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Setting Health Boundaries in the Dating World

Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Grindr… Dating apps are on the rise around the globe, and Hong Kong is no exception to the trend. According to a survey by Rakuten Insight in 2020, almost half of the respondents from Hong Kong said they had used mobile dating apps.

While meeting new friends and widening a user’s social circle are part of the apps’ purposes, many use them mainly to seek romantic and sexual encounters. But with that also comes the question of how this new behaviour affects people’s sexual health.

To learn more about the subject, we spoke with Dr Edmond Choi, Assistant Professor at HKU’s School of Nursing, who has been studying the relationship between the usage of dating apps and sexual health.

Dr Edmond Choi is an assistant professor at HKU Nursing, whose research interests include sexual health, men’s health, mental health, and health-related quality of life.

Thank you for your time, Dr Choi. Let’s first talk about your inspiration — What inspired you to do sexual health studies, as sex is a rather taboo topic in Hong Kong?

When I lived in the student residential halls, I found that dating apps were quite popular among the students, and I heard stories about dating apps and people’s sex lives.

And given my nursing background, many of my friends and hallmates would talk to me when they had problems related to sexual health.

How popular are these dating apps in Hong Kong? Are they becoming more common during the pandemic?

Generally speaking, dating apps are popular in multiple age groups. For many people, dating apps are ubiquitous and a part of their daily life.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed our lives and daily routines, and that includes our dating lives. Lockdown is a lonely and isolating time; it is vital for us as humans to receive enough social contact, and dating apps are a convenient platform for people to form new relationships and fulfil this desire to connect.

A study in Australia found that dating app use during the lockdown has increased significantly for chatting, texting and for virtual dates, but decreased significantly for face-to-face dates and sexual hook-ups.

But these apps are often associated with sexual hook-ups how true is this belief?

Some commonly used dating apps on the market.

The rise of dating apps has allowed people to explore various types of relationships more conveniently and quickly.

People use dating apps for multiple reasons, and arranging sexual hook-ups is only one of them, though the stigmatisation of app users still prevails.

But the convenience of dating apps does allow users to search for matches instantly and initiate conversations without the risk of embarrassment that exists in real life, including sexual hook-ups.

What is the ultimate aim of your study?

App users often conceal their use from friends and family and lie about a relationship’s origin or even when they started dating their matches, and so local data on dating app usage are limited and not readily available.

Ultimately, I want to understand the users’ experiences using dating apps and identify patterns among different populations, specifically sexual/gender minority groups.

By doing so, we gain a better understanding of each population and provide specific advice and education in terms of sexual health to targeted groups.

Talking about different population groups your earlier studies targeted college students?

College students are at the age of emerging adulthood and are exploring and developing their adult identities, often entering college without adequate sexual health knowledge.

It has also been suggested that the participation of emerging adults in risky behaviours can be understood as part of identity exploration.

Research among Western populations have found that this group is more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviours and experience a disproportionate risk of negative sexual health outcomes, when compared to the rest of the population.

I hope to help these college aged students to improve their sexual health.

And currently, you are studying another demographic?

Poster to recruit participants for Dr Choi’s study.

My recent studies targeted the population of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Hong Kong.

The emergence of dating apps is especially beneficial for sexual/gender minorities, as it better protects their privacy and fosters a safer environment for making friends — which they often find difficult in daily life — while the potential harm is usually preventable or reducible if users are alert and aware during usage.

But as discrimination against homosexuals persists, MSM tend to conceal their identity in their daily life. Recruitment therefore relied on online promotion which ensured anonymity — we even invited them to provide a name they felt comfortable using instead of their real name — and help from local NGOs who have connections with MSM peer groups.

Are there any interesting findings you’d like to share from studying different groups?

The convenience of dating apps has allowed users to arrange sexual encounters for the very near future, even instantly.

Such sexual encounters are particularly risky as they happen without thorough understanding of each other’s background such as infection status, and without communicating over the use of safety measures during sex.

People are sometimes persuaded not to use a condom because the match did not prepare one; are unaware that the match has secretly removed the condom during sex; or are even forced to perform condom-less sex.

It is also easier for people to arrange sexual activities that are riskier, such as group sex or ‘chemsex,’ the use of recreational drugs before or during sex, where participants have reported difficulties in using condoms during sex.

The risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and becoming pregnant increases when a condom is not used.

And in one of the MSM studies, we observed an increasing tendency for people to perform non-penetrative sexual activities with their matches.

This was particularly common for people who had experienced unpleasant encounters before, such as contracting an STI after hooking up with a match from a dating app.

Can we say dating apps are dangerous, then?

Dating apps do not cause risky sexual behaviours. People who do not use dating apps also engage in risky sexual behaviours, and the dating apps simply serve as a tool for people to arrange and engage in sexual activities more quickly.

Dating apps are notorious for their higher likelihood of scams, catfishing and unprotected sex, but all these can also happen in relationships formed in real life.

Any tips to protect ourselves when using dating apps?

It is natural for people to want to build new relationships and try new encounters. But we should always stay alert when communicating with people online, especially on dating apps.

Catfishing happens quite often online. You can try reverse searching a person’s profile picture on Google, and pay attention to suspicious requests.

Before you start using dating apps, spend some time thinking seriously about what types of relationships you are looking for and what kinds of activities you expect to engage in. It is important to set your own social boundaries and ensure that your match is well informed of these before the date.

And when it comes to sexual encounters, always bring a condom with you.

Thank you for your time, Dr Choi!

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

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