Swiping Left on STIs

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Illustration by Celia Fong
Illustration by Celia Fong

Tinder executives didn’t swipe right on billboards outside their office last fall. They didn’t “super like” the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s (AHF) campaign, depicting two silhouetted couples — Tinder facing chlamydia, and Grindr nose to nose with gonorrhea. “FreeSTDcheck.org” lay boldly scrawled next to the images.

They did swipe left to this connection, and wrote AHF a cease and desist letter to end the campaign, claiming the “unprovoked and wholly unsubstantiated accusations are made to irreparably damage Tinder’s reputation.” The clash between Tinder and AHF, while based on uncorroborated statistics, resulted in positive change — Tinder adding a link to a STI testing locator in its FAQ’s health safety section.

Tinder isn’t the only, or even proven, problem behind the national increase in STIs — neither are Grindr, OKCupid, Coffee Meets Bagel or any dating app. The increase is the result of inadequate sexual education in schools, and the subsequent stigma and shame surrounding STIs. It’s not an app’s responsibility to monitor its users’ sexual activities. The users need to protect themselves and take responsibility to screen their potential sex partners. But without institutional changes, this shift won’t be made.

If Tinder users go to the app’s settings and select the help and support page they’ll be directed to an FAQ page. At the very bottom of the page is a safety category, which links users to another page — and at the very bottom of that, there’s a link to the Healthvana clinic locator. It’s not the easiest to find, and Tinder can’t expect it to solve any major problems surrounding STIs.

Grindr takes a more in-your-face approach, regularly displaying pop-up ads that persuade their more than 5 million GBTQ+ active users to buy at-home HIV testing kits.

There’s no argument that people want to stay safe and STI-free. But in middle and high school health classes, we’re taught that abstinence is the best way to do so. There’s little conversation about STIs beyond HIV, like syphilis and gonorrhea, which is another scare tactic to promote abstinence. Sexual health education was optional in California until this year, with the only mandatory part being HIV prevention.

A study at UC San Francisco found that 16 percent of California school districts in the report teach that “condoms are not an effective means of preventing pregnancies and STDs/HIV.” While 19 percent of districts mentioned birth control methods in their instruction, “most of the time was spent on the benefits of abstinence.” The source of this problem? More than one-third of the districts don’t require specific training for their sex education teachers.

When protection and STI testing isn’t taught to teens, they don’t become common practices. If we were taught that condoms significantly reduce the risk of contracting STIs, the stigmas of getting tested wouldn’t be overwhelming. Getting tested is an essential part of being sexually active and isn’t something to feel guilty about. Walking into a health center or clinic doesn’t mean you are a “slut” or “promiscuous” — it means you’re taking care of yourself.

Having an open dialogue with a sexual partner about each other’s recent STI testing should be the norm. When people are meeting sexual partners online at an increasing rate, STI education needs to extend beyond a phone screen. To achieve this, changes must be made — like the San Francisco Unified School District considering giving out condoms to its middle school students. Putting a tiny link about sexual health on Tinder doesn’t cut it.

The unproven idea that dating apps have to do with a 79 percent increase in syphilis cases in 2014 and a 30 percent increase in gonorrhea cases in Rhode Island, or an over 50 percent syphilis increase in Colorado, is beside the point. The root of this increase needs to be better understood and fixed, so the numbers decrease without placing “blame” on anything or anyone. Healthcare providers should redirect the money and resources used to shame Tinder and Grindr toward education policy and awareness.

When AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)President Michael Weinstein told the Associated Press, “It’s logical, if you can be hooked up with someone in an urban area within minutes, of course you’re going to have more STDs,” he jumped to an easy — and flawed­ — conclusion. He didn’t use data to support his correlation, recognize the complexities of the statistical increase or push for substantive solutions to a serious problem. He suggests that cities are crawling with STIs, and that if you have sex with someone in a city, an STI might as well be guaranteed.

Neither AHF or Tinder responded appropriately in this situation. AHF launched a hasty campaign about a serious problem, and Tinder added fine print to appease the nonprofit. Tinder should use its profits to introduce effective campaigns to encourage users to practice safe sex and destigmatize getting tested. Both have the platform to make real change, but a long way to go in sexual health education.