You Up? This Public-Health Partner to Hookup Apps Sure Hopes So

Contributing Editor

The hookup website and app Daddyhunt has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for a video serial it made in which a white gay muscle daddy and a white gay muscle millennial -- aided of course, by the millennial's sassy black gay muscle bestie -- meet up in an apartment building and decide to try dating despite their age difference. In season 1 of the serial, which Daddyhunt general manager Casey Crawford says has been watched 5.5 million times on social media, the wary daddy must overcome his fear of being hurt and the puppy-like millennial must learn to slow down to the daddy's more sedate pace of courtship.

But in season 2, the daddy and the millennial started talking about safe sex. Turns out, the millennial is on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), but the daddy says: "Sorry, no way. I'm old fashioned; I still use condoms." And with that, a cute intergenerational gay romantic comedy suddenly became a lesson on contemporary HIV prevention!

Daddyhunt alone didn't come up with that plotline. To make sure it got both the science and the messaging right, the app turned to Building Healthy Online Communities (BHOC), a self-described "consortium of public health leaders and gay dating website and app owners who are working together to support HIV and STI [sexually transmitted infection] prevention online."

"Working with BHOC, we've been able to weave in topics that are relevant to gay men, like safe sex practices, education around the use of PrEP, partner notification, and even fighting HIV stigma online," says Crawford.

Related: Daddyhunt: The Serial: Hot Men Talking Sex, Romance and HIV

BHOC was started in 2014 by Dan Wohlfeiler, M.P.H., and Jen Hecht, M.P.H., who together have more than 40 years of combined experience in HIV and STI prevention. Wohlfeiler directs BHOC, which is additionally staffed by the National Coalition of STD Directors and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

According to Wohlfeiler, hookup apps are a great place to build in sexual health interventions because they have a captive audience that is actively looking for connections for sex, dating, and relationships. "We know that behavior-change interventions are really tough when it comes to public health," he says.

"We also know that transmission of HIV and other STIs isn't just driven through individual risk but through sexual networks -- the behavior your partner may have had with other partners," he continues. "Hookup apps dramatically affect sexual networks. Many look at them as the cause of increased STIs. But we also know that leveraging all that the apps can offer can really help reduce transmission, because the more info you get on the apps about your partners' sexual health, the more you can make better choices about your own prevention options."

"In a way," he continues, "it's like putting seatbelts in cars, because you're building the health intervention right into the place where the behavior happens."

To those ends, BHOC has been instrumental in getting sites like Daddyhunt, Grindr, and Growlr (which serves the gay "bear" -- large and furry -- community) to allow users to include their HIV status and preferred prevention tools (PrEP, HIV positive and undetectable, condoms) in their profiles, to get facts out of the way that users might not want to initiate discussion of by text or in-person conversation. (It should be noted that HIV-positive users who openly list their status also somewhat protect themselves in the several U.S. states that still criminalize HIV-positive folks for having sex without disclosing their status.)

"Those are optional fields, but we found that a lot of our members have been using them," says Crawford.

According to Jack Harrison-Quintana, who directs Grindr for Equality, the app's sexual health and social justice component, adding an HIV field was the first recommendation that BHOC made to Grindr. The app did so in fall 2016, giving users the option of saying whether they were HIV negative, negative on PrEP, HIV positive, or positive undetectable. They also created a Sexual Health Resource Center with easy links to learn more about PrEP and about being undetectable. The resource, says Harrison-Quintana, now covers 17 topics in 34 languages and was accessed over three million times in the past year.

(The site also caught fire from the LGBTQ community both for floating the idea of letting users sort views by HIV status and for sharing users' HIV data with other companies, even though the companies in question were those the app was consulting with to improve its platform -- not companies the app was selling the data to.)

"When it comes to U.S. sexual health," says Harrison-Quintana, "BHOC has been by far my most valuable resource because they understand not only the health content but also the digital context in which Grindr operates."

Currently, BHOC is helping sites such as Grindr and Daddyhunt figure out how to send users auto-reminders that it's time to get tested for HIV and other STIs -- or, for HIV-positive users, to have labs done. It is also working with such sites to figure out how users might anonymously notify recent sexual partners that they tested positive for HIV or another STI and urge the partners to get tested themselves.

The technical challenge is to find a way to do this via the app, given that sometimes partners communicate solely on the app and have not exchanged emails or cell numbers.

BHOC is also working with health departments and nonprofits nationwide so that if a department or agency in one city comes up with a really cool LGBTQ sexual health campaign -- such as the sexy "Swallow This" PrEP campaign from NYC's Harlem United -- the ad can be rebranded for use in other cities.

"It would be impossible to overstate the number of smaller matters I've needed to consult with BHOC on," raves Harrison-Quintana. "They've helped me with public health-related messaging and outbreak alerts, coordinating between public health departments and my team."

And, last but not least, BHOC is working with Daddyhunt on the much anticipated third season of its serial, likely to launch by June's end. Crawford promises that people of color will have bigger roles than merely being the white protagonist's side-eye-throwing, Wanda Sykes-like sidekick.

"The favorites are returning," he says, "but there's also another story taking off."