Culture

New STD-Sharing App Helps Online Daters Get Laid...Responsibly

Hula promotes safe sex by encouraging users to spread the love, not diseases.

“Get tested. Get your results. Get some love!”

That's the marketing slogan of the latest iOS app Hula, which is making waves in the digital dating world by allowing users to share their STD results in a “fun, millennial-friendly way—or as fun as you can possibly get when you’re talking about chlamydia,” as Techhive’s Caitlin McGarry described the craze.

Location-based online dating apps have exploded in the United States. A recent Pew study revealed that 1 in 10 Americans have used an online dating site or application, with 25 percent seeking solely sexual encounters. More sobering is the rise in sexually transmitted diseases: according to the Centers for Disease Control, every year 20 million Americans contract new sexually transmitted infections in the U.S.

Among the more popular dating apps are Tinder and Grindr, which operate by locating people in the user’s immediate vicinity who are looking to hook up. In selecting a "suitable mate," Tinder's process is as arbitrary as swiping to the right if you’re attracted to the person, or swiping to the left if the individual doesn’t tickle your fancy. If two people are mutually interested it’s a “match” and the hanky-panky wheels are set in motion.    

Enter Hula—the app formerly known as Qpid.me. Hula follows on the success of other dating apps by facilitating the hookup process. Using a Yelp-type listing, Hula helps users find STD clinics to get tested, obtain results quickly, and share the verified results by “unzipping” their contents to potential partners.

While the app is not designed to be a dating site, it partners with other dating apps in helping those who want to get lucky make better health decisions in a bid to de-stigmatize the discussion of HIV and STDs along the way.

Hula founder and CEO Ramin Bastani told AlterNet he created Hula to make 21st-century hookups safer and the STD talk a little less awkward following his own personal experience in 2010, where a woman he was courting slapped him across the face after he asked her if she’d been tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

“I remember I sat there and thought, there has to be a better way to have this conversation where you won’t get slapped in the face.  This is obviously a social problem, not a medical one. This app encourages people to get tested and find out people's statuses by way of Hula. Our users get tested more often because they want a recent test date on their profile. If we can facilitate that process by making this conversation easier, then our hope is that it would significantly reduce STDs,” he told AlterNet.

Co-founder Jonathan Kawa echoes that thought as he describes his role in implementing the app: “My job is to make our software systems and user experiences disappear into the background so you can focus on doing what you want to do, whether that’s getting laid or sharing your medical information with a physician,” he says on the Hula website.

Conveniently, the results are time-stamped so people know when you last got tested. As Bastani explains, you can then disclose those results to whomever you choose at your leisure.

“If I wanted to share my profile with you, I could have you ‘unzip’ me, which is a fun way to begin this important conversation. This is a modern, flirtatious version of, if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine," he said.

The app raises some privacy considerations, since it allows third parties like Hula employees to act as the agent between the user and the clinic to confirm, request and interpret the validity of test results on the user's behalf in order to prove the user is telling the truth. This requires user authorization to obtain access to personal health records so such information can be displayed on the app in a user-friendly way. 

Such a system is obviously not foolproof, particularly if personal sexual health records end up in the wrong hands or leaked across Facebook and other social media platforms for the world to see.

However, Bastani says in the digital dating world, it is increasingly becoming the norm for people to self-report their STD results on numerous dating apps such as okcupid. In any event, the user has strict control over what information is shared.

“We are trying to protect people’s privacy and enable them to make health decisions based on real-time data. Users have the ability to reveal their own information at their freedom or keep it completely anonymous, including their real name,” he said.

This week, Hula is expected to partner with Mister, a dating app for gay men and bisexuals to encourage users to get tested for HIV. When users launch the Mister app, they will be pointed to Hula to find testing facilities in the area.

“We’re in a position to help educate the community, and we should use it. The gay mobile app has become one of the primary ways gay men, particularly younger gay men, connect with one another. We need to do all we can to make sure that they are making informed choices about their partners and their health, Carl Sandler, CEO of Mister said in a press release.

The collaboration is intended to get dating apps up to speed with public health in an effort to make the STD discussion part of the dating experience through a radically different approach to prevention. Such a move is welcomed by those who dabble in the online dating scene.

While Hula recognizes that a negative test result is not a guarantee that a person is STD-free, the app is certainly a step in the right direction in providing a platform for people to be able to discuss sexual health freely and make better-informed decisions about their health. After all, as Hula declares, it’s better to spread the love, than spread diseases. 

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.