What Grindr’s my gears: HIV stigma on apps

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shutterstock_259004456“Dating in the gay world is like finding a job- you have to either do it online or get referred.”  Anon.

Apps such as Grindr, Jack’d and Hornet have revolutionised the way we find partners (be it for sex, coffee, a drink, a fancy dinner or all the above). The benefit of this is that we have a plethora of people to choose from, right at our fingertips. Unfortunety the path to finding your true love or a good time can be paved with stigma. Maybe you’re not the right age, not ‘masc’ enough or maybe you’re HIV positive.

Dating apps can be a very stigmatising place for people living with HIV to find partners for sex and/or to date, but they don’t have to be. It is quite common to come across the stigmatising language of ‘clean’ and  ‘dirty’  in regards to HIV or STI status. This language exists due to people being uneducated about HIV transmission risks and having a fear of HIV. This can lead to some people living with HIV making the decision not to disclose their status due to the potential rejection they may face because of someone else’s hang ups and misunderstandings surrounding HIV. People living with HIV have the power and choice to choose who they disclose their status to (or if at all) but they should not be judged or discriminated for doing so*.

Although the stigma and fear surrounding HIV still exists on apps, there are some positive changes being seen. There is a noticable increase in education levels on HIV transmission risk, risk reduction strategies (including TasP and PrEP) and undetecable viral loads with some users, although clarification on some of these topics may be needed. The app Hornet has a section where users can input the last time they got tested as well as their HIV status. Some pos people  are putting  a [+U] on their profiles as a notification for being HIV positive and undectable. This is helping to open the dialogue about testing and treatment and begin to start breaking down some of the stigma and fear surrounding HIV.

Part of Queensland Health’s ‘END HIV’ campaign encouraged mobile dating app users to include the acronym SSO (Safe Sex Only) on their profile . I like the campagin because it gets users thinking about ‘safe sex’. However  what is classed as ‘safe sex’ for one person, could be different for another (although it is probably safe to say that as a generalisation ‘safe sex’ is considered when a condom and water based lube are used). With the increasing uptake of PrEP and an increasing knowledge of undectecable viral load and other HIV risk reduction strategies, we now have more options for safer sex than ever before.

In the age of TasP and PrEP, I am hoping that serosorting will become a thing of the past. A focus on preferred safe sex or HIV prevention methods rather than HIV status should be encouraged, especially on the apps. Apps could have a section that asks what an individual’s preferred HIV prevention or safe sex method is, instead of asking HIV status or testing habits. Options could include (but wouldn’t be limited to) condoms, PrEP and TasP as well as other risk reduction strategies like strategic positioning. This will help reduce the stigma surrounding HIV by making sex the centre of attention, not someone’s HIV status. This is obviously a novel idea that will only work as we increase knowledge of transmission risks and bust the myths surrounding HIV.

HIV is different now and we now have more tools in our HIV prevention tool kit. An individual’s HIV status, be it negative, positive or positive with an undetecbale viral load shouldn’t be a reason to decide whether to date or have sex with someone. There are plenty of other things to get nit picky about!

*  The only exception for this is if a person living with HIV wants to engage in condomless sex. In Queensland, people living with HIV are required to disclose their status if engaging in condomless sex.