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Researchers Log On to Study Chatters Who Get Off
by Jon Garbo

To evaluate how Internet chat users may put themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV, researchers at the Denver Public Health Department went undercover to monitor 175 chats in rooms that were created to facilitate sexual contact between users.

Logging on under the screen name, "Sean," researchers observed conversations in chat rooms tailored for men who have sex with men (MSM), heterosexual men and swinging couples. Researchers spent from 30 minutes to two hours in each chat, recording information volunteered by chat users or found in user profiles. The researchers did not procure information; they only played an observational role. The research took place from February to June of 1999. Their study was published in the October 2000 issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

Forty-six percent of the observed chats took place in MSM rooms, 35 percent were in heterosexual rooms and 19 percent were in couples/swingers rooms. Of the 175 chats, 63 took place on America Online (AOL).

With the help of text analysis software, researchers uncovered an abundance of references to risky sexual behavior. Chatters in the MSM rooms mentioned anal sex in 26 percent of the observed sessions. Those in the couples/swingers chats discussed seeking or having multiple partners in 21 percent of their observed chats. Chatters discussed having previously met others online in 15 percent of couples/swingers chats and 9 percent of MSM chats. Negotiations to meet other users took place in 11 percent of the MSM chats, 5 percent of heterosexual chats and 3 percent of couples/swinger chats.

Researchers found chatters to more often reveal their age in MSM rooms than in heterosexual, couples/swingers or AOL rooms. Chatters who offer their geographic location were found most frequently in AOL rooms, followed by MSM rooms. Sometimes chatters indicated whether they were looking for people in a particular geographic region, or how far they were willing to travel to meet up. "This geographic positioning could be a way of introduction, or it could be a way to facilitate a meeting by suggesting convenience for potential partners," according the study.

Chatters used their screen names and profiles as a means of presenting personal information to other users, including personal likes and dislikes, the study found. Profiles often included "revealing risk-related information about what a chatter sought in a sex partner, what types of sexual activities the chatter preferred, and where the chatter was located," according to the study.

"The data here suggest that the Internet has a greater and more instantaneous reach than any other medium to facilitate encounters that result in sexual activity," according to the study. "This may translate into faster, easier and more efficient transmission of disease and infection."

The study revealed some encouraging news about STD and HIV prevention. "We were able to document evidence of concern for safe sexual behavior through the mention of condoms or, as was frequently the case, persons who indicated that they are ‘disease and drug free’ and are seeking the same," the study’s authors wrote.

Such safer-sex discussions in chat rooms indicate "that the Internet may be an appropriate and useful tool for the promotion of healthy sexual behaviors, including condom use," according to the study.

The study calls for the development and testing of prevention messages targeted to chat room users. It also recommends health educators to offer advice online, web sites to host chats about HIV and STD prevention, and healthcare professionals to give their email addresses to chatters to encourage lengthier conversations about sexual health.

Updated: Wednesday, October 18th 2000

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