Issues about internet use, risky activity, and sexuality have been addressed in numerous articles, ranging from worries about online victimization to fears about sexually transmitted infections and hookup apps like Grindr. But how much should we truly be concerned about online dating?
That's something that Maggie MacAulay, an SFU communications PhD candidate who is working on a dissertation about online dating and HIV–prevention among gay men, has been taking a closer look at. MacAulay was part of a panel addressing issues impacting gay men's health at the 2013 B.C. Gay Men's Health Summit on November 7.
She said she's particularly interested in examining anxieties about sexuality and technology. She pointed out that some fears aren't completely unfounded but cautioned how they manifest.
"I'm concerned about the ways in which there's this tendency to oversimplify technologies in terms of cause and effect," she said. "And it's really interesting because when you read these headlines, the content usually isn't that sensationalistic but the ways in which we deploy this rhetoric is very interesting for me."
After conducting interviews in San Francisco with gay men who used online dating sites, she discovered differences in how important the internet is to various users.
"One of my initial kinds of assumptions was that the internet would be really important for everybody in identity formation so I talked to men in San Francisco about this. And I found that it was more about which life stage they were kind of at in terms of coming out. So for men who had come out a little bit earlier in life, the internet was really important for them for connecting."
Connecting to community, she said, was a common theme. Interviewees said online chatting helped to alleviate loneliness, reduce boredom, or fulfill a need for fellowship. She emphasized that diverse ways that people use dating sites—for making friends, looking to chat, searching for sex—need to be acknowledged.
Many participants cited positive aspects to online participation. Several interviewees, including those who are closeted, confused, or coming out, valued how online access allowed them to maintain privacy.
"For some people, they felt that they had been hiding their sexuality for so long that it was nice to be able to have a place to discuss this with other folks," she said. "For other people, they felt like online dating technologies allowed them to participate sexually in community without having everybody know so they really valued that kind of privacy."
Others felt that online experienced helped them to improve their sexual communication skills.
One interviewee felt online dating sites helped him to break out of close-knit social or sexual circles to find new people. Others from smaller urban centres felt online sites helped them to find inroads into the gay community in a larger city that might otherwise seem daunting.
Online communication was also beneficial for those who are shy or nervous.
"For some people who were perhaps less extroverted, online dating platforms helped them also alleviate some of the anxieties around social interaction."
On the other hand, many had reservations about online usage, in spite of positive aspects.
"Removing the human element was another common theme," MacAulay said. "That it just became so easy for them to do."
MacAulay said that ambivalence was echoed elsewhere.
One participant, she said, resisted "hypersexualized gay culture on Grindr" who felt "it was a bit too much" and used alternate sites (including the online dating app Tinder, which helps users find dates through Facebook friends).
One area of dissatisfaction was HIV awareness and prevention messages.
Some described it as a "mood killer" or "buzz kill". Many questioned who actually looks at the health resources on the sites and that there were other resources that could be consulted for that information. Others found it intrusive into their sex lives.
MacAulay pointed out that some dating sites include the option to disclose serostatus on a profile. However, she also pointed out that this option inadvertently creates a problem of disclosing or not disclosing one's status.
Ultimately, she pointed out that this ambivalence about sexuality and HIV messaging needs to be addressed, which may suggest future directions of how to address safe sex.
"Is it possible to move from one-way informational models, where we just give people all the information they want online, to more…two-way communicative models of digital prevention?" she asked.