More gay men in the U.S. and abroad are testing positive for certain STDS, and sites like Grindr are catching the heat.
This week, British public health officials set off a flurry of headlines after blaming the rising rates of syphilis and gonorrhea in the United Kingdom on apps that allow people to find prospective partners as easily as takeout pad thai.
"Thanks to Grindr or Tinder, you can acquire chlamydia in five minutes,” said Peter Greenhouse, spokesman for the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, according to the Daily Mail.
According to the CDC, syphilis in the U.S. "remains a major health problem, with increased cases occurring among gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men." For gonorrhea, current rates of infection point to more gay and bisexual men contracting the disease or becoming aware of their status, the CDC says.
New apps have made casual hookups easier. But some sexual health experts say the reasons for the jump in STD infections are more complex, and it makes more sense for public health officials to embrace these online tools as an outreach method than to point fingers.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Greenhouse pointed to a study published last summer by the peer-reviewed journal "Sexually Transmitted Infections." It shows that gay men who use apps with geographic networking have a greater chance of testing positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia, compared with men who pick up dates at bars or on hookup websites.
“If you can find somebody who is within a couple of yards, then you’re bound to be able to meet them quicker,” he said.
But the people behind some of the apps argue that the real story is more complicated. Carl Sandler, the founder of hookup apps Daddyhunt and Mister, says public health officials could actually use the apps to reach those most at risk of STDs and encourage them to get tested and treated. Sandler said he has taken some measures with Daddyhunt and Mister to promote safe sex. He asks people to sign a code of conduct, which “basically says they’ll take care of themselves and their sexual partners,” and to state if they’re open to dating someone of any status. “We’ve found that very very few people are willing to publicly disclose if they’re HIV positive,” he noted.
Sandler said he is frustrated by public health officials who point fingers at apps, rather than offering to work with them to reduce STD infections. “We can’t tell people ‘don’t suck dick,’ but we can say, get tested regularly, we can say, be aware of the signs that you might have something, and most importantly, we can tell people, anyone who has something should get treated as soon as possible,” he said. “That’s what’s going to reduce the risk of transmission.”
While some American public health experts have started working with apps and website owners to develop better sexual health measures online, Sandler says he is “disappointed” by the pace. “What public health needs to do is figure out what interventions work, and what doesn’t work,” he said. “As app owners, we don’t have that expertise.”
Public health experts agreed with this sentiment. Sandler was one of seven owners of hookup apps and websites who participated in a meeting last fall hosted by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and amfAR. (A representative from Grindr, which did respond to request for comment, also attended.) At the meeting, the group of experts and owners brainstormed the best ways to encourage safe sex in the world of online hookups. Dan Wohlfeiler, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who has been working on HIV and STD prevention since 1987, said he found the meeting very encouraging.
“Public health has always said ‘we need to go where the people are,’ and by working with these sites we can do just that,” Wohlfeiler said.
Dr. Stephanie Cohen, the medical director of the city clinic for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said she is not convinced the apps are fueling a spike in STDs.
"There’s no doubt that the apps facilitate sex partnering and make it easier to meet sex partners," Cohen said, "and there’s also no doubt that the STD rates are rising among gay men and men who have sex with men. But whether there’s really a causal relationship between the two is not clear."
Wohlfeiler agreed. Among the men in the study Greenhouse cited, Wohlfeiler pointed out that using crystal meth was much more strongly associated with getting STDs than using apps.
“For years we have tried to understand what the reasons are for why disease transmission continues to increase,” he said. “There so many factors that go into it, and no one factor can explain it. But what we do know is that if guys are going online and meeting partners, then it’s up to us to figure out how to bring together the best of public health knowledge with the expertise that the web owners bring to make sure those environments can do their best for prevention.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Dan Wohlfeiler as a professor at University of California, San Francisco. He is a researcher there.