No evidence of stigma towards people using PrEP on dating apps

05 December 2017

‘Encouraging’ study casts first light on PrEP-related stigma among gay and bisexual men on dating apps, following concerns about growing negative attitudes towards PrEP users.

Man on phone

The study, published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, monitored reactions on dating ‘hookup’ apps to see whether negative stereotypes of people on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) led to unfavourable reactions to people who said they were using PrEP.

The research was carried out in response to damaging labels that described PrEP users as promiscuous and irresponsible, which have surfaced in recent years on social media.

Just over 200 respondents from the USA viewed four fake dating profiles displaying identical pictures and information, with one crucial difference. The profiles described themselves as either HIV-negative, HIV-positive, a PrEP user, or a recreational substance user. Participants were then asked to rate each profile on a number of factors, including attractiveness, desirability and trustworthiness.

The study found participants rated profiles of people on PrEP as positively as HIV-negative profiles. However, HIV-positive profiles and profiles where people indicated they used substances were rated significantly less attractive and desirable than HIV-negative or PrEP profiles.

Crucially, when the sample was split by history of PrEP use, those who had not taken PrEP before rated HIV-positive profiles as significantly less attractive and less desirable, compared to HIV-negative profiles.

In contrast, those who had taken PrEP before did not differentiate in their ratings of HIV-negative and HIV-positive profiles, with the exception of deeming HIV-positive profiles more trustworthy. Researchers suggest participants may have made this judgment because they viewed the HIV-positive profile as demonstrating honesty due to the disclosure of a positive HIV status.

Researchers describe the lack of evidence for PrEP-related stigma as “encouraging” as it suggests that damaging stereotypes about PrEP users may not extend to negative implicit judgments about them on social networking sites.

Despite its relatively small sample size, the study could also provide the first empirical evidence that PrEP use may have a positive impact on HIV stigma, as individuals who have used PrEP may ‘see’ people living with HIV differently than those without a history of PrEP use.

This finding echoes anecdotal evidence, also emerging in recent years, that some who previously disqualified people living with HIV as sexual partners due to their positive status are now more likely to consider engaging in a sexual or romantic partnership due to PrEP.

A possible reason for this could be that these people are now equipped with a knowledge and understanding of HIV and transmission risk.

However, an alternative interpretation of the study’s data could be that individuals who have chosen to take PrEP at some point are less likely to stigmatise people who are living with HIV in the first place. More research is needed to examine HIV-related stigma before and after PrEP uptake, and among a larger and more diverse sample of PrEP users.

Photo credit:
iStock/Pekic. Photos are used for illustrative purposes only.

Written by Hester Phillips