In the late summer of 2020, when much of normal social life was suspended, a relationship that I had been in for several years abruptly collapsed. I was thirty-nine and scared by the idea that I would not be reproducing the kind of heteronormative nuclear family I had grown up in. I wandered the sidewalks of my Brooklyn neighborhood, where discarded masks littered the gutters, with a sense of having been exiled from my own life. My apartment, with its cat and its plants, still existed but was no longer my home; I could get a glass of cold prosecco at my favorite bar, but the people I used to see there seemed to have vanished. In Haruki Murakami’s novel “1Q84,” a character climbs down a ladder into a parallel existence in which things appear to be the same but nothing really is. It did not take long to understand that there would be no ladder back to the world I had known, and that the portal to whatever it was that came next was probably going to appear on my phone. This is when I downloaded a dating app called Feeld.
Feeld describes itself as a technology for “open-minded singles and couples who want to explore their sexuality.” It is free to sign up, although a paid membership, priced at twelve dollars a month, offers perks such as the ability to conduct specialized searches and let someone know that you like them before they’ve liked you. As on most dating apps, the profiles lead with photos, which range from smiling couples in formal dress at weddings to torsos in bondage gear. Below the photos is a caption that might read, “🙃, 31, transmasculine, gynesexual, 3 km away.”
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Feeld was started in London and today is available in more than a hundred countries. You can join linked with a partner or as a single person, and choose from among twenty different categories of gender and sexuality. The app is popular with nonbinary and trans people, married couples trying to spice up their sex lives, hard-core B.D.S.M. enthusiasts, and “digisexuals,” who prefer their erotic contact with others mediated by a screen. It is a place to be yourself, or to play at being someone else. On Feeld, I’ve seen self-identified lesbians who want to have sex with men, men who desire lesbians, and “heteroflexibles.” In a setting sometimes described as “non-normative,” there are asexuals, cuckold fantasists, kitchen-table polyamorists, eco-sexuals, and collectives of men offering group sex to single women. Some users request no overtures from cis males, white people, or straight people; others make wry jokes about oppressive beauty standards. (“Fatter than my pictures 😂,” one user wrote.) Using Feeld, I often think of a line I read in Jeremy Atherton Lin’s book-length monograph “Gay Bar,” about the nature of queer spaces in night life: “Inclusivity might not mean everybody,” Lin writes. “It could indicate the rest of us.”
According to the company’s data, the typical Feeld user is between twenty-five and thirty years old and lives in a big city. Thirty-five per cent of users are part of a couple. Activity on the app peaks around four o’clock in the afternoon from Sunday to Thursday. I describe it to my friends as “the grownup hookup app.” By “grownup,” I mean not only that its users are above a certain age but also that they favor a kind of maturity and decorum; by “hookup,” I mean that the app facilitates not romance but sex, broadly defined. It is not the place to find your “down-to-earth, no-drama girlfriend” or your “partner in crime.” Love languages, attachment styles, tacos, and other clichés of Internet dating surface only rarely. Data points such as diplomas and fancy jobs do not confer status. Instead, the aim of self-representation on Feeld is to describe a sexual desire in language that won’t repel the kind of person you would like to meet, a skill that in a sexually immature culture turns out to be something of an art.
Setting up a profile is similar to most dating apps: you upload some photos, share your general location, and write a short description of yourself and what you are looking for. Then you list your “desires” and your “interests.” On Feeld, the desires are usually sexual arrangements or fetishes, and you can include as many as ten. The list might read something like “kink, voyeurism, group play, submission, shibari [the Japanese art of rope bondage], butts, FWB [as in, “friends with benefits”], MFM [as in, “male-female-male”], cuddling, eye contact.” The most commonly expressed desires are “ethical nonmonogamy,” “couples,” “sexting,” and “casual dating.” The interests are more prosaic: “Malbec,” “glamping.”
