Will Cashman is open to new connections.
The 33-year-old contractor is currently bouncing back from a 7-year relationship that went south. Having recently moved to Slavic Village, he classifies himself as being solidly in the “rebuilding phase” when it comes to his social circle.
“I want to make friends again and enjoy my time,” says Cashman.
Like many other gay men, he has turned to the apps to help facilitate meeting new people. He logs onto Grindr—a widely popular geosocial app launched in 2009—twice a week, spending anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes checking messages and responding to messages from other users who have more of an alluring opening line than the ubiquitous “Hey.”
In July, he was chatting with one particularly intriguing man who Cashman describes as “interesting, a good conversationalist, attractive, and worth getting to meet.”
What followed was a week-long extensive exchange of back-and-forth messages, meticulously plotting out exactly how they could safely meet up in person, including determining the distance they needed to stay apart and what protective gear needed to be donned.
“Before, we would have met up at the bar or at Dairy Queen without really thinking,” Cashman sighs.
The “before” to which Cashman refers is, of course, pre-COVID-19.
The pandemic has upended virtually everything in our lives, but changes are particularly acute in one area: love and sex.
The Buckeye Flame recently conducted an unscientific, online survey (62 responses) of users of meet-up apps like Grindr and Scruff to gather information on how users are navigating the way they forge new connections and meet up during a pandemic.
Respondents to the survey indicated that their use of meet-up apps has surged during the pandemic with nearly a quarter of respondents indicating that they’re logging on the apps more often than prior to the pandemic. As a result, many people are caught between warring desires to do their part to curb the spread of COVID-19 and fulfill their need for intimacy.
“I think there was a misconception that people stopped having sex during the pandemic. That is not the case,” says Dwayne Steward, Director of Prevention at Equitas Health, the non-profit community healthcare system based in Columbus.
App users are asking fewer questions about COVID-19 than STIs
“What’s your status?” is a familiar question for users of meet-up apps but the query historically has had a connection to an entirely different pandemic.
As HIV/AIDS ravaged the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s and early 90s, a good portion of the fear was localized on the uncertainty over who was carrying the virus. Even today, with 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, about 14% of them (1 in 7) do not know that they are HIV positive.
“What’s your status?” has become a popular refrain, both as a rallying cry from health organizations to increase the number of people being tested, as well as a common query as part of interpersonal exchanges between individuals exploring a sexual relationship.
“The LGBTQ+ community has been educated about HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for a very long time; we are a lot more aware of what HIV is, how it’s transmitted; same with STIs. But there isn’t that same understanding with COVID-19 yet,” says Steward.
Respondents to the survey indicated that, while equally if not more concerned about COVID-19 than STIs, this concern has not necessarily resulted in increased lines of questioning. Some salient results from the survey:
- 74% of app users never or rarely meet up with someone without inquiring about their COVID-19 status compared to 64% for STI status.
- 78% of app users always or often ask potential meet-ups about STI status compared to 61% of app users who always or often ask about their partner’s quarantining/social-distancing practices.
- Though just slightly more app users always or often ask to see documentation (i.e., a screenshot) of STI test results compared to COVID-19 test results, a far greater percentage (83%) never ask to see COVID-19 test results compared to STI test results (58%).
Pandemic health concerns boost STI/HIV screenings
The pandemic has driven an uptick in the number of people seeking STI/HIV tests at state and local health organizations.
“People were thinking about their health a little more, and I think that contributed to the rise we saw in our numbers,” says Steward.
Ta’Von Hall, Community/Prep Health Navigator and Team Lead at Caracole in Cincinnati, also attributes the rise in part to increased health concern because of the pandemic.
“Because COVID-19 symptoms are flu-like and HIV symptoms are also flu-like, we are seeing a lot of people who are continuing to have sex during quarantine and switching up their partners, because suddenly they are getting a bit of a cold and don’t know if it’s the flu, if it’s COVID-19, if it’s because the weather’s changing, or because they’ve been with a new partner, so they want to get tested for everything,” explains Hall.
Hall further explains that some individuals are maintaining an air of invincibility regarding COVID-19 based solely on the fact that they have yet to contract COVID-19.
“While most of our clients are taking precautions like reducing their number of sexual partners, others will say, ‘I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I’m fine,’ and we know that’s not a good mindset to have,” says Hall. “The best thing you can do is protect yourself going into the situation and afterwards. The same way you are communicating about HIV/STI status, you should be about COVID-19.”
Sexual health organizations recalibrate approach to outreach and prevention amid COVID-19
With no end to the pandemic in sight, state and local sexual health organizations in Ohio are working to educate the public as to what safer sex means in the time of COVID-19. For many, that means pivoting their efforts to the virtual space.
At Caracole, Hall notes that increased social media engagement contributed to the boost in their HIV/STI testing numbers, even if the education efforts look markedly different.
“Going out to the community and physically being able to talk to people – where I can do condom tests to show them not everyone needs a Magnum – versus having to put that in context over social media is a little bit more difficult,” says Hall.
Inspired by an educational campaign distributed by the New York City Health Department, Equitas Health created an educational campaign that acknowledges that sex will still happen during the pandemic, even as key precautious can be taken. Tips include avoiding kissing anyone who is not part of your small circle of close contact, taking great care to wash hands before and after sex, and a reminder that you are your own safest sex partner.
At the start of 2021, Equitas Health will launch a mobile initiative pairing the organization’s sexual health clinic with COVID-19 testing. They hope that this new outreach initiative will allow them to expand their reach, while still remind the community that there are alternative ways to connect.
“Whether you are figuring out virtual ways to connect, reducing your number of partners, or limiting sex to just one partner, people should still engage,” says Steward. “There are ways to experience pleasure while remaining safe.”
For Will Cashman, COVID-19 has definitely made him more intentional in the way he interacts with other men on Grindr. He describes the pandemic as a “cautious veil” that has been cast over the social culture.
Yes, he wants to meet new people, but he is acutely aware that the risks are markedly different—and increased—than they were just a year ago. He just hopes everyone else is using the same amount of caution.
“Stop pretending these are normal times,” he urges other app users. “Go get tested, ask questions, and be the guy who thinks twice about what you are doing before you do it. That’s the only way we’re ever going to get back to normal.”
This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including The Buckeye Flame.