Does Grindr Really “Lead To Gonorrhea?”

So far this year, two studies have been released reporting that use of Grindr and other smartphone hook-up apps is linked to a higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections among men who have sex with men (MSM). One of these studies was published in January in PLoS ONE (co-authored by yours truly), while the other was published just this month in Sexually Transmitted Infections. The latter study made quite a media splash this past week, generating headlines such as this gem from The Daily Beast: “Grindr-ing Leads to Gonorrhea.” The subtitle for this headline pretty much sums up the current media narrative: “Log on, hook-up, get STD.” So there you have it—smartphone hookup apps cause STDs, right? It sounds like an intuitive conclusion, given the ease with which these apps allow one to locate sexual partners. But is the story really that simple? A closer look at the data suggests that we might want to rethink the notion that these apps cause risky sexual behavior. 

For one thing, in our PLoS ONE paper, we found that MSM who hooked up through smartphone apps appeared to be more sexually active in general than MSM who used other methods of locating partners. How did we determine this? We asked participants to report their lifetime total sex partners, but we also inquired about how many of those partners they had met through smartphone apps. Compared to non-users, app users reported more sexual partners overall. However, even when we adjusted their lifetime totals for number of partners met through apps, we found that app users were still reporting significantly more partners.

This finding suggests that the apps themselves are not necessarily what is driving the difference in STI rates—instead, it may be that app users simply represent a group of MSM that is more sexually active overall, and the apps are just one of several ways that these guys are meeting partners. If these apps did not exist, these same men would likely still have higher STI rates because they would probably just turn to other means for finding sex (e.g., websites, bars, bathhouses, etc.).

It is also important to note that both the PLoS ONE and Sexually Transmitted Infections papers were based on correlational data with self-selected groups of app users and non-users. As a result, we don’t know all of the ways that these two groups might differ. Perhaps there are important personality or other differences between them that can explain both why some people gravitate toward hook-up apps and also why those same persons tend to have more sexual partners. We need to be very cautious about implying that smartphone apps “lead to gonorrhea” or other STIs, especially in light of the fact that app users appear to be more sexually active to begin with.

In short, although the “apps cause STIs” explanation sounds rather intuitive, the data do not support the idea that we should be blaming apps (or other forms of technology) for sexual infections. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that apps are just a red herring in this case. The reason that we see high rates of STIs among some MSM doesn’t stem from their use of Grindr—it stems from an issue that predates smartphone apps: higher numbers of sexual partners combined with inconsistent condom use and condom use errors.

The way I see it, Grindr and other smartphone apps are not the problem, but they can be part of the solution. Instead of blaming and stigmatizing the apps, what we should be doing is figuring out ways that these apps can be used to encourage the most sexually active MSM to practice safer sex.

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To learn more about our paper in PLoS ONE or to download a copy of the article for free, see: Lehmiller, J.J., & Ioerger, M. (2014). Social networking smartphone applications and sexual health outcomes among men who have sex with men. PLoS ONE, 9(1): e86603. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086603

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