This Week in Sex: Grindr Reluctantly Agrees to Stop Giving Outside Companies Access to Users’ HIV Status

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Roundups Sexuality

This Week in Sex: Grindr Reluctantly Agrees to Stop Giving Outside Companies Access to Users’ HIV Status

Martha Kempner

Elsewhere, gonorrhea is getting harder to treat, and, no, kids aren’t snorting condoms.

This Week in Sex is a summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, and more.

Grindr Won’t Share Users’ HIV Status … Anymore

This week, the latest in a string of questions about how social media sites and apps share our personal data hit the dating app Grindr, and it hit hard. On Monday, Buzzfeed News released details from a report by a Norwegian nonprofit that found the app was sharing information that included HIV status and other identifying details with two outside firms. The company was initially unapologetic and referred to this is as “standard industry practice,” but the internet firestorm that ensued Monday was enough to make the company agree to change this practice by the end of the day.

Grindr, a hook-up app designed primarily for gay men, has over 3.6 million daily active users across the globe. Users create a profile in which they share information about themselves including ethnicity, romantic aims, and “tribes” such as “leather” or “bear.” Since last year, users can also share their HIV status—which can be more than just negative or positive. They can declare themselves “positive and on treatment” or “negative and on PrEP” (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a daily pill that can help prevent individuals from contracting HIV). Grindr also allows users to put in the date of their last HIV test, and a new feature reminds users to get tested regularly.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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The report found that Grindr shares this information with two outside analytic firms—Apptimize and Localytics—which work with the company to debug new versions of the software. Not only is HIV status included in the information these firms receive, it is attached to other identifying information including a person’s phone ID, email address, and GPS data.

The company was quick to defend itself by pointing out that this is not the same as selling personal information. In a statement posted on Monday, Grindr’s Chief Technology Officer Scott Chen said, “The limited information shared with these platforms is done under strict contractual terms that provide for the highest level of confidentiality, data security, and user privacy.” Chen’s statement went on, “We give users the option to post information about themselves including HIV status and last test date, and we make it clear in our privacy policy that if you choose to include this information in your profile, the information will also become public.”

LGBTQ rights advocates saw it differently, however. James Krellenstein, a member of AIDS advocacy group ACT UP New York, told Buzzfeed News, “Grindr is a relatively unique place for openness about HIV status. To then have that data shared with third parties that you weren’t explicitly notified about and having that possibly threaten your health or safety—that is an extremely, extremely egregious breach of basic standards that we wouldn’t expect from a company that likes to brand itself as a supporter of the queer community.

Grindr continued to defend itself and reject comparisons to the Cambridge Analytica scandal now plaguing Facebook, but by the end of the day on Monday, the company said it had arranged to remove HIV information from the data shared with one of the two companies and was discussing plans to do the same with the other.

Gonorrhea Keeps Getting Harder to Treat

A man in the United Kingdom is said to have the worst case of drug-resistant gonorrhea seen to date. He contracted the superbug earlier in the year during a sexual encounter with a woman in Southeast Asia. Doctors in England tried two of the antibiotics currently considered first-line treatment for this sexually transmitted infection (STI) with no luck: The combination of azithromycin and ceftriaxone, which is what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends, failed to cure him.

Dr. Gwenda Hughes, from Public Health England, told BBC News: “This is the first time a case has displayed such high-level resistance to both of these drugs and to most other commonly used antibiotics.”

But it’s not unexpected. Public health experts across the globe are shaking their heads, muttering we told you so, and fearing for a future of bacteria that just won’t budge. As Rewire.News has been reporting for years, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea is pretty crafty—it had learned to survive sulfanilamides by the 1940s and penicillins and tetracyclines by the 1980s. Over 10 years ago, the CDC stopped suggesting the use of fluoroquinolones to treat the infection, leaving only cephalosporins for treatment. And gonorrhea infections that are hard to cure even with these drugs are becoming more common.

Antibiotic resistance is caused, at least in part, by over-reliance on these drugs both as medicine and in our food supply and by our misuse of them (there’s a reason doctors tell you to finish all of your antibiotics even if you feel better). Since the 1970s, there have been no new antibiotics developed to attack the class of bacteria, known as gram-negative, that Neisseria gonorrhoeae falls into.

That said, Rewire.News did recently report on some good news related to gonorrhea—a newer antibiotic already on the market has shown promise in treating this STI, and researchers in New Zealand think they might be able to remake an old meningitis vaccine to prevent gonorrhea.

In the meantime, we should all be careful to prevent both gonorrhea infections (by using condoms and getting tested if we are at risk) and antibiotic resistance (by not overusing or misusing these lifesaving drugs).

As for the man in the United Kingdom, his local sexual partner tested negative for gonorrhea, which is reassuring to public health experts there, and intravenous treatment with a last-ditch antibiotic called ertapenem seems to be working. Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, explained to Rewire.News that the immune system can clear gonorrhea without medication, which is what used to happen before antibiotics. But this can take a long time, during which a person can have symptoms and serious complications, including infertility. If left untreated, gonorrhea can also spread to the blood and cause joint and skin problems which can be life threatening.

More importantly, treatment is prevention. The longer it takes to treat someone the more possibility for them to pass the infection to others, and if those infections are hard to treat, we get into a vicious cycle that the bacteria might just win.

No, Kids Are Not Snorting Condoms up Their Noses

Instead of being full of stories about condoms preventing pregnancy or protecting us from STIs (like antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea), our news feed this week was full of stories about teens snorting rubbers up their noses. Described as the latest trend in teen stupidity or the next big Tide pod-eating-challenge, numerous stories tried to get adults whipped into a frenzy about the new lows to which teens will sink.

And even the jaded staff of This Week in Sex almost fell for it. Almost.

You see, we missed it when this panic came around the last time in 2013, when a teen snorting a condom up her nose while a Taylor Swift song played in the background went viral. (We like both condoms and Taylor Swift, so we’re not sure how it escaped our notice).  So, when we saw headlines like, “In case you missed the ‘condom-snorting challenge’ — and didn’t know it’s a bad idea,” appear in the Washington Post, we clicked to read more. And we learned that there were a few videos dating back as far as 2007 in which a teen actually opens a condom and attempts to snort it up one nostril and pull it out from the back of their mouth or throat.

Obviously, this isn’t a good idea. You could choke. You could inhale the condom (though there are very few cases of that in medical literature and they likely happened during oral sex). You could have an allergic reaction (bad time to learn you’re part of the 1 to 6 percent of the population allergic to latex). And, of course, you could be called stupid by all of the media outlets looking to find the next dumb trend and all of the adults willing to click on the headlines.

The folks at Snopes declared reports of this new trend “mostly false.” In fact, Snopes said it never really was a trend, concluding “the phenomenon was never that widespread and gradually petered out.”

Why the increase in mentions then? Well, according to a separate Washington Post story, it all came from a presentation for parents in San Antonio, Texas. The condom challenge was just part of the presentation, titled “Dares, Drugs, and Dangerous Teen Trends,” that was offered to parents by state education specialist Stephen Enriquez last month. Enriquez did not say that this was a trend in San Antonio (his office said it doesn’t actually track that information), but it apparently stood out to parents and it clearly stood out to the reporter in the room. Soon a story focusing on the condom challenge appeared on the local station, Fox 29. And that seems to be all it took to make this non-existent trend start “trending” again.

We adults are way too eager to scream about teens being stupid. Sure, we should keep our eyes on our own teens, but we should stop worrying about the latest trend sweeping the teenage nation. Instead of latching on to stories about teens snorting condoms, maybe we should spend more time congratulating them for using condoms, properly, at a higher rate than adults.