There Are Dating Apps For People With STIs. Not Everyone Likes The Idea.

Genital herpes has always been a common diagnosis — about 16% of adults worldwide have genital herpes, and many do not realize they have it at all. (About half of all US adults have oral herpes caused by the virus HSV-1, which can cause painful mouth blisters or cold sores; genital herpes can be caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2.)

But despite how ubiquitous the virus is, the stigma against herpes obscures the facts about it. Unlike chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, or other sexually transmitted infections, herpes doesn’t usually have serious health consequences in nonpregnant, healthy people, and medication can control outbreaks. STI panels don’t even routinely screen for herpes due to the risk of false positives or negatives.

However, the ignorance around it is still prevalent, so STI-focused dating apps offer an alternative solution to potential judgment from strangers. There are a number of sites to choose from: H Date, HSV Singles, Meet Positives, Meet People With Herpes. Positive Singles is one of the most popular dating platforms (there’s a site and an app) for people with herpes, as well as other sexually transmitted infections like HIV and chlamydia.

Alina, 25, also downloaded Positive Singles shortly after being diagnosed with herpes in 2019. She said she was attracted to the idea of finding a community that could empathize with her struggles. “But it never felt entirely like the most legit or safe app that I’ve ever used,” she said.

Successful Match, a dating company that owns niche dating sites like MillionaireMatch, InterracialMatch, SeniorMatch, and competitor site Meet People With Herpes, created Positive Singles in 2001. It boasts over 2.37 million users, according to its website, but it’s experienced increased scrutiny over the years. In 2014, Successful Match paid out $16.5 million in a settlement from a class action lawsuit after users accused the company of sharing private data with third parties from a centralized database, including users’ diagnoses. (In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Positive Singles said, “The parties agreed as part of the settlement that there was no admission of any wrongdoing by PositiveSingles.com. PositiveSingles.com has always asserted that it takes appropriate measures to protect its members’ personal data.”)

Parton was only on the app for a month before deleting it. She said she felt the premise of an STI-specific dating app bred a particularly “aggressive” culture, shrouded in shame. “There are a lot of profiles where people do post their faces,” she said. “But there are a bunch where they don’t.” One man messaged her 25 times in a row, even though Parton never opened any of the texts. She received several unsolicited pictures of strangers’ genitalia without any prior conversation.

“I even talked to someone who was like, ‘I’m never gonna date anyone who’s not positive,’” she said. “I’ve met a few people who talk like that — nobody wants to date me. It honestly made me pretty sad that people on this app felt like they can’t have a normal relationship, like it was just completely affected by having an STI.”

Dr. Maggie Dancel, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, explained that stigma can play a huge role in the emotional implications of being diagnosed with an STD. In addition to the physical symptoms, people coping with the diagnosis experience mental turmoil, too.

“There is significant shame, guilt, and embarrassment that one faces after someone is diagnosed with herpes,” Dancel said. “There is still a stigma about talking about sex, having too little or too much sex, and having nonheteronormative sex. … Stigma may also keep the person from engaging in a rich sexual life after the diagnosis.”

Christina, 30, deleted Positive Singles after three months of using it. She had been single for four years when she was diagnosed with HSV-2 and was interested in a relationship, but was “terrified” about reentering the dating pool.

“I didn’t feel comfortable staying on regular apps,” she told BuzzFeed News. “But I realized that basically forcing people to pay for this app was ridiculous when other platforms can be used for free and are still effective.”

A free account on Positive Singles will let you “like” profiles and send them “winks,” but in order to message anyone first, you need to buy a premium membership, which costs $35 per month. “It’s basically the only way to use the app,” Parton said. At least one person needs to have a premium membership in order to have a conversation — otherwise, you can’t talk at all. Other dating apps, like Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder, also have premiums in the same pricing ballpark, but they don’t require payment in order to chat.

“I paid for premium the last month, to see if it would boost my experience,” Alina said. “It did not.”

Tyler, 37, has been on Positive Singles for nearly two decades and has noticed some frustrating patterns. “Whenever I’m paying, I tend to notice there’s a lot less engagement with my profile,” he said. “But as soon as I’m not paying, there’s all these new notifications that say there are new profiles and new likes engaging with me, but you can’t see them, because you have to pay.”

Dating app marketing strategies like notification-spamming and dangling potential matches to create a curiosity gap aren’t really new, but Christina said she felt it was particularly gross to employ them toward newly diagnosed people battling shame. “It definitely feels as though [the platform] exploits people’s feelings of isolation and stigma as a result of their diagnosis through making it a paid platform,” she said. (Via email, a Positive Singles spokesperson responded, “We did not reproduce this problem. Users can easily contact our support anytime if they encounter any website issue.”)

When asked about users who were frustrated and felt exploited, the Positive Singles spokesperson sent several positive reviews and press clips, telling BuzzFeed News: “I don’t think the majority of our users would agree to those complaints. We have over 3,400+ users who would like to share their successful dating stories on our site voluntarily, and lots of users even shared their wedding photos with us.”

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