"MISTER is the new mobile app and online community for men who value strength, authenticity, and maturity. If you like the idea of a dating app with less attitude, then download MISTER and join hundreds of thousands of adult men today." That's what you read on the homepage.
Though there seem to be countless websites and various apps through which gay men can "shop" for sex partners as easily as women shop for shoes (not that the ladies can't shop for sex to go with their stilettos too), Carl Sandler, founder of MISTER and its now eight-year-old predecessor Daddyhunt.com, spoke to Positively Aware about his intentions in creating an app and website that are about more than "hooking up." In creating MISTER he was careful to consider issues of aging, health, and even comfort with technology, understanding that not everyone is savvy about social media or online dating. He set out to create a "safe space that had a different quality than members might find on other sites." As he put it, "Just because you might be different ages or have different health issues, you still need love and affirmation and sex. We wanted to create a supportive online community that was validating to many different types of men of all ages."
Taking the lessons learned in that creation, Sandler says there are both opportunities and challenges involved in taking it into a global mobile market with MISTER. "There are challenges with issues related to the people coming out on the app -- for many, their first exposure to the 'gay world' is online or through these apps. You don't know if they haven't been getting the traditional safer sex messages, if they haven't yet identified as gay, if they don't really understand the risks. So we're still trying to figure out what we can do to help keep this population well informed and to consider the issues that come out of engaging on the app and/or meeting up with someone in the real world."
Though there is not an official policy about HIV disclosure, Sandler says it's one of his personal goals to bring issues surrounding HIV to the fore. On Daddyhunt, they ask people to report how often they get tested, not just for HIV, but for other STIs as well. "The reason we did that is because we wanted to remind people that they should get tested," he explained. The hope was that visitors to the site would see that others were getting tested regularly and think of testing as a regular part of being sexually active. The question was multiple choice: did they get tested A) every three-to-six months, B) yearly, C) only when they had symptoms or knew they'd been exposed, or E) never. Though there was no official data analysis of the responses, Sandler estimates that most people chose A.
There is also a section encouraging people to "add anything you'd like to tell your partner about your safer sex practices -- what you will do with whom and when." The questions are designed intentionally to give people the chance to expand beyond just "positive" or "negative" or, as Sandler put it, "There's so much more to safer sex than HIV status and we wanted to give people an opportunity to share, educate and discuss openly."
The number of HIV-positive men on MISTER mirrors that of the general population, Sandler estimates. "There's so much difference within the positive community about what kind of sex they want to have and how they are living fulfilling sex lives. We want to encourage people to talk about what they want to do online before they meet in the real world," he says, claiming that goal as both the company's and his own. "Fantasy, alcohol, the heat of the moment ... I want people to have conversations about risk before they meet , to go into a real world encounter with as much awareness, consideration and knowledge as possible."
MISTER has an advantage over other apps that limit the number of characters you have to describe yourself and what you're looking for. Whereas other apps limit you to 120-140 characters, MISTER allows 3,000. MISTER also allows up to 10 free photos whereas other apps only allow one profile shot or require payment for more. Sandler mentioned that his goal is to encourage conversation beyond status, he is glad that they feel able to disclose, unlike on other apps where "they don't want people to think about it -- they want it just to be about the fun. Yet we are all painfully aware of the real emotional and physical risks that exist."
Just as with online dating, phone apps come with their dark side. Neither Daddyhunt nor MISTER allow profiles that include any intent to harm, such as HIV-positive men seeking to have bareback sex with negative ones -- according to Sandler, such a profile would be banned. People who post discriminatory profiles are asked to change them and are banned if they don't.
He also acknowledged that there is some emotional risk. "There's a lot of manipulation that happens with sex, whether it's straight or gay," he commented. "If you're paying attention, you need to check in with your partner, ask how it's feeling, if it's OK, if there are boundaries you're pushing. We want to encourage our members to consider the emotional and physical well being of both themselves and their partners at all times."
So are the men on Daddyhunt and MISTER just looking for sex, or is it about more? Sandler said that some members of both Daddyhunt and MISTER are looking for a hook-up but a vast majorty are looking for "friends", friends with benefits or relationships. "You'd be surprised how many people genuinely want to date and find a man of substance." And on MISTER, he says, "We're really trying to target people who aren't into games and we're trying to make MISTER the place for good guys, for guys who are really interested in connecting on other levels than just the pure physical. I'm sure they're horny too, but we're basically saying, 'You're an adult -- use MISTER however you want, but because we're giving you multiple photos, 3,000 characters in your profile, because we're trying to create a group of people who actually care about each other and treat each other better, we're trying to create a positive environment that makes it possible for whatever connections arise that you want to pursue.'"
Throughout the interview, it was clear that Carl Sandler is not a head-in-the-sand, all-about-the-money kind of guy. His knowledge about HIV and the risks associated with it, his obvious concern for the health and happiness of his "customers," and his quoting of the slogan "HIV stops with me" as his stand on the responsibility of all participants in a sexual liaison to protect themselves and each other was encouraging. If all those involved in the business of human connection, sexual and otherwise, had the same consciousness, we'd all be better off and perhaps the HIV epidemic in the U.S. would be at least decreased in the gay community.
For those of you who have spent too much time looking for love in all the wrong places, give MISTER a try -- you might just finally find Mr. Right.