To Grind or not to Grind – how gay hookup apps affect sexual health

One of the first articles I wrote for this site explored how online meeting places such as AOL chat rooms and gay hookup apps have been replacing bars and cruising spots as a preferred way for men to meet other men for dating and casual sex.  In much the same way that academics have studied gayborhoods and other queer hangouts, fascinating research is now beginning to emerge on how gay men navigate our digital landscape as well.

So, you’ve been chatting with that guy on Scruff all afternoon – he’s cute, he’s not voting for Trump, and that selfie of him flexing in the gym mirror is literally OMG.  You decide to hit the showers and rendezvous at your place in an hour.  As you prepare for his arrival by hiding the dirty dishes and searching for the poppers, the excitement of a hot guy about to show up at your door like a delivery pizza is often tempered by legitimate concerns for one’s sexual health (not unfounded!).  Thankfully, as more and more men use smartphone apps to meet one another, researchers have begun to quantify the risks (and rewards) of doing so.

A recent study found that men who use use apps such as Grindr and Scruff to meet other men have more lifetime sex partners, are more likely to test positive for a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but are no more likely to test positive for HIV than their non-app using counterparts.

110 individuals were sampled for this study, and its represents some of the first research into the behavior of men who use smartphone apps to meet other guys for sex.  Researchers found that app users had, on average, more life time sex partners than non-users (30 to 7),  more partners in the last 3 months (3 to 1), and more sex partners in the last month (1 to 0), but there were no observed differences in instances of unprotected anal sex in the past three months (zero for both groups).  Both groups report being tested for HIV and other STI’s at similar intervals although app users were more than twice as likely to test positive for infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and hepatitis.

Although it is tempting to draw the conclusion from this data that the apps encourage promiscuity and expose users to greater health risk, keep in mind the golden rule of correlation versus causation.  Do the apps really present a health risk, or are men who are already inclined to engage in risky behavior more likely to use apps?  This study does not present enough data to draw a conclusion either way.  Dorian-Gray Alexander, local celebrity and host of the Proof Positive radio show on WHIV FM, believes that “blaming a means of communication as a driver of disease is short-sighted,” and that “we can connect the dots better than that.”

Finally, for those who wish these apps offered something more substantial than a virtual market for casual hookups, this study offers some good news: One third of app users reported at least one sexual encounter had turned into a romantic relationship.

This study provides an early, interesting, and data-driven look into how men use smart phones to meet other men.

Citation:

Lehmiller JJ, Ioerger M (2014) Social Networking Smartphone Applications and Sexual Health Outcomes among Men Who Have Sex with Men. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86603. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086603

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