The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates suggest that young MSM (YMSM; 13 to 24 years old) in the United States had dramatically higher rates of HIV infection than MSM in older age groups between 2001 and 2006 [1
]. The increase in HIV diagnoses within this age group coincides with YMSM’s transition from adolescence into young adulthood, a period characterized by a series of explorations in peer, sexual, and romantic relationships [2
]. At present, many of those explorations take place over the Internet [4
]. Having grown up with Internet-based communication as part of their daily social interactions, YMSM are more likely than older MSM [6
] to use this technology to learn about their sexuality and to meet new partners [8
], whether as a viable alternative to bars and clubs if underage or as a supplement to their offline socialization[10
]. Research examining online interactions among YMSM is vital to inform ongoing HIV prevention efforts [5
]. We contribute to these efforts by examining YMSM’s online partner-seeking behaviors, both for casual and romantic partners, and their relationship to their sexual behaviors.
In contrast with face-to-face exchanges, the instant communication facilitated by the online environment may promote an increased expression of inhibited desires and a heightened sense of trust and intimacy [16
]. Across numerous studies exploring the role of online communication in HIV transmission, researchers have noted that MSM who use the Internet to meet partners report higher levels of sexual risk behaviors (e.g., multiple sexual partners, inconsistent condom use, and the likelihood of reporting unprotected anal intercourse with a partner of unknown or serodiscordant HIV status) than MSM who meet sexual partners in bars and clubs [12
]. Most of the literature examining the relationship between HIV risk and MSM’s online partner-seeking has focused on casual sex encounters [4
]. The accumulation of this literature, while important for HIV prevention efforts, may inadvertently suggest that MSM’s use of the Internet to meet partners is primarily sex-driven (i.e., transient pleasure and sexual sensation seeking). As a result, past findings may have overlooked the relationship between YMSM’s sexual behaviors and their pursuit of romantic relationships (i.e., dating) online. This oversight is particularly troubling as MSM may have other motivations (e.g., looking for closeness, intimacy, companionship) to seek partners online [25
], as evidenced by the increasing use and popularity of social networking and dating sites.
This distinction between casual and romantic partners is vital to contextualize YMSM’s HIV risks and sexual behaviors [26
]. Researchers have noted that MSM pursuing or participating in romantic relationships may be more likely to forego their vigilance and concerns about potential infection or unwanted transmission in order to express intimacy, love and trust [29
]. This dynamic may be particularly relevant to online dating because Internet-based communications may expedite perceptions of intimacy and security prior to meeting a partner in a face-to-face encounter [17
]. YMSM’s exploration of an emerging sexual identity and introduction into same-sex dating may further fuel trust and infatuation [33
] and hinder their ability to negotiate condom use successfully [34
]. Conversely, it is equally plausible that pursuing romantic partners could reduce risk by promoting protective behaviors [35
]. Since individuals attempt to make the best impression when pursuing romantic partners online [36
], YMSM may engage in more socially desirable behaviors (e.g., condom use) and decrease the number of partners with whom they have unprotected sex. Furthermore, dating online may reduce the likelihood of YMSM meeting partners in venues (e.g., bars and clubs) where drugs and alcohol are present [38
], promote opportunities that encourage serial dating, and/or decrease the number of casual sexual encounters. Taken together, these findings suggest that romantic partner-seeking behaviors online may have a unique set of implications for HIV prevention for YMSM who use the Internet to meet partners; however, the role of romantic partner-seeking on YMSM’s HIV risk outcomes remains unexamined. Consequently, as a contribution to this literature, we examined the relationship between romantic partner-seeking online and YMSM’s sexual behaviors, after accounting for casual partner-seeking behaviors.
In exploring their sexuality, YMSM may use the Internet to pursue one type of partner (i.e., romantic or casual) more actively than the other, or may pursue both partner types to the same extent. In some instances, a casual partner may become a romantic interest (or vice versa). Consequently, rather than assuming that YMSM’s online partner-seeking behaviors are mutually exclusive, it is vital to acknowledge that YMSM may pursue casual and romantic partnerships concurrently. YMSM may hope to meet “Mr. Right” and also seek casual sex encounters with “Mr. Right Now”. At present, however, we know little of the association between YMSM’s HIV risks and simultaneous pursuit of casual and romantic partnerships, or the extent to which different partner-seeking combinations may increase or decrease YMSM’s HIV risks. These data may inform the development of tailored HIV prevention efforts for YMSM in these different partner-seeking combinations. As a contribution to the literature, we tested whether YMSM’s number of partners, both for protected and unprotected anal intercourse (UAI), differed across four partner-seeking combinations (i.e., Low Romance/Low Casual; High Romance/Low Casual; Low Romance/High Casual; High Romance/High Casual) in this study.
We examined YMSM’s online partner-seeking behaviors in order to inform ongoing HIV prevention efforts. Building on the previous literature, we proposed three objectives for this study. First, we assessed YMSM’s use of the Internet to seek casual and romantic partners in the past two months. We then tested whether these partner-seeking behaviors varied by YMSM’s age, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and sexual identity. Second, we examined the relationship between YMSM’s number of partners in the past two months and their use of the Internet in the past two months to seek casual and romantic partners, respectively. Finally, we examined whether the combined frequency with which YMSM sought out romantic and casual partners was associated with their number of partners based on four partner-seeking categories.