This article comes from Astrid Gearin, UON’s Equity and Diversity Coordinator.
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (MSHC) researcher Eric Chow said in a recent article that current rates of STIs have not been seen since the 1980s. “We’re not sure exactly why that is, but it is something we have started investigating,” he said.
Health data from the Kirby Institute shows that in the last decade, the number of gonorrhoea cases annually has more than doubled, with an increase of 63%.
So, what’s with the dramatic changes? Logically, testing more often and more accurately means that, by default, higher infection numbers will be reported. But what else could be driving these increases?
Online dating has had one of the single biggest impacts on our sexual lives in the past decade. It has vastly expanded our sexual networks, and we now have a plethora of choice when it comes to apps and web-based companies, designed specifically to facilitate romance, dating and hook-ups. In 2015, Tinder told pedestrian.com that 15% of Australians are using the dating app regularly, which adds up to more than three million Australians. Brothels are complaining that apps have led to a drop in business, and Facebook looks to be getting in on the action by trailing out something new.
With the internet, people can now more easily have sex with more people. In a recent interview, sexual health campaigner Dr Wendell Rosevear shocked many by informing the broader population that people are using online dating and dating apps to have frequent, sometimes anonymous sex. “In the past, people would often get a sense of belonging and community with social venues, such as nightclubs, but now some of those clubs are dying because people are becoming more reliant on social media and app connection,” he said.
This change in how we date offers unique features that have interesting implications for the spread of STIs. People no longer have to go out of their comfort zone to seek anonymous sex. They can now seek out people from the safe confines of their house, dorm, bedroom or lecture theatre.
This information may come as no surprise to many of you (and you yourself may be using these apps and websites). Of greater concern, however, is Dr Rosevear’s suggestion that condom-free sex has also increased, and that, as a society, we have become more complacent about our sexual health. He believes that this is the result of more advanced treatments for STIs such as HIV, and that people may not see STIs as such a risk these days, as we have more and better treatment options.
A British study found sexually active men who found partners online were six times more likely to have five or more sexual partners, compared to those who found partners offline. Sexually active women who dated online were seven times more likely to have more than five sexual partners in the reported year. This study argues the number of sexual partners you have is linked with your likelihood of getting an STI; more people online equals more partners per person, increasing the risk of contracting STIs.
Sexual partner numbers and sexual mixing patterns are important epidemiological drivers of transmission and persistence of STIs in populations. The online environment makes it possible for connections between people to form who ordinarily may not have met in real life (IRL).
Our social networks have traditionally been formed with people whom we are directly linked to, via extensions of family, employment, study, faith, sport, age or simple geography. In this way, the networks we form sexually have tended to be extensions of our social networks.
By facilitating sexual encounters, online platforms provide opportunities to increase the rate of partner acquisition. This potentially enables individuals in different social and sexual networks, with varying risk behaviour and STI prevalence, to meet in ways that would not otherwise have happened, another study found.
While people can be highly selective online, the nature of online data can also breakdown traditional social groupings. If you have sex with someone who is not in your usual social loops, it alters the landscape of your sexual network. This alteration can influence the spread of infections, particularly when a network with lower rates of infection overlaps with a network where infection is more prevalent.
For example, in Australia, chlamydia is most prevalent in the 15 – 24 year old age group, and gonorrhoea in 15 – 29 years olds (75% of these people lived in cities). If someone from a network of mainly older people has sex with someone from a network of mainly younger people, it creates an opportunity for infection to move between two distinct sexual networks.
Over time and with enough points of positive contact, the chlamydia prevalence in the older, less infected network would start to look like that of the younger, more infected network. This is only a demonstrative example, of course, as sexual networks and infection rates are influenced by many factors; age is just one.
In our hyper-connected world, the chances of you sleeping with someone quite different from you is greater than at any other point in our history. This makes it paramount that we do not neglect our sexual health. It is intrinsic to our overall wellbeing.
Be committed, get informed, get tested. For more information about all of this, check out UON Health Sexual Health.
March 12 – 16 is Sexual Health Awareness Week, and there are tons of activities planned – from film nights, to sexual health trivia, to a ‘sexpo’ at Park on the Hill.