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

 
 

Subcategory: Consequences of Unsafe Sex

 
From my analysis of the interview data I found that the range of variability of the consequences arising from unsafe sex with body image ideals was large. I believe that the range of consequences resulting from unsafe sexual activity were either one or a combination of more than one of the following:

1. The lowering of self-esteem (possible depression) or the raising of self-esteem (possible happiness);

2. Feeling guilty or not feeling guilty;

3. Feeling confused, anxious, afraid or scared or not feeling confused, anxious, afraid or scared;

4. Possible contraction of HIV or no contraction of HIV;

5. Making justifications before, during or after the (f)act of unsafe sex to making no justifications for unsafe sexual activity;

6. Falling in love with the partner or not falling in love;

7. Feeling a connection and intimacy with the partner to a feeling of rejection after the unsafe sexual act was over;

8. Thinking about and having an HIV test to thinking about and not having an HIV test;

9. Period of uncertainty and doubt;

10. Desire for unsafe sex with more body image ideals;

11. Abuse of self through unsafe sex;

12. Start of relationship because of desire for body image ideal and connection and intimacy experienced through unsafe sex;

13. Denial that unsafe sex ever happened;

14. Not caring about the consequences at the time of the unsafe sexual intercourse but starting to worry later;

15. Thinking about the risk that had been taken or not thinking about the risks that had been taken during unsafe sex; and

16. Possible drug addiction.

 

Respondent Darien1 had higher self-esteem because of both the emotional and physical experience of having unsafe sex with his partner. For Darien it was not just a physical body image desire but also an emotional connection to his partner as well. As we have seen in examples from other respondents, at the time Darien didn't care about the consequences of his actions and did not make justifications for why these episodes happened. He felt guilty after these episodes but this did not correlate with a lowering of his self-esteem. He went and got tested after these episodes. Darien observes, "that is it interesting where this guilt comes from - perhaps it is because it is rammed down your throat so often, and that you know it is a bad thing to do, that you feel so guilty doing it. Went and got tested after these episodes. Went into this "Oh God, if you make me negative, I swear I will never do this again" routine."

Is self-esteem linked with guilt?
"Darien doesn't think so necessarily, so he didn't feel bad about himself."

Darien raises interesting questions as to where this guilt over having unsafe sex comes from. Do gay men feel guilty after having unsafe sex because they shouldn't be doing this (a moral obligation imposed both by gay men on themselves and by the community on gay men collectively) or do they feel guilty because they are justifying what they are doing to themselves and coming up with the wrong answers - I don't care anymore about the consequences of my actions, which may be nihilistic (n.nothingness; thing of no worth).2 Mario Jacoby has observed that,

"Guilt arises only where there is the possibility of awarenessof guilt ... The awareness of guilt is based on conscience, which in turn arises from our feelings of guilt (what Freud termed "the anxiety of conscience"). These are extremely unpleasant signals which are perceived when our acts are not in harmony with our conscience. They often crop up even when we merely think, wish for or fantasize about that which our conscience deems "bad.""3

But if a gay man's conscience is not awakened during the act of unsafe sex, if he is not aware that his acts are contrary to his conscience, or he believes that his unsafe actions are in harmony with his conscience, then guilt may not arise. For a gay man's conscience to be awakened he has to be aware that he is transgressing the taboo of unsafe sex and that this transgression, this violation, this experience of sin is supposed to cause him anguish. Awareness of this anguish helps enforce the taboo and give the taboo its power. Conversely, awareness of "the anguish at the heart of the taboo," could also be one of the driving forces behind the need to impulsively violate it as well. As Georges Bataille has said,

"The aware intelligence cannot in this case look on them [taboos] as a mistake we are victims of, but as the outcome of the fundamental emotion on which humanity depends. The truth of taboos is the key to our human attitude. We must know, we can know that prohibitions are not imposed from without. This is clear to us in the anguish we feel when we are violating the taboo, especially at that moment when our feelings hang in the balance, when the taboo still holds good and yet we are yielding to the impulsion it forbids. If we observe the taboo, if we submit to it, we are no longer conscious of it. But in the act of violating it we feel the anguish of mind without which the taboo could not exist: that is the experience of sin ... The inner experience of eroticism demands from the subject a sensitiveness to the anguish at the heart of the taboo no less great than the desire that leads him to infringe it. This is religious sensibility, and it always links desire closely with terror, intense pleasure and anguish."4

 

I believe that from the evidence of the data respondents feelings of guilt about having unsafe sex are more likely to arise because their conscience has acknowledged that both individually and culturally having unsafe sex is morally wrong but, as we have seen from examples of respondents who at the time of having unsafe sex had a nihilistic lack of care for themselves, the second reading of guilt is also a possibility. The possibility that nothing matters to them other than having the pleasure, anguish and possible guilt of unsafe sex. But as Darien said, this guilt is not necessarily linked to self-esteem. When impulsively and emotionally transgressing and violating the taboo of unsafe sex, gay men may be aware of the anguish that transgression may bring but still enjoy that anguish and pleasure for its own sake, enjoying the breaking down of barriers, the intimacy, and the physical feeling of anal sex without a condom, just because they like it; they possibly may feel guilty about their actions but do not let this guilt have any affect on their levels of self-esteem, or may possibly tolerate and/or enjoy these feelings of guilt as well. From my analysis of the interview data I found that the range of variability of the consequences arising from unsafe sex with body image ideals was large. Most of the respondents who had unsafe sex with body image ideals reported numerous consequences as a result of that interaction.
One of the main consequences that respondents reported was either lower or higher levels of self-esteem after the sexual interaction, with a slight majority of respondents reporting lower self-esteem. Some respondents who had unsafe sex with body image ideals also reported feelings of guilt after the sexual interaction with only one respondent actually stating that he did not feel guilty because the consequences of his decision to have unsafe sex should be accepted even if he contracted HIV. Whether these feelings of guilt emerged because the respondents conscience knew what they were doing was individually and culturally viewed as morally wrong, or because they felt worthless (nihilism), they didn't care about themselves at all when having unsafe sex, and they felt guilty about this is open to debate. Several respondents expressed the opinion that they possibly deserved to catch HIV because they were willing to do anything to have their partner because they desired him so much, and had unsafe sex with him.

The connection between guilt and levels of self-esteem is an interesting one. Does feeling guilty about something (in this case having unsafe sex) necessarily lead to a change in levels of self-esteem? From the evidence presented in the data having unsafe sex with a body image ideal and feeling guilty about it did not necessarily lead to a commensurate alteration in levels of self-esteem. The question remains as to whether feelings of guilt do impact on levels of self-esteem, whether there is a correlation between feeling guilty and lower or higher levels of self-esteem. I believe that further research into this issue would be of great benefit in gauging how gay men perceive and react to having unsafe sexual intercourse and its possible consequences. Several respondents did contract the HIV virus as a result of having unsafe sex with a partner because of a combination of macro and micro conditions that included personal levels of self-esteem, desire for his muscular mesomorphic body image and his personality, and the need for intimacy and connection with him. In both these cases the respondents self-esteem at the time was really low and they had no care or concern for their own safety during the course of the unsafe sexual interactions which in one case took place over several years. Possibly as a result of his low self-esteem after he found out that he had contracted the HIV virus one of these respondents developed a severe drug addiction.

 

 

Footnotes

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

2. Hill, Robert. Dictionary of Difficult Words. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1993, pp.226-227.

3. Jacoby, Mario. The Longing For Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype. Boston: Sigo Press, 1985, p.127.

4. Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company, 1962, pp.38-39.