Finding sexual partners online: prevalence and associations with sexual behaviour, STI diagnoses and other sexual health outcomes in the British population

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Abstract

Objectives

Online venues might facilitate sexual encounters, but the extent to which finding partners online is associated with sexual risk behaviour and sexual health outcomes is unclear. We describe use of the internet to find sexual partners in a representative sample in Britain.

Methods

The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3) was a cross-sectional probability survey of 15 162 adults (aged 16–74 years) undertaken 2010–2012. We estimated prevalence of, and identified factors associated with, finding sexual partners online among those reporting ≥1 new sexual partners in the past year.

Results

Finding sexual partners online in the past year was reported by 17.6% (95% CI 15.6 to 19.9) of men and 10.1% (8.5–11.9) of women, and most common among those aged 35–44 years. After age-adjustment, those reporting a non-heterosexual identity were more likely to report this. Finding partners online was also associated with reporting sexual risk behaviours: condomless sex with ≥2 partners (adjusted OR (aOR) men: 1.52 (1.03 to 2.23); women: 1.62 (1.06 to 2.49)), concurrent partnerships (aOR men: 2.33 (1.62 to 3.35); women: 2.41 (1.49 to 3.87)) and higher partner numbers (reporting ≥5 partners aOR men: 5.95 (3.78 to 9.36); women: 7.00 (3.77 to 13.00)) (all past year). STI diagnoses and HIV testing were more common among men reporting finding partners online (adjusted for age, partner numbers, same-sex partnerships), but not women.

Conclusions

Finding partners online was associated with markers of sexual risk, which might be important for clinical risk assessment, but this was not matched by uptake of sexual health services. Online opportunities to find partners have increased, so these data might underestimate the importance of this social phenomenon for public health and STI control.

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