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Sex Stories: Hookup-App Hullabaloo (or, Does Grindr Spread STIs?)

A few weeks ago, we looked at the media’s coverage of a study examining the impact of porn on marriage. This week, we’re once again delving into the world of hyperbolic headlines by examining a new study focused on the connection between STI rates and use of hook-up apps.

Before we delve in, lets first look at some of these headlines:

  • Breaking: Grindr-ing Leads to Gonnorhea (The Daily Beast)
  • The Starling Link Between Dating Apps And STI Risk (Huffington Post)
  • Grindr, Scruff, and Recon: Want An STI? There’s an App for That (Science 2.0)
  • Now let’s back (that app) up for a second and look at the research itself. Here are the highlights:

  • There were 7,184 men in the study.
  • 36% of participants used apps to meet partners. Of these 17% used only app(s).
  • App users were more likely to be under 40, Caucasian, Asian, or other (including 3+ races), college educated, and more likely to use drugs.
  • App users were more likely to test positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia compared with those who used in-person networking only.
  • STI diagnoses were also associated with age, race, education level, and drug use.
  • Looking at this information as a whole, we begin to see that the connection between app use and STI diagnoses is not nearly as clear as the above headlines would make it seem. For one, correlation does not equal causation. Therefore, it is impossible to say with certainty “Grindr causes STIs!” especially since the study found app users also had other risk factors such as younger age and drug use. The question then becomes: are higher-risk MSM using these apps or are MSM becoming higher risk because they use the apps?

    Furthermore, the age differences among both app users and those more likely to have STI diagnoses cannot be ignored here. Condom use is inconsistent among adolescents, a group that includes the younger MSM in this study who had the highest STI incidence. Some speculate that this is related to younger generations not being around during or remembering the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Either way, age most likely accounts for some of the increased diagnoses among app users, because they were both more likely to use apps and less likely to use condoms.

    Additionally, over the last 20 years or so, safe-sex messaging geared towards adolescents has focused almost exclusively on prevention. At least in the US, there is little focus on harm-reduction methods. This is understandable given the way the adolescent brain works, but it is at least worth noting that individuals who do not want to use condoms also most likely do not know their other options, however more or less effective they may be.

    Sadly, this study will likely be used to heap more shame and blame upon users of hook-up apps rather than empower gay and bisexual men to take charge of their sexual health and use available resources” as the researchers reportedly intended. Hopefully it will inspire new approaches to STI prevention and harm-reduction as well as more open conversations beyond the “hook-up culture/sex ed/sexual promiscuity is bad” argument. Ultimately, it calls for change by adding to the growing body of research showing that public health’s efforts to slow STIs simply are not working as many had hoped.

    Other Sexual Health News This Week

    Week of June 22

    Teen Sex Rates Plateaued, Cigarette Smoking Down: Survey (Washington Times)

    North Alabama’s Only Abortion Clinic to Surrender Its License by Monday, Close Downtown Huntsville Facility (

    Bans against same sex marriage were struck down in Utah and Indiana. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Louisiana will decide not only whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states but also whether to strike down the state’s ban. (Los Angeles Times, Fox 59, The Times-Picayune)

    Health Challenges Make Bisexual Men More Prone to Sexual Disease (Psych Central)

    Both Alabama and Santa Barbara county saw spikes in STI diagnoses. ( and KEYT)

    Massachusetts to Cover Gender Identity Treatment (WCVB)

    Week of June 15

    US Presbyterians to Allow Clergy to Perform Gay Weddings (BBC World)

    OPM Lifts Ban on Trans-Related Healthcare for Fed’l Employees (Washington Blade)

    SCOTUS Gives Anti-Choice Group Green Light in “Right to Lie” Legal Challenge (Slate)

    James Madison University Punished Sexual Assault with ‘Expulsion after Graduation’ (Huffington Post)

    Kentucky High School Passes Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Policy (Human Rights Campaign)

    Important Dates

    Early-bird pricing for the following conferences ends in June and July. Click on each title for more information.

    Catalyst Con West, September 11-14, Los Angeles, CA.

    Proposals for the following conferences are due in July. Click on each title for more information and to apply.

    Playground: A Sex-Positive Inclusive Event for All Communities. Proposals due by 31 July 2014.

    Sex Stories: Alarming Rise in Campus Sexual Assaults May Be a Good Sign

    Hidden within the Department of Education’s Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013 is this disturbing fact:

    The number of reported forcible sex crimes on campus reported increased by 52 percent, from 2,200 in 2001 to 3,300 in 2011.

    This is despite a decrease in the reporting of all other types of crimes, including theft, on college campuses in the same time period.

    At first look, this statistic is rather scary. Yes we know that college women are at the highest risk for sexual assault. Seeing the exact change over time somehow makes this threat feel even more real.

    That being said, there is an alternate way of looking at this data. This statistic deals only with the number of sexual assaults that are reported. Therefore, it could be interpreted that more people are coming forward to report the crimes committed against them and share their stories. Such an increase, then, would be a hugely positive step. The more survivors speak up, the more speaking up is normalized. In other words, every survivor who reports their assault contributes to a culture in which it is normal to tell authorities about the event. For something that continues to be highly stigmatized, such a shift would be, quite frankly, a very good thing.

    Yet in this case, there is a third side to the story. Colleges and universities are still struggling to determine how to best respond to such events. Every week it feels another institution is under review for their handling of a sexual assault case. The institutions haven’t caught up with the increased reporting. There are a million things working against them: hookup culture, bureaucracy, rape culture, inefficient legal systems, fear of a negative reputation, etc. While all of these are valid concerns, the current system clearly is not working. Victims often do not feel their needs were met or their situations given the appropriate amount of respect.

