Making Sparks With HIV-Positive Online Dating Site Volttage

by Bran Luna LeFae
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 15, 2012

Humans are social creatures, and sexual beings. We constantly seek connection, through love or lust, whether temporary or permanent. Connecting with lovers or partners is even more challenging when HIV-positive. In recent years, men who have sex with men (MSM) have used the Internet to connect for hook-ups or dating, but online connections don't eliminate negative reactions to disclosing that you're HIV-positive. Enter Volttage, a new social networking, dating and hook-up site for HIV-positive men.

"We aim to break down many of the stereotypes that haunt HIV-positive people, bring HIV out of the closet and start conversations about living with HIV," Mackenroth told EDGE in a recent interview.

The sexy models featured on the website -- all HIV-positive themselves -- certainly encourage members to be open and comfortable with their own HIV status. "Instead of asking members to disclose whether they are positive or negative, Volttage operates on the belief that you should always assume that anyone you meet is HIV-positive and take appropriate precautions," he explained.

Unlike popular websites such as Grindr and Manhunt, which are popular for their anonymity with millions of men in almost every country across the globe, Volttage is bringing a different approach to online dating. While Volttage is also easy to use for a hook-up, it hopes to have a larger appeal. In addition to a clean, user-friendly design with multiple options for personal preferences, the site also features a news and health section and hopes to build more community resources in as it grows.

"In the short time since our launch, I can already tell there is a different feel to the site," said Mackenroth. "With the issue of HIV status out of the way, it becomes a much more inclusive place for men who are used to encountering discrimination."

The Pros and Cons of Serosorting

Using this site offers men the ability to hook up without having to go through the process of serosorting: dating or having sex only with men who have the same HIV status. This practice has received a lot of attention since the mid-2000s as a potential strategy for reducing HIV infections. But this approach has multiple weak points. Even men who think they are HIV-negative may be positive and not know it yet.

"Just because someone says they are negative is not a reason to have unprotected sex," Mackenroth points out.

EDGE recently spoke with Dr. Perry Halkitis, professor of Applied Psychology, Public Health and Medicine at NYU Steinhardt. Halkitis has been studying the risk behaviors of gay and bisexual men for decades.

"I think serosorting is the most flawed decision making process around safer sex," Halkitis told EDGE. "The only truth we know is when people say their sero status is positive, we know that they’re positive. Serosorting is highly problematic in terms of keeping oneself negative."

Picking sexual partners and activities based on someone’s reported HIV status can also lead to new infections, because men are often serosorting in order to engage in riskier sexual behaviors, such as barebacking. And while many men may use serosorting to try to find HIV-negative men, some HIV-positive men prefer dating other poz men.

"I do think there are some advantages to dating another HIV-positive man. They just get it," said Mackenroth.

The site will also work to diminish stigma. Volttage will be monitored to prevent hate speech and other abusive behavior, in order to create an open and honest environment.

"Everyone living with HIV has dealt with shame and feeling less than," explained Mackenroth.

Halkitis has also seen the impact of stigma in his research studies of young gay and bisexual men.

"I think this notion that there’s this new generation of men who aren’t scared of HIV is nonsense," said Halkitis. In the cohort of 600 young gay and bisexual men that his group has been following, they’ve seen that as this group ages, more members of the group become HIV-positive.

"None are like, oh, whatever, it’s fine. These guys are freaked out of their minds when they find out that they’re positive," said Halkitis.

Hopefully having a resource like Volttage will take some of the fear out of living with HIV. "We have members who are positive. We also have members who are negative. It’s about creating a non-judgmental environment where people can be open and honest about who they are," said Mackenroth. "It’s not necessarily to pair HIV-positive men together." While Volttage has only just been launched, Mackenroth hopes to see it grow into more than just a hook-up site.

"We hope to become a hub for the HIV-positive community to interact socially, network, exchange information and learn about the latest in health developments and HIV-related news," he said. "I think it’s especially important for men in more rural locations or countries with severe discrimination to have a way to reach out to other men who can relate to their experience so they don’t feel so isolated."

In the months to come, Volttage will have a mobile version of the site available. While living with HIV has its ongoing challenges, removing the stigma that comes with the disease through a site like Volttage will hopefully help HIV-positive men connect with others in an open, affirming environment.

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