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March 31, 2008

Great New Article on Gay Men, Internet, and Barebacking
By Trevor

Gary Dowsett et al have just published a new piece in Sexualities about gay men's use of barebacking internet sites. Dowsett has long been doing fascinating work on gay men through the lens of masculinity studies, and this new piece is no exception. They begin by sketching out the need for internet studies and then by overviewing masculinity studies. I particularly like this bit on the trouble with trying to fit gay men in a domination/subordination model of gender power relations (which I just blogged about last weekend):

In gender theory, particularly mainstream forms of feminist theory, gay men are often wedged back inside patriarchy by virtue of their biological sex they are men first and foremost. In the hegemony/subordination formulation, gay men are usually lodged on the right-hand side of the virgule, at best trapped within a set of discursive practices that render them always trailing behind if still within patriarchy, or at worst marginalized, stigmatized, refused or locked out from much of the patriarchal dividend. Which is it to be: subordinated or embedded? Is the reference point for gay men qua men still and always non-homosexual men, and then only the minority atop the hegemonic masculinity totem pole? Might we misread such barebacking sexual pursuits as merely masculine and miss something vital about the sexual that could be useful for HIV prevention?

He then goes on to complicate how gay men are percieved in the Western world at this moment, which I've also just blogged about. He notes that, in most western cultures, gay men "are certainly at or near the bottom of the masculine pecking order; yet, gay mens position in the gender order is not uniformly that of subordination." He goes on to argue that, since the rise of gay rights movements in the 1970s, there has been a dramatic shift in gay men's position in western culture. The failure to acknowledge this shift, he says, is due in part to the current dialogues on Western sexuality that are largely limited to gay/straight and dominant/subordinate, which end up making for a pretty lousy discourse on sexuality (my words!). Dowsett ends this paragraph with two powerful questions:

1. "Is subordination all that gay men experience?"

2. "We can extend this question by asking whether this applies to gay men uniformly; questions of social class, race and ethnicity, age and generation, even disability, come into play.

Dowsett concludes that "The rendering of gay men as a subordinate class/caste in the gender order masks significant chasms, fractures, gaps or simply differences within the homosexual order of desire" -- which is fancy way of saying that to uniformly describe gay men as being always "done wrong to" in our gendered culture is to erase the vast differences that exist in our experiences today.

In their analysis of barebacking sites, they find several themes (they refer to the six websites analyzed in ALL CAPS psuedonyms):

1. Macho Body Talk: "No flinching faggots here; both homosexual sex and barebacking are charging forward as definitively manly and pussies flee in their wake! Elsewhere, site users are also enjoined to simply tell the world that you take it like a man. Here, the receptive mode in sex is manly; receiving semen (presumably anally as this is a barebacking site) is what real men do."

2. Sexual Ethics: "Mens sexual actions are popularly regarded as selfish or oafish. There certainly was a hint of this in NOWIMP: you just want to fuck and go home and no matter what you promised, never, never pull out of Dodge (meaning even if you promised to withdraw before ejaculating, do not). This was rarely evident in other sites. More often, there were issues of intimacy, reciprocity, responsibility and comportment that emerged from the site analysis.4 We term these collectively sexual ethics."

3. Race and Ethnicity: "Importantly for the purposes of this article, we note the identification of race/ethnicity as an important sexual marker in the sites, particularly, but not exclusively, among users of colour. This is not achieved just through the employment of racialized stereotypes Asians are bottoms and effeminate, African Americans are hung and studly although these clearly have effects (see Cheng, 1999). Handles at times (e.g. blondbutt, tempura and strokinrican) and profile statements (e.g. uninhibited black hole, into ethnic guys, latino, african-american, and asian, or I am open to all races and types of people . . . but a latin/Italian top would be ideal . . . and of course . . . strong Black brotha) revealed how racial markers add, either explicitly or implicitly, a sexual cadence that intensifies desires sought or offered. Reading these markers becomes a racial act in itself: a user is urged to consider what race/ethnicity might offer to a potential sexual act or encounter. Deep-seated cultural and historical forces are engaged here. How does a European American man using these sites to meet African American men read what is meant in an African American mans profile text horny big dick bottom looking to hook up with well hung tops? Masculinities also become racialized (Bleys, 1995) in the handles users utilize, e.g. one African-American user called himself 'thugbro, someone who love[s] to tear up some ass. The sexual cannot be separated from the racial/ethnic here; indeed, they are one and the same phenomenon."

Dowsett et al conclude with a call for more thoughtful research and theoretical work on the intersections between sexuality and gender -- and particularly research that looks more closely at intersections with other important factors such as race/ethnicity.

Curiously -- and I think rather brilliantly -- they discuss the ways in which the dialogues on these barebacking sites removes the penis as the focus of attention, and puts it all on the "desiring anus":

"One key feature is the decentring of the penis and the ascendancy of the desiring anus. Sexual objectification becomes a project of the self. There is playfulness, irony, dissidence and, at times, downright contradiction in the way language, bodies, desire and the self-as-object are deployed.

Dowsett has more hope for these discourses than I do. I have tended to link the "breeding" barebacking subcultures (porn, websites, etc) to a dominant heterosexist culture in ways that he is rejecting and resisting. I will certainly need to rethink some of my analysis in light of their arguments....

Unfortunately I can't repost the entire piece. Here's a link (if you have access via a library). The full citation is:

Dowsett, G. W., et al. (2008). 'Taking it like a man': Masculinity and barebacking online. Sexualities, 11 (1-2), 121-141.

PERMALINK | Posted at 11:58 AM | Post a Comment (2)

2 Comments

Hmm. Using this for a campaign about intensive sex partying (Michael Hurley and Garrett Prestage's concept) and it occurs to me to wonder: is there a deidentification problem if one quotes potentially searchable text from personals profiles?

Daniel Reeders | October 5, 2008 9:09 PM

It's not immediately clear how searchable personal profiles are. They're not indexed by search engines on most of these websites. Gay.com is the only notable exception I can think of, and I don't think they analyzed that website.

Trevor Hoppe | October 5, 2008 9:49 PM


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