#YouthToday: tech and sex and other encounters

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/18 July) — Perhaps the most alarming result in a 2013 study on youth sexuality by the UP Population Institute and the Demographic Research and Development Foundation is that in Region XI, three in four youth feel invincible to AIDS.

The Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS) studies, which interviewed 19,178 young people that represent all sectors in the society, also showed that the youth’s sexual debut is getting “younger as indicated by the mean age at first sex.” For males, the decline went from 18 years in 1994 to 17.2 years in 2013; females from 18.6 years to 17.4 years.

YAFS also showed an increasing proportion of male youth who engaged in early sex—from less than one percent in 1994 to 4.1 percent in 2013.

And most of these premarital sexual encounters (at 80.2%) are unprotected. Other notable findings on sexual behavior include the 6.3 percent of the youth engaging in casual sex with low protection, and 4 percent (mostly males) having regular “fuck buddies.”

“The results show that there’s a deviation from old behaviors,” said Professor Grace Cruz, one of the proponents of the YAFS study. “Back in the days, young people were very conservative, virginity is highly prized, and sex is solely conducted within the context of marriage.”

She attributes this changing environment to a number of factors. This included the exposure of youth to digital media and parenting, which she considers to be an important factor in determining the behavior of children as they grow up.

Dr. Jordana Ramiterre, head of the Reproductive Health and Wellness Center (RHWC) of the Davao City Health Office, shared a different insight about the boldness of youth sexuality and behavior, and the attitude towards HIV/AIDS.

She said young people go through a phase of invincibility–those years when they feel physically healthy and don’t easily get tired. “It’s a perception of young people about themselves,” Ramiterre said, basing her observation on the attitudes of the youth that come to the RHWC for testing and counseling.

She said that despite this perceived “invincibility,” if these young people have exposed themselves to any sort of unsafe sexual act, then they should be aware of what the risks are.

“They may know about HIV/AIDS transmission and preventions, but not knowledgeable enough to put these into practice,” she added. HIV/AIDS becomes so abstract to some because the viruses are not something that we see everyday or see with our naked eyes at all. “And if you’re not into any risky sexual behavior, then the idea is just something that you dismiss.”

The prevalence of casual sex is largely driven by the youth’s frequent use of technology. “Casual sex is really very common nowadays,” Ramiterre said. She also mentioned that a 2009 behavioral research with the National Epidemiology Center showed an increase in risky behavior against low prevention activities. Men who have sex with other men (MSM) who engage in unprotected sex have an average of 15 partners per year. “I guess social media has a lot of influence to it,” Ramiterre added.

True enough, YAFS showed just how tech savvy young people in Region XI are these days: 14.5 percent have visited porn websites; 1 in 5 has exchanged sex videos through mobile phones; 8 in 100 have engaged in phone sex; 1 in 100 has recorded himself/herself having sex.

The study also said that 4 in 100 have had sex with someone they met online or through text messages.

The digital Romeo

“Hook-ups can be found anywhere,” 24-year-old medical student Romeo (not his real name) said. “Gay social networking apps make them easier to find.”

Smartphone app Grindr, for instance, connects gay guys to each other using a person’s location relative to others. “It can show me who’s online nearby and who’s ready to hook up,” Romeo described. In the Philippines, Grindr has an average of 94,776 active users per month.

He said that through the app, he was able to meet, date, or “play” with guys in places other than bars. Romeo has had encounters in airports and malls. He’s lucky to have not been one of the victims of fraudulent users in the app. “Others get robbed after being lured into a place supposedly to hook up,” he said.

Planet Romeo, another gay social networking platform for both desktop and mobile users, is another world in itself. The site is easier to access especially to users who have no smartphones.

In an email, Planet Romeo communications officer Tim Hoy pointed out that there are over 4,194 active users in Davao City; and at any given time, about 116 of these are online (as indicated by the tabs during user login).

“The Philippines is by far our largest market in Southeast Asia,” said Hoy, referring to the 116,978 users in the country. “PH is also our third largest market worldwide behind Germany (412,000 users) and Italy (138,500).”

