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

 
 

Subcategory: Intimacy, Connection and Trust in Unsafe Sex

 
From my analysis of the interview data I found that the range of variability of the three interconnected conditions was small. In numerous situational contexts the (sub)conscious decision to have unsafe sex by the respondents was influenced by the presence of, and interaction with, various macro and micro conditions, which included the need for intimacy1 and connection with the partner and the levels of trust in the partner. I found that nearly all respondents who decided to have unsafe sex in a particular sexual encounter either desired a close emotional intimacy and connection with their partner, trusted them implicitly or both. Intimacy and connection with a partner influenced the trust engendered in that partner, and trust in that partner influenced a desire for intimacy and connection with them. I believe that both processes influence the occurrence of unsafe sexual activity in gay men. Respondent Darien2 when having sex with a man that fitted his body image ideal emphasised that he wanted,

"To be as close as possible to this particular person - he knows they could be HIV+ but this doesn't matter to him - he wants to be part of them emotionally, as physically and emotionally as close as possible, and by having unprotected anal sex this he feels this connection and intimacy. Casual sexual pickups. This all links back to his childhood and the need for emotional support and intimacy ..."

Was there a need for it too happen?

"Obviously, from an emotional point of view. At the particular time Darien didn't care about the consequences - want to be as close to this person as possible - maybe that's the justification!!""

Here Darien feels he attains connection and intimacy with his partner by having unprotected anal sex. Being "as physically and emotionally as close as possible" to that person provides the emotional support and intimacy that he needed in childhood and still wants today. The macro condition of the history and historicity of his life impacts upon the 'now' of his lived reality, his need for emotional support in the past evidenced in his interactions in the present through his desire to be emotionally part of this body image ideal.
Respondent Gavin was another man whose history and historicity heavily influences his desire for physical intimacy in the present. A lack of affection and love at home in his childhood, as well as a dead twin brother, leads him in search of love and affection in other men now he has grown up. Gavin participates in unsafe sexual activity with partner's that fit his body image ideal and with whom he has a passionate desire to be with, because through this interaction he may fulfil that sense of intimacy and connection that he is seeking.
Another respondent who trusted his partner because of his connection to and intimacy with them was respondent Richard.3

"So they fucked unsafely because the guy fitted Richard's ideal exactly in nearly every respect. Trust - passion, lust, desire, security, love - Richard found what he had been missing in his life all in one package. Because he was already a friend he was familiar and they got on well. Richard's self-esteem was awful before it happened - the worst he had ever been about everything including body image and where his life as going. He felt dirty, unworthy of the love he as feeling or being given on this occasion. Such a need to have a positive experience after all the shit he had been going through that considerations for his own safety and life did not come into play. It was a conscious and subconscious decision and once it happened Richard didn't really care. The physicality of his body was soft and warmand close - what Richard had been waiting for all those years - also strong, solid and masculine."

Richard's overall and local self-esteem (about his body image) was so low before this experience that when a partner can along that fitted his needs all in one package, including the strength (strong, solid, masculine) and intimacy (soft, warm, close) that Richard desired, he trusted him and gave himself to his partner completely. As many respondents who had unsafe sex because of desire for the partner's body image and personality have noted, they wanted to be as close as possible to their partner and they attained this close connection by having unsafe sex. I believe that part of this intimacy and connection, this revealing of themselves through trust in another, is a desire to be wanted for who they are. Another part of this need for intimacy and connection is, I believe, both a desire to be possessed and to possess the partner, to feel a union with that partner. We can see this desire for possession in the case of respondent Ben.4

"Yes, it has occurred and has been a combination of the time, place, drugs, person and the feelings and emotions involved ... The partners fitted his body image ideal or close to it and he desired them. No communication about having unsafe sex - it just happened. In the times that he has fucked unsafely it was a question of not wanting to have unsafe sex - it just happened. Ben wanted to be a part of them by fucking them - possession and mutual admiration. Wanted to feel a union (with or without a condom). A lot of its drugs and loosing control of the situation - desiring to be inside this other body."

