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Joining me today are several individuals, all of whom either as public health officials, researchers, safe sex advocates or some combination thereof, have a particular interest and expertise in Internet chat room use among MSM. Frank has worked on men's sex and health issues for more than 15 years. He is assistant research psychologist and has studied and worked on a number of community-based interventions among gay men.
He is co-creator of a new website called Safe Sex City.com, which is a cyber-community geared towards creating a community of like-minded MSM who are committed to promoting and practicing of safe sex. He has conducted research on the role of the Internet in the sexual lives of MSM and has found a number of interesting trends that I am sure he will share with us in our discussion today.
But I really do think a lot of it is based on comfort level of perceived anonymity. I do not want to start off by blaming the Internet and saying, you know, "This medium is the reason that there are higher transmission rates." It is yet another way that men can meet men and a lot of the people who are meeting men on the Internet are also meeting men in bars and clubs and bath houses and parks and everywhere else. Adding to that, though, the Internet allows men to meet each other faster.
The Internet affords anonymity (There is a great New Yorker slide that says, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.") So you can be whoever you want to be on the Internet.
Internet partnering has become very acceptable, so that it has become the new relative norm of how to meet partners.
Right now, recent data show that more than 80% of sexually active MSM who meet new partners are meeting online in San Francisco, and then what Deb mentioned is approximation that allows people in dense urban areas who are interested to meet up very quickly in a short amount of time.
GR: I just want to add that we have been doing online qualitative interviews with gay and bisexual men or men who have sex with men they meet in Internet chat rooms, or that we were recruiting from Internet chat rooms, and even the guys in rural America are saying that, you know, "I can get online, and in 45 minutes, I can have someone tied up to my bedpost..." So, you know, this is not just in San Francisco or New York; we are seeing this phenomenon in many other places in the country as well.
So I would like to welcome all of the panelists today and thank you for joining us here. There are also higher rates of men reporting STD infections, who are using chat rooms, and so it is a very consistent finding that a lot of different studies and a lot of different research groups are picking up that these higher rates are existing.
I am going to go ahead and begin with the first set of questions. Greg Rebchook: Sure, I can start addressing that question about evidence that MSM recruited from online venues or using chat rooms have higher rates of, or they are reporting higher rates of, unprotected anal intercourse with their partners than men in other venues. Our own data actually show that even when you are controlling for the number of sexual partners that men are having, that Internet use still contributes to unprotected sex significantly, even controlling for the number of sex partners. Jeff Klausner: We first identified the association of Internet use and STD transmission in 1999 during an outbreak investigation of a cluster of syphilis cases among gay men here in San Francisco.
Whereas a lot of people in their profiles will put down "safer sex only," then they meet up, that means we do not have to have a discussion about it because, let's say I responded to an ad that said "safer sex only" or we both wrote "safer sex only." However, for me, "safer sex" is "no unprotected anal intercourse" and, for you, "safer sex" is "no anal intercourse at all." And then that is not being discussed. MV: So, is there a misperception with the Internet where it seems clear that you can say, "I'm HIV-negative, STD-free" but that does not get into when you were last tested or what that means for you, and so that it appears that it is all out there in the open but it is really not being addressed?
That is probably not the best example, but let's say for the other person, let's say they won't even have oral sex without a condom. Then you go out and try to find somebody else who potentially has your same thoughts and beliefs. JK: Yes, I think Al Cooper down at Stanford and Michael Ross in Houston, talk about why the Internet is so popular based on these five A's. The Internet is very accessible to many people, particularly in this demographic, particularly here in San Francisco.
So you can write your profile as a modified code, hoping other people will read it the same way and then you can have a combination of emails exchanged or messages exchanged that allows you to kind of refine where and what behavior you choose to go to and then, if you want to have that next step, you can display your face.
The downside of that is, more often than not, in such small locations that we have, you end up knowing who the people are even before you see the face shot, and once you get more and more comfortable and you find less and less fear based on whatever program you are in, you start to change those images.
Deb Levine is the Executive Director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, or ISIS, which has contracted with the City and County of San Francisco to provide syphilis elimination services to men who have sex with men in the City, and also to identify their partners on the Internet.