, but community building, or even business. Rather than continuing the study of users’ motives or behaviors in private settings (a commonplace approach in mass communication research), Lik Sam Chan, a scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, chose to study the political implications of dating app uses in China.

Rooted in the tradition of second wave feminism, with its claim that “the personal is political,” The Politics of Dating Apps demonstrates how the uses of these services mirror the bigger pictures of China’s gender and sexual politics. It also contributes to scholarship on the liberatory potential of new media technology, particularly for women and queer people. Instead of jumping to a conclusion about dating apps’ power, Chan shows the different layers of their political potential.

Women and queer people have struggled to find spaces to build community and solidarity in heteronormative societies. Throughout history, marginalized people have created or taken advantage of spaces such as reading clubs, tearooms, and bathhouses, allowing them to temporarily depart from hetero-patriarchal gazes.

Chan has coined the concept “networked sexual publics” to demonstrate how digital media, such as dating apps, enable oppressed groups to gain new positions that allow autonomy. The uses of dating apps contest a patriarchal system that limits venues for women’s expression of desires and practices of extramarital sex in China. They also challenge compulsory heterosexuality by generating room to enact same-sex desires and seek queer solidarity.

In recent years, Chinese feminism has been stigmatized online. Social media users condemn women’s pursuit of equal rights as radicalism, and digital platforms silence feminist voices by either removing their posts or closing their accounts. Meanwhile, authorities often police traditional queer spaces, such as parks and public toilets, leaving queer people vulnerable. Although there are burgeoning commercial queer spaces in urban China, they tend to be inaccessible to many queer individuals, particularly rural and working-class people.

In this light, dating apps’ lower bar of access allows more people at the margins to express alternative desires—and to counter social norms in a way that would be impossible in other spaces. Moreover, dating apps have connected people for an array of purposes. Straight women take advantage of apps as labs for sexual experiments. Many queer men have changed their favored cruising sites from physical spaces to dating apps, where they enjoy relative safety to express same-sex desires. As for queer women, in addition to seeking sex and romance on apps, some see them as ideal platforms for building community and use them as sites of activism.

With public space for feminist and queer advocacy in China shrinking, the importance of dating apps has grown. They have become counter-publics for marginalized people, facilitating the circulation of alternative discourses and development of oppositional practices. Sheltered under the names of “dating” or “networking” platforms, these apps seem to be depoliticized and offer a means to expand space for transgressive desires or even political appeals, as long as no pornographic or explicit subversive content is found on their platforms.

In one manifestation of this trend, queer Chinese women are creating quanzi (circles), in which they provide each other with emotional support, share information, and discuss advocacy. The connectivity constructed in these digital communities empowers women who face overlapping predicaments due to their double marginal identities. It offers them either a harbor less disturbed by heteronormative pressures, or a space to engage in feminist and queer politics.

However, these harbors are not entirely safe havens. There is another layer of uses that merits equal scholarly attention. Rather than presenting a utopian arena in which marginalized people subvert straight norms, Chan’s empirical data demonstrate the reproduction and reinforcement of heteronormativity on dating apps. Gender and sexual norms are embedded in the digital infrastructure, users’ daily interactions, and the platforms’ management. This is why many users leave apps with mixed experiences or emotions and must continually negotiate their practices on them.

Dating platform uses contest (or reinforce) gender boundaries in China.

Situated in the genealogy of Chinese masculinity, Chan’s study reveals how straight men perform and reformulate masculinities through profile creation and daily interaction on dating apps. He argues that “cute is the new manly.” Rather than construct a masculine image aligned with Western criteria, Chinese men create less aggressive images online—gentle, innocent, and financially successful. In contemporary Chinese or East Asian popular cultures, a muscular body has rarely occupied a central position in masculinity construction. Instead, an androgynous self-presentation known as “little fresh meat” has gained a foothold, winning the hearts of today’s younger audiences.

In order to maximize romantic and sexual opportunities, straight men incorporate cuteness into their online profiles. Yet underneath the cuteness lies the stability of straight men’s gendered privilege, and the cute masculinity trend has hardly shaken or destabilized gender inequality. Many straight men contend that their masculinity is determined by financial success, rather than their self-presentations. Consequently, their performances of cuteness on dating apps register only the appearance of a larger cultural repertoire that straight men can take advantage of in order to reinforce male privilege. This expands the boundaries of masculinity while reaffirming established hierarchies.

