Earlier this year, Alberta health officials announced that gonorrhea and syphilis rates had dramatically increased in the province. This may seem like a fitting diagnosis for the painful, burning of 2016, but you might be thinking:
“Syphilis? What century is this?!”
The old, venereal classic is making a comeback, and Albertans aren’t the only ones who are affected. British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have all experienced similar increases in reported cases of STIs. When Alberta health officials broke the news that some infections had reached “outbreak levels”, they had one specific factor to blame: social media. Or more specifically, “use of social media to set up sexual encounters.”
According to Dr. Karen Grimsrud, Alberta’s chief medical officer, “when people don’t know their sexual partner’s identity, that makes it difficult for public health to do the tracing for them and their contact.”
Men who have sex with men are reported to make up more than 85 percent of Alberta’s syphilis cases, placing Grindr, the gay hookup app that scans for potential partners by distance, among the most scrutinized. But gay men aren’t the only ones contracting STIs. Alberta’s reported cases are the highest among women 15–24, which would have to be blamed on another social media phenomenon: Tinder.
For users of every gender identity and sexual orientation, swiping left or right has come to dominate the dating landscape. Last year, author and psychiatrist Dr. Marcia Sirota penned a blog post declaring Tinder had brought the “end of intimacy”, elaborating that “women on Tinder are objects to consume, and young men are ordering them up for sex as easily as they order their dinner online.”
Grindr and Tinder might make casual or anonymous sex easy to find, but they’re also replacing the old ways of meeting new sex partners. Why cruise bars when you can use your mirror selfies to attract mates through your phone? Dating apps don’t manipulate people into having unprotected sexual encounters, but they do make it easier for the people who were already having unprotected sex to have more of it. Social media may be linked to the behaviour, but that doesn’t make it the cause, and indicting the apps that help single people be sexually active places a value judgment on their choices. As for the idea that Tinder turns women into “objects to consume”, the analogy completely ignores their agency in choosing to participate.
Particularly for young people in the LGBT community, these apps can offer new ways to make connections outside of existing social groups where they may not be comfortable revealing their identity. There will be young people having Tinder sex who probably aren’t emotionally prepared to do so, but teenage sex was happening well before the advent of the digital age. We won’t ever stop it from happening, but we can question why it isn’t being done safely.
People’s willingness to have unprotected sex points to a gap in knowledge and a failure in education. Widespread ignorance of the fact that most STIs come with little to no symptoms leads everyone to assume they’ll know if they or their partners are infected. STI rates are even rising among elderly people who think condoms are useless to them once pregnancy is no longer a physical possibility.
There are a variety of voices making the case that Alberta’s sex education curriculum is failing its students. The province currently allows parents to opt their children out of sex ed, while those who stay in class are given vague information from teachers who aren’t adequately prepared on the subject. Instead of putting a condom on a banana and calling it a day, why not bring in health practitioners and counsellors to go into detail about STIs and to flesh out the flimsy treatment of subjects like consent and LGBT sex? Demystifying sex and giving young people the opportunity to ask all of their questions can make them sex savvy for life, whether their number of partners is one or one hundred.
Social media has changed the way we live, and it’s become the scapegoat du jour. For everything from Trump’s election to depression, it’s easiest to point the finger at the online world. We should continue to examine and question its role in our society, but in the case of social media and STIs, we might need to look a little harder before making a diagnosis.