These Billboards Claim Hookup Apps Cause STIs — But It's Not That Simple

These Billboards Claim Hookup Apps Cause STIs — But It's Not That Simple

Are hookup apps Tinder and Grindr basically just like Seamless for ordering up sexually transmitted infections?

It may be something of an unsavory comparison, but it's one the AIDS Healthcare Foundation thinks is apt. The organization recently unveiled a new billboard campaign urging users to beware of swiping right on STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea. 

"Mobile dating apps are rapidly altering the sexual landscape by making casual sex as easily available as ordering a pizza," Whitney Engeran-Cordova, senior director of public health for AHF, said in a statement. "In many ways, location-based mobile dating apps are becoming a digital bathhouse for millennials wherein the next sexual encounter can literally just be a few feet away — as well as the next STD." Gasp!

To make matters worse, AHF put the billboard up in West Hollywood, a stone's throw away from Tinder's Beverley Boulevard headquarters.

Tinder and Grindr were both like, "Ummmm." After the billboard was erected, Tinder was quick to send AHF a cease-and-desist letter, accusing the organization of deliberately misrepresenting the app as a cesspool of filthy, filthy sex disease. 

"[The billboard is] falsely associating Tinder with the contraction of venereal diseases," stated the missive. "These unprovoked and unsubstantiated accusations are made to irreparably damage Tinder's reputation."

Grindr took a slightly less drastic step by simply terminating relations with AHF, which has previously advertised on the app. 

A common scapegoat: This isn't the first time Tinder and Grindr have been accused of propagating sexually transmitted infections. In its press release, AHF referenced the now-infamous Vanity Fair article "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse'" as evidence the app promotes casual sex with multiple partners, which puts users at higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. 

The release also cited a Rhode Island Department of Health report that indicated STIs rose sharply from 2013 to 2014 and specifically called out "using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters" as one of the key factors. 

Rhode Island isn't the only state to host a spike in STI transmission rates (and subsequently attribute said spike to hookup apps). In May the public health department in North Carolina blamed Tinder for a minor syphilis outbreak. And in 2014 syphilis cases nearly doubled in one upstate New York county, which was attributed to gay men in the area using Grindr. 

The truth is complicated. To be fair, there's some truth to the idea that hookup apps like Tinder and Grindr might play a role in rising STI rates. In a 2014 study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, researchers found that Los Angeles gay men who used Grindr were more likely to have STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia than those who didn't. And it stands to reason that if you're using a hookup app for the purpose of having casual sex — which, let's be honest, you probably are — then you might be having sex with multiple partners. If some of that sex is unprotected, that increases your risk of contracting STIs. 

Sex researchers agree that claiming a direct link between hookup apps and STIs is a reductive explanation of a complex issue.

But when it comes to the central question of whether using hookup apps increases your risk of contracting STIs, the answer is a lot more complicated than AHF's ad suggests. 

Debby Herbenick, an associate professor at Indiana University and author of The Coregasm Workout, told Mic that when it comes to STIs, hooking up with people you meet on dating apps is just one of many possible risk factors, including whether or not a condom is used and whether or not both parties are actually aware of their STI status. 

"It's never as simple as being 'just' about an app," she said. "I have had a few students who have met sex partners through Tinder and gotten an STI through such encounters, but I've also had students who have gotten STIs from people they were dating or had sex with at a party, who they had just met."

Timaree Schmit, a sex researcher and professor, agrees that claiming that there's a direct link between hookup apps and STIs is a reductive explanation of a complex issue.

"It's a messy topic, because people don't use all these apps uniformly nor do they make the same calculated risks sexually," she told Mic, citing a recent study that found polyamorous folks are not more likely than monogamous people to have STIs, but they are more likely to practice safer sex. "This is a clear indication that a larger number of partners does not mean inherently more risk of STI." 

Other research has borne this out, suggesting that monogamous and non-monogamous people are likely to have similar sexual health statuses, regardless of how many partners they've had. 

"It's never as simple as being just about an app."

Is the billboard educational or just plain slut-shaming? While it's true that directly linking Tinder and Grindr to rising STI rates is reductive, it's also not technically wrong. While people have been having casual sex (and for that matter, casual unsafe sex) since the dawn of time, if nothing else, apps like Tinder and Grindr provide more opportunity for horny singles to hook up — which means they also have ample opportunity to make unsafe sexual choices.

Hookup apps are "a new mechanism for engaging in sexual activity without having that conversation about condom use or their last HIV or STI screening," Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of Rhode Island department of health, previously told Mic. "There's more access to anonymous sexual activity." 

Some might argue that AHF's billboard is basically resorting to scare tactics, reminding anyone who dares get busy with a Tinder hookup on a Tuesday that behind every swipe is an STI waiting to happen. But others might be able to take it with a grain of salt, as nothing more than a cheeky reminder to book that regular STI checkup. And regardless of whether hookup apps are actually linked to unsafe sex, that's a lesson we could all do well to remember. 

"If [the billboards] generate conversation and get people tested, I have a hard time being mad at them," Schmit told Mic when asked if she found the billboards to be overly slut-shaming or problematic. "Whatever gets people thinking and acting with sexual health in mind, I support to some degree."