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In the end, AOL successfully blew him off, Klausner says. A lot of the men seeking hookups drifted to specialized sites such as Manhunt.com and Adam4Adam.com. "AOL ultimately failed to take any action, failed to notify its members, and failed to engage in sexual health promotion," Klausner says. An AOL spokesman says the company declined to participate in the campaign targeting private chatrooms "due to privacy concerns for our users."
For Stephan Adelson, a consultant who used to be vice president of the for-profit gay-hookup site Manhunt.com, Klausner's methods are unnecessarily confrontational. Adelson believes Web-based sex entrepreneurs and public health officials should learn to coexist.
"I would suggest maybe the approach that San Francisco uses when they engage Web site owners may be a hindrance," he says. "It's a policy-based approach rather than a partnership-based approach."
Adelson says he is going to Canada later this month to meet with the owner of Adam4Adam — whose name he refused to reveal — to discuss increasing safe-sex awareness through the site. But Adelson also is quick to defend his erstwhile competitor, saying Adam4Adam is misrepresented and already provides ample information. He says that it's unfair to single it out, given the variety of sex sites available. "A few years ago, it was Manhunt," he says. "In other cities, the main one is Craigslist. In others, it's GayBlackChat.com."
In Adelson's view, it's unclear whether these sites pose a public-health threat. In fact, he's downright skeptical of the studies linking syphilis and the Internet. "It's a tenuous connection," he says. "There's no absolute evidence. Research and studies are valuable tools that, with careful crafting, can prove all kinds of misnomers. One thing the Internet does is it provides rapid communications. You can talk to hundreds of people in a very short period of time. When it comes to facilitating sexual encounters, it's an excellent facilitator."
Klausner says Adelson's perspective can be traced to the profit motive that guided Manhunt. "As a former Web site manager and now a private consultant trying to obtain government business as an intermediary between government and these types of businesses, he clearly has a self-interest" in promoting his style of sexual health awareness, Klausner says. "Unfortunately, the results of his work can be seen currently on the site [Manhunt] — health Web pages that are buried and hard to reach, absence of routine sexual health messaging, and the absence of readily available contact information for the owner."
I don't know what to make of self-appointed industry spokesman Adelson's pooh-poohing of scientific research. But I can attest to the fact that his assertions about Adam4Adam's supposed proactive stance are overblown. The route from homepage to registration to a gallery of live, nude, local available men is a straight path unobstructed by safe-sex messages. To find that information, you must either hunt for it or know where to look. In other words, Adam4Adam is not what you'd call a good corporate citizen.
For that matter, much-ballyhooed do-gooder Craigslist seems to take pains to argue that it warns cruisers about unsafe sex practices, while similarly designing its message to be as unobtrusive as possible. Even AOL, whose Time Warner parent would seem to have ample reason to burnish its corporate image by cooperating with public health officials, seems to have determined that being cruiser-friendly is more important than limiting the spread of disease.
This means health advocates like Klausner need enforcement tools. A place to start might be for state attorneys general to cooperate and to bring public nuisance cases where local officials can't.
Sex in bars has been wisely deemed in California as a type of free expression that the public has a health interest in regulating. We should also be able to make Adam4Adam at least warn users that when they engage in serial anonymous threesomes, they're playing with fire.