The success of dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and countless others have been great for many people looking for a serious relationship, but they've not been so great when it comes to people who use the sites simply to hook up. Why? Since these sites have gained in popularity, sexually transmitted diseases have been on the rise. And in many cases, contact tracing of STDs can be very difficult.
Dr. Ina Park is associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, and her new book, "Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in Science, History and Surprising Secrets of STDs" looks at the history of this very subject. This interview was edited for clarity.
Henry Santoro: You are based in San Francisco, a city not unknown to promiscuity over the years. Are you seeing an increase in STDs there?
Park: Well, this brings up the pandemic, right? The CDC just released their data two weeks ago that looked at the data prior to the pandemic. And that was the sixth year in a row that we had increases in sexually transmitted diseases. But then during the pandemic, we have seen rates in general go down because in those early months of shelter in place, people were socially and sexually distancing from each other. But I work in a sexual health clinic, and I will tell you that some people never stopped having sex, but those who did — eventually, quarantine fatigue set in and people started having sex again. And I will say that certainly now that people are getting vaccinated, people are making up for lost time.
Santoro: And how much of a role do these dating apps play?
Park: I think they play a huge role, but we can't blame them exclusively. But certainly, the way these apps work, they can geo-locate based on any location that you happen to be in. And if the urge strikes you when you're in Starbucks or in church or whatever, you can actually geo-locate people within a certain mile radius of you that are interested in getting together. So, for example, one of my patients is saying that it's easier to find a hookup and faster than ordering a pizza. You can cook the pizza in 45 minutes. But you can find the hookup in 15 minutes.
Santoro: It’s a matter of swiping left or right.
Santoro: Informing and educating can be tricky when it comes to STDs or STIs. And you've spoken about how you don't want your book "Strange Bedfellows" to deter people from having sex. How did you find the balance of educating while not being alarming?
Park: The truth is, Henry, even if you have sex with one person your entire life, if that person actually had a partner before they met you, you can still catch an STI. So, what I'm trying to do here is normalize the fact that almost everybody is going to get at least one sexually transmitted infection at some point in their sexual lives. To a certain extent, we can do what we can to avoid them by using barrier methods like condoms, but we cannot completely avoid that. And so, we must weigh the risk versus the reward. And I would say for most of us, it's certainly worth going out there and continuing to have sex.
Santoro: Do you have tips for listeners who want to take charge of their sexual health and be more sex positive, especially now that things are beginning to loosen up regarding the pandemic?
Park: Absolutely. I think, first, the best thing that folks can do is go and get tested regularly. A friend of mine uses the oil change theory of testing and he says, every three years, every three thousand miles. So, it is the same thing — "I am going to get tested every two partners or every other partner." It is a good idea to just put it in a routine that's like going to the dentist or any other sort of health care maintenance that you do.
GBH News Intern Lucy Barnum assisted with production of this segment.