Alumni profile - Sam Miles
Although my PhD was about a specific thing: dating apps on mobile phones for gay men in London, the questions that it interrogates are much wider. The answers I pursued were about how we use technology for our everyday social and sexual lives and how we rationalise this technology use.
Your PhD research project spanned human geography and digital technology, examining the intersections between GPS/locative media, cities and queer theory. What inspired your PhD thesis?
I started thinking about my PhD thesis in 2012/13; I talked with more and more friends who had had mixed experiences of dating apps (good, bad and interesting) and it struck me that dating apps are extremely popular in the gay dating world, but that there isn’t a lot of critical unpacking of how they work and what they mean for people. What we see when it comes to mobile phone technology, such as dating apps or online market places, is that technology moves faster than the social codes that we build around the technology itself. When it comes to gay dating apps, there are lots of questions for me about what happens if someone isn’t like their profile. I’ve talked to lots of people who say that they feel bad about leaving so would still go on a date or hook up with someone, which is really interesting as it suggests there is a kind of social pressure exerted by the technology that we use, and the tools don’t exist to help us think about this social pressure yet.
There are lots of things that I think are great about dating apps: they help you meet like-minded people, such as sexual minorities in areas where you might not always find them, and they open up a huge online arena of partners, friends, or hook ups, which can be liberating. But it is important to note that some prejudices and hierarchies are replicated from offline life to online life, such as racism and looks- based prejudices, and there are lots of interesting ethical debates for users around sending naked pictures, especially in relation to certain professions such as teaching or nursing. I wanted to learn about all of the above.
What were the overall findings of your PhD thesis?
The first thing to emphasise is that although my PhD was about a specific thing: dating apps on mobile phones for gay men in London, the questions that it interrogates are much wider. The answers I pursued were about how we use technology for our everyday social and sexual lives and how we rationalise this technology use.
My PhD consisted of a series of qualitative interviews with all different kinds of men who were seeking other men. But my overall finding was a real kind of ambivalence. Participants talked so much about how they hate dating apps and how they delete them, yet they actually use them quite a lot. Participants also complained about other users being timewasters and prevaricating rather than meeting up - and yet in the same interview they spoke about how they didn’t want to meet up with and/or they were putting off guys themselves. Participants further spoke about the exciting potential of somewhere like London and how that potential is tripled or quadrupled by being able to find people online. It was also clear that the participants wanted relationships but that often what they were looking for was not what they got.
Users of dating apps also tend to undertake a process of self-surveillance where they look at themselves and think: do I look hot in my photos? Are the activities that my photos are portraying cool? Have I got an Aperol Spritz in my hand, am I at a gig? We are constantly marketing ourselves on dating apps and that’s fine, but it always helps to be aware of what we’re doing. Another interesting finding is that certain dating apps, especially Tinder, have a game-like potential. We spend a lot of time on dating apps and it is quite hard not to because they keep us coming back for more. They are addictive.
Why did you choose to explore this thesis specifically in relation to non-heterosexual men? Would you expand your research to explore how other members of the LGBTQ+ community negotiate dating apps? Or how heterosexual individuals use dating apps?
I started from what I knew but I am really aware that within the LGBTQ+ spectrum, research focusing on gay men still dominates digital technology and there is a gap in research when it comes to other orientations in this spectrum. However, this gap has been filled in more recent years by people like Stefanie Duguay. Another thing to note is that this field is called ‘Geographies of Sexualities’ and while we often study non-heterosexuality, we are also interested in how heterosexual people meet partners, have sex or watch pornography, and how Tinder has for example changed attitudes to casual sex in heterosexual populations. My gut instinct is that it has opened up conversations about sex outside of relationships which is really important. I’d love to research this more in future.
Before we discuss your post-Queen Mary life, what was special about your time at Queen Mary?
I really liked that when I first came to Queen Mary there wasn’t very good Postgraduate representation in the Students’ Union, so I stood for and was elected twice for the role of Postgraduate Research Rep and through this role I met a lot of great people, got involved with student politics and did NUS training. I also really liked the Geography department as I found it very collegial and very friendly.
I think that society is becoming more accepting of sexual minorities but starting with those minorities that are most privileged or palatable, so gay white men or gay white women. As a gay man I am a minority, but I am still more privileged than my trans friends. It will take time for acceptance to more broadly welcome sexual difference.
How have you built upon this research in your current role as Assistant Professor in social sciences at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine?
My post at LSHTM focuses on sexual and reproductive health and my scope has widened beyond London and beyond gay men. My work now focuses on women and marginalized communities around the world, including refugees, young people and LGBTQ+ people. These people are likely to have their sexual and reproductive health and rights limited (or simply non-existent) and a lot of this is because of patriarchal dominance. These restrictions and limitations have huge implications - for example, on being able to express your LGBTQ+ identity, being able to access safe contraception and abortion services and being able to access comprehensive sex and sexuality education. We conduct qualitative research with marginalized populations in complex and challenging settings like Nepal and Uganda and with these key populations, I do look a little bit into digital technology. For example, in Uganda, how do young people access or seek information about contraception, or seek LGBTQ+ partners?
