In conjunction with World AIDS Day today, The Malaysian Insider looks at the use of dating apps such as Grindr, and whether claims that they spur the spread of HIV among homosexual men are true.
In Muslim-majority Malaysia, the gay community has long been demonised as a social ill, and conservatives have often linked it to Western-liberal values.
Yet despite the taboo, Grindr, Scruff, and Hornet – mobile apps that enable gay men hook up with one another are popular in the country.
Finding a gay partner on Grindr, for instance, is as simple as downloading the app onto your mobile phone, creating an account with your email, and scanning through the profile pictures.
One finds such users as “Shah”, “Asri”, “Meat-buffet”, “Urot part time”, “Arman”, among a plethora of others within a vicinity.
Daud (not his real name) told The Malaysian Insider that he began using the app in 2010 and would browse through it when he was bored in his office.
Throughout his years as a Grindr user, he has met up with 10 gay men in real life.
“Grindr users are mostly Chinese but there’s a mix of tourists, Malays and Indians, depending on your GPS location.
“For example, Kampung Baru has loads of Malays, and Brickfields has, well, Indians,” he said.
Such apps can be a relief for gay Muslims in Malaysia who risk social sanctions and discrimination had they come out of the closet.
Homosexuality is deemed a sin in mainstream Islam, and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak recently said the government would not defend LGBT rights and other issues not within the “context of Islam”.
A Muslim himself, Daud agreed that some Muslims here used it because they were already married or faced religious restrictions, noting that many profile pictures on Grindr did not contain the user’s face.
Hafidz Baharom, a former Grindr user, told The Malaysian Insider that such apps helped keep identities discreet, which was essential in Asia.
“That’s due to acceptance. In Malaysia, both Shariah and civil law do not allow unnatural sex,” he said.
Until recently, the greatest danger of the app was that it could lead to a clampdown from the government, whose Islamic enforcement agencies frequently raid hotel rooms to arrest unmarried Muslim couples.
Blame the app, or attitudes?
However, a two-year United Nations research has found that rising use of mobile dating apps by young gay men is a major factor in a new HIV epidemic among teenagers in Asia, Britain’s The Guardian reported yesterday.
The report found a surge of HIV infections among those aged between 10 and 19 in the Asia-Pacific region, and the epidemic is fastest growing among men who have sex with men, according to The Guardian.
“Young gay men themselves have consistently told us that they are now using mobile dating apps to meet up for sex, and are having more casual sex with more people as a result. We know that this kind of risky behaviour increases the spread of HIV,” Wing-Sie Cheng, HIV/Aids adviser for Unicef in east Asia and the Pacific, was quoted as saying.
“We are therefore convinced that there is a link, and that we need to work better with mobile app providers to share information about HIV and protect the health of adolescents.”
Daud said he had used Grindr only once for sex, while on a holiday in Kathmandu, and a protection was used.
Despite practising safe sex himself, he believed there was merit to the study’s claim that it was a factor in rising HIV cases.
He said dating apps were like a “virtual meat market”, and users could meet up in just minutes based on their location.
Hafidz, who found his partner through Grindr, said he, too was careful about protection when using the app.
He said the app was just a tool and the onus should be on the individual to practise safe sex.
But Dr Ilias Adam Yee, executive director of the Malaysian Aids Council said such apps did not add to the HIV epidemic in Malaysia, nor did it encourage men to indulge in unprotected sex with other men.
People’s attitudes towards HIV and unprotected sex was the main factor, rather than the platform they used to find sexual partners, said Dr Ilias.
“People have been meeting up for sex even before the development of apps. We know that technology does not remain static. The world is getting smaller and people are getting connected much more easily.
“Rather than looking at the technology, we need to look at the users. I do not think the apps ‘encourage’ sex beyond your mobile phone ‘encourages’ you to take selfies,” said Dr Ilias.
He cautioned the government against any ban on dating apps in light of the findings, saying that it would only drive users underground and make it harder for them to be reached.
“Rather than putting a ban on technology, we should leverage on it to encourage people understand risks and how to protect themselves.
“It could also be used to promote HIV testing and treatment effectively as some of our partner organisations have demonstrated.
“The prevalent spread of HIV in our country is not among the LGBT community alone.”
HIV in Malaysia
Despite the stigma against homosexuals, a comparison of new HIV infections from 2005 to 2014 found that they only made 28% of the reported cases of transmission, according to the Health Ministry.
The bulk of new infections came from heterosexuals (50%) while 19% were from drug users.
The ministry said there were 3,517 new cases of HIV reported in 2014, and transmission was highest among those aged 30-39 (42%). Overall, there were 105,189 reported cases as of December 2014.
And while the United Nations report cited by The Guardian uncovered a surge of HIV infections in the 10-19-year-old age group in Asia, in Malaysia, only 1% of under-13 had HIV, and 2% of those aged 13 to 19 in 2014.
But Dr Ilias said this might be due to few under the age of 18 went for HIV testing, as it required parental consent, something he hoped the government would review.
Dr Ilias said several non-profit foundations were already reaching out to people at risk of HIV infection through the Internet, or at places where the gay community would meet up.
These organisations would encourage persons at risk to take HIV tests, and members would even accompany them to the clinic, said Dr Ilias.
“We need to work on our services to ensure that people are encouraged to utilise them freely without fear and barriers that prevent them from doing so should be looked at and removed.
“That includes clarifying myths about HIV and removing all forms of stigma, let it be self-stigma, perceived stigma or actual stigma.”
Hafidz said he agreed with Unicef’s proposal that healthcare organisations work with mobile app providers to lessen the spread of HIV transmission.
He said many apps actually put the onus on the user to declare whether they were HIV positive.
“But again, with social stigma the way it is here, will many declare their status or even get tested?
“Unicef is correct in wanting to push for apps to be more responsible, but at the same time when you promote a culture of fear, people will choose not to be transparent even about their health issues,” said Hafidz.
No government discrimination
But Dr Ilias said such fears were unfounded, as the Ministry of Health had never acted on anyone who contracted HIV through gay sex.
“The tone of the Health Ministry now is very positive, they advocate the right to healthcare and they don’t discriminate.
“Regardless of your background, married or not, gay or straight, as long as they need treatment, they’ll get it. And it’s free of charge, too.”
HIV-positive patients who seek treatment will save their own lives, he said.
With treatment, they could live up to 80 years and completely eliminate the risk of transferring the virus, he said.
“In a nutshell, HIV is an infection that is very easy to control and treat, and is difficult to spread.” – December 1, 2015.