“It’s all there,” Romeo said, referring to the kinds of sex that guys can have with other guys. He also pointed out that others just like to find friends and develop relationships. “They write in their profile what they want and like-minded men reach out to them.” Some guys like to experiment with what they see on porn. There are also those who say they are up for three ways, while a good few proudly post faceless photos of them in an orgy.

Displays of sexual preferences are also indicated in their profiles. Guys who write top like to give anal sex, while those who write bottom receive. “Asking someone whether they’re a top or a bottom becomes mandatory. That’s how users start a chat. It’s funny because that question even comes before ‘what’s your name?’ or ‘how are you today?’”

Some profiles clearly state that users are strict about safe sex. Others want to have an open discussion about it.

Romeo’s first experience with bareback sex (anal sex without a condom) happened at the spur-of-the-moment. “My partner and I were just in heat,” he said. “I was curious and he just went for it.”

Similar behaviors, he said, recurred when he hooked up with guys younger than him. “They want to know what it’s like without a condom, and I know exactly how they feel,” he said, justifying his decision to yield to bareback sex. “Whether I’m HIV positive or not, I’d still do it because it feels great.”

And even with his knowledge on HIV, Romeo felt that he really doesn’t have a voice within his circle of hook-up buddies. To many of them, HIV/AIDS has been (and perhaps will always be) an elephant in the room. “Even older people have misconceptions about it,” he revealed. “The uncle of one of my hook-ups told his nephew that he shouldn’t worry about AIDS because it will only take toll on him when he’s 40 or older.”

Amid some wrong beliefs about HIV/AIDS, many initiatives by different organizations are on the works to counter these.

Prevention efforts

Both Grindr and Planet Romeo have their HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

“As the largest gay network with more than 10 million user downloads, Grindr is a powerful platform to raise awareness on important issues for the gay community around the world,” Grindr said in a statement. “We have a page on our website called Grindr Health (Grindr.com/health). We encourage our users to explore this page to learn the best way to protect both themselves and their sexual partners.”

Planet Romeo also has a dedicated tab on their website for online health support where users can access health advice real time. “Health supporters are specially trained to give users free, confidential advice about HIV prevention, safer sex, HIV/AIDS and other STIs,” the website said.

Planet Romeo also donates free banner space to reputable organizations in an effort to help promote health initiatives, such as free HIV testing. The website also dedicates space for universities looking for volunteers to take part in surveys that explore health issues of gay men.

In the offline world, organizations are also encouraging people living with HIV (PLHIV) to look after themselves and contribute to the prevention efforts in the community.

According to Dr. Larissa Torno, infectious diseases specialist at the Davao Medical School Foundation, after someone is diagnosed as HIV positive, they go through what she described as a latency period.

During this latency period, Torno advised that someone who’s HIV positive should live a healthy lifestyle by eating good food, avoiding cigars and alcoholic drinks, and abstaining from any sort of unprotected sex to avoid exposing the body from other potential infections.

She encouraged those who don’t know their status to get tested, but braving testing centers, she observed, is another challenge young people deal with.

“The youth are hesitant to seek professional help for counseling and testing probably because they don’t want to be singled out or stigmatized. They know that there’s a risk for HIV, but I think they’re embarrassed or hesitant to access health services,” she said.

She also pointed out the disconnect between knowing about HIV preventions and putting it to practice. “They know about HIV, but they have poor condom use and they don’t practice safe sex.”

The information campaign under the RHWC includes community outreach in barangays and schools, and peer counseling.

“We still need to do more to really expand and intensify the prevention education and promotion of the test, and condom use to people who may be at risk for HIV/AIDS,” said Ramiterre.

She said that there should be a priority on key populations: men having sex with other men, freelance sex workers, and registered sex workers.

One of the challenges faced by these campaigns is reaching out to discreet men. “One of the populations we want to reach out to really are the discreet MSM,” said Ramiterre. “They’re those who least access services for HIV because of high stigma and discrimination.”

Ramiterre stressed that there is no better time to seek professional help and testing than now. There is no app for that after all. (Jesse Pizarro Boga/MindaNews)