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Gaydar in the age of the internet

Most cultures have traditions which facilitate the process of finding one's mate. Whether it is the Eastern tradition of arranged marriages, or the Western tradition of finding a loved one while pursuing higher education, each culture has influenced the way people find their partners. There are, however, newer traditions which are taking precedent over these older and more established traditions. The most recent and common one is the use of online dating websites.

Many people use websites as a supplement to their relational development, and online dating sites are of special significance to many gay males and lesbians in the initial stages of the coming out process. While the person is still exploring the potential of their personal sexuality, they sometimes seek validation of that sexuality through the development of a relationship (especially if coming out to one’s family went poorly). However, a gay male or lesbian who only recently came out will probably be hesitant to approach a random person and ask them about their sexuality because they are only just realizing their own. Seeking this kind of validation is difficult because there are few obvious clues to determining another person's sexual orientation and it would be unbearable at this point in the person's development to be rejected. And really, how awkward is it to ask someone about their sexual orientation, anyway?

Reasonable places for gays and lesbians to begin their search, then, are online venues. Here, a person's sexual orientation is presented in their profile, so there is no need for awkward conversation starters regarding one's sexuality. Problems arise, however, when the person becomes too comfortable with this method of engaging in initial contact with others and continues to use it long after they should have developed an adaptive gaydar.


There has been significant controversy over the existence of gaydar. Can someone really determine another person's sexual orientation just by observing their actions? Researchers, gay males, and lesbians will generally say yes.

There is a healthy quality to having gaydar because it enables the person to engage in conversation with another person who has a significant chance of also being gay or lesbian. The key element of this ability, however, is that it is socially learned through nonverbal communication. When a person deprives himself of in-person social interaction and engages primarily in online interaction where written communication dominates, he or she cannot develop this critical ability.

Instead of gaydar, what develops in the person who strictly employs online dating strategies are unhealthy relational attitudes and beliefs. The main problem with this state of mind is a lack of healthy “object relations.”

Consider this, if you will. When an average person communicates via instant messenger online, they are exchanging messages with a screenname and/or picture followed by a colon and the other person's message. While most people are able to attach a mental image of a real-life person to the screenname, the person who abuses online dating strategies does not. Instead, the screenname is simply text and the content of the message alone becomes reinforcing or punishing. This is problematic for anyone attempting to develop a relationship with someone online. While one person may be able to recognize the screenname as another human being, the other person may not.

Usually after a sufficient amount of conversation between two people, they will either meet or the person with poor object relations will stop all contact with the other. If a person with poor object relations meets with another person, the relationship will most likely be unsuccessful. The person with poor object relations will regard the other as a "thing" and nothing more. This is why, sometimes, the person with poor object relations relies heavily on the use of labels, and we’ve all met someone like that. They want to know immediately whether they are friends, dating, boyfriends, or married. It isn't the action that is important in this case, nor the person involved, but the label itself takes precedence over all else. It is because of poor object relations that the relationship will dissolve due to the inability to connect on a deeper emotional level.

Are online relationships possible? The simple answer to this question is yes - as long as neither person abuses meeting people online.

Yet another reason to spend less time on Facebook…

Stephen Brewer, M.A. is a registered psychological assistant (PSB33858) in Mira Mesa and is supervised by Angela Spenser, PhD (PSY15450). He runs a LGBT and Kink friendly practice, specializing in addictions, trauma, HIV/AIDS, and men’s issues. He can be reached at 619.377.3120.