The news that a New Yorker had contracted what appears to be an especially fast-acting, medically impervious form of HIV put the three-year-old gay-personals site Manhunt.net on the front page of the Times, and on the defensive. Along with AOL chat rooms, the popular site was repeatedly cited as a place where men arrange to have sex with other men (although the actual site, or sites, where this man met some of his “hundreds” of unsafe-sex partners while bingeing on crystal meth, has not been named by authorities). Jacob Bernstein spoke with Stephan Adelson, Manhunt’s general manager, a 42-year-old former Episcopalian monk and ex–Disney World hotel manager, about the site’s reputation as a virtual bathhouse.
Is the man with the HIV “super-strain” a Manhunt member?
I don’t know anything about that. But the minute we heard about it, we contacted the Department of Health and the CDC.
How did you hear the news?
I saw an article in the paper, and I sent an e-mail to my contact at the CDC, requesting any official information. There’s been no reference to this Website.
How many people use the site?
We have close to 300,000 active members nationwide and 30,000 in New York State.
What are you doing to stop the spread of HIV?
Right now we work with fifteen departments of Health. And there are more than 50 community-based organizations on the site that have the ability to do partner notification. GMHC joined in September. It’s been difficult because we’re a sex-positive site. Most of our users go on with the intention of meeting for sex. That can be an obstacle with some organizations.
How does notification work?
If you go to a clinic and you test positive for an STD, they ask whether you’ve met men online. If you say Manhunt.net, the group will log on and anonymously let [your] partners know that they may have contracted an STD. Last year, there was a person who came in contact with around 30 other people. The numbers can be large.
But would you let these groups target users who are advertising their interest in unsafe sex?
No. I just don’t think that’s an effective way to facilitate change. We had an organization that was contacting people who had barebacking [having anal sex without a condom] in their profiles, telling them about a new rapid HIV test.
And we were inundated with complaints. Do you ever feel personally responsible about the unsafe sex enabled by your Website?
It all boils down to personal choice. We believe that people have the right to PNP [“party and play,” or to do crystal meth and have sex] or not to PNP, to use condoms or not use condoms. What we hope is that people will back up their choices with responsible behavior. We provided an empty site and our customers have filled it. But the majority of them don’t PNP or bareback.
Still, there does seem to be an awful lot of irresponsible behavior on the Internet. Why is that?
The Internet is a great vehicle for like-minded people to get together, whether it’s to collect trading cards or do crystal meth. If it’s not a dating Website like Manhunt, it could be a bulletin board like Craigslist or it could be something new that hasn’t been created yet. But there’s no going back.