Virtual Strangers

Denver researchers study how the chat room leads to the bedroom.

After the syphilis outbreak in San Francisco, the city's health department decided to do something as well. "This new venue requires us to make new means by which we communicate messages about safe sex," says Jeffrey Klausner, director of STD prevention and control services for the department.

"[We] talked to AOL, and they didn't feel it was possible to provide messages in chat rooms set up by private individuals," says Klausner. Instead, he says, AOL directed his department to marketing portals that target gay Web sites. The SFDPH bought ads on PlanetOut's Web page and has used its own Web site to "actively promote safe sex" through the Internet.

The Denver Free Clinic has reported only one STD case that was contracted through an Internet contact, and Bull says she isn't jumping to conclusions about the trend in the rest of the country. "We are suspicious that more people are having sex through the Internet, but we don't know yet," she says. "Right now, people don't have a [concrete] idea of whether [the Internet] is effective for obtaining sex partners."

One thing Bull knows for sure: Everybody's talking about it.

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