ANALYSIS OF DATA II : BODY IMAGE, SELF-ESTEEM AND (UN)SAFE SEX

 
 

Subcategory: Communication and Negotiation in Sexual Encounters

 
From my analysis I found that both macro and micro conditions affect communication and negotiation in sexual encounters, that this communication and negotiation is fluid within any given situational context and varies from one context to another, and that the range of variability of communication and negotiation in sexual encounters was large. Whilst acknowledging that the range was large (from no discussion and negotiation to full discussion and negotiation in a sexual encounter and the transition from no discussion to discussion within the one encounter), the evidence suggests that for most respondents there was very little verbal communication and negotiation in sexual encounters. I found this to be especially true in sexual encounters which resulted in the occurrence of unsafe sex. Most of the communication and negotiation (if any) was of a non-verbal kind and I believe it is very difficult to negotiate safety from a position of silence. Yes, you can push an unclad cock away from your arse if you have the presence of mind, if you want to, if your conscience tells you too, but this action requires a conscious awareness within the respondent at the time.
Personally I believe some gay men just go for it, want to forget their troubles, their levels of self-esteem, their body image for example and just feel the passion, the heat of the moment, fucking with a body image they desire more than anything else, having no concern for their personal safety. The reality is that some gay men like the feeling of an unclad dick up their arse or fucking an arse without a condom and have just got to have it that way, in full knowledge of the possible consequences of their actions. Known as 'barebacking',1 this phenomenon is a reality of contemporary male2male sex.

In respondent Adam's case most incidences of unsafe sex occur through non-verbal communication, i.e., through body positioning and body language. He likes fucking without a condom so he would be more not less predisposed towards undertaking such sexual activity. But whether all of his partners are as aware of the issues, all the options open to them or are as skilled in the art of sexual communication is debatable. David for example, feels he lost control of a sexual encounter where unsafe sex took place because of his inexperience in communication and fucking:
"He was the hottest guy David had ever fucked and he didn't want to pass up the opportunity. If he did get something he deserved it because he was fucking this without a condom, even if it was HIV. Lust has a lot to answer for. One of the most responsive bodies David has ever fucked even today. Lost control of the situation through inexperience in the art of communication in sexual encounters and lack of experience in fucking - there was an awareness that David probably wouldn't get someone ever like this again. He thought that so why not enjoy it!!"2

The issue of unsafe sex was a non-verbal communication, with no joint negotiation of safety, for Sam ("There was no negotiation, it just happened ... A condom didn't matter"), Ben ("No communication about having unsafe sex - it just happened ... Nothing was spoken with these guys about having unsafe sex") and Stuart ("Fell in love on first meeting him and would do anything to have him. All non-verbal, through body positioning, etc., ... he didn't say anything"). Although there was no joint negotiation of safety in these cases between the individuals concerned I believe there is a form of negotiation within the individual respondent regarding what they will allow to happen in a sexual encounter prior to or during the course of each encounter. Respondent Gavin's case was interesting because Gavin didn't want to use condoms even before the issue was discussed because it happened anyway, and when it was discussed towards the end of the weekend, when his partner told him he was HIV+, Gavin still didn't want to use condoms.
"33, the beach, Gavin picked him up, very strong muscled type, shaved head, huge bulge, tattoos, well proportioned, intelligent, dominant personality, he was about 40. Came close to one of his body image ideals. Went to his flat - comfortable, music, drinks, chat, chemistry, respect - thewhole weekend, fabulous time and the end of it didn't want to know Gavin. Lots of foreplay, shaved Gavin's body, moving the energies, touch, holding - attained an ecstatic state. No talk about condoms - until the last day that is. Fucked Gavin three times over the weekend, all without a condom. The first time he fucked him without a condom - more sensuous and controlled passion in which they both entered into this Tantric moving of the energies, not as a form of possession but as an interaction of spirits. He told Gavin that he was HIV+, and didn't like using condoms. He couldn't reconcile the fact that Gavin did not want to use condoms, even though he didn't either, when Gavin was HIV-. So even though condom use was not discussed until the last day it would appear that Gavin mentally made the decision not to use condoms much earlier in the weekend prior to the guy telling him his HIV status.
The guy could cope with having anonymous unprotected anal sex at beats but not when he knew who the person was. He was laying the onus on Gavin to bring up the use of condoms. Gavin was trying to reach a connected state, a euphoric state but in desiring to attain this state through the body and intimacy of his partner he completely forgets the about the health and protection of his own self and body.
So Gavin has not been fucked that often but when he has it has been more unsafe than safe. If there is no talk about condoms (no negotiation) then it proceeds until it is finished. Puzzled him this attitude - but he has found he is usually in a euphoric state of mind (good self-esteem on no drugs), but feeling very good - the other guy has flirted with him in a certain way to get him aroused, and then he is very attracted both to his physical image and his inner personality and smell/ sweat. So it is a subconscious decision to have unsafe sex - the mind is switched off to all warnings. Usually if the man opens his mouth and switches on Gavin's conscience then safe sex will occur."
3

