Scruff does a lot of things right: It’s at the forefront of HIV management, allowing granular disclosure of your status from negative to undetectable. You can specify your safer-sex practices, too—condoms, PrEP, treatment as prevention.
You can even identify as transgender or non-binary.
But one option on Scruff that’s outraged many is the ability to filter by race.
Scruff co-founders Eric Silverberg and Johnny Skandros defended the option in an interview with Buzzfeed
“Those are legitimate critiques,” Silverberg begins before changing course. “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.”
Silverberg knows he’s wading into dangerous territory here. Race is a major topic of discussion these days—from #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite. Anyone whose spent more than five minutes on a hookup app knows its an issue in the gay world, as well.
But Silverberg says he’s just trying to be realistic.
“Ultimately each one of our own individual choices is profoundly informed by the community we grow up in, perhaps by the relationships we had with our siblings or parents.
I mean, to try and unpack that would probably take years for each person and so… I don’t know… I give wide latitude to other people when they talk about the kind of people they’re into.”
In the interview, Skandros is described as uncomfortable and quiet—it’s obviously a subject he doesn’t want to touch. But when he does speak, it’s with the uncomfortable honesty white men in America have when confronted with their own privilege.
Outside of your sexual partner, boyfriend or husband, yes I think it’s good and right to see our assumptions challenged, our biases challenged, and certainly in the public sphere and the workplace.
But when it comes to the very personal choice of who you’re partnered with it’s something we leave to our members.
I think the degree of scrutiny applied to a person’s choice of partner or sexual partner is a different degree of scrutiny than what would be applied to other spheres of social and public life.
Scruff says it polices what people put in their profiles to combat bullying, and reports are reviewed by staff, but when confronted with whether “I like Asian guys” in a profile would violate their terms of service, Silverberg hedges his bets.
“It all depends on context… 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 okay by our guidelines.”
Much of what can be said about allowing filtering for race can also be said about filtering by HIV status. And Scruff also allows you to exclude those who are positive or undetectable.
But on this subject, Silverberg and Skandors are bullish.
“One of the light-bulb moments we had as we were designing this feature was that it’s now 2016 and we need to not be ashamed of sex or of sexual behaviours,” says Silverberg.
“Especially in the US [where there is] a puritanical attitude toward sex, and [so we thought] part of what we can do is to normalize conversations about sexual safety practices because we think that’s going to make our community stronger, less judgmental, and safer.”
Regardless of an app’s filtering or if you’re meeting a hot guy in a coffee shop, race and HIV status are still hot buttons for tribalism and stigma in the gay community, and fixing them is beyond the scope of a hookup app.
But maybe laying out tools to enable them isn’t helping the problem at all.