Modern Mating

When Technology and the Sexes Collide

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Online outreach to gay cruisers

"Harm reduction" is a public health paradigm that acknowledges people will always undertake risky behaviors. The goal is mitigation of the consequences - helping people make safer and smarter decisions about risky things - rather than the complete eradication of the behaviors themselves.

It's the difference between handing out condoms while encouraging responsible sexual activities, and the Bush administration's enthusiasm for abstinence-only sex education. One approach is pragmatic, the other is unsuccessful.

A few interesting programs are being undertaken online to address the health and sexual practices of gay men. In New York City, outreach workers for the Positive Health Project, patrol sex sites like They're looking for men who engage in "party-n-play"; namely, the combination of crystal meth and sex as this has been linked to the spread of HIV and other STDs. By monitoring the sex sites and approaching those men who are open about their drug use, the outreach workers can try to discourage this dangerous activity and try to recruit the men for support groups.

Terry Evans, one of the outreach workers, is very diligent about his job. Every weekend he heads out to private sex parties where he strips down to his underwear to blend in with the crowd. That kind of commitment surely deserves a bonus!
Crystal Meth and Sex

If this approach seems a bit extreme, it's not. In San Francisco, during the summer of 1999, there was an outbreak of early syphilis among gay men who met their sex partners in an Internet chatroom. CDC Study Results

This outbreak presaged a broader epidemic which gave San Francisco, in 2002, the highest rates of primary and secondary syphilis in the country. Chatrooms and sex sites are means of both transmitting disease and of curtailing its spread.

San Francisco, given its large population of sexual minorities and its familiarity with technology, has innovated in the area of STD notification and testing. If you live in SF and discover that you have an STD, there's an anonymous service called inSPOT - Internet Notification Service for Partners or Tricks. If someone is shy or embarrassed about having an STD, the service will send their sex partner an anonymous email card.

The cards themselves are clever and graphic. One says "I got screwed while screwing, you might have too." Another says "You're too hot to be out of action. I got diagnosed with an STD since we played. You might want to get checked too." When filling out the card, users specify the STD they contracted, from crabs to gonorrhea, are given the chance to send it to as many as six different partners, and have the choice of sending it anonymously or not. And for those who receive a card, it links back to the inSPOT website where there is information on testing and treatment.

Of course, if it looks like online hook-ups are only making gay men ill, that's not the case. The Internet is attributed with a decline in the rate of HIV transmission. Gay men who are HIV positive are increasingly using dating sites which enable them to “sero-sort” – i.e., to identify and date only those who are similarly infected. By initiating contact online, these men are able to more easily and comfortably communicate their HIV status, and by limiting their sex partners to those men with the same HIV status, the likelihood of transmission is substantially diminished. In June 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of new infections in San Francisco had been halved.
Drop in HIV Cases