Over and over in my adult life, despite being an introvert with a preference for monogamy, I have found myself in situations where I’ve had total sexual freedom. The older I’ve got, the more I’ve understood how often sexual freedom imposes itself on people who don’t seek it out—no marriage contract, religion, posture of tradition, or abortion ban will protect a person from having to contend with the sexual possibilities of the present. (Even the spectrum of modern celibacy—incels, volcels, femcels—can be understood, at least in part, as a reaction to so much freedom.) A fulfilling sexual life and the search for a relationship could proceed along distinct paths, even if both tend to be grouped under the nebulous umbrella of “dating.” Because a romantic rejection could mess up your brain chemistry for months, it’s helped, when deciding with whom to spend time, to know in advance which lane you were in, and what was reasonable to expect from another person. Feeld was the first app I’d used that expressly differentiated the search for erotic friendship from the search for romantic partnership. It was also unique in that it did not advertise this search in the language and imagery of cis-male fantasies of no-strings-attached sex. Its culture indicated some understanding of the precautions and reassurances that the rest of us might need.
In my initial profile, I put a photo of myself holding the cat that I no longer lived with and a selfie I took on the street in SoHo one afternoon after getting my hair cut. I wrote something to the effect that I was newly out of a relationship and that I liked talking about relationships. With my profile uploaded, I could now see a feed of people arranged by geographic proximity and decide whether they were a yes, a no, or someone I wanted to set aside for the moment and think about later. Two users who say yes to each other can begin exchanging messages.
One of my first messages was to a male-female couple who, in their photo, were dressed in black and sitting on the gnarled trunk of a fallen tree, with the man holding a crooked wooden staff, making them look like they belonged to some kind of wizardry coven. They listed “tarot” and “psychonauts” among their interests. At the time, I was reading a book called “High Weirdness,” a history of esoterica by Erik Davis. “You guys seem so cool, I would be very into this,” I wrote. They didn’t respond.
The first date that worked out was with a couple in Bed-Stuy. Their profile has since disappeared, but in my memory of their faceless photo they stood in tasteful wool coats in front of a backdrop of snow. After they sent me pictures of their faces, we met in Fort Greene Park, and then I went to their brownstone apartment, which had crown moldings, vinyl records, and plants. The formulaic Brooklyn décor was comforting. I’d moved out of my apartment in a state of duress, with no time to find a new place. Most of my belongings were in a storage unit in Queens, and the rest were stuffed into the trunk of my dad’s Toyota Corolla. Meeting up with the couple was a way of pretending that everything would be fine. They made a vegetarian dinner for me and served orange wine; their linen sheets were freshly laundered. It was nice, but I was lying to them, cosplaying a sexual optimist instead of being a person with no idea how to start over.
A few weeks later, I drove a friend’s rented camper van from New York to Los Angeles, as a favor. I ended up staying in California for six months. Days would pass without anyone asking where I was or what I was doing, and I turned more of my attention to Feeld. It was an old strategy: when life doesn’t deliver on a promised expectation, I look for alternatives, and what I found on this app seemed like an alternative to the fantasy of family I was letting go of. “Feeld is for a new type of human,” Dimo Trifonov, the app’s founder, once wrote. “A human belonging to a new world, one of creativity, openness, respect and exploration.” This was one way to make my unwanted future tolerable, to at least make it interesting for myself: to pretend that there was such a possibility as a new kind of person in a new kind of world.
Feeld began, in 2014, with the story of Trifonov and Ana Kirova, two Bulgarian graphic designers in their early twenties who were living in London. After meeting through friends, they fell in love. Early in their relationship, Ana started having unexpected feelings for a French woman she’d met. “It feels a bit childish now that I remember it, but I thought, If I’m falling in love with this woman, then I’m probably gay,” Kirova said. Hoping to warn Dimo “that what we have is not necessarily going to last” she wrote him a letter. Instead of wanting to break up, Dimo surprised her by being humbled and moved.
They agreed to open their relationship. “We really thought we had invented a new way of living,” Kirova told me. “We didn’t know open relationships and polyamory existed.” They tried dating apps but were met with confusion by other users, who told them, “There are swinger Web sites for people like you,” or asked, “If you still want to date, then why are you together?”
