Internet use for dating tied to sexual risk taking  

Nearly 1 in 5 surveyed have looked for dates on-line

The phenomenon of people searching Internet sites for sex partners apparently is common among the general population and not just among men who have sex with men (MSM), according to a new study.

A random digit-dialing survey of more than 900 people in Seattle between the ages of 18 and 39 found that 18% of those surveyed had searched for sex partners on the Internet, and 3% had met with sex partners whom they contacted on-line.1

"We asked people if they had ever searched for partners on the Internet, and if they did search for them, did they meet them and have sex with those partners," says Betsy Foxman, PhD, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Molecular and Clinical Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor.

The study was designed to assess the prevalence of Internet-based sex partner recruitment in the general population of a city that has been among the places where Internet sex recruiting has been associated with outbreaks of syphilis among MSM.1

"We found that people who looked for partners on the Internet and met them and had sex with them increasingly had more sex partners over their lifetime or the last 12 months," Foxman explains.

The sexual orientation difference

"We also found that those who reported having opposite-sex partners were less likely to find sex partners on the Internet," she says. "It was more likely in the homosexual community."

There was a very low reported HIV rate among the people surveyed, Foxman notes.

The people who reported Internet use for recruiting sex partners and who also had same gender sex partners had an indirect association to increased risk for HIV and sexually transmitted disease (STD) infection, she adds.

"There really weren’t differences in terms of the number of hours they spent searching, although men reported slightly more hours than women," Foxman says.

"Also, men reported slightly more friends and partners than women, but that doesn’t take into account sexual orientation," she explains.

Older people more open about Internet use

Another trend the survey observed was that older people surveyed were more likely to report that they had searched the Internet for sex partners, Foxman adds.

Future analyses of the data will look more thoroughly at the STD history and correlate that with other high-risk sexual behaviors, such as use of sexual enhancement aides, she says.

"What was striking to me was how common it was," Foxman points out. "We haven’t analyzed yet, but we do know where people found their partners in terms of what web sites they went to, and that’s something we’ll be looking at."

Investigators also will analyze what survey respondents said about their intentions when they were looking for sex partners, she says.

"I think intention might be very important in terms of STD risk," Foxman says. "It’s not intrinsically true that finding a partner on the Internet is a risk factor."

However, if someone searches sites, such as one called "bugchasers," which is directed at people who may wish to become HIV-infected, then that would be a risk factor, she notes.

"That’s different from searching match.com where someone is trying to find a marriage partner," Foxman continues. "And that’s something that’s going to have to be explored and sorted out."

Reference 

1. Aral SO, Patel D, Holmes KK, et al. Powerful predictors of sexual risk taking: Sex partner recruitment on the Internet and sexual orientation. Presented at the IDSA Conference. Boston; September/October 2004. Poster: 796.