Grindr Convinced Me to Take an HIV Test
How gay hookup apps are helping users with HIV awareness and PrEP.
Photo: Joseph Jaafari
I slept with a number of men over the last seven years—including some I maybe shouldn't have. But I'd never had an HIV test.
As a gay man who grew up during the tail end of the AIDS epidemic in the 90s, it was clear to me what my death sentence would be: I was doomed to go the way of Freddy Mercury, Keith Haring, or Pedro Zamora from The Real World. But despite all the targeted advertising for people just like me—young and sexually reckless—I would only test for the ones I knew I could cure, like gonorrhea or chlamydia.
So when I logged onto Grindr, a mobile sex app, last week and was shown an ad that offered free at-home HIV tests, I hesitantly opted in.
Three days later, the package showed up on my stoop in Brooklyn. I opened the box, swabbed my gums and waited 20 minutes for my results.
The situation made me wonder: if I hadn't been using Grindr, how long would it have taken me to get tested? $40 tests have been available at most pharmacies for three years. Would I have eventually taken the leap myself?
Unfortunately, probably not.
Tech companies like Grindr are starting to play a big role in spreading awareness of HIV, AIDS and, especially, preventative treatments.
Grindr's study also found that one out of 10 men have issues getting access to Truvada from their doctor. That number doubled for men of color
The drug Truvada, marketed as the treatment protocol pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, reduces the risk of contracting HIV by nearly 100 percent, according to a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancer.
However, there is a high percentage of men that both don't know enough about the drug or even how to get it, according to a new study conducted by Grindr that was released exclusively to Motherboard.
Truvada, a combination of two antiretroviral drugs, has been used for nearly two decades to treat those with HIV. In 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for prevention and the number of prescriptions has exponentially increased since then.
"Some people call it a miracle drug," said William Nazareth, director of creative media at New York City's Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, an LGBT-focused facility located in Manhattan. The city has some of the highest number of users on gay apps like Grindr and Scruff next to Los Angeles and Chicago, according to the companies.
Nazareth told me the drug isn't for everybody, however. Those on Truvada have to be religious about taking the pill daily and meeting with doctors every three months to be sure there are no liver or kidney problems due to side effects.
Although the side effects aren't common, they have some in the gay community opting to not take the drug. The survey conducted by Grindr, done with the help of the Centers for Disease Control and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, showed the majority of gay men might be also avoiding Truvada for other reasons.
Of the 4,600 American respondents on the survey, three-quarters weren't on the medication, and more than 37 percent of gay men said they didn't know enough about the drug or even what the drug was. A quarter of those who took the survey were on Truvada.
"Even though our members are using PrEP at a higher level than the overall gay population, I still feel that it's too low," Joel Simkhai, founder and chief executive officer of Grindr, told me over the phone. "PrEP has proven to be very, very effective and it makes sense to take it, and we want to know why more gay men aren't."
Grindr's study also found that one out of 10 men have issues getting access to the drug from their doctor. That number doubled for men of color.
That's not surprising, Nazareth told me.
"We hear our patients have a hard time getting PrEP from their provider, and they say it's based on moral grounds… but there are also cases where doctors don't want to give out Truvada because they say 'I'm not a doctor that specializes in HIV and this is an HIV drug,'" Nazareth said. "But when we think about society as a whole, I think a huge issue around PrEP is that people are worried gay men are going to have a lot of sex without condoms—regardless of how often heterosexuals are having sex without condoms."
Nazareth introduced me to Cres Hernandez, a 33-year-old waiter who lives in Astoria, Queens and is also on Truvada. Prior to when he got his prescription from Callen-Lorde, the LGBT-focused Manhattan clinic, Hernandez said his former doctor asked about his sexual history during a routine HIV test but said the doctor's questions turned to judgement.
"It was so humiliating to me, because here I am so afraid and vulnerable and bearing my soul to this stranger and even though the results wound up being negative, what I took away from experience was how judged and shamed I felt by a professional," Hernandez told me.
On the flip, Hernandez said he used to be hesitant about, if not downright opposed to, having sex with those who had HIV. For him, Truvada took away that fear.
Hernandez's openness toward sleeping with an HIV positive person made me reach out to founder of the gay hookup app Scruff, Jason Marchant. Marchant has been a large proponent of Truvada, and in a number of interviews he's been open about how the drug has helped him overcome his fear of having sex with another HIV-positive man.
"After a long personal journey with HIV-phobia and anxiety about safe sex, going on Truvada for PrEP turned into a real turning point in how I looked at sex and how I viewed people who were HIV positive," Marchant said. Scruff is now the only gay app that gives users the option show on their profile if they are on Truvada, which prompted a pat on the back for the company from the Aids Healthcare Foundation.
Other tech companies have taken notice, including Grindr. The company plans to use the results from its survey to begin educating users about Truvada.
"We have this opportunity to speak to our users, and we can do this and we should be doing this. And it is effective," said Grindr's Simkhai, adding the average Grindr user spends close to an hour on the app every day. "Our guys are on the app all the time. We are probably one of their most-engaged mediums that they pay attention to. So why not promote sexually transmitted infection prevention?"
There are public health researchers, such as UCLA professor of medicine and public health Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who have found hook-up apps are not ideal platforms to spread awareness on HIV prevention.
"We see that when people go to sex clubs or bars, their primary purpose is not to receive information. But with that said, that's where the high-risk individuals are and we need to meet them with our interventions," Klausner told me.
Klausner also happened to be in charge of the program that gave out 400 free self-test kits through a Grindr ad—the same one I had clicked on to get my test.
It's odd to think before last week, had I not been so anxious to hook up on to Grindr, I wouldn't have been sitting in my bathroom staring at a paper strip waiting to see if I was HIV positive. The test came back negative, but the experience made me more tangibly aware of the risks. And that's making us all a little bit safer.
This World AIDS Day, VICE is exploring the state of HIV around the globe. Watch our special report, "Countdown to Zero," tonight on HBO at 9 PM, and to get involved visit red.org.
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