NEW YORK — Many researchers and clinicians view Internet use to find sexual partners as a risk factor for sexually transmitted diseases, but it may also have some protective qualities, research indicates.
It's important to consider an individual's intent when that individual goes online to find sex partners, said Dr. Kees Rietmeijer, medical director of the STD clinic and control program at the Denver Public Health Department.
“We have to start thinking not only about how the Internet can increase risk for STDs, but also how online partnering and online behavior can reduce these risks, even among prospective sex partners,” Dr. Rietmeijer said at a joint conference of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association and the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV.
For example, a survey of more than 500 women who met with a person who answered their online personal ad found that they engaged in extensive e-mail correspondence before having a face-to-face meeting and that they used this exchange to negotiate safety, boundaries, sexual preferences, and condom use and to discuss STD status.
However, the survey also revealed that the women engaged in risky sexual behavior. For example, 30% reported that they had sex at the first encounter, and 77% did not use condoms at the first encounter. The researchers concluded that the intensity of the e-mail exchange accelerated the intimacy of the relationship and may have influenced the decision to engage in risky sexual behaviors (Sex. Res. Soc. Policy 2007;4:27-37).
But meeting online may be less risky than other places that individuals meet for sex, Dr. Rietmeijer said.
In a study looking at the factors surrounding HIV serostatus discussion in men who have sex with men, Dr. Rietmeijer and his colleagues found that those who found their sex partners online were four times more likely to have a discussion of serostatus than were those who found sex partners in bath houses (Sex. Transm. Dis. 2007;34:215-9).
But more research is needed to better understand online interactions between prospective partners, he said.