Guys on Grindr and Scruff -- two of the most popular gay hookup apps -- recently started seeing profiles advertising the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year recommended for gay and bisexual men at substantial risk for contracting HIV.
Jason Marchant, chief product officer of Scruff and one of the app's founding partners, tells The Advocate he's been on PrEP for two years and has listed it on his Scruff profile for over a year and a half. Marchant's username is "Jason Scruff [PrEP]." Such is the way many Scruff users advertise their PrEP usage; including it in their usernames or in their written profile descriptions. But Scruff is about to make it easier to advertise PrEP adherence or find other users.
"Scruff 5, which will be launching on iOS devices in the next few weeks, will have two new profile metadata fields," Marchant says. "One of them is sexual practices like top, bottom, versatile, oral, fetish, no sex, stuff like that. The second one is for safer sex practices like condoms, PrEP, and treatment as prevention."
This will give users the option of selecting what they are into sexually and what safe-sex practices they use, if any, and displaying the information on their profiles. "Once it's filled out, it will appear prominently on your Scruff profile," Marchant says.
This is the first time Scruff has publicly endorsed PrEP as a safe-sex practice. Grindr, which is the most widely-used gay hookup app in the world with 2 million daily users, is more vague about its in-app plans for PrEP, although the company has partnered with big names like Gilead Sciences -- the company behind -- to do studies research and educational awareness, a Grindr spokesperson said.
Grindr for Equality, a branch of the company started in 2012 to raise awareness for LGBT issues, recently conducted research with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the CDC to poll users about their attitudes toward PrEP. The findings will be revealed in the coming months, a spokesperson for Grindr said.
And in his first public endorsement of PrEP, Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of Grindr, says, "I believe all sexually active gay men should be on PrEP, barring, of course, any health risks outlined by a medical professional. It prevents HIV infection. Why wouldn't you take it?"
In its short time on the market, PrEP has caused a lot of controversy and division among gay men. For many, the drug has changed how some interact with others when it comes to sex and dating. Many say PrEP has bridged the gap between HIV-positive and HIV-negative men, and reduced stigma about the disease.
Others, like the California-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest HIV services provider in the country, have blasted PrEP and accused it of encouraging risky sexual behavior. The president of the organization, Michael Weinstein, even told the Associated Press that he thought PrEP was nothing more than a "gay party drug."
Carl Sandler, CEO and designer of the popular gay dating apps MISTER, Mr. X, and Daddyhunt, thinks it is high time for apps like his to endorse PrEP. Doing so, he says, will not only educate more people about its effectiveness, but will also combat the negative messages about the medication.
Eric Paul Leue, director of sexual health and advocacy at Kink.com, is a major PrEP advocate but cautions against hookup apps getting too involved in PrEP education. "Is this really the apps' responsibility?" Leue says. "I think this education should come from the schools. The apps can be about sex, and sex doesn't need to be a drop-down list of health terms."
Regardless, the apps appear to be making PrEP awareness a new priority. Sandlers says that MISTER, Mr. X and Daddyhunt will soon offer a hashtag feature that will allow users to tag their pictures and profiles and search for tags among other users on the app. Since many already advertise PrEP on their profiles, Sandlers predicts #PrEP will become a popular tag. "It will allow users to meet others who are on PrEP and start a conversation about it," he said. "Increasingly these apps are more social communities and places where guys can educate each other."
Marchant believes that PrEP does more than just prevent the spread of HIV among gay men.
"We often see that when people say they use PrEP in their profiles, they also tend to not discriminate [against] other users based on their HIV status," he says. "I think we'll be talking in the months and years to come about how not only is PrEP a powerful tool in preventing HIV, but it's also taking a significant bite out of HIV stigma."