Men who have sex with men (MSM) are a priority population for HIV prevention interventions to target. In 2013, 71% of all new diagnoses of HIV in Australia were attributable to MSM 1. In order to create effective HIV prevention interventions, we need to understand the health behaviours of MSM that lead to the transmission of HIV, including where these men meet their sexual partners. This is why data from studies such as the Gay Community Periodic Survey are so important.
Historically, MSM would meet potential sexual partners at beats, gay bars and sex on premise venues. Although these avenues are still in use today, there has been a significantly growing trend for MSM to engage with each other online. Websites such as Manhunt, Squirt and Gaydar and mobile apps such as Grindr, Jack’d and Scruff have made finding a male sexual partner easier. According to the Gay Community Periodic Survey conducted in Queensland in 2013, 38.5% of men met their male sex partners from a Mobile app like Grindr, 37.7% met from the internet and 28.1% met from a gay bar 2. The trend in the data collected from 2009 shows a statistically significant increase in sexual partners met on mobile apps and a decrease in sexual partners met from gay bars 1. So if we have an increase of MSM using mobile apps like Grindr to meet male sex partners, what are their motivations for using these apps?
Researchers in the US conducted an online survey amongst 195 MSM aged between 18-24 in West Hollywood and Long Beach, CA, USA in 2011 to discover why they log onto Grindr? The results of the study found that 86% of the MSM log onto Grindr to ‘kill time’ when bored, 78% to make new friends, 73% to meet people to ‘hook up’ and 65% to meet people to date 3. When asked what their number one reason for using Grindr, 27% said that it was to meet people for sex 3.
So if sex is a major reason for MSM to use Grindr, what kind of sex are they having with the partners they meet off Grindr and does it differ to sex with those they met elsewhere? There is some evidence suggesting that MSM are more likely to engage in low HIV activities such as oral sex and have protected anal intercourse with partners met off Grindr than those met elsewhere 4. Although condom use is high amongst Grindr users, another study found that Grindr users have greater odds for testing positive for chlamydia and gonorrhoea then those with partners met elsewhere 5.
So what does this data mean for HIV prevention and sexual health promotion for MSM? The research is showing an increasing trend for men to meet online so this is an area where health promotion interventions should have a focus. Even if there is a trend for Grindr users to engage in safe sex practises with partners met off Grindr, safe sex messaging is still relevant on these apps because of the huge reach they have with the millions of users worldwide. Researchers in the field are creating new and innovative ways to reinvent sexual health messages on smartphones and the internet, so watch this space. There could be a new HIV prevention and education app just around the corner!
For a last bit of humour, have a watch of this video clip and imagine a world where we all spoke to each other the way we do on Grindr – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Zk5XC8tu64
1 The Kirby Institute. HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia Annual Surveillance Report 2014. The Kirby Institute, UNSW, Sydney NSW 2052
2 Lee, E., Mao, L., Watts, P., Mackie, A., Prestage, G., Zablotska, I., de Wit, J., and Holt, M. 2014.Gay Community Periodic Survey: Queensland 2013. Sydney: Centre for Social Research in Health UNSW.
3 Holloway, I.W., Rice, E., Gibbs, J., Winetrobe, H., Dunlap, S, and Rhoades, H. 2014. Acceptability of smartphone application-based HIV prevention among young men who have sex with men. AIDS and Behavior 18, (2): 285-296.
4 Holloway, I.W., Cederbaum, J.A., Ajayi, A. and Shoptaw, S. 2012. Where are the young men in HIV prevention efforts? comments on HIV prevention programs and research from young men who have sex with men in los angeles county. The journal of primary prevention 33, (5-6): 271-278.
5 Beymer, M.R., Weiss, R.E., Bolan, R.K, Rudy, E.T., Bourque, L.B., Rodriguez, J.P. and Morisky, D.E. 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 90, (7): 567-572.