His partner was silently laying the onus on Gavin to bring up condom use, and Gavin was laying the onus back on him because, as he says, if nobody pricks his conscience about condoms then unsafe sex proceeds until it has finished. Such a lack of communication and negotiation may be a retreat from an acknowledgement of responsibility, of care for yourself and your partner, and also perhaps a fear of rejection by him as well. The evidence seems to indicate that a lack of communication based on the belief that the partner is going to broach the issue of condom use may be quite prevalent in male2male sex within the gay community. A larger quantitative survey would have to be undertaken to substantiate this observation.

Another issue surrounding communication and negotiation in sexual encounters is that of the possible disclosure of HIV status. Among respondents who were HIV+, the range of variability in the communication of HIV status to other men in situational contexts ranged from full disclosure to non-disclosure and this varied from one situational context to anther and even varied within the same sexual encounter. Some respondents said they always disclosed their HIV status. Other respondents siad they only disclosed their status under specific circumstances and conditions, and varied from encounter to encounter.
From the analysis of data
I propose that levels of communication and disclosure of HIV status are fluid for each different situational context, depending on micro and macro conditions, such as relationship to partner, connection, passion, intimacy, trust, desire, environment, levels of self-esteem, body image, control, etc., ... Fear of disclosure of HIV status is understandable due to the fear of possible rejection by the prospective partner, the perceived health risks other men might associate with a person who carries the HIV virus, and the discrimination and stigmatisation that many HIV+ people face from others. This fear of stigmatisation can be seen in an extract from Richard's interview below,
"After Richard knew he was HIV+ this guy picked him up at a sauna, got him into a room and said "Your not HIV+ are you?" in a really put down tone - your not one of them. Richard, too frightened to say anything other than say no - then this guy, who had a great body, really, really nice, proceeded to fuck Richard up the arse and blew up there. Half way through it after feeling frightened Richard emotions turned into anger and he thought fuck you and didn't care anymore if the guy got HIV. Richard didn't enjoy it at all and felt like he as being used and felt he couldn't tell any one because it would have been put back on him for not telling the guy. This guy really wanted to possess Richard and kept saying "can you feel my big cock deep in your arse - It feels good without a condom."4

 

The range of variability of communication and negotiation skills in sexual encounters is large, being fluid from person to person, one situational context to another, and fluid even within one situational context. The range is dependent on the intersection and interaction of both macro conditions and micro conditions that occur within specific contexts. Macro conditions might include such things as life experiences, masculinity, social context, environment, comfort, levels of generalised self-esteem, and trust, for example. Micro conditions might include such things as availability of sex with partner who has body image ideal, levels of communication skill including non-verbal communication, approval of others, fear of rejection, levels of local self-esteem, HIV status, willingness of partner to have unsafe sex. Communication and negotiation in a sexual encounters is reliant on the negotiation of power that takes place between the participants in that encounter. As Damien Ridge has noted,
"There are a variety of 'bases' of power - that is, attributes of men which assist them to fulfil their own needs and desires, even against the will of their partner. Such power bases include ethnicity, experience, age, looks, social and sexual skills, and economic resources ... power bases, rather than being fixed in stone, are in flux as social interactions unfold and circumstances change. That is, power is 'negotiated' between men in sexual and social interactions. 'Negotiating power', which is frequently subtle and non-verbal, is a highly complex activity, dependent on the specific actors, interactions and their meanings, settings and wider social contexts."5 (My bold).
From the evidence presented in the data I believe that the absence/presence and level of communication and negotiations skills, and the types of communication and negotiation (if present) in sexual encounters is a major factor that influences the occurrence of (un)safe sexual practices in male2male sex.

