The growing dependence and use of new technological advances in our society has been a source of debate in recent years, but it has become a commonplace for online dating with the use of hook up apps.

Ask a group of gay, bisexual, queer (GBQ) cis and trans guys about their general impressions of Grindr, Scruff, Hornet, Jack’d, barebackRT.com, Squirt.org or any one of the other apps with a vaguely sexualised and erotic name and you will usually be met with feelings of antipathy and fatigue; but nevertheless, a sense that they are still using them to find sex. “The Apps” can, at times, be seen as toxic, repetitive and problematic and are often given a lot of negative focus.

However, “The Apps” are also seen by others as a safe space for people to first explore their sexuality. A place for folks to talk to guys without having to out themselves or finding a cruising spot. A place where guys can list their kinks and fetishes and talk to other like minded guys in a relaxed and secure setting.

In the current COVID-19 world that we are all living in, these apps have an important role to play in our collective efforts to flatten the curve. Rather than using the apps and meet up with others during times of physical distancing, guys are able to use the likes of Grindr to stay connected to their community and battle the isolation that can sometimes come with quarantining at home. The creators of the sites have also jumped on the back of the increased traffic on their apps and have begun to offer reduced subscription rates, or enhanced features such as allowing guys to see more accounts and talk to other users around the world. Cyber sex, picture swapping and post-COVID hook up scheduling are commonplace and more and more accounts are encouraging others to change their account name to “#StayAtHome.”

As health promotion workers that work with GBQ guys, it’s so important that we are able to adapt our work to meet guys where they are at. If guys are on the apps, then we are going on the apps! Online outreach can be a fantastic forum to reach and connect with guys. It provides a platform for guys to ask questions around the topics of sex, drug use, coming out etc. that they may not have had before. CAYR has a presence on all the major dating and hook up apps across Ontario and regularly responds to questions around a whole host of topics such as HIV, sexual health, drug use, and navigating being queer. It has been seen as a major support for guys that either can’t or won’t engage with the traditional means of sexual health education. It provides a space for guys that aren’t out, or haven’t received sex education relating to gay sex.

Receiving comprehensive sexual education as a young person growing up has unfortunately become something for a lucky few rather than a default for the general population.  Receiving queer specific sex education is an even greater rarity. Sex-education leads to better knowledge around sexuality by promoting positive attitudes towards safer sex alternatives, seeking out sexual health care, nurturing healthy relationships and getting consent. It has been proven to lead to a decrease in sexually transmitted and blood borne infections (STBBIs) and HIV rates. Taking HIV as an example, a lack of comprehensive sex ed can set off a series of events that can lead to a rise in new infections. Silence leads to no one talking about or hearing about HIV. When no one talks about HIV, no one hears about education and prevention tools. This can lead to people not hearing about the risk of HIV and, as a consequence, lead to them putting themselves in situations of elevated risk without even knowing it. Ultimately resulting in folks contracting HIV because they didn’t think there was ever a risk.

Our outreach on hook up apps can act as a stop gap for those folks that haven’t had an outlet before to ask the questions they need to know around sexual health and harm reduction. Online outreach makes it possible to connect with multiple guys in different locations from your office chair. The traditional approach to outreach has been revisited and revised.

While it’s easy to be critical of the apps and look at them as a source of negativity in our lives, it’s important to look at them in totality and see that they can also be used for positive change. In 2020, (especially now) the inevitability of our work and play becoming more and more computerized is a reality. It is now up to us to make sure this has positive outcomes and adapt to the ever changing world around us.

By Lorcan O’Donnell

Lorcan is the Program Coordinator, Men’s Health with CAYR COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS.