INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY

 
This research project has sought to determine if the ‘ideal’ of the muscular mesomorphic body image affects levels of self-esteem in gay men in order to understand whether body image desire and levels of self-esteem affect the decision by some gay men to participate in unsafe sexual activity.

The outcome of this research project has been the production of an artistic statement (an interactive CD ROM and now a website adaptation that includes these abridged Thesis notes and ten new safe sex posters) based on the collection of empirical data which reveals the possible contribution of self-esteem and body image desire on some gay men to participate in unsafe sexual activity. This website can be used as a counselling and peer education tool by Gay Men’s Health Services and public health organisations throughout Australia, and as a general research and resource tool by other interested people. The website forms part of my doctoral research project undertaken at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
The artistic construction and contribution of the CD ROM and website is based on my photographic research into the history of the muscular male body both in Australia and overseas, the collection and analysis of empirical data from 31 in-depth interviews with gay men that took place in Melbourne, Australia over the period 02/08/1997 to 23/09/1998, and my bibliographic and theoretical research. The respondents that took part in the interviews were gathered from gay venues including sex venues, editorials in local gay newspapers, word of mouth through friends, and anyone who was interested in telling their story. The respondents were of various ages, body types, ethnicities, levels of self-eteem, class, sexual experience, and different sexual proclivities. The artistic content of the CD ROM and website illuminates the empirical data, evidencing the feelings and desires, the aesthetic and emotional responses and tendencies that were evoked by this data, the artistic content working in conjunction with the text of the CD ROM. The text covers a broad range of concerns, from the desire for intimacy and connection in gay men to the taboo of condom free anal sex, from the history of muscular male body images to their affect on the self-esteem of gay men.

While this research project has no scientific or sociological basis in objective fact, I firmly believe that the research project has established that physical appearance (body image) does affect self-esteem in gay men, and that levels of self-esteem (both high and low) are equally likely to affect what gay men will do to have sex with a man who possesses their body image ‘ideal’, an image which is usually constructed on the signifier of the muscular mesomorphic body as the epitome of that ‘ideal’ within a commodity society. 14 respondents to the interview questions stated that they had unsafe sex with a body image ‘ideal’ (predominantly the muscular mesomorphic body type), some with a conscience about their actions, some with no care or concern for their own safety and the possible consequences of their actions. 3 respondents said they had been tempted to have unsafe sex with a body image ‘ideal’ but didn’t carry through with it. 2 respondents reported contracting the HIV virus after having unsafe sex with a man who fitted their body image ‘ideal’. Whilst noting that the interviews do not provide a large quantitative scientific study with a statistical analysis I nevertheless believe that the empirical data collected from these interviews is no less valuable an insight into the sexual phenomenology of gay men, establishing how a particular group of gay men experience their sexual needs and feelings.

Desire for their body image ‘ideal’ was initially predicated upon a visual desire, this visual desire then supplemented by numerous other histories, memories, categories, conditions, tendencies, and behaviours that were present in different situational contexts that influenced the actions/interactions that occurred depending on the particular relationship of the participants in the sexual encounter. My findings suggest that these categories, conditions, tendencies, and behaviours act orthogonally to each other. These categories are mostly focused on the attainment, possession of, trust in, and revealing intimacy with, the idealised body image, that of the muscular mesomorphic body. Through a combination of visual desire and the orthogonality of these categories which takes place within a sexual encounter the muscular mesomorph body image becomes the fulcrum that links self-esteem and possible unsafe sexual practices in gay men. Critical to understanding the outcomes of this research project is a definition of the term "orthogonality", one which can be read in the next section of the Thesis notes.

In the conclusion to the research project I suggest that in contemporary gay society (where a gay man’s identity, self-esteem, sexual performance and place in a hierarchical ‘order of desirability’ is constantly called into question), the muscular mesomorphic body has become the last stable image in which gay men can believe, a psychological buffer against the insecurities, vicissitudes and isolations of everyday life. It would appear likely that some gay men are ‘possessed through desire’ and desire to possess the muscular mesomorphic body as signifier of an ‘ideal’, an ideal formulated as a stereotypical construction, the body as phallic fetish, a powerful edifice a(r)moured against the wonderfully profligate nature of an unstable lived reality.