Study investigates gay net users

July 23, 2004


Gay men who used online chat sites were more likely to be HIV-positive and have unprotected sex with a casual partner than gay men who don't, a study has found.

Cruising and Connecting Online, a study by the National Centre in HIV Social Research, examined 450 gay men in Melbourne and Sydney last year and compared data with periodic surveys conducted among the gay community.

The study found gay chat site users were more likely to be HIV-positive, report unprotected anal intercourse with a casual partner in the past six months and have more partners.

"Chat sites are regarded as supporting a range of sex-seeking practices by gay men, providing a fast and efficient medium through which men can locate one another for sex," the study said.

But the study also found gay chat sites appeared to be a good medium for education and disease prevention activities and users were receptive to such messages.

"Our study suggests that these sites support a range of activities and relationships in addition to sex seeking and may support mutual negotiation of sex practices and facilitate HIV risk reduction strategies," the report said.

About a third of users found a regular sex partner and a quarter found a medium- to long-term partner.

But not all users went to the sites for sex - they also offered a sense of community.

"Rather than becoming the bathhouses of the 21st century, as some have suggested, it is perhaps more appropriate to think of gay chat sites as the online equivalent of gay bars," the study found.

"While some go there to pick up, others are there to 'hang out' in gay space, to see other gay men, to meet up with friends, to socialise and relax."

Authors Martin Holt, Dean Murphy and Patrick Rawstorne concluded that improved education in the use of the internet by gay men could have many benefits.

"Some critics would argue that developing online competence would simply make it easier for gay men to find sex partners through the internet," the study said.

"However, attempting to restrict gay men's access to sex has never been a particularly successful or happy health promotion strategy.

"Encouraging gay men to be confident ... about their online activities seems to be a more productive avenue to explore if we wish to encourage and sustain safer sex practices in both online environments and the 'real world'."