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Online Dating and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Updated July 13, 2014

Online Dating
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There's a lot to be said for online dating. It gives individuals the opportunity to expand the pool of people they could potentially meet and fall in love with. It allows couples to talk and learn about each other in a low stress environment. It allows those with similar interests to congregate and meet fellow fanciers from all over the world.

However, online dating may also have some downsides, at least from the perspective of sexual health professionals. After all, when you date online, you put yourself at risk of getting a lot more than just a computer virus. Online dating, and in particular the use of geosocial networking and hook-up apps, has been linked to STD risk in a number of different studies -- with risk seeming to be highest in people looking for casual hookups rather than long-term dating.

Most of this research has been done in populations of men who have sex with men. However, the risks of online dating on STD risk don't stop there. Similar risks have been seen in heterosexual online daters around the world, and there are interesting concerns about older people who are meeting new partners online.  In 2012, an interesting article from the Canadian National Post hypothesized that the increased STD rate which has been seen in the country may be, at least in part, driven by an increase in online dating. Their theory was that, particularly for older people who are generally less likely to practice safe sex, online dating makes intimacy develop faster and sex occur sooner in the relationship.

There's enough research supporting a causal relationship between online dating and increased STD rates in other populations that the first part of their hypothesis seems like it could be valid. However, I would argue with the mechanism they proposed. My hypothesis is that, were such a relationship to be found for older Canadians, that the reason would be that older people are having MORE sexual partners, not that they're becoming intimate sooner. While to an extent these are two sides of the same coin, phrasing the problem as "quicker intimacy" ignores the fact that, in these populations, waiting longer wasn't going to make either safe sex, or STD screening, much more likely. That's a problem that needs to be addressed on its own, as several studies have indicated that older online daters may be less able to negotiate for safer sex.

The Particular Hazards of Anonymous Hookups

One of the biggest public health concerns around online dating is that many services make it a lot easier for individuals to acquire anonymous sex than it would be otherwise. That's particularly true for geosocial networking applications that allow people, primarily gay and bisexual men, to easily find others who are looking to connect nearby. Why is anonymous sex riskier than other types of casual sex? On a person-to-person level, it may not be. But on a population level, anonymous sex is particularly worrisome to public health professionals because where there's no name, there's no way to trace the contact. Contact tracing is an incredibly important tool in stamping out STDs, a goal that should be reachable because STDs are so hard to pass on, but the more that people don't know who they're sleeping with, or won't tell, the more these diseases continue to spread.

STD Dating Websites - The Positive Side

However, online dating also has a positive side - particularly for the many people who are STD positive.

A huge percentage of the population have sexually transmitted diseases. For many of them, it's something that can be dealt with with a course of antibiotics. For others, it's something that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives. For a person who's single, finding out about a herpes or HIV diagnosis can seem like the end of all hope. Many fear that being honest about their diagnosis with a new partner could lead to a painful rejection.On the other hand, if they're dishonest, they risk surprising someone they love with the same bad news they wish they'd never heard. So how do people cope?

For some, the answer is to look to the Internet. As the number of people with sexually transmitted diseases continues to rise, so does the number of social networking sites for individuals with those diagnoses. These sites can make it easier for people with STDs to deal with their diagnoses, for example by dating other people with a similar STD, where individuals may have less fear around disclosure. Although just because you have one STD doesn't mean you can't catch another, it can be easier to talk about these things when both partners come into the conversation with similar things to say.

Online STD dating sites aren't for everyone, but they can help some people remember that a positive test result doesn't close the door on love. Instead, these sites show that a positive test can open the door to new relationships where, when someone already knows one of your deepest secrets, it makes it easier to share the rest.

However, a word of caution. If you're meeting someone from an STD dating site, or elsewhere on the Internet, it doesn't hurt to take some sensible precautions - even before you get into bed. It's important to be safe when meeting someone offline for the first time. Always meet in a public place, and make sure that at least one friend knows where you are. And, if you meet someone and want to go further than dinner and a movie, practice safer sex. Even if you met because you both have the same STD, you could still infect each other - either with different strains, or with a different disease entirely.

Sources:
Bateson DJ, Weisberg E, McCaffery KJ, Luscombe GM. (2012) When online becomes offline: attitudes to safer sex practices in older and younger women using an Australian internet dating service. Sex Health. 9(2):152-9

Beymer, et al. (2014) Sex on demand: geosocial networking phone apps and risk of sexually transmitted infections among a cross-sectional sample of men who have sex with men in Los Angeles county. Sexually Transmitted Infections. doi:10.1136/sextrans-2013- 051494, published online 13 June 2014

Horvath KJ, Bowen AM, Williams ML. (2006) Virtual and physical venues as contexts for HIV risk among rural men who have sex with men. Health Psychol. 25(2):237-42.

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