The creators of the gay dating app Scruff, aimed at the scruffier guys, defended their decision to allow users to sort potential mates by race and even express racial preferences in dating profiles in an interview with BuzzFeed.
Eric Silverberg and Johnny Skandros created Scruff, which competes with the more well-known app Grindr, to appeal to hairier men and their fans, at the same time seeming to buck gay male beauty standards.
"You didn’t have to be a 22-year-old with a V-shaped torso to feel at home there. With its 'Match' feature — bringing together those open to relationships — you could even find love.
"It welcomed others in, too: trans and non-binary users, too often left out. Most noticeably, Scruff introduced a range of features both to forge a community of HIV-positive men and to encourage members to glide across the viral divide. Entwining with the advent of PrEP — the drug Truvada, which prevents HIV — Scruff made old divisions between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men more porous. Today 8 million use the app."
However, like the more popular app Grindr, Scruff allows users to look past entire populations of people based on race alone. A study conducted by OkCupid, a mainstream dating app that does not allow race-based filtering found in 2009 that its white male users got more replies to messages than any other group.
While people are entitled to like whom they like, creating a climate where race-based sexual preference is acceptable can be both demoralizing and fetishistic.
The website Sexual Racism Sux! explains why race-based ads and filtering can be harmful:
"Imagine how it feels to read ad after ad that excludes you based solely on your race. Imagine for a moment, that you were in a minority in the country you were born in and kept reading apparently endless profiles saying you weren’t desirable. It just might ruin your day, mightn’t it? Do you really want to help make other men feel bad about themselves?"
The creators of the site also argue that if dating bias exists, it should be challenged and confronted: "We believe these things because we think that narrow-mindedness, hurtful speech and exclusionism have no place in the gay community."
While Scruff creator Silverberg admitted to BuzzFeed that those were valid critiques, he stood by the app's settings.
“'Ultimately we wanted to build an app and a service that enables guys to find the kind of guys they’re into and for some people that includes…' He stops himself and continues: 'That can mean many things for different people. Sometimes they have ethnic preferences, sometimes they have height/weight preferences, sometimes people have body hair preferences.'"
"'Right!' pipes up Skandros with the knowing chuckle of a man who has fallen victim to ruthless body hair discrimination.'"
It is true that fetishistic typecasting exists in the gay dating arena, with complex delineations of identity ranging from bear to otter and from twink to butch. However, people of all races can fit into each of those other categories, and unlike a bias against bearded men, racism is systemic.
Diego, a 32-year-old Latino man who met his boyfriend on Scruff, said he didn't agree with all of its policies. "So I'm sure apps will claim they give people what they want, but the categories they provide reinforce stereotypes and shape user attitudes too," he told The Advocate.
"I guess a search engine, if it covers depth and breadth to enough general user satisfaction, does inform ways of categorizing, but here it is riding on much, much more powerful social forces," he said. "Searching, however, is different from putting it in your profile, which is public and therefore more aggressive — especially the way some guys write their 'preferences' out."
BuzzFeed asked Scruff founders if there was any point at which stating a "preference" might cross the line into what the founders would consider racism?
“It all depends on context,” says Silverberg. “If someone is writing something on their profile with a hostile intention, regardless of the exact language, that will be investigated and may cause the profile to be suspended. If someone is communicating a preference from a place of honesty without a hostile intention then that would be OK by our guidelines.”
Scruff is hardly the first site to allow searching by race, and new niche dating services pop up every day, catering to individual preferences — such as FarmersOnly.com and GlutenFreeSingles.com — and it's kind of cute or even sort of funny until something like the site WhereWhitePeopleMeet.com is introduced. "I'm not even looking," Diego said when I told him about the site."The thing is, white people don't get it."