How easy is it to encourage these marginalized groups to talk openly and freely?
It can be difficult, but we take a participatory approach which means that we involve local communities in our research. For example, we hire peer researchers, such as young people, to interview other young people about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. This comes with its own complications; however, we train our interviewers to overcome their own potential biases in order to get the most authentic data. This not only generates high quality results, but also benefits community members who learn new skills. This way of working is of course complicated by Covid and the fact that we are having to conduct interviews remotely, but we are making progress.
The work that I am doing now will make a difference to young people, refugees, and LGBTQ+ people who are in much more challenging settings than British gay men. So, from this point of view, the research that I am doing will help the world a bit I hope.
There are so many dating apps now that cater to all different sexual orientations. Do you think the rise of dating apps such as Grindr, which caters exclusively to gay, bi, trans and queer people, show that society is more accepting of LGBTQ+ persons or less accepting?
I think that society is becoming more accepting of sexual minorities but starting with those minorities that are most privileged or palatable, so gay white men or gay white women. As a gay man I am a minority, but I am still more privileged than my trans friends. Bisexual people further suffer from exclusion or prejudice from both the heterosexual and the gay communities. Bisexual people don’t feel at home in either setting – they are dismissed by heterosexual people because of their otherness and the gay community doesn’t understand existing beyond a binary of one or the other. It will take time for acceptance to more broadly welcome sexual difference.
Technology is becoming increasingly more advanced and dating apps can predict certain behavioural traits, such as our ideal type and likes and don’t likes in a partner. Considering this and the fact that Covid and the latest lockdowns have meant that all dating must happen virtually, do you think that dating apps will eventually take over as the main way in which people meet and connect with others romantically?
This is something I have done specific research on – as to whether dating apps for LGBTQ+ people sidestep the existence of gay bars or a gay physical community. The ‘death of the gay bar’ is a big debate and some people do blame dating apps for this. However, I blame economic and neoliberal forces. In Shoreditch and East London for example, lots of gay bars have closed in the past five years because of spiralling rent. Dating apps exacerbate this but they also open up new formats for meeting and new spaces, some of which might be online, or offline, or hybrid. I think the future will be interesting and I think the lockdown and the pandemic has increased people’s digital literacy so much that we’re going to see a wider range of people using technology. The problem is, we still have a digital divide: the rich still have more access to technology than the poor and that is why I think broadband should be nationalised.
Do you think there is a danger in becoming more reliant on dating apps?
I am always wary of discussing drawbacks of dating apps because I don’t really have a personal position on whether they are good or bad. One thing to think about is that adolescents and children are very digitally literate, and we don’t always have the social codes or parent-carer knowledge that goes along with that. I am not saying that these are drawbacks of dating apps, my belief is that people can do whatever they want to do, but I do think we should be having open discussions about all of the above.
What advice would you give to members of the LGBTQ+ community who haven’t used dating apps before but who might be considering using them?
Use dating apps to explore what is out there and who you are as a person but maintain conscious use. Try and think to yourself, ‘what am I here for?’ and then adapt your use accordingly. If you’re here for hook-ups then go nuts, but if you’re here for a relationship then think about what you want from your apps. But ultimately, have fun!
What does LGBTQ+ History Month mean to you and why do you think it is important that we acknowledge the contributions of LGBTQ+ people throughout history and in present times?
The answer to both of these questions is amplification. I want to amplify less heard voices. LGBTQ+ people are a minority and within this minority there are even less heard voices. If I can get a platform to speak then I am keen to amplify these less heard voices wherever possible.
Are there any LGBTQ+ historical figures you wish more people knew about?
I’ve got quite a few but one of them would be Alan Turing who I think about a lot and who was treated abysmally by the UK Government, within many people’s lifetimes. It’s not that he isn’t well-known, it’s more that I want us to make connections between that kind of state brutalisation in our own society with what still happens, globally, today.
The theme for this LGBTQ+ History Month is ‘Body, Mind and Spirit’; what resources and services are you aware of that support the mental health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community?
Galop is an organisation that supports all LGBTQ+ people who've experienced hate crime, domestic abuse or sexual violence. I would definitely encourage information seeking from them. I just wish there were more resources for marginalised LGBTQ+ people.
Generally, what do you think still needs to be done to give greater equality and representation to the LGBTQ+ community?
Stuff like The No Outsiders programme which teaches children in primary schools about protected characteristics as defined by the 2010 Equality Act, and which celebrates all people, needs more sustained support from Government regardless of local context. We must commit to comprehensive sex education that includes gender diversity and orientation diversity in order to bring about greater acceptance and understanding. I also think that mental health support for young people and young LGBTQ+ people in particular is something that needs to be improved urgently.
- Join the Queen Mary Network
- Find out more about LGBTQ+ History Month at Queen Mary
- Book now for our 'Alumni Angles: A conversation with BBC newsreader, Jane Hill' virtual event in celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month on Thursday 25 February from 18:00 – 19:30 GMT
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Sam or engage him in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.