As Douglas Sadownick has observed, "There is a paradox to desire: one loves what one lacks and does not yet possess."5 Through intimacy and connection I believe that some of the respondents seek to be possessed and to possess the object of their desire, the muscular mesomorphic body and personality of their partner which they lack, by having unsafe sex. (They may indeed have a muscular mesomorphic body themselves but it is not the body of their partner, for every-body is not precisely identical even though they may be similar). I believe this is the state of 'possession through desire' which is linked to the transfer of our discontinuous being (our death) onto the object of our possession.

 

The range of variability of the interconnected conditions of intimacy, connection and trust among the respondents who had unsafe sex was small. Most respondents, because of their desire for body image ideals and the personality of the partner, sought a close emotional intimacy and connection with their partners by having unsafe sex with them. Some of the respondents trusted that their partners were not HIV+ (and some knew that their partners were HIV+), and then trusted to luck that if their partners were HIV+ they themselves would not catch the virus. Most respondents knew of the possible consequences of their actions but had little care and consideration for their own safety, desiring as close a connection with their partners as possible. With other respondents it was the other way around; the respondents loved and trusted their partners implicitly which influenced their desire for a close intimacy and connection with them by having unsafe sex. I believe that gay men want to be desired for themselves, that they desire to be held and loved, to be intimate and have connection with a partner. Yet they fear that in this intimacy, in the revealing of themselves, they will be rejected for who they are by themselves and others. As Michelangelo Signorile has noted,

"For many gay men, one underlying factor that is exploited by the Cult of Masculinity is a desire for and yet a fear of intimacy and bonding. As gay men, we often face rejection as children and later as teenagers. We spend a lot of out lives trying to correct the past, trying to feel valuable ..."6

When the opportunity presents itself to a gay man to be intimate with another man who fits his ideal in many respects (including his body image), he may decide to trust this other person without really knowing him because he wants to affirm his desires and his value by possessing his partner and being possessed by his partner himself through unsafe sex. There are complex issues involved here and I would like to look at some of them in greater detail.

 

INTIMACY

Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher have noted that,

"Intimate relationships have a number of characteristics:
Cognitive Aspect.
Intimates are willing to reveal themselves to one another. They disclose information about themselves and listen to their partners' confidences. Research supports the contention that people are willing to reveal far more about themselves in intimate relationships than in casual ones. In casual encounters, most people reveal only the sketchiest, most stereotyped information about themselves.
Emotional Aspects.
Intimates care about one another deeply ... It is in intimate relationships that we feel most intensely. True, we generally feel more intense love for intimates than for anyone else; yet, because intimates care so much about one another, they have the power to elicit intense pain as well. The dark side of love is jealousy, loneliness, depression, and anger ... Basic to all intimate relationships, however, is trust.
Behavioural Aspect.
Intimates are comfortable in close physical proximity. They gaze at one another ..."
7

I do agree with Hatfield and Sprecher that intimate relationships are based on trust (a subject I will look at in greater detail below), but I do not believe that a casual sexual encounter can not be as intimate as a longer relationship and from the data of the respondents I believe that trust is certainly not any less in evidence in casual encounters in male2male sex than it is in supposedly more intimate relationships. Taken from the evidence of the respondents data I propose that a man in a casual male2male sexual encounter may reveal himself, may be as intimate with his partner, may perhaps trust his partner even more (because he has unsafe sex immediately with his partner without knowing that much about them or their sexual habits), than if he is in a supposedly more intimate longer term relationship. In the above quotation Hatfield and Sprecher state that, "In casual encounters, most people reveal only the sketchiest, most stereotyped information about themselves," but I believe this statement is an oversimplification of the actual reality of the situation. This supposition is based on an assumption of what kind of information is being revealed by people in casual encounters. People do reveal themselves most intimately in casual encounters in a variety of non stereotypical ways. Not the usual stereotypical things such as name, family, identity, job, etc., ... but the revealing of information that requires an analysis of underlying causes for its explanation. If one looks at the occurrence of unsafe sex among the respondents the intimacy prevalent in these encounters reveals the respondents need to be wanted, their desire for their partner's personality and body image, their desire to possess their partner, their levels of self-esteem, their desire to be emotionally connected to their partner, and their desire to pleasure their partner and themselves, for example. This exposure of themselves through unsafe sex in male2male sexual encounters reveals far more about themselves than Hatfield and Sprecher would seem to think. I believe that an acknowledgement of what is being revealed in a casual encounter depends on who is looking, what they are looking for, and an awareness and sensitivity towards what is being revealed.

