HIV infection rates across the country’s general population have been fairly stable for the last few years. But one group showed a significant increase in HIV infections: men who have sex with men, or MSM, aged 13-29. Though this generation of young gay men has been raised in a more HIV-aware world, all of the outreach and awareness work still does not explain why the rates won’t stop ticking up.
Coincidentally, recent advances in technology have paved a new way for gay and bisexual men to find sexual partners. In 2009 many developers launched location-based mobile apps geared toward gay and bisexual men, allowing users to scan for nearby men, chat with them, and meet, often for sexual encounters. For example, Grindr counts more than 3.5 million users in 192 nations, just three years after its launch. Other popular apps include Scruff, Manhunt, and Growlr, in addition to traditional social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Several studies link unprotected sex with the use of mobile apps and the Internet, alcohol, drugs, and sexually charged venues for hooking up with potential sexual partners. But we set out to understand how young men who use these apps perceive HIV, their knowledge on the facts of the virus, and how they view their own risk of getting the virus. Our pool of participants included 686 gay and bisexual males over the age of 18 (the average age was about 36) who use location-based mobile apps to meet sexual partners.
The survey found that reasons behind risk-taking behaviors during intercourse go well beyond lack of knowledge and HIV status. Most people could identify the fluids that can transmit HIV, like blood. And while 91% of participants say they know how to protect themselves from HIV, nearly 70% of the study participants said they’re afraid of getting the virus or getting reinfected. The vast majority of respondents considers barebacking, or unprotected anal sex, to be dangerous. Yet 46.4% of respondents have engaged in bareback sex, versus 53.6% who reportedly never engage in unprotected anal intercourse.