$1.3M Fed Study: 'What In Nature of Online Relationship Development Might Facilitate Unsafe Sex?'

By Elizabeth Harrington | May 29, 2013 | 10:46 AM EDT

Columbia University Health Sciences has received $1,308,062 so far for the study. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded more than $1 million to study how straight people are using the Internet for “online sexual pursuits."

“Researchers have raised significant concerns about the Internet's potential to facilitate sexual encounters that result in unsafe sex and place individuals at risk for STD/HIV,” states the grant, awarded to Columbia University. “Yet, how using the Internet for sexual pursuits may shape sexual behavior, including risk taking, remains a very poorly understood phenomenon, especially among heterosexuals.”

The study hypothesizes that the Internet increases risk-taking behavior, making partners who meet online more likely to engage in unsafe sex. The researchers want to find out “the practices heterosexuals engage in during these sexual encounters.”

“The limited data suggest that many heterosexuals use the Internet to meet prospective sexual partners and eventually meet in-person and have sex,” the grant states. “Yet, to date, very little is known about the practices heterosexuals engage in during these sexual encounters, the heuristics and strategies they use to assess the potential sexual risk a partner met online poses, and what in the nature of online relationship development might facilitate unsafe sex.”

Columbia University Health Sciences has received $1,308,062 so far for the study. The school was first given a $606,000 grant in 2011, followed by $702,062 last year. The project has the potential for more funding, as it is set to run until June 2014.

Karolynn Siegel, professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, is leading the study.  Much of her research involves the social implications of living with HIV/AIDS.

The project will investigate 150 straight adults who have had “unprotected vaginal or anal sex with at least three (opposite sex) partners in the past 3 months, at least two of whom they met online." The sample will be split between male and females and equally divided by race.

The researchers say the study will "enhance our understanding of how use of the Internet for sexual pursuits shapes heterosexuals' sexual behavior.”

The study will also look into how people misrepresent themselves online, and how the “online presentation” attracts people to engage in real-life sexual encounters.

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