In the last few years, several smartphone apps that help men who have sex with men (MSM) find casual sex partners have entered the market. Perhaps the most well-known of these is Grindr, which claims more than four million users. This app shows thumbnail photos of local guys who are arranged in order of how close they are to you. Users can chat, exchange pictures, and even send their exact GPS coordinates, if desired. The app can also be enabled to send instant notification of messages so that users can be immediately informed when someone is interested in them. Given that people today pretty much have their phones on them at all times and the ease with which these apps can locate available partners, some sexual health experts have begun to question whether usage of these apps might promote riskier sexual behavior. I sought to test this idea in a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE.
We surveyed 112 MSM recruited online. All of the men were either currently single or involved in a non-monogamous relationship. Approximately half reported that they currently had an account with Grindr or a similar app that they used for meeting sexual partners; the other half met their partners without the assistance of such apps. All of the men were surveyed about their sexual health history and practices, and they completed three personality scales: sensation seeking (one’s tendency to pursue thrilling and risky activities), self-control (one’s ability to regulate and override competing urges and impulses), and erotophilia (the degree of positive feelings one has about sex).
We found that app users reported having more sexual partners in the last month, the last three months, and their entire lives compared to non-users. In addition, app users were more than twice as likely to report having been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) compared to non-users (35% vs. 14%, respectively). Given the fact that app users and non-users had almost identical demographic profiles (they did not differ in age, race, sexual identity, or relationship status) and did not exhibit differences on any of the personality measures, one would be tempted to conclude that app use does indeed promote riskier sexual behavior.
However, it is important to note that we also asked app users to report how many partners they had met specifically through smartphone apps. We then subtracted this number from their lifetime total sexual partners and found that app users were still reporting significantly more partners than non-users. What this suggests is that the apps themselves aren’t necessarily promoting riskier sexual behavior—instead, it appears to be the case that the most sexually active men are just drawn to using the apps, and these apps are just one of several ways that they are finding partners.
Certainly, more research in this area is needed before drawing firm conclusions, especially given that this study was based on a small sample. However, these findings suggest that it would be worth considering how we might better promote safer sexual behavior among those who are using their phones to hook-up because app users appear to be more sexually active than average.
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To learn more about this research or 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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