The Strategies of Heterosexuals from Large Metropolitan Areas for Assessing the Risks of Exposure to HIV or Other Sexually Transmitted Infections from Partners Met Online
Heterosexuals’ use of the Internet for meeting romantic or sexual partners is rapidly increasing, raising concerns about the Internet's potential to facilitate encounters that place individuals at risk for acquiring HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). For example, online sharing of personal information and self-revelations can foster virtual intimacy, promoting a false sense of familiarity that might accelerate progression to unprotected sex. Therefore, it is critical to understand how those who meet sexual partners online attempt to assess the possible risk of acquiring HIV or STIs posed by having unprotected sex with a new partner and decide whether to use a condom. To investigate this issue, in-depth interviews were conducted with a diverse sample of heterosexual male and female participants from large metropolitan cities who had had unprotected vaginal or anal sex with at least two partners met online in the past 3 months. With few exceptions, participants relied on faulty strategies and heuristics to estimate these risks; yet, most engaged in unprotected sex at their first meeting or very soon afterward. While some seemed to try to make a genuine effort to arrive at a reliable assessment of the HIV risk posed, most appeared to be looking for a way to justify their desire and intention to have unprotected sex. The findings suggest the need for more HIV and sexual health education targeted at heterosexuals, especially for those who go online to meet partners.