Health Workers Creating Fake Grindr Accounts For STD/HIV Outreach Goes TOO Far

grindr-iphoneRecently in the San Francisco Bay Area some reports have shown a new development. The San Mateo County public health administration has been using a fake Grindr account as part of its outreach plan.

I take issue with this. While in theory one can explain it as just another use of social media for prevention. In practice it’s problematic at best.

The intersections of how we use our agency for sex, intimacy and everything are powerful. They are primal. They speak to how we live, what we value and deserve respect as such. Thus all interventions place a premium on assuring personal agency, dignity and consent occur. All doing this work (be clinicians, researchers, case managers, etc.) understand this intimately. And generally approach their strategies from that basis. This is the reason Human Subjects Protection training is mandatory for administrators and most in the field.

Yet as months turn into years (and then decades for some), one’s perspective can change. A support group can just look like qualitative data. A movie ticket stub can be just another part of a client’s monthly budget for their care plan. A condom can be just another line item consideration used to fulfill a grant deliverable. A black gay man can just look like a vector of disease. Names become ID numbers and people become only data.

It takes a toll to bring the personal into the professional. Looking at the example in San Mateo, it seems like this consideration may have been lost. Safeguarding personal agency and consent may have been low priority, because budget cuts tend to have that effect.

The work is taxing. Advocating for successful health outcomes in the midst of an ongoing epidemic is difficult. It calls on vast amounts of personal investment which most sane people would not be willing to offer. Yet, the vocation pivots from the notion that one is aiding the common good.

Though the individual point of views may now be more cynical or pessimistic. It goes without saying, that these men and women joined the work based on a deep seated personal motivation to drive change. This is especially true in the arena of HIV/AIDS and STD/STI prevention.

It creates a culture which normalizes lost sleep, “full time equivalent hours” and few benefits. Why? Because when you can see the hand you have in creating change in the lives of members of your community it’s worth it. The little victories chip away at the larger defeats and keep you in the fight.

In the public sector we’ve all had to do more with less since the economic downturn of 2008. People of color especially are still in the midst of trying to regain our footing and realize that we may have lost a lot of ground. Under this climate it’s always those with the least that loose the most.

One of those losses has been in services to our most vulnerable populations and the public health sector. Last year when Sequestration happened it appears that sector suffered another blow. Once again, HIV/AIDS programs are looking to find ways to combat an epidemic with dwindling resources.

As those hardest hit by the epidemic this, of course, has hit communities of color hardest.

In looking to be innovative, outreach plans have graduated from personal word-of-mouth networks. They have involved all aspects of social media since it became part of our everyday lives.

Community members and preventionists have continued to meet guys where they are most comfortable. This includes Adam4Adam, BGC, et al. These one-on-one interactions have been a successful tool.

As the shift happened from hook-up sites to dating apps; the outreach plans adjusted to meet that need. As a participant I noticed how certain prevention programs got my attention. Later, working at a not-for-profit clued me in on how to develop and market to the target population my demographic includes.

In my experience both Atlanta and San Francisco continue to be at the forefront of innovating outreach.

Still I wonder if this is a sign of things going too far. I wonder if this is another way that vulnerable communities are running into another form of exploitation. Exploitation from well-meaning agencies whose mission is to offer help is counterproductive. It’s one thing for an outreach worker to create a profile on a social media app and engage the community on a ‘virtual’ one-on-one basis. It’s a completely different matter to launch an initiative like the one in San Mateo. We have to value the personal agency of whomever we intend to help before we can ever imagine effectively counting on successful health outcomes.

In some alternate universe far far away Neil deGrasse-Tyson and Cicely Tyson had a love child. The result was me. I discuss language, culture and miscellaneous Black stuff.


    Great post!

  • DonnieBlack

    I’m not following how these men are being exploited by being exposed to sexual health and testing information when they hit someone up for dating or sex. They aren’t forced to engage in any subsequent conversation or to even take seriously any of the information about sexual health or testing they receive. While this is a useful tool for upping the numbers that sexual health CBOs reach, reaching a larger population also has the additional impact of potentially testing more Black MSM. Given that young Black MSM are one of the few populations that continues to have growing rate of new HIV infections and 25% of HIV positive people do not know their status, there is a need for dedicated services and the absence of such services would likely be deemed racism on the part of providers.

  • Herman Finley

    Im a heath care worker in TEXAS and i dont see how you guys can say this is wrong, in fact it brings awareness and also puts the U.S. into the goal of ZER0 New HIV infections

    • Baldwin Bradshaw

      I don’t think the author is implying that the initiative is wrong, he’s simply saying that it runs the risk of exploiting the population that it is intended to serve.

  • gnaG floW

    The purpose is mostly to affect or improve the social norms of high risk demographics. I will admit to having an account for almost every app or site that was popular when I did outreach. As the work changed so did the things I would promote. Great article.

  • Musique’s Poetry

    Great article, but I don’t see how they are really being exploited…However if used properly it could help educate and make people think before laying down with someone and the dangers of STD’s HIV/AIDS

  • Baldwin Bradshaw

    Great article. I get exactly what the author is saying in regards to a respect for agency. Basically these organizations, while having well meaning intentions and dwindling resources, often allow the ends to justify the means rather than looking beyond the goal of reducing HIV rates (which there is often not enough data to guarantee that these initiatives are tried and true or will definitely produce results) and think about the larger picture of a population with respect to the way the population operates. It’s kind of like the moral dilemma they had regarding certain non-profits giving out clean needles to injection drug users or schools giving condoms to teenagers. There has to be some thought about how initiatives are conducted that go beyond the stats and long-term goals. Very insightful.

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  • MSM from the PNW

    I personally think its a great Idea that CBO’s target MSM on social sites to get tested. As a HIV Tester myself with the decrease in testing in some areas of the Pacific Northwest. I think its a good Idea that these populations are targeted. It’s said that these hook up apps that more and more of young MSM of all ethnic backgrounds are getting std’s due to stating that they are Clean or “DDF” (drug, disease free). Which isn’t true for some of them due to them not getting tested. I think its wise that all MSM get targeted and become aware that there are services for them because then they will realize that they are fortunate to have access to these resources whereas other MSM may live in rural areas and not have access to testing.

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