Facebook and Sexually Transmitted Diseases: What You Need to KnowS

This morning, the Twitterverse was abuzz with mentions of Facebook and syphilis. The Sun published "Sex diseases soaring due to Facebook romps" (according to The Guardian, the original headline was "Facebook spreads syphilis"). So what's this all about?

Obviously, a web site cannot "spread" a sexually transmissible infection (STI) such as syphilis, which is transmitted through vaginal sex, oral sex and anal sex.

Well, apparently a public health official from the NHS commented that young people in the areas most affected by syphilis were 25% more likely to log on to Facebook than young people in other areas of the country. It is also claimed that several of the approximately 30 people in one area who contracted syphilis had met partners through social networking sites, such as Facebook. Unfortunately, it is this notion, thanks to sensationalist journalist practices, that Facebook can spread syphilis that went way more viral than syphilis itself.

Clearly, there could be several other things going on here: maybe these individuals use the computer more often overall, or use a variety of sites to meet people, or else they use all sorts of resources at their disposal to meet people for sex (not just Facebook but also bars, parties, etc). Were these things assessed in the study? It wasn't mentioned.

Ever since the early days of the Internet, various web sites have become easy scape goats for sex-negative claims, such as scary stories about how people meet sex partners through the Internet and then bad things happen. However, rarely is the good of the Internet mentioned in this regard.

Do web sites, especially social networking web sites and dating web sites and casual sex sites, make it easier for people to find each other for romantic and/or sexual encounters? Of course they do. And this is often a positive thing for those involved and does not always result in STI transmission.

What people often overlook is that these same sites can also make it easier for public health professionals to track a burgeoning epidemic and stop it before it gets out of hand. Before the Internet, if you were limited to meeting people at bars, you may have known very little about them if you chose to have a casual sexual encounter with them. Maybe you didn't even know their first or last name or how to get in touch with them.

However, let's say you do meet someone through Facebook and then you arrange to meet. A week or two after the encounter, you find that your genitals feel funny or that you have discharge, or maybe you just decide to go in an get tested as you had a new partner recently (good for you for getting tested!). Let's say that you then find out you have an STI, such as syphilis. Guess what? You can now track down that person, should you choose to (and I hope you do), and let them know that they should get tested for syphilis, too.

Facebook and other social networking sites have the potential to make STI partner notification programs that much easier – and that's a good thing.

Many health departments have partner notification programs, especially for infections such as syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV that they are particularly worried about spreading. Often these programs mean that if you test positive for an infection and don't want to contact your past or present partners yourself, you can give your healthcare provider the contact information of your past/present partner(s) and they will call those people for you. They will NOT give your name but they may say something along the lines of "You have been identified as a possible sexual contact of someone who recently tested positive for (fill in the blank with the STI you tested positive for)." They then often offer STI testing to that individual. Cool, huh?

To me, the bottom line has nothing to do with Facebook. It goes back to the basics.

Get tested for STIs if you are:

- about to have sex with a new partner

- have not been tested since your last new partner

- have had unprotected vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex with someone whose STI history you do not know

- if you feel you have any other risk factors

- if you think your partner may have had sex with someone else since being with you

- if you just want to know. It doesn't hurt to get tested for STIs on occasion, even if you are pretty certain that you and your partner are monogamous and not having sex with anyone else.

And let's not blame Facebook for everything now, shall we?

Dr. Debby Herbenick, author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, is the Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Indiana University (IU) where she is a Research Scientist. She is also a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction where she writes (and hosts audio podcasts of) the Kinsey Confidential column and coordinates educational programming. She has a PhD in Health Behavior from IU, a Master's degree in Public Health Education (also from IU) and a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. In addition, she is certified as a Sexuality Educator from the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists.

Debby writes regular sex columns for Men's Health magazine, Time Out Chicago magazine, Velocity, Cheeky Chicago, Psychology Today and she has also written for Glamour magazine.