The newest UN report produces frightening statistics regarding the surge of gay Asian men using mobile dating applications could hinder the global HIV goal. The correlation between apps and promiscuity is established, with the UN spokesperson pointing out that due to the prevalence of young gay Asian men using these apps for sexual gratification, their risk of contracting HIV has increased by the sheer number of sexual partners that they can find on these apps. In other words, these apps almost become the sole perpetrator of spreading the epidemic.
I will have to admit, that the technological affordances offer by these apps do enable the possibilities for their users to connect with more people, and it is definitely way easier to seek out sexual gratification through these apps; but there lies a crucial instance where researchers will have to ask: do people always ended up having sex? They have forgotten that a process of negotiation happens when people are soliciting sex; most people ended up being rejected in this process. Hence wanting to have sex does not always immediately result in it happening instantaneously.
New technology and the moral panic that come along with it are nothing new. For instance, the fear of television corrupting the young minds; the fear of the Internet provided too much unregulated freedom and the list goes on for a while. These panics are mostly due to the fact that we don’t take into the social and cultural aspects of technologies that shape the ways in which we use them. Technology is mostly a tool to convey the way of how we live. They themselves are not the root of evil at all. The users themselves are responsible for how the apps are being utilised. Technology, in this instance, becomes the scapegoat of blame attribution, when the focus should be on the incompetence of most Asian governments when it comes to acknowledging LGBT basic human rights.
Technology aside, a lot of research has been published on the uses and gratification aspect of these mobile apps. Most of them are focused on western users and their reasons of using these apps, but these research cannot be, and should not be treated conclusively as to why Asian gay men use these apps. The cultural differences and attitudes towards LGBT people and the knowledge towards same sex intimacy have to be taken into account as well. Being gay in most Asian countries mostly implies being invisible in order to stay safe. This is due to the condemnation of homosexual identities by the government’s policies and the family’s negative attitude towards gay individuals. Simply put, when being gay is punishable by the very law that is suppose to protect our interest and rights, apps in this instance provided a powerful channel for gay Asian men instead to communicate with each other under the government’s and the family’s radar.
The lack of governmental support and acknowledgement also leads to the absence of knowledge and awareness in this relevant area. Safe sex campaign is rarely featured, not just because of the continuous denial of LGBT individuals’ rights, but sex in itself is seen as a taboo in most Asian countries, which is commonly associated with guilt, shame and dirtiness. If the government can’t even address sexual aspects of the heteronormative sexual practices, how are we going to expect them to tackle sexual issues that are currently plaguing the LGBT community?
The focus on mobile applications as the sole reason for HIV rates to spike in Asian countries is a skewed one. These apps in a roundabout way, actually provides more educational opportunities than ever in comparison to the governments’ effort (or lack of). I am not suggesting that these apps are all angelic and educational to the point that will raise a ton of awareness (after all, they are commercial entities that seek profit more than anything else), but they at least have provided a forum for gay Asian men to meet others. This in itself has done more than what the state could have possibly done. We have to bear in mind that gay online spaces like such are a ‘renewed’ format of the act of cruising. The likelihood of gay men in Asia getting caught while cruising the public area is high and undoubtedly risky. Mobile applications can actually reduce this particular risk by allowing their members to identify others, without having to expose themselves to unwanted attentions and risks. In comparison to most governmental actions and unjust legal parameters that jeopardise gay asian men’s personal safety, I suggest that these applications do more than the official discourse does.
This is not a debate on whether mobile applications are extremely beneficial or spectacularly bad; it is about pointing out the flawed and oversimplified logic of mobile applications equals to promiscuity and therefore increasing HIV rates. Social and cultural climates in these Asian countries have to be taken into consideration when making a prima facie claim like such that often ignores the premises of power and marginalised communities. These are the individuals that are not given a voice to speak out about their positions, and research like this will only silence their voice further, without even considering their reasons of why they use these apps in the first place.
In order to tackle the issue of HIV and sexual behaviour more effectively, I would suggest that the understanding of cultural attitude towards sex and homosexual identity is crucial. It is often easier to just reduce people into numbers and statistics; but these numbers become redundant when the actual root of the problem itself is not being addressed adequately. The power of the state in oppressing marginalised community like the LGBT which causes them to burrow underground needs to be examined appropriately in order to unveil why unsafe sexual practices are practiced in the first place. Behavioural studies might be the next best step, but a wider cultural study on the culture and the power structure of the states in relation to sex and intimacy will warrant a more comprehensive perspective on controlling HIV rates in Asian countries.
© 2015 Joe Xie Quin Lim