Trifonov decided to create his own app to facilitate threesomes. He put up a Web site with mockups of what it might look like and a sign-up list to gauge interest. He called the project 3nder (pronounced “thrinder”), and for its logo made an interlinked design in the shape of a three. It had a simple premise: “Threesomes made easy.” Despite being little more than an idea, 3nder got a lot of attention in the sluggish 2014 media environment, when the business strategy for many digital news startups was to make hapless young writers post twenty times a day about press releases.
“It just blew up immediately,” Kirova remembered. “There was a massive sign-up list.” A venture-capital firm, Haatch, put in fifty thousand dollars to get the technology off the ground, and the app launched a few months later. Within a year, more than a million people had downloaded 3nder, with California and New York quickly becoming the biggest markets.
The app’s scope began to change in December, 2015, after Tinder sent 3nder a cease-and-desist letter over the similarity of the two companies’ names, which was followed by a trademark-infringement lawsuit. Trifonov encouraged users to flood social media with messages of support for 3nder, but by August, 2016, he conceded and rebranded the company as Feeld, which was not meant to be a pun on “playing the field” but rather a suggestion that the app offered “a field of feelings.”
Feeld now advertised itself as a place to meet “kinky, curious, and open-minded couples and singles.” A new logo, of three interlocking ovals, rendered the number three more abstractly. But these changes were not only a rebrand. They gave the startup a chance to reassess its purpose. Feeld arrived at a time when the trans-rights movement was changing ideas about gender; mainstream sexual culture was shifting, too, with the language and etiquette of polyamory and nonmonogamy becoming more commonplace. Kirova, who had been an informal contributor to the company, accepted a salaried position there. At first, she feared that it might negatively affect her and Trifonov’s relationship. But, she admits, her joining the company was “inevitable”: “we were both working on it anyway.”
The couple noticed that Trifonov would move through profiles decisively, saying yes or no, but that Kirova would sometimes open the app, look at the person on top, and then close it again, unable to make up her mind. They rebuilt the interface to allow users to scroll through their feeds without having to decide whether they liked one person in order to see the next. “It was a very large piece of work at the time,” Kirova remembered.
In 2018, Kirova took over as the head of product, meaning that Feeld’s philosophy and user experience fell under her control, while Trifonov, as the C.E.O., focussed more on growing the company. One day, she came across a long and heartfelt message from a trans woman who was frustrated that Feeld had, at the time, only three gender options. “She felt like she was erased, because she couldn’t express her identity beyond the ‘other’ option we had, but that Feeld was the only dating app she felt comfortable in,” Kirova said. (OkCupid had added twenty-two gender options in 2014, but other apps were slow to follow.) “I’m quite embarrassed by it, because it was a typical case of a person from a marginalized community educating someone from a privileged one.” She recalled the lesson as an emotional one: “This is not some game they’re playing,” she realized, of her customers. “It’s something which has serious impact and importance in people’s lives.”
Kirova hired a consultant to help Feeld compile a broader spectrum of gender identifications and sexual orientations. She began inviting trans and nonbinary influencers to the company’s in-person events in London, where she would engage them in long conversations. She went on other sex-forward apps to see how they worked, including Grindr, where a gay couple invited her to join them as a voyeur. Today, Feeld’s Web site offers a glossary for more obscure terms, such as “objectumsexual” (someone whose sexuality is activated by specific inanimate objects) and “GrayA” (people for whom sexual attraction is very rare). Half of Feeld’s users identify as something other than heterosexual, so the company tries to be as responsive as possible to variations in language. It allows users to change their gender selection on their profile up to three times, and their sexuality as many times as they want. Other revisions have come in response to safety, such as requiring that both members of a couple have individual profiles. On the company’s blog and in a literary journal it publishes, Mal, sexual trends are discussed and explored; an issue from 2020 was devoted to sex negativity, with essays about the incel phenomenon and “heterofatalism.”