A deadly dating game

Updated: 2012-09-11 06:50

By Simon Parry and Hazel Knowles (HK Edition)

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 A deadly dating game

Popular all-male dating Apps like Grindr may be helping assist the spread of HIV among the young gay community in Hong Kong, Aids Concern believes. Simon Parry / Red Door News

A deadly dating game

A boom in the popularity of gay dating Apps for smart phones has contributed to record high levels of HIV infection in Hong Kong, some Aids prevention workers believe. But is technology or poor sex education at the root of the epidemic? Simon Parry and Hazel Knowles report.

It takes only two or three taps on the screen of a smart phone before the picture of a bare-chested young man pops up. John is 25, he's single, he's looking for friends, dates and fun, he's online now and he's less than a mile away.

This is the new face of gay dating in Hong Kong. Male-only smart phone applications like Grindr that use global positioning technology to put homosexuals in touch have taken over from saunas and bars as the favored way for a new generation of gay men to source partners.

John's profile is relatively tame. Others on Grindr are explicit, and make it clear precisely what the person within range is seeking and that in many cases he wants a fast, no-strings-attached sexual encounter.

The popularity of Grindr and other gay dating Apps in Hong Kong coincides with a worrying rise in the HIV infection rate. In the April to June quarter, 131 new cases were diagnosed, the highest quarterly total since records began in 1984.

Department of Health experts believe the number of infections in 2012 could exceed 500 for the first time and say the group where the virus that can lead to Aids is spreading fastest is among young gay men, known as MSM (Men who have Sex with Men).

Some Aids prevention groups believe the use of Grindr and similar Apps is playing a role in the HIV epidemic among MSM and have tried without success to engage the developers to reach out to young men at risk.

"Grindr helps men locate nearby MSM who also installs the same app in their smart phone. So it is much easier for them to locate a sex partner around their living district or area," explained Aids Concern spokeswoman Panda Cheung Yin-mei.

"It has become popular in the past one or two years and it is one of the factors that are contributing to the record high levels of infections.

"A lot of MSM install this program and they search and find if there is an MSM nearby when they have free time. It is much easier for them to meet, and to have sex."

 A deadly dating game

Gay young men are ambivalent about the risk of contracting HIV, says Department of Health specialist Wong Ka-hing. Simon Parry / Red Door News

Although Grindr is popular worldwide, claiming more than 4 million users, its potential to help spread HIV infection in Hong Kong is exacerbated by a lack of sex education in schools, Cheung argued.

"There is no homosexual-specific sex education in Hong Kong," she said. "Young men are immature and they may not have the ability to negotiate safer sex when they have sex with an older partner. They feel they will be rejected if they ask for sex with a condom.

"The real problem is that schools do not encourage homosexual sex education. They should have it but I think there are a lot of social barriers in Hong Kong I think the government could put sex education forward with emphasis on young MSM in schools."

Aids Concern runs support groups to educate young MSM - mostly in the 17 to 25 age range - about the importance of condom use and to try to encourage them to be more assertive with sexual partners over condom use.

It has also tried without success to collaborate with Grindr to reach out online to young MSM who might be vulnerable after meeting partners by using the app, said Cheung. However, she said: "There is a barrier to collaborating with the social media.

"Grindr is a money-making software. They have tightened monitoring of users and they don't welcome NGOs doing outreach on the Grindr networks. Once they find a phone number is an NGO number, they block the number so the NGO cannot do it again.

"We have made preliminary contact with the Grindr developer and they have told us we welcome you as yourself, but you can't post your agency logo on the Grindr network."

Cheung said she believed Grindr had a social responsibility to facilitate more intervention because of the rise in HIV among young men. "We need some more time to negotiate," she said. "They are now at the stage of making money. So maybe they will be more receptive later on."

Responding to questions from the China Daily, a spokesman for Grindr said in an emailed statement: "Grindr strongly encourages our users to engage in safe sex practices, get tested and know their HIV status. Knowledge is power, and it's the first and most important step in stopping the spread of this disease.

"As a company, we're committed to promoting safe sex within the community, and we want to be a resource for our users in staying healthy. We have a page on our website called Grindr Health. On that page, users can find effective testing facilities or confidential online testing options to help them know their status before engaging in any sexual activity.

