The growing spread of sexually transmitted disease in Canada may be at least partly the result of the Internet dating boom, and the rapid intimacy that can develop before online couples even meet, some public-health experts say.
The phenomenon seems particularly relevant to middle-aged and older people, who appear to be flooding to dating websites, and are generally less apt to practise safe sex, suggest some analysts.
“By the time you meet and start having sexual activity, perhaps you have this sense that you’re really comfortable and you know this person well,” said Pam Krause, executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre.
“So there’s no need to negotiate safer sex.”
The per capita rate of new syphilis cases across Canada has soared almost 10-fold since 2000, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Chlamydia rates, after falling through most of the 1990s, have jumped 66% since 2000, with more than 87,000 total new cases in 2009.
Following a steady decline in the 1990s, HIV infections also crept up again in the 2000s, while heterosexuals and women specifically made up a burgeoning percentage of new patients, public health agency statistics show.
The trend is usually blamed on fading memories of the deadly start of the HIV epidemic — when the term “safe sex” first surfaced — and new treatment regimens that have made the virus virtually a chronic disease.
‘You feel like you know them because you’ve had this correspondence, and physical intimacy proceeds a lot faster’
But the rise in disease has also paralleled an apparent revolution in amorous interaction. The online dating industry in North America has soared from about $40-million in revenue in 2000 to more than $1.5-billion, says David Evans of OnlineDatingPost.com, who has covered the business since 2002.
According to a Leger Marketing survey last year, a quarter of Canadians have taken part in Internet dating, and 16% had sex with someone they met online.
Dr. Jill Grimes, author of the 2008 book, Seductive Delusions — How Everyday People Catch STDs, said patients and friends repeatedly tell her about the unique dynamics of encountering someone online.
“You start off when you meet the person with a higher level of intimacy. You feel like you know them because you’ve had this correspondence, and physical intimacy proceeds a lot faster,” said Dr. Grimes, a family physician in Austin, Tex. “Typically, the more we know someone, the less likely in general we are to think they have an STD…. ‘Oh, they’re like me, they’re not going to have an STD.’ ”
Middle aged and older people can be even less likely to use condoms, as the women are often beyond worrying about pregnancy, and the men are more prone to impotence and fear hampering their performance, said Dr. Grimes.
As they cope with a jump in syphilis rates, mostly among gay men, New Brunswick public-health officials are pointing in the same direction to help explain the trend. “People these days tend to go on the Internet to find partners there and don’t seem to inform themselves very much, they just want to have sex, and they get infected,” Dr. Denis Allard, the province’s deputy chief medical officer of health, told the CBC.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief public health officer, stressed he has not done research on the correlation and that there are a number of factors at play. But, he said in an email, “anecdotally, the use of the Internet to meet a partner and engage in casual, and often anonymous, sexual activity is one of these factors.”
Officials with the Ontario and Alberta health departments, however, said they have not uncovered hard evidence of a link between the popularity of online dating and the rise in STDs.
Most experts concede there is little empirical research into the possible correlation.
As long ago as 2004, however, a research team at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that 43% of the women they surveyed had had sex with someone they met first online, and tended to have a high rate of sexually transmitted infections. “The Internet is a flourishing sex venue” with a wide pool of partners and the potential “to spread an STI or HIV with greater efficiency than ever before imagined,” they concluded.
Other research by the same group made similar findings, though a 2009 study they did of STD patients at a Colorado clinic did not find strong evidence of an association.
In California, about 43% of gay men and 7% of heterosexuals who had contracted syphilis in 2010 reported having met sexual partners online, said Dan Wohlfeiler of the California Department of Public Health’s STD Control Branch.
“It can have the potential to change how transmission works,” said Mr. Wohlfeiler. “It makes it more efficient for people to find (sex partners).”
The state, however, is now working to use those dating sites to help prevent spread of the infections. It is encouraging site owners to embed features like a safe-sex option in member profiles, lists of HIV testing venues and e-cards to inform partners of a positive result.
Written by Tom Blackwell