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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC reported in September that rates of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea infections have increased for the third straight year. Fred Wyand, the director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association, agreed — but to a point. Bauer and others point to additional factors that could contribute, including a decrease in condom use, and an increased rate in screenings.
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And, according to Julia Bennett, director of learning strategy at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a decrease in sexual education. Bauer's reports on California, there's been a 40 percent increase among syphilis cases in men who have sex with men who report meeting their partners on the internet; for heterosexual syphilis cases, that increase is 10 percent. However, a study published in PLoS One actually refutes the claim. It compared gay and bisexual men who use dating apps with those who do not. And while app-users were more likely to have STDs than those who didn't use apps, they were also having more sex overall — even absent the use of dating apps.
As the study's author, Justin J. Lehmiller, writes in Tonic:.
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What this suggests is that those who use the apps would probably still be having more sex even if apps weren't around. In other words, there's a selection effect at play here, which means that app users' higher rates of STDs don't seem to be a pure function of the technology they're using. While a lot of coverage of rising STD rates does mention multiple causes, many stories place a disproportionate emphasis on the dating app narrative — minimizing the complex cultural and political issues driving the burgeoning crisis, in favor of something flashy.
Equating STDs with individual promiscuity, rather than gaps in health infrastructure, downplays the need for systematic change. It catalyzes the perception of STDs as something that comes about when you're having more sex — a false assumption, as long as you have the right health resources. The curious but somewhat alarmist tone of stories that link STDs with dating apps sounds startlingly similar to past accusations about how sexual education, the pill, and, most recently, subsidized birth control, enable more and less safe sex.
Along with the claim that STD increases have potentially been caused by dating apps, all of these arguments turn heads because they play into the somewhat titillating hysteria of sex panic: I hope that public health is not sensationalizing the role of all of these different factors.
In the past, moral panic has ensued when a technological or health innovation got involved in people's sex lives. As far back as , a study set about debunking the claim that birth control and sex education would lead women and teens to having more sex. Despite what has become scientifically-backed conventional wisdom about how sex-ed does not increase rates of teen sex, and that birth control decreases teen or otherwise unwanted pregnancy, opponents of these health measures have persisted in their opposition over the last half of a century.
In the last decade alone, Obamacare opponents argued against free birth control on the basis that they thought it would lead women to having more sex an idea that a study also debunked. The sensationalism driving the narrative around dating apps and STDs plays into the same underlying morality argument behind sex-ed and birth control opposers. It's as if stories that focus on a possible STD-dating app link serve to bolster the argument for those who think casual sex can lead to terrible consequences.
They provide fodder for those who seek to say, "See! Look what happens when you give people easy access to sex!
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