Facebook: The next tool in fighting STDs

Herpes? Dislike. Cutting-edge sex researchers are using social networks to prevent STDs from going viral

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, Editor's Picks,

Facebook: The next tool in fighting STDs

Imagine being able to download a Facebook app that would alert you to your sexually transmitted infection risk based on your friend’s status updates. This may sound far-fetched, and it still is, but as some researchers shift their focus to risk among friend groups, as opposed to just sexual partners, social networks are rapidly becoming a tool to prevent the spread of STIs.

Peter Leone, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Infectious Diseases, is one of those experts. Earlier this month, he spoke at an international health conference and underscored the importance of exploring such possibilities. Real-world social networks — in other words, a person’s circle of friends and sexual partners — have already proved to be strong predictors of STI risk, he says. It follows that sites like Facebook, which convene all of those real-world connections in one virtual setting, have huge potential in this arena.

Leone found that when sexual partners of patients newly diagnosed with HIV came in for testing, 20 percent turned up HIV-positive. It might seem counter-intuitive to extend the targeted test circle to those a newly diagnosed patient is merely friends with, but people in the same social circle often sleep with the same people, and might engage in similar risk-related behavior. Instead of looking at people within a particular at-risk demographic, this approach allows them to target known clusters of infection.

Makes you think of the people on your “Close Friends” list a bit differently, doesn’t it?

Leone gives the example of a syphilis outbreak in North Carolina: “When we looked at the networks we could connect many of the cases to sexual encounters, and when we asked who they hung out with, who they knew, we could connect 80 percent of the cases.”

Leone’s team asks patients newly diagnosed with HIV for a list of sexual partners and friends who they think might benefit from testing. Then, with the patients’ permission — permission that is more likely in North Carolina because partner notification, in one form or another, is required by law — they will contact people, sometimes using Facebook, with the alarming news that someone they know has been diagnosed with HIV, and that they might be at risk and should be tested.



There is a major shift here away from the traditional approach of either targeting at-risk demographics — like African-American men who have sex with men — or sexual partners of those infected. “People think that you have to be directly connected to someone, and I think of it as a population-level effect,” he says. “It would be no different from someone who goes to a picnic and gets food poisoning. We’re concerned about everyone that was at that picnic.”

To further streamline the process, researchers have also been experimenting with mailing kits to patients who can then collect their own swabs for tests like gonorrhea or chlamydia — or even HIV. “I think that’s the future,” says Leone.

There are other potential approaches that are more reliant on Facebook — like the hypothetical STI app — but those come with serious privacy concerns. James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” has already helped develop an app that utilizes status updates on a social networking platform to predict one’s risk of catching the flu. Certain keywords in your newsfeed might signal an increased risk of catching the virus, and the app could notify you accordingly. Instead of saying, “You have a chance of getting the flu in September,” he says, the app tells you, “You have a chance of getting the flu today.”

A similar application for STI risk is imaginable, although certainly more complicated. The spread of the flu is more straightforward and based on basic contact, as opposed to carnal entanglement. “The difference is there’s much less stigma to finding out which one of your friends has the flu,” he says. It would be a dramatic understatement to say that people are much less likely to post status updates about their herpes flare-up than about their nasty stomach bug.

There are plenty of other prevention approaches that are both easier to implement and less likely to raise major privacy red flags. Common wisdom has it that the power of social networks is in making things go viral, but that isn’t enough when it comes to safe sex messaging. “Spreading information is easy. Changing behavior is hard,” Fowler says. Instead of simply delivering a simple message like “wear condoms,” the aim is to set examples within social networks. “There is good evidence that [in terms of sexual behavior] we’re influenced by seeing what our friends are doing,” he says. “It takes real, deep, close social contact for people to change their behavior.” For example, if someone’s friends start posting status updates about getting tested themselves, it might destigmatize and normalize it. That’s the aim of MTV’s and The Kaiser Foundation’s GYT campaign, which has called on young people to get themselves tested and check in on Foursquare while at their local clinic.

Sean Young, a researcher at UCLA’s Division of Infectious Diseases, tells me that social networking sites are most useful as portals for information and conversation about risk and testing. He’s done research where at-risk individuals are recruited and trained to participate in Facebook groups where they then talk about testing and pass along important resources, all in an attempt to “change social norms that HIV testing is both healthy and admired behavior.”

The research in this area is still young, and there are more dazzling hypotheticals than concrete solutions, but many researchers have a basic intuition that social networking sites have the potential to succeed in areas where traditional medical approaches have failed. Leone puts it this way: “Social marketing is used to sell products, it certainly should be used to talk about health,” he says. “It takes the locus of control away from the public health system and really makes it about the relationships that exist already between friends.”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>