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The UN doesn't know if hookup apps are spreading HIV, so stop saying it

Dating apps play an increasing role in Asian gay life, but not a clear one

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"The UN says mobile dating apps are driving an HIV epidemic."

That's something you might have heard earlier this week, when several outlets reported on a new HIV study from the Asia-Pacific Inter-Agency Task Team on Young Key Populations. The task force, which includes UNAIDS and UNICEF, warned of a rise of infections among certain adolescents — young sex workers, intravenous drug users, transgender women, and gay or bisexual men. In addition to the stigma that these groups face in general, adolescents are particularly vulnerable, and age restrictions or parental consent laws can shut them out of aid programs. But are Grindr, Growlr, Blued, and other ways to find sex on your phone making it worse? That's a much tougher call than the alarmist headlines suggest.

The link between apps and AIDS is based mostly on statements from UNICEF advisor Wing-Sie Cheng, who told The Guardian that young gay men "have consistently told us that they are now using mobile dating apps to meet up for sex, and are having more casual sex with more people as a result." Since "we know that this kind of risky behavior increases the spread of HIV ... We are therefore convinced that there is a link." She warned The Telegraph that "young men have told us that they are using this access to mobile phone app to find the nearest partner via GPS with ease, and that they often engage in risky behavior when they meet."

"Young men have told us that they are using this access to mobile phone app to find the nearest partner via GPS with ease."

The problem is, this link — or data backing it up — is strikingly absent from the actual report. Over the course of 56 pages, one sentence is devoted to the potentially harmful influence of hookup apps on teens' sexual habits, at the end of a paragraph about risky sex among gay and bisexual men:

The explosion of smartphone gay dating apps has expanded the options for casual spontaneous sex as never before — mobile app users in the same vicinity (if not the same street) can locate each other and arrange an immediate sexual encounter with a few screen touches.

The citation-less line is more of an offhand observation than a causal claim. The numbers on sexual risk were collected from 2003 to 2007, two years before Grindr even launched. Outside the report, an accompanying photo essay makes a stronger assertion, describing "an increase in casual sex with multiple partners, driven by mobile dating apps," among gay and bisexual men. But the evidence it cites is one young Thai man whose friends use them for casual sex. That's because beyond these kinds of anecdotes, no one has pinned down exactly what dating apps mean for HIV.

"We do not have a definitive causal link between the rise of dating apps and the increase in adolescent HIV."

"At this stage, we do not have a definitive causal link between the rise of dating apps and the increase in adolescent HIV. This is partly because getting reliable data about at-risk adolescents is difficult, because they are often hidden from traditional surveys," said UNICEF spokesperson Andrew Brown when I asked about the study. "What we are saying is that the increase in use of mobile dating apps has helped create an ‘enabling environment' for risky sexual behavior, and that this could be a contributing factor in new HIV infections."

There's quite a gap between this statement — based, says Brown, on substantial but anecdotal reports from advocacy groups and young gay men — and an outright claim that dating apps are increasing HIV transmission. Suggesting that apps are "a major factor in a new HIV epidemic" or "a key reason for an increase in HIV infections," or that they "helped foster a teen HIV epidemic," is hugely premature.

The Guardian goes on to cite a study finding that gay and bisexual men who use dating apps are at "greater risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia than those who meet in-person or on the internet." This is true, but it was observed in Los Angeles, under a completely different social and legal system. "It is difficult to generalize our results to other countries," Los Angeles LGBT Center epidemiologist and lead author Matthew Beymer told The Verge. He also noted that the study found no relationship between HIV risk and app use. Given these caveats, it's a non sequitur in this report, serving only to drive home the idea that dating apps are dangerous.

Online and mobile dating could increase risk-taking, but it's complicated

It's intuitive that dating apps could be dangerous, for exactly the reasons mentioned above. In the US, there's evidence that gay and bisexual men find more partners and take more risks when using online services versus offline dating. In Asia-Pacific countries, Brown says that "young gay men tell us that their access to casual sex has increased enormously since the launch of the dating apps, and that sex arranged via apps tends to be spontaneous and more risky."

But it's complicated. A 2015 study of gay men, app use, and sexual risk in China came up with inconclusive results. "It was a wash," says co-author Joseph Tucker, director of the UNC Project-China health research initiative. "People who used apps were more likely to report multiple recent sex partners, but there wasn't any difference in condom use between app users and non-app users." They were also more likely to report recent HIV testing.

"We're really interested in this as a research question that hasn't been definitively answered."

"It could be that gay apps do facilitate risky sex," says Tucker. "But then on the other hand, you could also make a very compelling argument — 'Well, wait a second. Gay men are in the closet in China. [...] There's no sense of gay community, and now all of a sudden with a mobile app gay men are allowed to reach into and create an online gay community that gives them support, that helps them get tested, that gives them a sense of empowerment.' You could really see these gay apps going either way. And that's why we're really interested in this as a research question that hasn't been definitively answered."

That's an option that the UN and UNICEF are encouraging. The report cites apps' potential for spreading positive information about STI testing and sexual health — UNAIDS has praised Chinese gay dating app Blued, for example, for offering a free HIV test service to its 15 million users.

If there's one thing the study suggests, it's that dating apps are worthy of further investigation — and that they create both potential dangers and unique opportunities. But leading with the idea of apps as an unchecked disease vector is simply technological fear-mongering. It invokes the authority of the UN to trade on salacious fascination with "hookup apps" and adolescent sex, turning an open question into confirmation that teenagers' phones are literally killing them.