"We encourage our users to explore this page and browse through the information to learn the best way to protect both themselves and their sexual partners."

Wong Ka-hing, consultant in the special preventative department of the Department of Health's Centre for Health Protection, said there had been a proportionately greater rise in HIV infections among MSM since 2005, not just in Hong Kong but on the mainland, regionally and globally.

Department of Health research had not detected a specific link between HIV rates and the use of Apps like Grindr, Wong said, but he remarked: "Certainly, social media imposes new challenges. It is evolving and presenting opportunities for both HIV infection and prevention.

"At-risk populations including MSM and sex workers and clients can source sex partners more easily via these channels. But at the same time we have launched a mobile application to provide information on free condom accessibility and HIV testing services."

Of the 131 quarterly infections in April to June, 65 were MSM infections and at least some of the 37 infections of so-far undetermined source were expected to fall into the same category, he said. The figure is both the highest quarterly number and ratio of MSM infections on record.

By contrast, Wong said, the trend for heterosexual infections had remained stable in recent years. "The MSM epidemic is a big challenge in HIV prevention and control," he said, with rates many times higher than other at-risk groups.

Most infections in the MSM community result from unprotected sex. "I am not sure why but maybe some members in the (MSM) community are just ambivalent. They don't have enough awareness or concern about the risk of infection, or they just ignore the issue," said Wong.

In contrast to Grindr's rapid popularity, the Department of Health's mobile app targeting MSM has picked up few followers so far, Wong admitted.

The most effective way to tackle the epidemic, however, he said, was through safe sex education and regular HIV testing - something currently done by around 40 percent of Hong Kong's MSM population.

"If safe sex can be taught at an early age, it is useful for future protection," Wong said. "Interestingly, from the surveys we have done, we found that condom use when an MSM first has sex is correlated with consistent condom use in future.

"We don't know why but this finding is quite consistent. So it would be useful if they could be taught to use condom when they have sex when they are still quite young."

Paul Ramscar, a Hong Kong businessman and gay rights advocate who is launching a Pink Dollar smart phone app to promote gay-friendly bars, shops, nightclubs and restaurants, said it would be wrong to single out Grindr for blame in the rise in HIV cases.

"It's a tragedy when this happens to someone but ultimately the buck stops with the individual. They need to be looking after their own health," he said. "If they want to take the risks, if they want to play what is effectively Russian Roulette by not using a condom, then maybe there are going to be consequences."

Social media and smart Apps had undoubtedly reshaped the gay scene in Hong Kong, Ramscar conceded. But he argued it was not constructive to single out one, such as Grindr, as there are others on the market serving the same function, such as Gaydar and Manhunt.

"Before, there was never the technology to go online and meet someone within 10 minutes if you were looking for a quick hook-up," Ramscar said. "You had to go through the process of going to a bar to meet someone or reply to personal ads in the newspaper and it took quite some time."

The key issue in tackling the spread of HIV is education, Ramscar believes. "Back in the mid to late 80s when (pop star) Freddy Mercury died there was a huge campaign worldwide to make people aware about Aids and safe sex," he said. "I cannot recall seeing one of those types of ads for probably 15 years.

"You have this younger generation coming through who have probably had no sex education and probably never seen an advertisement on TV about sex education. They are not being educated and they lack the education and the knowledge to use condoms.

"Sex as a topic in Hong Kong is very taboo. People don't talk about it. It needs to be on the agenda in schools. Times have changed, and more really should be done in Hong Kong to educate young people."

Jimmy Lo, senior project officer with the Hong Kong Aids Foundation, said inadequate sex education meant young people in Hong Kong lacked knowledge of HIV and Aids and were not equipped with the skills to protect themselves.

"There are times when I go to the university and talk to psychology students about our work and I have been asked about how HIV and Aids is transmitted. These are undergraduates - they are not children - and they don't know.

"Sex education should start earlier - in primary school or early secondary school. We should be talking not just about safe sex but how to have a healthy holistic relationship and sexual relationships. The government needs to do more on this."

 A deadly dating game

Hong Kong Aids Foundation members at work providing counselling and testing and promoting safe sex. Simon Parry / Red Door News

(HK Edition 09/11/2012 page4)