Queer apps have also reinforced gender norms through digital designs and byproduct creations. App users are expected to choose sexual labels on their profiles, often from binary options such as T/P (tomboy and po, slang for femme) for lesbian users, though more choices may be offered. Additionally, apps like Rela have produced various videos to increase their influence among queer users. Chan points out that these videos often represent people with binary gendered representations, such as outwardly butch and feminine features. These images perpetuate the necessity of assigning a gender role in same-sex relationships. The binary gender-based culture on queer apps weakens the queerness and subversiveness of these platforms in a heteronormative society.

The tension between the counter-public and hegemonic features of dating apps prompts two research directions that may be worthy of future inquiry: the impact of China’s dynamic political economy on dating app uses and gender/sexual politics; and trans uses of dating apps that rest on bounded identities. Exploring the two themes may further illustrate how this tension has been produced and manifested.

Dating apps have faced divergent fates since their debut in China; many have already shut down, such as Zank. Meanwhile, others, like Blued, have thrived in the market. Blued chief executive Ma Baoli has claimed that unlike in Western societies, queer politics in China should start from, and rely on, businesses—the pink economy—due to limited space for political expression.

In a 2020 article about Blued’s listing on Nasdaq, media scholar Shuaishuai Wang called attention to a conservative turn on the part of Blued as it pursued a more ambitious commercial goal of becoming a pink conglomerate. The platform adhered to 2017 government rules requiring the removal of all homosexuality-related terms and downplayed its identity as an app for gay men. In this light, it is necessary to understand how a shifting political economy has shaped dating app use over time, and to investigate whether users have had varied experiences in different periods or on different apps.

In Zank’s early days, it attempted to provide a community for users, rather than merely a hookup tool. Despite this being a failed attempt in economic terms, many gay men still reminisce about early Zank. Some users believe that it cultivated queer cultures different from today’s Blued and Fanka (which used the name Aloha before 2020). Zank provided many interest-based forums, which enabled gay men to develop various types of connections, in addition to short-term sexual relationships.

Such examples show the transformation of the dating apps market during the past decade and the distinctions among various apps. Delving into plural uses of apps over time and across platforms would illuminate which socioeconomic factors have shaped counterpublic and hegemonic cultures in these digital communities. The growing commercialization and tightening control of queer dating apps have refashioned the tension between their subversive and conservative potential. It is crucial to revisit what transgressiveness and queerness stand for in the shifting landscape of dating apps.

Chan’s book presents his studies of four categories of cisgender people’s uses of dating apps. This prompts another subject for future exploration: trans uses and politics. Is there a trans (counter)public on dating apps? Are they shunned as unideal users by these apps? And which apps are adopted most frequently by trans users?

It might be assumed that trans people can choose a particular app based on their self-identified gender and/or sexuality. Yet trans users have encountered extra struggles in finding a “home” among dating apps, particularly those who do not fit within a bordered gender. Grindr was originally designed for gay men, but in recent years more straight transwomen users and straight-identified men who are interested in transwomen have become active users. Their uses have created tension between groups, and an identity crisis on Grindr. This has happened on Chinese gay dating apps as well, though it is not as commonplace as on Grindr. Rela reportedly has refused trans lesbians’ registrations in China because their gender identities do not align with their sex on their IDs.

Many queer dating apps are open to sexually queer people, while closing their doors to gender queer users. Thus, these apps turn out to be highly instrumental, catering to users with bounded identities that make data-driven matching simpler to manage. Understanding trans people’s uses of dating apps complicates the politics of gender, not only in heterosexual society, but also in queer communities. It also elucidates how uses of these commercialized dating platforms contest (or reinforce) gender boundaries in China.

Chan’s innovative research connects everyday digital media uses to China’s larger issues of gender, sexual, and queer politics. Taking neither a utopian nor a pessimistic stance, he unpacks the multiplicity of dating apps’ political and social effects on both marginalized groups and those in power. More importantly, this study precipitates further questions about dating apps’ potential to challenge heteronormativity, and to create space for marginalized individuals, in a society with shrinking room for feminist and queer politics.