Gay Dating Apps Are Leading The Way On Safer Sex

Pressure is mounting for Tinder and its ilk to address STIs, but apps like Scruff already have

(Diana Quach, R. A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Nov 07, 2015 at 7:27 AM ET

Last fall in San Francisco, representatives from Grindr and several other gay dating apps sat down at a conference table with leading public health officials. The matter at hand: figuring out what dating apps could do to encourage safer sex. They talked about connecting users to STI testing, offering partner notification services and creating “stigma-free” HIV communities. It was a groundbreaking summit, the very first of its kind, and it garnered zero mainstream media attention.

The same cannot be said for the recent alarm about dating apps and STI rates. Much digital ink was spilled this past week about a doctor from the British Association for Sexual Health warning that dating apps could cause an “explosion” of HIV and arguing that companies like OKCupid “have to invest more time in pushing a safe sex message.” Earlier this fall, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation launched a billboard campaign implying that companies like Tinder and Grindr are breeding grounds for STIs. In May, health officials in Rhode Island and Utah linked growing infection rates with the popularity of, yep, you guessed it.

Lost in the media coverage, which invariably focuses on the world of hetero romance, is the fact that gay dating apps and websites are beginning to innovate around STI prevention.

“There’s a lot of cool things that the technology allows and we’re just starting to do that,” says Sean Howell, CEO of Hornet. Hornet, a dating app aimed at gay men, encourages users to share their HIV status in their profiles and gives special badges to those who do. It also connects people to their closest STI testing center, in some cases allowing people to make appointments, and offers personalized reminders to get re-tested. Hornet, which says it has 7 million users worldwide, has even scheduled mobile test clinics in places like the Philippines, where the number of HIV cases has risen by 277 percent in the last five years. Hornet has also helped source participants for clinical trials around herpes and HPV; and when there was a gonorrhea outbreak in Los Angeles a couple years ago, they sent announcements to their users about symptoms and how to get tested.

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Several of these are things that other gay dating apps have incorporated in one way or another. Scruff last year launched BenevolAds, a free service allowing non-profits and state agencies working within the LGBT community—including around safer sex—to create and publish targeted banner ad campaigns. The app recently added the option for users to indicate whether they use condoms or use Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill taken to prevent HIV. Daddyhunt encourages users to talk about their “sexual health plans” and asks them to sign a code of values affirming the importance of “protect[ing] themselves and their partners, emotionally and physically.” The company also just launched hashtags in the app, which it plans to use to foster conversations related to sexual health.

“My general philosphy has always been that it’s much more important to have as much conversation about STIs, and about HIV in particular in the gay community, prior to the very complicated act of intimacy,” says Carl Sandler, CEO of Daddyhunt. “So, as much as you can invite people to share openly, and feel comfortable sharing their status openly, that’s been something that we’ve tried to encourage.”

Two major studies have highlighted the issue of STIs and dating apps. Last year, a Los Angeles study found that men who used apps to meet other men for sex were more likely to have sex without condoms, to have more partners and to have STIs than those who found partners in more traditional venues, like a bar. Critics have argued that the study’s choice of subjects—visitors to an STI clinic—could have skewed the results.) An earlier study looked at the introduction of personal ads on Craigslist and the incidence of HIV and concluded that it was “related to a 15.9 percent increase in HIV cases.”

“Sites and apps can make for a very efficient sexual marketplace, it can be simply easier to find a partner. If there’s somebody online who’s having a lot of partners and is infected with syphilis, if they’re being really efficient about finding partners, it’ll also be really efficient for syphilis to get transmitted,” says Dan Wohlfeiler, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who helped facilitate the STI summit last year.

But some question the nature of the link between STIs and apps. “There is no evidence that phone apps cause an increase in STIs,” Cary James, head of programs at the Terrence Higgins Trust, a British HIV charity, wrote in an email. “There are some studies that report that people who use phone apps are most likely to have an STI, but that’s a much different thing. It is not the apps themselves but the behavior of the people using the apps when they meet people which can put them at risk of STIs.”

There is no question that STIs are on the rise among men who have sex with men (MSM). The rate of new HIV diagnoses has gone down in the population at large, while it’s gone up significantly among MSM. Syphilis is another major issue: In 2013, MSM accounted for 75 percent of such cases in the U.S.

That, and the gay community’s historical struggle with HIV and AIDS, might partially explain why exclusively MSM apps have taken to prevention efforts while straight outlets largely have not. Howell says gay dating apps tend to have a smaller, more community feel. “Being a smaller company you get to take risks,” he says. “When you become a big company you get conservative.”

The recent media attention could push these awareness-raising efforts beyond the world of exclusively MSM dating. Only one company of four Vocativ contacted responded to requests for comment. “I personally think that dating apps should not be blamed and therefore should not carry the obligation to do STI prevention, which is a public health responsibility,” Marie Cosnard of that company, Happn, wrote in an email. She added, though, that her company is “currently thinking about ways to send out safe-sex messaging to our users.”

Happn isn’t alone. Ramin Bastani, CEO of Healthvana, an app that allows users to receive electronic STI test results, tells me that mainstream dating apps have recently begun reaching out to his company about potential partnerships to address this issue—just as media attention around the topic has heated up. “I think there’s a general understanding among the people who run those companies that there may be additional things they can do to help,” he says. That includes incorporating a testing clinic locator or allowing people to unlock their most recent test results for particular romantic interests.

Luckily, if these mainstream apps decide to go down this path, they will have gay apps already leading the way. The Building Healthy Communities Project, which organized the meeting last year, conducted a study to determine the best approaches for STI prevention on dating apps. Researchers surveyed owners of gay dating apps and websites, users of those services and public health officials and came up with a list of initiatives that the majority of those groups gave the thumbs up. That included referrals to testing sites, testing reminders, partner notification services and the option to express a preference for safe sex in your profile, as well as several other relatively simple features.

“The same basic principles that we’re using for the sites that gay and bi men use, they can also apply to the Tinders of the world,” says Wohlfeiler. “Clearly, they can have a profound impact for public health—either to facilitate the transmission of STDs, including HIV, across whole populations or to play an incredibly important role with prevention.”