Hatfield and Sprecher go on to list what they believe are some of the dangers of intimacy:

"a. The Fear of Exposure.
In deeply intimate relationships, people disclose far more about themselves than in casual encounters. One reason, then, all of us are afraid of intimacy is that those we care most about are bound to discover all that is wrong with us ...
b. The Fear of Abandonment.
A second reason people fear exposure is because they think if others get to know them too well, the others will abandon them ...
c. The Fear of Angry Attacks.
"Anything they say will be used against them."
d. The Fear of Loss of Control.
Men and women are sometimes afraid to risk becoming intimate for yet another reason - they fear losing control. Some theorists have speculated that men may be particularly afraid of intimacy and the loss of control it brings (Hatfield, Elaine. "What Do Women and Men Want From Love and Sex?" in Allgeier, E. and McCormick, N. Gender Roles and Sexual Behaviour. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing, 1982). Traditionally, men are supposed to be in control - of themselves, of other people, and of the situation. The ideal man carefully controls his thoughts, is logical, objective, and unemotional. He hides his feelings, of if he does express any feelings, he carefully telescopes the complex array of human emotions into a single powerful emotion: anger. A "real man" is even supposed to dominate nature.
e. The Fear of One's Own Destructive Impulses.
Many clients keep a tight lid on their emotions. They fear that if they ever got in touch with what they are feeling, they would begin to cry - or kill.
f. The Fear of Losing One's Individuality or of Being Engulfed."
8

As noted in the earlier subcategory 'Levels of Control in Unsafe Sexual Encounters', the paradox of intimacy is that gay men both desire intimacy and fear the loss of control that it may bring at one and the same time through loosing control of their emotions. Through emotional intimacy gay men may begin to feel themselves and their partners and attain a level of connection that is otherwise lacking in everyday life but with this intimacy comes the fear of loosing control of the self, of others, and of situational contexts such as sexual encounters. Being sexually aroused and liberated from normal states of (emotional) existence has an affect on the boundaries of the body and of the cognitive aspects of a persons reasoning which may lead to a loss of control during a sexual encounter. Experiencing an emotional connection becomes a validation of their lives, for however brief a moment, and this can lead to a loss of self control and a loss of rational thought which, when (sub)consciously acted upon, may lead to the incidence of unsafe sex.

 

STRONG EMOTIONS

"Twentieth-century peoples have erected so many psychological barriers against strong emotion, and have invested those defences with so much energy derived from forbidden impulse, that they can no longer remember what it feels like to be inundated with desire. They tend, rather, to be consumed with rage, which derives from defences against desire and gives rise in turn to new defences against rage itself. Outwardly bland, submissive, and sociable, they seethe with an inner anger for which a dense, overpopulated, bureaucratic society can devise few outlets."9

As Christopher Lasch observes in the above quotation, contemporary people have erected many psychological barriers against strong emotion which I believe are (in)formed by individual and cultural discourses and power structures. One such forbidden impulse that provides an outlet for strong emotion is sexual desire in the form of lust for another person or 'possession by desire'. Experiencing an emotional connection, being inundated with desire breaches the defences erected against that very desire. Being intimately connected to another man, perhaps through the violence of death present in the sexual orgasm can be a liberating and transcendent experience for many gay men, allowing them to break free of normal patterns of behaviour and attain other states of being. Because of the inherent danger of the violence of physical death that may eventuate from such activity the desire to transgress the taboo of unsafe sex is even more powerful than just the prohibition against the rupturing violence of the orgasm in normal sex because it is a doubly forbidden impulse. As Georges Bataille has said,

