Grindr now STD outreach tool
by Seth Hemmelgarn
San Mateo County health workers have been creating fake profiles on the online hookup application Grindr to encourage more men who have sex with men to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Darryl Lampkin, prevention supervisor for the STD/HIV program at the county's health department, said last week that the efforts have enabled staff to reach far more people than they had been able to in the county, which is just south of San Francisco but includes no physical venues such as gay bars or community centers where outreach can be focused.
Lampkin, who spoke Thursday, March 13 to members of San Francisco's HIV Prevention Planning Council, added that staffers don't initiate contact with others on the site and the profiles contain minimal information. Instead, they respond when someone expresses interest in the profile.
Before Grindr was in use, during October 2011 to March 2012, there were 60 contacts with men who have sex with men, he said.
From October 2012 to March 2013, that number jumped to 305, Lampkin said. The Grindr outreach, which started in October 2012, accounted for 215 of those contacts, and 79 percent of those contacted remained engaged when staff revealed what they were doing on the site, he said.
"We're very forthcoming early in the conversation about why we're there," Lampkin told council members.
In an interview, Lampkin, who is gay, added that many people have said, "They're really happy the intervention exists, and they're happy to learn of those services being available" in the county.
Questioned about ethics of the program, Lampkin asked if it's more unethical to "ignore" the application's potential as an outreach tool or "to give them information about HIV and STDs and save them from suffering."
"We're not deceiving people," he said. "We also know other people have a profile up that's not them," and there have been "very few" negative reactions.
He also said, "There are people who just go on there to chat. ... That's what we go on there to do."
Health department staff have had "lots of conversations" about ethics, and talked to researchers who attended a 2012 conference that helped inspire San Mateo County's use of Grindr for outreach. Unlike the county, those researchers, who Lampkin said were from UCLA, had been initiating contact with Grindr users.
Data from San Mateo County, which has a population of about 739,000 people, indicate why Lampkin and others have taken to Grindr.
As of December 2012, there were 1,424 people in the county living with HIV/AIDS, according to Lampkin. Men made up 83 percent of all cases, with 59 percent of them having contracted it through sexual contact with other men.
Lampkin said that, in 2008, almost 40 percent of people who tested positive for syphilis reported they had looked online for sex partners.
The county has two smartphones for the Grindr work, meaning there are two separate accounts. The county subscribes to Grindr Xtra, where Lampkin said a membership is $55 a year.
Staffers purchase stock images of men to use as profile photos.
"We dirtied them up," including through using shadowing, so that they wouldn't look "so professional," said Lampkin. They also change the picture twice a month.
Not all staffers involved in the project are gay or bi men, and some are women.
Users of hookup sites are known to send pictures of their penises and other body parts. Training for the staffers has included setting boundaries and responding to "explicit" photos and messages, said Lampkin.
People may communicate "in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways" that they're looking for sex, he said.
"Folks can be very persistent with an image," he added.
Despite health workers revealing early on what they're up to, some people have persisted in wanting to meet the men in the profile photos, Lampkin said.
"We just say, 'No, he doesn't really work in the clinic,' and leave it like that," he said.
Lampkin, who said health workers are interested in talking with other hookup apps, defended the way his agency is using Grindr.
"I haven't had any conversations with Grindr," he said, but "our goal was to follow the terms of service."
In response to an interview request, Grindr spokesman Matt Goodman emailed the Bay Area Reporter a statement that said the site "strongly encourages our users to engage in safe sex practices, get tested, and know their HIV status."
Grindr welcomes working with non-government organizations to do safe sex education and promotion, the statement said, but "as part of our terms of service, we do not allow paid or pro-bono advertising within user profiles. In our experience, we found that the most effective approach is in partnering with organizations to educate users via events and targeted messaging rather than through Grindr profiles."
The site sponsors and raises money for AIDS walks in San Francisco and other cities, among other assistance, according to the statement.
In response to the Grindr statement, Lampkin said, "We don't advertise. We offer information specific to people's questions, which we consider to be risk reduction information and referrals."
San Mateo County has a non-voting seat on the HPPC, which sets priorities for HIV prevention in San Francisco and is co-chaired by Tracey Packer, a longtime staffer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
In response to the B.A.R.'s request to interview Packer about using Grindr to do HIV and STD outreach, health department spokeswoman Nancy Sarieh said in an email, "We are not using Grindr for HIV/STD outreach."