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COLUMN ONE

Online Access to Risky Sex

The Internet opens up a universe of possibilities for gay men seeking casual trysts. Some officials see a public health nightmare.

July 26, 2002|CHARLES ORNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year after testing positive for HIV, a 40-year-old entertainment publicist returns time and again to the "bathhouse" in his backyard. Inside a cinder-block shed, with jazz blaring in the background, he taps away at a computer, trolling for sexual partners.

His bathhouse is the Internet, specifically the Los Angeles chat room of Gay.com, a wildly popular Web site that offers flirtatious banter, personal ads and the opportunity to quickly turn virtual encounters into real-life sex.

"Are you looking to hook up now?" the man writes to a potential partner. Within minutes, the two have traded details of their favorite sexual exploits, swapped photographs and promised to meet later that day.

Two years ago, the publicist met another guy the same way. During sex, the condom broke. That's how he says he caught the AIDS virus.

"It's like playing Russian roulette," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I got the bullet."

He is not playing alone. Gay and bisexual men looking for quick-turnaround sex increasingly are turning to the Internet, and they are doing so at far greater rates than their heterosexual counterparts. As a result, public-health experts say, they are speeding the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The same accessibility and anonymity that make the Web so popular also make it increasingly dangerous to sex-seeking users, multiplying "the probability of high-risk people meeting high-risk people," said Colorado epidemiologist John Potterat. Sex-oriented chat rooms could become "the EBay of homosexual sex," he said.

Sex among men has long accounted for a large share of sexually transmitted diseases--42% of AIDS cases nationally, for example, and more than 80% of syphilis cases in San Francisco in the last two years.

In the past, officials tried to control the spread of such diseases among gays by targeting common meeting places: closing bathhouses in the 1980s, or requiring condom distribution at bars and adult bookstores.

Now, just as research is suggesting that many gay men are tiring of safer-sex practices, the Internet is opening up a sexual superhighway.

Health officials are woefully ill-equipped to respond. Closing it off or passing out condoms isn't an option. Moreover, the Web can be an inviting venue for men who don't typically go to bars or bathhouses and perhaps wouldn't otherwise engage in high-risk sex.

Officials have no means of systematically monitoring the sites, no new money to launch prevention campaigns and no power to trace infections by demanding that Internet companies identify their clients.

"We are not keeping up," said Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of sexually transmitted disease control for Los Angeles County. Worse than that, "we have little sense of what approaches would be effective."

No one knows the precise number of gay men who go online searching for anonymous sex, but judging from use of chat rooms and personal ad sites, it's a significant subset of the gay population.

Gay.com reported nearly 17.7 million chat sessions in April, up from just 4 million sessions in January 1999. At any given time, up to 18,000 people around the world are conversing in Gay.com's chat rooms. The provider, which markets its ability to help men find "Mr. Right" and "Mr. Right Now," says 150,000 members sign on to the chat rooms every day.

Gay.com executives say their site voluntarily provides information on safe sex. But they say they are not responsible for unsafe sex any more than the telephone company is for prank calls.

"You can't get [a disease] while chatting with somebody on the Internet," said Lowell Selvin, CEO of PlanetOut Partners, parent company of Gay.com. "You have to physically show up and interact. At that time, you're governed by rules that are far beyond the scope of our organization."

The sex-seekers are not only showing up for their trysts, physicians say, they are landing in clinics with infections--notably in California, which has both a large gay population and a high rate of Internet use.

Dr. Gary Cohan, a Beverly Hills physician whose practice treats 2,500 HIV-positive patients, said that as many as 30% meet sex partners online. "That number is rising," he said, "as people find that it's an efficient, easy, 24-hour way that they can meet people without having to brush their teeth or comb their hair."

It's hard to beat the convenience. And many men like the idea of skipping the small talk at bars and dance clubs.

"You just jump in and you connect, you hook up," said the publicist, who has a live-in boyfriend. "It's the fastest way to have sex."

*

Sitting in his ornate living room in San Francisco's largely gay Castro district, travel agency owner Jonathan Klein expresses hope that chat rooms will bring about a rebirth of sexual exploration.

"There hasn't been enough acknowledgment of the fact that the sexual freedom of the '70s was for a lot of people a really, really wonderful thing," said Klein, 50, who has lived in San Francisco for 28 years.

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