"Only the actual experience of states of normal sexual activity and the clash between them and socially approved conduct allows us to recognise that this activity has its inhuman side. The organs' plethora induces reactions alien to the normal run of human behaviour. A rush of blood upsets the balance on which life is based. A madness suddenly takes possession of a person."10

In the case of the gay man the rush of blood is to his penis. Possessed by desire, possessed by his penis the gay man make decisions which he would not normally make in the normal run of human behaviour, such as the decision to have unsafe sex. Bataille continues,

"The urge is first of all a natural one but it cannot be given free rein without barriers being torn down ... Demolished barriers are not the same as death but just as the violence of death overturns - irrevocably - the structure of life so temporarily and partially does sexual violence ... Inevitably linked with the moment of climax there is a minor rupture suggestive of death; and conversely the idea of death may play a part in setting sensuality in motion. This mostly adds up to a sense of transgression dangerous to general stability and the conservation of life, and without it the instincts could not run their course unhindered."11

In other words, people participating in unsafe sexual activities are doubly defying and transgressing the general taboo against the instability of the violence of sex; firstly, by having a sexual orgasm which is linked to the minor rupture of death; and secondly, by having sex 'unsafely', yielding to an unstable physical urge that may eventually lead to actual physical, not metaphorical, death. As Bataille sees it, "A madness suddenly takes possession of a person." I believe that in gay male sex (especially where it takes place under conditions and environments conducive to instability, transgression, and casual intimacy such as beats, saunas, dark rooms, and on drugs), provision against strong emotion such as lust and desire, and energy derived from the forbidden impulse to have unsafe sex, may lead gay men into liberating but possibly dangerous situations.

 

POSSESSION

In our isolation we are separate discontinuous beings. In other words we all die. Through the act of possession of another person we may seek the transference of our death, our separateness onto another. This possession may be accomplished by gay men opening themselves up to their partners through sex and doubly through the act of unsafe sex. In exposing themselves to the double forbidden impulse of unsafe sex gay men may open themselves up to be possessed by their partners but, conversely, to possess their partners themselves in order to satisfy their own desires for warmth, intimacy, and comfort. By the taking in (active) or enclosure (passive) of their partner through an emotional connection gay men may seek to possess their partner as an object of desire in order to transfer their own death metaphorically onto him, renounce their own separateness, their fear of rejection, and affirm a validation for however small a time, of their own lives. Georges Bataille notes that,

"If we possess [desires] object we shall seem to achieve our desire without dying. Not only do we renounce death, but also we let our desire, really the desire to die, lay hold of its object and we keep it while we live on. We enrich our life instead of loosing it."12

The validation of their lives through the possession of another via the revelation of intimacy in (un)safe sex is, however, not permanent because, in time, the object of our desire loses its potency. This perma-nancy ('nancy' being a word for an effeminate or homosexual boy or man) of possession may not present in casual sexual encounters because of their short time frame and the possible subsequent loss of the possessed object after the sexual intercourse is over. This may cause some gay men to undertake compulsive sexual behaviour because of the need to experience this connection over and over again, constantly seeking out the next 'hit' of intimacy, validation of their life and worth, and a transference of the discontinuous nature of their being onto another.

