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Editor’s note: This article contains references to racial and ethnic slurs.

Corey Baker, a gay man in Columbus, Ohio, has seen many dating app profiles that include phrases like “Blacks — don’t apply.” Sometimes when he declines invitations, he said, men lash out with insults like “you’re an ugly Black person anyway.” And some of his friends have been slammed with the N-word in similar situations.

Many of these events occurred “when I didn’t think I was attractive or deserving of love,” he said. And they took an emotional toll. “If you’re experiencing a wall of people saying they’re not attracted to you, I think that does impact your mental health,” said Baker, who is 35 and a school librarian.

The notion of kinder, gentler rejections on hookup sites might seem like an oxymoron. Yet experts in sexual health — as well as users of gay meeting apps, like Baker — say the harshness of much online behavior can exacerbate low self-esteem and feelings of depression or anxiety. That toxic combination can also lead to impulsive and potentially unsafe sexual choices.

In response, Building Healthy Online Communities, or BHOC, an organization in the San Francisco Bay Area focused on HIV and STD prevention, has launched an effort to boost niceness on apps designed for men who have sex with men. “People in the LGBTQ community face discrimination externally, but we also have to acknowledge that there is discrimination within the community,” said BHOC director Jen Hecht.

Through surveys and focus groups, BHOC asked more than 5,000 users of nine gay apps how the sites could support better online behavior related to race, appearance, HIV status, age, disability, gender identity and other factors. It also sought advice on technical improvements the apps could make, such as offering users greater flexibility in conducting searches for contacts.

“If I can filter out people who wrote ‘no fats, no fems, no black people,’ I don’t even have to deal with seeing it,” wrote one respondent quoted in BHOC’s report on the data gathered from app users. Representatives for some of the participating apps said they welcomed the collaboration. “We’ve had a non-bullying policy since day one,” said David Lesage, marketing and social media director for Adam4Adam.

Mean online behavior is, of course, not limited to apps for men. When asked last month by email whether meeting sites that cater to the general population should also be trying to address the issue, Evan Bonnstetter, Tinder’s director of product policy, responded that the company was “unable to participate in this opportunity.” (Bonnstetter has since left Tinder.) Bumble, another site popular with heterosexuals, did not respond to a request for comment.

Gay and bisexual men, like other groups that face discrimination, have higher rates of depression, substance misuse and related mental health concerns. But John Pachankis, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health who studies gay men’s health, said his research has identified aggressiveness within the gay community as a major problem.

“I was initially quite surprised that gay men were consistently noting their treatment at the hands of other gay men as being a predominant stressor,” Pachankis said. Apps, he added, “are a site of a lot of potential rejection in a short amount of time in a way that is particularly anonymous and efficient and can be really detrimental.”

In one study, Pachankis and his colleagues simulated a gay app environment in which some research participants were exposed to dismissive comments and others to approving comments. (The comments were all computer-generated.)

In subsequent responses on questionnaires, the men exposed to the dismissive comments reported greater emotional distress and expressed more skepticism about the benefits of condoms. They were also more likely to choose riskier options in a card-playing game.

Given that the app environment is the source of stress, Pachankis said, it makes sense for BHOC and other public health organizations to try to influence it

Some respondents quoted in the BHOC report dismissed the initiative as silly or unwarranted. “If someone does not meet the preferences specified by the user for being ‘fat,’ ‘too old,’ or not the right ‘race,’ then too bad,” wrote one. “I find this overreach in striving to be PC as offensive and ridiculous.”

But most respondents recognized that apps could support better online behavior and reduce unnecessary pain, Hecht said.

“It’s a society-wide problem, and I do agree that gay men’s dating apps are not going to single-handedly address it, but that doesn’t mean they can’t play a role,” she said. “To the extent that the users get to control and customize, that will increase their positive experiences on the apps and decrease the likelihood that they’ll have these negative experiences.”

One popular recommendation from respondents was to allow all users, and not just paying customers, to block anyone they feel is being abusive. Another was to allow users to restrict who can see profile fields with potentially sensitive information, such as HIV status or gender identity. Respondents also believed apps could help diminish the pain of rejection by providing neutral, pre-written messages for users to send, such as “sorry, it’s not a match.”

Grindr, one of the participating apps, does not include standard rejection statements but is exploring this option to help users on both sides of what is inevitably a “high-intensity moment,” said Jack Harrison-Quintana, the company’s director of equality.

“It’s very easy to feel very rejected because you are getting rejected,” Harrison-Quintana said. “People experience a lot of hurt from things that are said to them online, and that is what we are trying to address.”

Jehangeer Ali Syed, an international development consultant in Washington, D.C., said he has been disturbed by being treated as an “exotic element” in online exchanges. Although he is not from the Middle East, some men “sexually objectify me as an ‘Arab stallion,’” said the 36-year-old Pakistani. “I have been called a ‘sand-[N-word],’” he added.

This sort of encounter, he said, “makes you doubt yourself, makes you feel insecure and makes you question if I’m doing anything wrong.”

BHOC noted in its report that many respondents were unaware of existing app features that could help them customize and control their experiences. The report called for apps to expand their educational efforts about these possibilities.

That suggestion resonated with Grindr’s Harrison-Quintana. Grindr already includes some of the options recommended in the report, he said, but it could do a better job of communicating with customers. “It’s not just about implementing features, it’s also about maybe letting users know those features are available to them,” he said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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