    Ultimately one has to wonder how this number will change over the next ten years or so. Will normalizing reporting be enough to break the taboo surrounding sexual assault? Will institutions’ lack of or inappropriate response to these crimes cause victims to put the kibosh on speaking up? The critical question is whether college administrators will see these crime numbers for what they are: both hard evidence that assaults are happening—and frequently—on their campuses, and a call to action to address the problem appropriately.

    Other Sexual Health News This Week

    Hassan Signs Abortion Buffer Zone Law (Washington Times)

    Legal Confusion Follows Federal Judge’s Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage in Wisconsin (New York Times)

    Health Department Proposes First-Ever Youth Sexual Health Plan (The Legislative Gazette)

    Tefina NOSE Gel Claims to Boost Number of Orgasms a Woman Can Have (Mail Online)

    Parents in two California school districts felt their children’s sex ed lesson went too far. In San Marcos, students were asked to disclose what they had done sexually. Additionally, students in San Diego were shown graphic photos including one of a man with blood on his face and the caption “A real man loves his woman every day of the month.”

    There are Actually Trade-Offs Involved in Addressing Sexual Assaults in College (The Washington Post)

    Supreme Judicial Court Orders an End to Lifetime Parole Supervision for Sex Offenders (The Boston Globe)

    Important Dates

    The following conferences are taking place in June. Click on each title for more information and to register.

    13th Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, Philadelphia, PA, June 12-14. Stop by the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health’s Table to meet Megan Andelloux.

    Breaking Through Barriers, Ohio’s statewide sexual and intimate partner violence conference, June 25-26, 2014. Dublin, OH

    Sex Stories: Why Is Social Media So Afraid of Sex (Ed)?

    Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a number of stories highlighting the rampant fear of sex that exists throughout the tech industry and especially in social media.

  • Instagram deleted Scout Willis’ account after she posted both photos of herself in a sheer top and of a jacket featuring topless photos of her friends.
  • Twitter banned condom ads.
  • Apple banned Happy Play Time an app that teaches about female genital anatomy and pleasure, from the app store.

    And of course, during this all, #yesallwomen was taking social media by storm.

    For those who pay attention to the relationship between sex and tech, none of these stories come as a surprise. All of it fits into a robust precedent set by social to shame and hide anything they deem “adult content,” a term which has a vague definition that is often unequally invoked. For example, Happy Play Time would have been joining a number of apps designed to turn your phone into a vibrator. Additionally, there are countless stories of moms who have had their Facebook accounts shut down after posting photos of themselves breastfeeding. Meanwhile, pages and users who post photos featuring more nudity and, often, sexual overtones, are allowed to stay. I make this point not to say which is right or wrong, but rather to point the inconsistencies in how social enforces its rules.

    Such policies and the lack of standard enforcement are doing a disservice to public health. Much of the banned content provides some sort of sex education, encourages conversation around sex and pleasure, and ultimately helps to decrease shame around the topic. Happy Play Time is about women getting to know themselves while the condom ads are promoting safe sex. Given that the target audience for many of these companies is spending a significant amount of time on social media, it is vital that such messages are present and reinforced.

    In the end, the tension between sex and tech is rather surprising. We almost expect news about a traditional industry like banking banning sex in some way. But tech is all about pushing boundaries and being both cutting edge and edgy. Sex ed, especially that which utilizes technology in some way, is the same. And just like with practically every tech advance, new sex ed often is viewed as potentially dangerous. In fact, even the arguments against the two fields boil down to the same fear: they are “ruining our youth.” For some reason tech does not see these similairies, or the fact that just as the latest gadget is meant to improve our lives in some way, sex ed delivered directly to its audience leads to healthier and happier lives.

    Other Sexual Health News this Week

    HHS Board Invalidates Medicare Ban on Gender Reassignment Surgery (ACLU)

    The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Departmental Appeals Board ruled on May 30 that Medicare’s policy of categorically excluding coverage of gender reassignment surgery is unreasonable and contrary to contemporary science and medical standards of care.

    9th Circuit Court of Appeals Protects Arizona Women’s Access to Non-Surgical Abortion (Center for Reproductive Rights)

    Is Gallup Asking the Wrong Questions about Sexual Orientation? (National Journal)

    Hospitals Helping Children Cope with Gender ID Issues (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

    Greenville Sen. Mike Fair Blocks Sex Education Bill (Greenville Online)

    Study Finds Little Progress in Gender Equality in Minnesota (Northlands NewsCenter)

    Bobby Jindal to Receive Bill Directing Doctors to Keep Pregnant Women Alive in Louisiana for Sake of Fetus ( – The Times-Picayune)

    Ohio Bill Would Restrict Abortion Coverage (The Columbus Dispatch)

    Important Dates

    The following conferences are taking place in June. Click on each title for more information and to register.

    The Sero Project’s HIV is Not a Crime Conference, Grinnell, IA, June 2-5.

    13th Annual Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, Philadelphia, PA, June 12-14.

    Breaking Through Barriers, Ohio’s statewide sexual and intimate partner violence conference, June 25-26, 2014. Dublin, OH

    See SHR

    Interested in meeting the folks behind SHR? Check out where they’ll be.

    Philadelphia Trans Health Conference: Stop by the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health booth to meet Megan Andelloux.