 

TRUST

Some of the respondents expressed implicit trust in their partners when they engaged in unsafe sexual activity. Trust may be defined as the, "Confidence in or reliance on some quality or attribute of a person or thing, or the truth of a statement."13 Anthony Giddens sees it as, "A form of "faith," in which the confidence vested in probable outcomes expresses a commitment to something rather than just a cognitive understanding."14
Speaking of the existence of trust George Simmel notes that when we "believe in" someone or some principle, "It expresses the feeling that there exists between our idea of a being and the being itself a definite connection and unity ..."15

Through an expression of trust in his partner I believe a gay man affirms a connection and unity between the idea of a being and the being itself. I believe that the trust gay men place in a partner who possesses an 'ideal' body image and personality may be an important expression of gay men's desire to experience intimacy with that man through safe or unsafe sex. As respondent Ben said earlier he, "Wanted to be a part of them by fucking them - possession and mutual admiration. Wanted to feel a union (with or without a condom). A lot of its drugs and loosing control of the situation - desiring to be inside this other body."

His idea of a fantasy ideal can be possessed in reality by trusting his partner in the revealing intimacy, the compaction of the gap between the idea of a being and the being itself through the connection and unity that is held in the promise of (un)safe sex. Yet here in this trust in a partner lies the paradox of the decision to have unsafe sex because of that trust. As Niklas Luhmann has observed, "Trust presupposes awareness of circumstances of risk, whereas confidence does not."16 Commenting on Luhmann's work in the areas of trust and confidence Anthony Giddens has said that,

"Where trust is involved, in Luhmann's view, alternatives are consciously borne in mind by the individual in deciding to follow a particular course of action ... Thus a person who does not consider alternatives is in a situation of confidence, whereas someone who does recognise those alternatives and tries to counter the risks thus acknowledged, engages in trust. In a situation of confidence, a person reacts to disappointment by blaming others; in circumstances of trust she or he must partly shoulder the blame and may regret having placed trust in someone or something."17

The paradox of placing trust, having faith in someone and then having unsafe sexual activity with them is that gay men are usually fully aware of the risks involved in such activity, recognising that there are alternatives to that activity, but doing nothing to try and counter the risks thus acknowledged. In fact I would go so far as to say that some respondents probably court the risks that are (sub)consciously acknowledged without care or concern for their own safety and well being because of their desire for body image, personality and the trust they place in their partner. As Giddens has said, people must partly shoulder the blame if things go wrong having placed trust in someone or something, especially if they are aware of possible alternatives to specific courses of action (unsafe sex) that would limit the likelihood of certain outcomes (HIV infection). These ideas lead us into the next subcategory which deals with the consequences of these interactions.

 

 

Footnotes

1. "The word "intimacy" is derived from the Latin intimus, meaning inner or inmost. To be intimate is to know others and be known by them. Hatfield (Hatfield, Elaine. "The Dangers of Intimacy," in Derlaga, V. (ed.). Communication, Intimacy and Close Relationships. New York: Praeger, 1984, pp.207-220), defines intimacy as, "A process in which we attempt to get close to another, to explore similarities (and differences) in the ways we both think, feel, and behave.""

Hatfield, Elaine and Sprecher, Susan. Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986, p.330.

2. Interview with Darien, 26, 56 kg, 5', white, middle class. Melbourne. 12/01/1998.

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

4. Interview with Ben, 27, 6'2", 86kg, Greek, middle-class. Melbourne. 15/10/1997.

5. Sadownick, Douglas. Sex Between Men. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996, p.2.

6. Signorile, Michelangelo. Life Outside: The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997, p.300.

7. Hatfield, Elaine and Sprecher, Susan. Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986, pp.330-335.

8. Ibid., pp.330-335.

9. Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, 1978, p.11.

10. Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company, 1962, pp.106-107.

11. Ibid., pp.106-107.

12. Ibid., p.142.

13. Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, p.30.

14. Ibid., pp.26-27.

15. Simmel, George. The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge, 1978, p.179, quoted in Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, pp.26-27.

16. Luhmann, Niklas. "Familiarity, Confidence, Trust: Problems and Alternatives," in Gambetta, Diego (ed.). Trust: Making and Breaking Co-operative Relations. Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, quoted in Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990, pp.30-31.
See also Luhmann, Niklas. Trust and Power. Chichester: Wiley, 1979.

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