HIV-educators take to gay chat rooms, study shows good reason

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Monster.com did it for job seekers. Vehix.com did it for the automobile market and eBay did it for collectors and cheapskates.

But no one domain has a corner on gay personals, despite the fact that thousands of gay Tennesseans turn to "dot coms" in search of Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now.

In Nashville chatrooms, HIV-educators with Nashville CARES are capitalizing on the popularity of some Internet chat rooms  to reach out to people who may be to embarassed to talk about HIV and AIDS without the ambiguity offered by the Internet.

"We’ve been doing education via the internet since 1997, most recently through Young Brothers," said Joseph Interrane, CEO of Nashville CARES. "Our internet education is really more like one-on-one counseling. Our educators may initiate a conversation when they are trying to engage people one-on-one, and it is via the program posting so that people know who we are and so that they can see we are a gay HIV prevention entity."

A study done last year shows that CARES is reaching out to the ideal audience with its online education.

Dr. Scott Rhodes of Wake Forest University School of Medicine was primary investigator in a study published in the journal Health Education Research, February 2008, which compared the HIV-risk profiles of southeastern men who participated in HIV prevention chat room-based outreach and those who did not.

Rhodes found that chat room-based HIV prevention interventions, such as the ones enacted by CARES, are being implemented to reduce the risk of HIV exposure, infection and reinfection among men who have sex with men.

"It’s really important that chat rooms can be risky and people have stories to share, but chat rooms are not all that bad," Rhodes said. "They are very important means for men who are just figuring themselves out, or just having physical needs. Chat rooms can be fine places, just another venue to find, to meet and to socialize. They are especially important in rural areas where it is hard to find someone to talk with anyways."

But, Rhodes said chat rooms do have a darker side.

"The flipside of that is that we know that some men online may be at increased risk because you have easy access to multiple partners," Rhodes said. "It doesn’t take much to go online and get someone to hookup with very quickly. We are not advocating that people don’t hookup, we’re just advocating that people are safe."

Rhodes research showed that, compared with participants in chat room-based HIV prevention interventions, non-participants were more likely to report: spending higher average number of hours in online chat rooms; using condoms inconsistently during anal intercourse with a man met online during the past 3 months; having had a sexually transmitted disease; being HIV seropositive; using methamphetamines during the past 30 days and using drugs to enhance sexual satisfaction during the past 30 days.

"The internet is an excellent way for reaching and engaging men who might not be comfortable having these types of conversations face-to-face because the sort of anonymity, or the pseudo-anonymity, of the internet allows people to be more frank and revealing about things they want to know about."

Interrante says that Nashville CARES uses the Internet to reach people in distant areas across Tennessee, and it can be more cost-effective than driving across the state to do outreach.

"[The Internet] is important when you are trying to reach men over a widely dispersed area," he said. "It is another way of reaching folks who don’t necessarily come into Nashville to the clubs for a whole variety of reasons."

Rhodes said the the Internet model is a simple way to get services to men who in chat rooms, many of whom have never been tested for HIV.

He said educators do not contact chatters in the program, but they are actively involved in the chat rooms.

"We only allow our interventionist to post in the public chat room," Rhodes said. "So, the interventionist will have triggers like where to get free condoms or where to get tested. If another chatter privately messages them, then they can dialogue with that person privately or one on one in the messenger system. But, the interventionist can’t go to someone’s profile and say, ‘There! They say bareback, I need to engage that person.’"

Online educators can answer questions about HIV testing and resources and can help assess a person’s HIV risk.

"If someone says ‘the condom broke and I don’t know what to do,’ the interventionist can offer help," Rhodes said. "Our interventionists just try to be professional and helpful."