Online hookup sites such as Craigslist, Gaydar and the geosocial dating apps Grindr and Tinder, have become the predominant platforms for many individuals—gay, straight or bisexual—seeking to connect socially and/or sexually. So vast are these networks that Grindr, for example, is today reported to have well over six million registered users who log onto the site an average of eight times per day.
Online hookup sites provide access to larger social and sexual networks than a person would otherwise find offline, enabling casual sex with both ease and a certain amount of invisibility. As a result, concerns have been raised about the impact of such hookups on the rate of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among online users, with presumably higher rates of multiple sex partners, substance abuse and seroguessing (i.e., the practice of choosing a sexual partner based on the assumption of HIV status).
A number of studies have looked specifically at the San Francisco-based Craigslist, which operates one of the largest personal ad sites in the U.S. One such study, conducted by New York University and the Carlson School of Business, suggested that HIV prevalence in 33 U.S. states had risen by some 15.9 percent over a ten-year period (1999-2002) as a result of Craigslist hookups.
The analysis further suggested that as many as 6,130 to 6,455 HIV infections could be directly attributed to Craigslist, with most of the infections related to casual, non-paid sex (as opposed to escort services or prostitution, which appeared to have a negative association with HIV rates).
A 2015 study from the University of Maryland’s Robert H.
Smith School of Business supported these findings by suggesting that Craigslist hookups resulted in a rise in HIV prevalence of 13.5 percent in Florida over a four-year period—or roughly 1,149 new HIV infections.
The investigators were also able to identify the types of users who were at greatest risk, the results of which appeared largely counterintuitive. Among their conclusions:
African American online users, who represented 63 percent of the infections but, as a population group, generally use the internet the least of all group.
Higher-income users with private health insurance, who were more likely to be infected than lower-income users covered by Medicaid.
While the findings were difficult to explain, the researchers suggested that higher-income people, who face a greater social penalty for casual sex, may have greater sexual disinhibition as result of the “freedom” the internet provides. It also seems to suggest that access to the internet affects socioeconomic groups in entirely different ways.