 

 

Subcategory: Assessment of Risk

 
From my analysis of the interview data I found that most respondents made an assessment of risk (See footnote 6 for a definition of risk) when engaging in sexual activity. I believe that an assessment of risk for many respondents was an unspoken part of the (sub)conscious decision (that is, a decision made by both the conscious and the subconscious) to undertake certain activities while having sex. As in the definition of what respondents thought was safe or unsafe in sex the assessment of risk varied from person to person, from context to context and under different macro and micro conditions. I believe an assessment of risk is of primary importance in the occurrence of (un)safe sexual activity and can be dependent on such things as perceived HIV status based on a person's appearance, the relationship with the person involved, body image, context, environment, passion, desire, drugs, the absence/presence of care and responsibility of the self, to name but a few. As John McLeod and Phil Nott have observed,
"Many men made quite detailed assessments of the risks they were taking and they made a judgement of whether the risk was reasonable given the context and the information they had."7

A good example of this personal assessment of risk that gay men make based on the context and information available to them can be seen in the case of respondent Anthony's ex-lover:
"One of Anthony ex-lovers [who knew he was HIV+] would fuck him without a condom and have a piss straight away afterwards which he felt was an acceptable risk to himself in regards to the contraction of HIV virus. It was his decision not Anthony's. He liked the feeling, he wanted to do it with Anthony, he desired his body. He thought it was safe in his eyes, because of all the information that he had in front of him at the time."8

Of course, this judgement can only be based on the context and information that is presented and available to them at the time of that assessment, and a gay man may not be aware or informed of all the risks, hidden or otherwise, that face him in a sexual encounter. For example, as we have seen in the section on communication and negotiation skills above, disclosure of HIV status by prospective sexual partners is not always probable, possible or even taken any notice of if it is made known to the partner, and this knowledge or lack of it will or will not impact on an assessment of risk depending on the persons and contexts involved.
When having sex with a body image ideal some respondents, such as Adam, made a conscious logical assessment of risk that would allow unsafe sex to proceed based on the information available to them. Other respondents, such as Stuart, "put danger aside and took a risk, "even though their conscience told them it was wrong." Another respondent, Marcus, said he, "Felt like risking it because it was worth the risk. Worth feeling that risk," based on his desire for his partner and his body image. Respondent Chris said of one encounter in a car that, "The guy really wanted to be fucked at any cost - he wasn't concerned about the consequences. Chris was tempted, but was too scared to go through with the act (an assessment of risk). Chris was attracted to him but he didn't have Chris' ideal body." Chris went on to say that if the guy would have had a body closer to his body image ideal, "Chris thinks he would have fucked him without a condom (because of his body image) and not worried at the time about the consequences."9

In other words Chris made an assessment of risk (even though he does not name it as such) of what he was prepared to do in sex, based of his level of desire for his partner's body image and fear of infection in the first instance. In the second instance Chris thinks that his assessment of risk would have changed because his level of desire for his partner's body image had increased because his partner's body image was closer to Chris's ideal, so much so that it overrode his concerns about the consequences of his actions. This is a good example of an assessment of risk changing from context to context, from partner to partner due to changing levels of desire for a partner's body image and how close that image approximates a respondents ideal.

 

The range of variability of assessment of risk among the respondents was large. Some of the respondents would never have unsafe sex because of the risks involved based on such conditions such as personal knowledge of friends and lovers who had contracted and died from the HIV/AIDS virus, safe sex campaigns, and responsibility and care for the self. Other respondents made an assessment of risk based on the information placed before them and their levels of desire for their prospective partner which could include such things as personality, intimacy, connection, body image, dick size, etc., ... which I believe may well negate any responsibility, care and concern that they have for their own health and well being. Most respondents were aware of the risks involved in undertaking unsafe sex and I believe that the decision to proceed with unsafe sex was based on a (sub)conscious assessment of those risks in relation to the person they were about to have sex with.
As Strauss and Corbin ask, "What if some unaware person breaks the interactional rules or taboos?"10 I would ask what happens if some aware person breaks the taboos of unsafe sex which is a more likely scenario for men in contemporary gay society, for I believe most gay men are aware of the risks involved in unsafe sexual activity and make a (sub)conscious assessment of risk based on that knowledge.
According to Ron Gold and Michael Skinner, thinking during sex (i.e., 'on-line' thinking) allows the taboo11 of unsafe sex to be circumvented through 'motivated reasoning' (which I believe to be the bypassing of an assessment of risk or an assessment of risk that is denied) which allows unsafe sex to proceed.12 As I have argued elsewhere (contrary to what Gold and Skinner say that AIDS-related thinking during sex may appreciably differ from everyday thinking), I believe that the issue of 'motivated reasoning' (thinking that allows unsafe sex to proceed) during 'on-line' thinking is closely connected to and influenced by thought processes that occur in everyday (ie., 'off-line') thinking, the two lines acting in a fluid, symbiotic relationship through powerful semiotic languages. I further believe that both lines of thinking influence and reinforce each other and that both lines of thinking individually and collectively affect the assessment of risk by gay men in contemporary society. This hypothesis has far reaching implications in respect to the decision making process which takes place that enables gay men to have unsafe sex, for I believe that the (sub)conscious decision to have unsafe sex and the (sub)conscious assessment of risk upon which that decision is based (made via off-line/on-line thinking and 'motivated reasoning') is not an irrational decision (even though it may be an emotional and impulsive one), but a logical extension of desires, wants and needs contained within a persons identity.

