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  Easy Access: Finding Sex and Health Info Online
by Sarah Albert


Finding sex in bars and clubs before the Internet was an option was easy, explains Pete*, a 38 year old gay executive in California. "But now you don't have to leave home. You can log on and get sex delivered to your door."

Men who have sex with men (MSM) are more likely than heterosexual men or women to look for sex online, according to a new study. The good news is many of these men are also looking for information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

"The Internet is increasingly used for the recruitment of sex partners, potentially leading to increased risks for STIs," study authors write in the latest issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

For LGBT people the Internet can provide social and romantic opportunities that are otherwise unavailable. For others, like Pete, finding sexual partners is the main lure.

"I can find exactly what I am looking for. If I want a blond guy who likes unsafe anal sex, I can get it," says Pete.

Regardless of where you find casual sex, condoms and other protection are key to stave off STDs. Unfortunately, in this study, most respondents -- 2,016 people out of more than 4,700 -- never use condoms, 1,938 people sometimes use condoms and 682 people always use condoms. More than 2,400 people had a new partner in the last four months.

In general, a lot of people have access to the Internet. While whites reported the greatest access to the Internet (64 percent), 42 percent of African Americans and 25 percent of Hispanics also reported access. Researchers believe these statistics will only continue to increase.

"As the costs of personal computing and use of online resources are decreasing and larger segments of the population are being educated about the usefulness of the Internet for daily activities, the proportion of STI clinic clients with Internet access is likely to increase in the future," the authors note.

Of those with access to the Internet, 138 (6.4 percent) reported that they went online to find a sex partner. MSM were significantly more likely to report Internet sex-seeking than women or men who have sex with women (MSW) -- 28.6 percent versus 4.4 and 1.3 percent. Blacks were less likely than whites to use the Internet for sex-seeking.

For Ruby*, a heterosexual writer in New York City, there is a big difference between finding sex versus relationships online, and she believes men are just more likely to use the Internet for both.

"Sex with strangers scares me," Ruby says. "Partly because I am woman and also because I would worry about them having STDs." Dating on the other hand can be great, she says. "You can rule people out quickly and there is an endless pool of men who are interested."

"I was at work when I found love online," says Steve*, a freelance writer in New York City, who says some people mistakingly believe all gay men go online for sex. "I stayed late at work and did a profile for a dating site." As for finding sex online Steve says, "I found it disgusting. I went online once to a dating/sex chat room but it wasn't my thing. People would ask immediately, 'What size is your penis? Show me a picture of your ass,'" which was a turn off for Steve. "I'm more old fashioned," he joked. "I prefer to pick someone up drunk at a bar."

"In absolute terms, Internet sex-seeking and having sex with Internet partners are not (yet) very common behaviors, even among persons who may be considered to be at high risk," according to the study. "In contrast, seeking information on STI appears to be much more common in this population." However, MSM were found to be much more likely to access the Internet in general, and to go online looking for sex.

"The Internet provides people with an anonymous and identity protected avenue to get sensitive information. They can have their questions answered without embarrassment and without having to discuss their sexuality or sexual practices with a physician," says Stephen Goldstone MD, medical director of GayHealth.com. "In the best possible of worlds patients would feel free to talk to their doctors, but alas that is often not the case. Moreover, many physicians may not have thorough information about STDs and patients may find better and more accurate answers on the Web."

Surveys were analyzed by researchers from the Denver Public Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and colleagues. Overall, 45.5 percent of respondents reported access to the Internet. Participants ranged in age with most almost half between 20 and 29 years old. Of the participants with online access, 32.4 percent of the whites had looked for STI/HIV information online, compared with 21.4 percent of the African Americans and 22.9 percent of the Latinos/as.

*name was changed

Updated: Thursday, January 16th 2003
 

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