By now, everyone has realized that online dating is, in the parlance of today’s youth, a thing. A big thing. As of 2013, at least 11% of all American adults, 20% of those aged 25-34, had used an online dating site or mobile app. A full 5% of Americans that are married or in a committed relationship met their partner online4. But while people go online looking for love, that may not be the only thing they find. With intimacy comes risk, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and online dating is no exception. In this post, I’ll delve into the relationship between online dating and STIs. It turns out, it’s complicated.
Crossing the line
While little research has explored the connection, it looks like online dating can increase the likelihood of getting a sexually transmitted infection. In a study of men who have sex with other men, those that used geosocial networking applications, like Grindr, had a greater risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia compared to those who met partners at in-person venues2. Another study, this one on Singaporean men, found that those who used online sex forums were more likely to have oral and anal sex and sexually transmitted diseases than those who frequented brothels. This seems cut and dry, but it may not be so simple. The men who went online were also more likely to engage in risky behaviors (such as not using condoms), making them more prone to STI, and knotting up these conclusions in a web of correlation. It’s unclear if online dating increased the risk of STI on its own, or if the relationship simply reflects the overlap between people that date online and those who practice unsafe sex5.
Online dating isn’t just the province of men or the young. American adults aged 45-54 are about as likely to use online dating as those aged 18-244, and that number is sure to rise, with many older people interested in re-partnering after divorce or the death of their partner. The uptick in online dating in this age group may partially explain the increase in STI prevalence in some demographics, including older Australian women. But again, this conclusion is complicated by risky behavior. While Australian women over 40 who that date online are more likely to discuss STIs with a new partner before sex, they are less likely to refuse sex without a condom compared to younger women1.
Putting it all on the line
It’s not all bad news. Although the Internet may be contributing to the rise in STI incidence globally, it may also offer some solace for afflicted. The number of STI cases worldwide is staggering: there are about 20 million new STI cases a year in the US alone, and around 110 million new cases per year internationally. Although nearly every sexually active person will contract an STI at some point in his or her life (usually HPV), diagnosis with an STI can still come with severe stigma. Many STI positive people fear that disclosing their status to a potential partner will inevitably lead to rejection. In the face of these concerns, the Internet offers a space for solidarity; a suite of niche dating sites has emerged, specifically for people with incurable STIs3.
Although they are considered specialty sites, there are a lot of them, and they are popular. PositiveSingles, which includes people positive for any incurable STI, has 30,0000 members in the UK alone, and gained 100,000 new members globally in the last year. There are also sites for specific conditions, like H-YPE and H-Date, which cater to people positive for the two most common STIs, herpes and HPV. These sites offer more than a chance to meet your match; some sites provide support networks, and many have online counselors. Unfortunately, while the intention of these sites is an admirable thumbing of the nose to stigma, they may actually be circuitously reinforcing it, by insinuating that people positive for STI should only date other positive people. They may also inadvertently encourage unprotected sex between people with a positive diagnosis, who (for whatever reason) don’t appreciate the risk of multiple or superinfections3.
At its best, online dating, like everything else on the Internet, is a tool. It can help or harm depending on how it’s used. And while it can offer a good way to meet people, not everything is best done online. When it comes down to brass tacks, avoiding STI relies on prevention through safe sex, and that can only happen face-to-face. The conversation might be challenging, but it’s worth it. After all, your health is on the line.
- Bateson, DJ, E Weisburg, KJ McCaffery, and GM Luscombe. (2012). When online becomes offline: attitudes to safer sex practices in older and younger women using an Australian internet dating service. Sexual Health, 9: 152-159.
- Beymer, MR, RE Weiss, RK Bolan, ET Rudy, LB Bourque, JP Rodriguez, DE Morisky. (2014). Sex on demand: geosocial networking phone apps and risk of sexually transmitted infections among a cross-sectional sample of men who have sex with men in Los Angeles county. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 0: 1-6.
- Heyden, Tom. “Online dating for people with sexually transmitted infections”. BBC News Online. 28 March 2013. Web. 23 February 2015.
- Smith, Aaron. “5 facts about online dating”. Pew Research Center. 13 February 2014. Web. 2 March 2015.
- Wong, ML, TT Koh, S Tjahjadi, M Govender. (2014). Men seeking sex online practice riskier sexual behaviours than men frequenting brothels: survey findings from Singapore. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 90: 401-407.
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