Internet Sex Infections
She liked anthropology. So did he. He said he was almost "obsessive" about hiking. She loved long walks. For nine months, they exchanged e-mails every day, sent photos and gifts and talked on the phone. Then she bought a ticket from Colorado to Alaska to spend six days with Lance, the man she met online.
It was understood that, unless one of them was a beast, they would have sex. And they did, the night she arrived, after loosening up with Mexican food and Negro Modelos. The sex was good. So good they spent much of her six-day visit indoors.
Health officials may already know about this tryst. They have been lurking in chat rooms lately. It seems that meeting on the Internet and then taking it to the bedroom -- or wherever you like it -- has become a public health issue. Since August, when a syphilis outbreak was traced to an AOL chat room, there has been an astonishing revelation: You, too, can get a sexually transmitted disease if you have sex with someone you happen to meet online!
Cybercourtships and the resulting sexual entanglements are a budding field for researchers studying the spread of STDs. The feds have funded a study to understand the habits of horny Web users. Investigators in San Francisco have quizzed people coming to an STD clinic, and discovered that 17 percent have met a sex partner online in the last year.
The researchers also found that people who meet online wear condoms just as rarely as those who meet offline. (About 37 percent.) Gay men with Internet partners reported having receptive anal sex -- considered a more risky sexual behavior -- more often than gays who met their lovers offline. The researchers will present their findings next month at the International AIDS Conference in Durbin, South Africa.
"I do think that people with Internet partners do tend to be more risky than those who don't meet their partners over the Internet," says Andrea Kim, an epidemiologist in the San Francisco Department of Public Health HIV seroepidemiology unit who led the study.
Now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is getting in on the action. For the first time, the agency has funded a study -- done online, of course -- that seeks to unravel the mysteries of the Internet mating world. If you type "sex" in a search engine, along with sites boasting "Young and Tight Pussies" or the "Hottest Suck and Stroke Action" on the planet, you will also get Sexquiz.org. A humble survey will politely ask if you had anal sex with someone you met online, if you gave him a blow job or discussed your HIV status. Nine hundred people have filled out the survey since it was posted April 3. With 100 more (hurry up, folks), researchers will wrap it up and analyze the data.
"Epidemiology is studying patterns and distributions of diseases and that's what we're trying to understand: how the disease gets distributed through the medium of the Internet," says Sheana Bull, a medical sociologist at the Denver Public Health Department who is heading up the survey. She and the other researchers say they are not blaming the medium; they are just looking at it as a "newly emerging risk environment."
The Web site states its purpose up front, and even has a warning that sounds like a high school sex ed video. "If you have thought about or ever used the Internet to meet someone, and then had sex with that person, you might be at risk for getting infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) including HIV, the AIDS virus, or, if already infected, you may be able to pass an infection to another person."
The subtext here is that the Internet is a scary, devilish place. And maybe health officials have a point: If the ILOVEYOU virus can spread like crazy around the globe, why not an STD? Then again, once you're rolling around with a partner, does it matter whether you met in a chat room or a bar?
"It implies that there's this whole different group of people who live online and lurk there and, therefore, it would be different to have sex with them; either they would wash less, be more diseased, be more fiendish about hoping to pass on something disgusting to you, more violent, more pathological," says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and the author of numerous books on sex. "Whenever the circumstances are anonymous and you don't know them as a co-worker or through a friend, you always up your ante of a bad time."
But really, what distinguishes online seduction from dating services, personal ads, singles' clubs, your local bar or ones like good ol' incestuous Cheers, where everyone knew a little more than your name?
"You may be able to pick up two partners at a bar in one evening; you can pick up more than that on the Internet in the same amount of time," says Mary McFarlane, a research psychologist at the CDC in Atlanta. "You can schedule, you can get on the Internet and look for partners in places where you'll be traveling to."
So cruisers on the Internet may get laid more often, by more people. But Bull cautions that not everyone is so lucky. "I think that people who were already having a lot of sex are having a little more. It doesn't mean more sex for everybody."
But the Internet has definitely added a jolt to the love life of Eric, a 48-year-old man who asked that his real name not be used. He regularly posts to an online bulletin board, and when he set out on a cross-country trip, one woman invited him to swing by to see her. "To my surprise and immense joy, the relationship quickly went beyond date to intimacy," he says. He didn't use a condom. But he never does.
"I'm the same person with someone online as with other people. Either I have an STD or I don't. And I'm not aware that I do."
The main theme of Sexquiz.org, McFarlane says, is that the Internet is adding efficiency to people's lives. What the Web has done for, say, ordering books and buying tickets, it is now doing for delivering ass. But does Lance, whose online flirtation led to six great days in bed, believe he had sex any faster because the relationship was born in that zippy world of T-3s?
"No," he says as he bursts into laughter, "it's been since high school that I waited nine months before having sex with someone."
Jokes aside, any work to prevent the spread of STDs is needed. And the Internet is an ideal medium for disseminating information quickly, especially sexual advice. Many people, particularly teenagers, are embarrassed to ask questions in person. Honest, accurate information about sex, risk and self-protection, like the material put out by the San Francisco Health Department with Gay.com, may be lifesaving. Although it may seem obvious that wearing a condom or a dental dam offers important protection against disease, not enough people do it either in the online world or offline, as Kim's research confirms.
If researchers conclude that online encounters put people at higher risk, they could take measures to make it a safer place, so the Internet is once again our friend. They could post warnings in sexually explicit chat rooms, Bull says. They could refer people to Web sites that offer information on the risks of unprotected sex.
But you have to wonder where it will end. Should we roll on a condom before we sit at the computer? Wear gloves before we finger that little mouse? Invest federal funds to find out if open sores grow to the beautiful, annoying sound of a modem connecting?
Traditionally, STDs are more likely to be spread by three factors: sexual exposure to an infected person, the rate you change sexual partners and the time it takes a disease to incubate. It's the second piece of this equation that interests Bull. She's also curious about how diseases can spread from one region to another. Since the Internet is basically a global lounge, facilitating relationships among people all over the Earth, from a public health perspective it can be a medium that helps spread STDs.
Consider this recent post in a Gay.com chat room:
"Visiting L.A. June 17, masculine, muscular, 34 waist, 44 chest, looking for a nice guy, pvt me!" Los Angeles recently had an outbreak of syphilis. What if this guy contracts it there, then transmits it back home?
"I think [the Internet] wrinkles up the map because people are actually picking up each other long distance," says McFarlane. "You arrange a contact while traveling to Philadelphia and then go back to your home area, then the STD won't be in neat geographic pockets. One of the implications is that it will spread more widely."
The Internet certainly wrinkled the map for Lance. How often does a guy in Alaska get a hot visit from a stranger in Colorado? A month has passed since her stay, and things have apparently cooled. She's ready to ditch her life and move in with him. But he doesn't want to commit. It seems that even in the wild, wild space of the Internet, old gender roles still rule.
Dawn MacKeen is a senior writer for Salon, where this article originally appeared.