Swipe right for STDs: Doctors say hookup apps increase infection rates

Posted at 5:12 PM, May 06, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-06 17:12:22-04

SALT LAKE  —  Utah has a problem, and nobody wants to talk about it.

Thanks, in part, to a growing use of “hookup” apps, doctors say they have seen rates of sexually transmitted diseases skyrocket over the past couple years.

Apps like Tinder, Down and Grindr could be partly responsible for gonorrhea rates in Utah being up in women more than 700 percent, they use as an example.

The Utah State Health Department is now scrambling to figure out why there’s a link to Utahns hooking up via these apps and bringing infections home to their spouses and partners.

Lynn Beltran, an epidemiologist at the Salt Lake County STD clinic, says you don’t have to look to hard to see the problem. A decade ago, she says, dating and hooking up were far different. “You had to go to a bar to meet someone, there was a dance you had to do,” she says.

But that dance is dead with the advent of dating apps.

The digital hookup

Now, if you have a smart phone, you can hookup anywhere, anytime. Beltran notes that the change has been huge for people who are married. “Before, if you were interested in sexual activity outside of marriage, there was a fear factor if you went somewhere you’d be seen,” she says. “Now, you click a few buttons and meet at a hotel.”

Suburban soccer moms and dance dads are hooking up, stepping out and having affairs, easily thanks to these at-your-fingertips apps. Beltran will tell you, if you want sex and want in now, there’s an app for that— and an infection to go along with it.

Kristin Hudson, a therapist with The Healing Group, looks at the psychology behind the desire to hook up, especially for those who are married.

“There can be a little bit of a thrill if somebody swipes right and you both like each other, a small ping of ‘I’ve still got it,'” she says. “A lot of it can be that there is just an opportunity, more of an impulse or a whim, and now you can actually act on that whim.”

Whims years ago ended with a night at home alone, a fleeting thought. Now that whim can become reality with apps that allow you in real time to find someone who’s looking for a quickie at that very moment you are.

“The accessibility is unbelievable, that you can find someone within a mile and you already know what they want to do,” Beltran says.

The numbers don’t lie, and gonorrhea rates jumped nearly 400 percent from 2011-2014. Men have seen a 300 percent increase, while rates among women have surged an incredible 714 percent.

Joel Hartsell of the Utah State Health Department is working with his team to figure out why. They’re using new questionnaires for people who test positive for STDs, for example, but that is only a piece of the puzzle.

In a short amount of time, he says, 40 percent of males claim anonymous sex, but only 7 percent of females do. Yet the largest increase is among females, he says, those numbers could be read and skewed to fit many different theories.

Beltran believes the best start to lowering STD rates is protection. “The biggest thing we are not doing is promoting personal responsibility around our sexual well being,” she says. “People are not educated and think things like, ‘STDs are only in that population I don’t associate with.’ That’s not true. Nobody is exempt from being exposed to an STD when you are sexually active.”

Sex Education

Utah schools teach abstinence only, and that education, translates to what adults know when it comes to sex. Beltran doesn’t have a tough time talking STDs because it’s her job, but for others, the topic is tough to tackle. She believes a conversation needs to be started.

The reality of STDs is a tough sell. Everyone thinks it won’t happen to them, what Beltran wants people to know is that the risk is in the city, in suburban neighborhoods and rural Utah. It’s single people, married people and everyone in between.

In a state that doesn’t like to talk about sex, there seems to be a whole lot of it going on without much forethought of protection. Hudson believes that could be due to a choice saying, “If you put on a condom and go to that length, you are admitting you were actively cheating on your spouse or your partner. If you don’t put on the condom, it can be a mistake or lived in a bit of denial.”

Hartsell doesn’t dance around the issue adding, “These people who are stepping out are putting their spouses at risk.” If a man for example brings home chlamydia to his wife, she won’t necessarily see symptoms. Left untreated it can cause infertility.

That’s why Beltran has the ugly job of calling notifying unsuspecting spouses and partners of positive STD tests. That she says is the most challenging part of her job. “I have had to make calls to spouses of people exposed to HIV,” she says.

The state is now rushing to stop this alarming trend by bumping up its annual conference scheduled for the fall and meeting with doctors from across the state in mid-May to brainstorm solutions.