Some women who hook up in the online dating world may take more risks in their sexual behaviour, says a Canadian researcher who has launched a study on the topic.

Cindy Masaro of the University of British Columbia works as a nurse clinician at the sexually transmitted infection and HIV clinic at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. In her work, she has noticed that clients quickly grew close to people they'd met online. 

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Cindy Masaro is exploring whether social forces in the digital era are shaping women's sexual behaviour and risk-taking. (Courtesy of Cindy Masaro)

"Most of them had formed fairly intimate relationships and they were trusting of these partners, but yet they knew really very little about them," Masaro said. 

Trusting information they had gained online about their partner, clients were engaging in sexual behaviours that placed them at higher risk for sexually transmitted infections.

The observation intrigued Masaro, who decided to investigate further for her doctoral thesis at UBC's School of Nursing.

Women and rising sexually transmitted infections

Recently, sexually transmitted infections have been on the rise among Canadian women. For example, chlamydia infections went up 157 per cent for women aged 30 to 39 and by 134 per cent in women aged 40 to 59 in the past decade.

Women in these same age groups also saw the greatest rate of increase in gonorrhea: 288 per cent and 211 per cent respectively.

Masaro is recruiting at least 1,000 women aged 25 and older in Canada and the U.S. who are actively dating or who started a relationship in the past year. She's exploring whether social forces in the digital era are shaping women's sexual behaviour and risk-taking.

The study will use an online survey to compare how face-to-face encounters and digital communication — from texting to online dating — influence women's choices, such as when to have sex with their new partner.

In popular culture, romance and passion are often seen as a necessary precursor to sex for women, while for men, it's sexual satisfaction, Masaro said.

The research will also delve into the type and frequency of communications and issues such as trust, sexual self-disclosure, discussions about safer sex, feelings of pressure to have sex; and sexual risk behaviours.

Until now, public health research has mainly focused on teens, and adults were assumed to be in a relationship and knowledgeable about sexually transmitted infections, Masaro observed. 

Social networks

Syphilis researchers used traditional social network connections to find hard to reach contacts of people infected with the sexually transmitted infection in the Atlanta area in 2000. The study's authors concluded that a targeted approach may be useful in trying to eliminate syphilis.

But she's finding that women over 25  aren't always that knowledgeable. Many older women dating again after a divorce or death of a spouse face a new sexual landscape because of HIV.

Their previous relationships might have focused on using condoms for birth control instead of reducing transmission of STIs. Yet women face higher risks of complications from STIs than men.

"Health-care professionals often conclude that sexual issues aren't important for this age group," Masaro said. "I know a lot of women who come into the clinic and their physician doesn't even bring up STI testing."

The survey website called Dating Confidential went live this week.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar