Dating in a pandemic

Exploring how gay men are coping in lockdown and how they're responding to public health messages around isolation and social restrictions. How has the use of dating apps changed during lockdown for men who have sex with men (MSM).

The use of gay dating apps during the pandemic is being investigated.

Full research title - Public Health Messaging During the COVID Pandemic: Dating App Usage and Sexual Wellbeing Among Men Who Have Sex with Men


  • John Mercer
  • Ben Light (University of Salford)
  • Jamie Hakim (King's College London)
  • Karenza Moore (Newcastle University)


  • UKRI 
  • AHRC 
  • Covid Rapid Response Fund

Research background

There is a growing public health debate around the impacts of isolation exacerbated by enforced social distancing and how to minimise the attendant social and physical harms. This will continue, even with the relaxing of lockdown measures.

This talk emerges out of an AHRC funded research project led by Ben Light of Salford University and John Mercer, Jamie Hakim and Karenza Moore that engages with these questions by looking at an area vital to a society’s health and wellbeing – sexual and romantic life (WHO, 2006). We focus on the coping strategies of gay men under crisis conditions.

Hook up applications are a key area where sex and romance has been negotiated over the past two decades, a trend which has rapidly intensified as a result of the social distancing measures that have been put in place during the pandemic. 

Gay males are an interesting group to look at the challenges posed here as they have been early adopters of these technologies, using them to connect for long term relationships, one-night stands, and sex in public spaces.

This group comprises individuals already disproportionately affected by the mental health problems associated with isolation and social stigma. A report by the LGBT Foundation speaks of a significant and detrimental effects felt by this community arising from the lockdown.

Our project aims to discover how gay men are coping in a crisis and where they might be particularly vulnerable. It will also explore how well-equipped charity and voluntary sectors are regarding their knowledge about the role played by hook up apps, both in terms of the health messages they deliver and the activity they enable. 

Public health measures to mitigate the spread of coronavirus are translated into media messaging by organisations that target the health of different groups. Engaging experiences of the minority group of men who have sex with men, we will provide rapid evidence on the approaches and responses to these messages in relation to using digital platforms to connect for sexual purposes.

Organisations have variously advised MSM to practice sexual abstinence, engage in digitally mediated sexual encounters or wear masks and avoiding the exchange of saliva during sex.

Campaigns are running which present the situation as a route to ending HIV. Yet, 8/7/2020 the government cut £5M from the pre-exposure prophylaxis budget – an effective of reducing HIV transmission.

This project aims to understand MSM’s reception of these messages to impact upon policy and practice for this group, shed light on what to look for where minorities are concerned, and provide learning about COVID public health messaging that will benefit the general population.

How is the research being carried out?

We are running three online surveys to generate data about public sexual health messaging reception, and dating/hooking up practices.

We are undertaking a discourse analysis of the web page resources created by organisations who support the health and wellbeing of MSM, and of the messaging provided by online dating and hook up apps.

We are collecting historical and ongoing conversational data from selected social and digital media frequented by MSM. This data will be contextualised by analysing the media they are generated with using the walkthrough method.

Research aims

  • How is public health and sexual health information being mediated, interpreted and translated into guidance by the organisations established to support the mental and sexual health and wellbeing of MSM (NHS, third sector organisations) and the commercial entities enabling digital connection (smartphone hook up applications)?
  • How do MSM navigate this changed context of public and sexual health messaging in their online, social and sexual practices?
  • To what extent can we observe evidence of new sexual practices or ethics of sexual engagement emerging as a result of this public and sexual health messaging and the pandemic more generally?

Intended outcomes and impact

The research is ongoing but we expect to produce policy recommendations for public health and for organisations working with MSM. We will also be publishing academic papers based on our research.

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