 

Footnotes

1. I came across this site recently. I think the text of the site highlights some of the reasons why barebacking is a growing trend amongst gay men. Jeff does not care that it is unsafe for himself or others - he just wants to feel his sexual pleasure as the most important pleasure in his life and world.

"What's the deal with fucking without a safe. Shit man its heaven ... like ... how can you make contact through a rubber ... feel the man skin without barriers ... slide unrestricted. A man's hole is a treasure chest and a cock is the key. Once you slide in its a contact undeserving of borders or restrictions. I love the feel of a mans ass hole ... tight ... moist ... warm ... and willing to take my whole cock. I love a cock inside me ... this masculine mass just thrusting for me. Sliding in and out ... oozing with precum and getting harder with each thrust.

When a guy blows his load up my ass its like a gift ... and I like to give it back. Love to blow my load up a nice warm hole. The final thrusts ... that last shot of my hot juice ... its a gift and I love to give it. Grab a guy by his hair and fuck him bareback doggy style ... in and out. Shit, nothing like it in this world!

Hey boyz ... I am a young dude (25) and I am starting this new site dedicated to what I love ... fucking and getting fucked bareback. I know there are some of you out there that will tell me that I am stupid and being unsafe ... fine ... fuck off and go to another site. BUT I know there are a lot of guys that share my passion ... this site is dedicated to you!"

Jeff. BAREBACK. NET (gay barebacking). Located at: http://homepages.gayweb.com/barebacknet/index.html. Internet. Sighted by Marcus on 19/11/1999.

2. Interview with David, 38, 5'8", 100kg, Maltese/Scots, working class. Melbourne. 01/12/1997.

3. Interview with Gavin, 34, 6', 70kg, white, middle-class. Melbourne. 03/11/1997

4. Interview with Richard, 27, 5'5", 61kg, white, retail, lower/middle-class. Melbourne. 16/10/1997.

5. Ridge, Damien. "Queer Connections: Community, 'the Scene' and an Epidemic," in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. June 1996, pp.20-21.

6. "Risk [is] a term which only comes into being in the modern period (* The word "risk" seems to have found its way into English in the seventeenth century and probably comes from a Spanish nautical term meaning to run into danger or to go against a rock). The notion originated with the understanding that unanticipated results may be consequence of our own activities or decisions, rather than expressing hidden meanings of nature or ineffable intentions of the Deity. "Risk" largely replaces what was previously thought of as fortuna (fortune or fate) and becomes separated from cosmologies."

Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, pp.30-31.

7. McLeod, John and Nott, Phil. A Place to Belong. Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations. Sydney: AFAO, 1994, p.23.

8. Interview with Anthony, 32, 5'10", 69kg, Australian, no-class. Melbourne. 23/09/1998.

9. Interview with Chris, 29, 170cm, 78kg, South American, engineer, middle-class. Melbourne. 09/10/1997.

10. Strauss, Anselm and Corbin, Juliet. Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1998, pp.98-99.

11. "Unless the taboo is observed with fear it lacks the counterpoise of desire which gives it its deepest significance ... in the act of violating it [the taboo] we feel the anguish of mind without which the taboo could not exist: that is the experience of sin. That experience leads to the completed transgression, the successful transgression which, in maintaining the prohibition, maintains it in order to benefit by it."

Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company, 1962, p.37-39.

Author: In other words by maintaining the prohibition of unsafe sex the desire is there to violate it. If the taboo wasn't there no one would have the need or desire to violate it - what would be the point? By maintaining the taboo there is anguish when we successfully transgress it.

12. "AIDS-related thought processes which are present during actual sexual encounters (the types of thinking that occur 'on-line') may differ appreciably from those that are present in the cold light of day (those which occur 'off-line')" through the application of 'motivated reasoning', that is, reasoning that is specifically designed to enable unsafe sex to proceed."

See Gold, Ron and Skinner, Michael. "Judging a book by its cover: gay men's use of perceptible characteristics to infer antibody status," in International Journal of STD & AIDS. 7. 1996, pp.41-42.