DEVELOPMENT OF EVOLVING THEORY

 
In my analysis of the interview data I was able to confirm my original hypothesis and identify certain tendencies and behaviours that related to the categories of self-esteem, body image and unsafe sex. This section deals with how I thought about the issues, tendencies and behaviours I had uncovered in the analysis of the interview data and how I developed these conceptual ideas further. I sought a substantiation of these tendencies and behaviours and their correlation within a wider conceptual framework, a framework that would support the development of my evolving theory.

 

 

 

THE DESIRE FOR (NON)RITUAL PLEASURES

 
"Universal human nature is not a very human thing. By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, built up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without. These rules, when followed, determine the evaluation he will make of himself and of his fellow participants in the [social] encounter, the distribution of his feelings, and the kinds of practices he will employ to maintain a specified and obligatory kind of ritual equilibrium."

Erving Goffman.1

 

 

The rituals of the gay community are quickly learnt by the new aspirant soon after he enters the, to him, new territory of that society. How to belong, how to talk, how to dress in the 'right' clothes, how to have safe sex, how to cruise, how to desire the 'right' kind of bodies, how to obtain such a body, and especially how to have sex within the gay territorial environment. The moral rules of gay society are impressed upon the gay man from outside (for example, the admonishment in safe sex campaigns that gay men must always have safe sex in order to be 'good' citizens for themselves, the community and the rest of society), and this morality, as Goffman says in the above quotation, will determine how a gay man feels about himself, his evaluation of himself (his self-esteem including his body image), the acceptance of his self into gay society through his embodiment, and what strategies and rituals he will enact to achieve, maintain and enhance his status in social encounters. Gay men are supposed to be morally self-regulating participants in society who can be labelled and graded hierarchically through an 'order of desirability',2 an ordering which I believe is correlated and supported by Goffman's ideas of the interaction of society and the individual body, notably through a form of non-verbal communication called 'body idiom'. Commenting on body idiom Chris Schilling observes that,

"Body idiom is a conventionalized form of non-verbal communication which is by far the most important component of behaviour in public. It is used by Goffman in a general sense to refer to "dress, bearing, movements and position, sound level, physical gestures such as waving and saluting, facial decorations, and broad emotional expressions." (To these categories I would add body image and presentation of the body). As well as allowing us to classify information given off by bodies, shared vocabularies of body idiom provide categories which label and grade hierarchically people according to this information. Consequently, these classifications exert a profound influence over ways inwhich individuals seek to manage and present their bodies.
The first two features of Goffman's approach suggest that human bodies have a dual location. Bodies are the property of individuals, yet are defined as significant and meaningful by society. This formulation lies at the core of the third main feature of Goffman's approach to the body. In Goffman's work, the body plays an important role in mediating the relationship between people's self-identity and their social identity. The social meanings which are attached to particular bodily forms and performances tend to become internalized and exert a powerful influence on an individual's sense of self and feelings of inner worth."
3 (My bold).

Through their visible bodies gay men, caught up in webs of communication4 and social systems of meaning that influence and control individual behaviours, may experience their sexual desires through social conditioning, through constraint and prohibition, through the repression of desire and the taboo against strong emotions and dangerous, possibly liberating acts. As Mario Mieli has said of desire, "It is very difficult to understand what human desire really is. On the one hand, because it is repressed; on the other hand, because this repression also takes the form of the conditioning of desire in a certain particular fashion."5 In other words society may influence, condition and limit the possibilities of gay men's desires, channelling these desires towards socially acceptable forms (ie., practices and specific body images). Gay desire may become a ritualised production, a 'performativity'6 ("a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms"), that is seen as safe and amenable by society.
But what if there is a disturbance, a fluctuation (in public or private) that causes these moral rules, classifications of body idiom, and conditioning of desire not to be followed, upending the specified practices (such as safe sex) that a ritualised production of equilibrium demands? What then? Might not the rituals of Goffman's 'facework',7 (the upholding of social position and lifestyles, and attitudes towards others) and body idiom, the rituals of production, the conditioning of desire and social correctness be subverted in an atmosphere of lust, passion and desire? As we have seen in my analysis of the interview data there are many intersecting and interacting conditions that can subvert the moral and bodily efficacy of gay men and the practices that are employed by them to maintain a ritual equilibrium. I believe that one of the critical contested areas that upsets the practices employed to maintain this equilibrium is the paradoxical desire of gay men for both ritual and non-ritual pleasure through a desire for the image of the muscular mesomorphic body. Let me elaborate further.

If we accept that ritual is a stereotyped, repetitive behaviour then a desire to possess the muscular mesomorphic body as the most 'valuable' sexual commodity within gay society has indeed become a ritual behaviour among gay men. The muscular mesomorphic body is no longer just fashionable, but has become the embodiment (both physical and metaphorical) of a powerful, stable, masculine 'ideal' in the ritual of gay men's sexual desires. As we have seen from the analysis of the interview data, most respondents stated that their body image 'ideal' was that of the smooth, muscular mesomorphic body. They would have done (and did), anything to have sex with this body image 'ideal'. Individually and collectively they keep repeating behaviours and needs which were enacted through a 'conditioning of desire' in search of this one stereotypical body image.
This is not a reinvention of pleasure but the desire for and constant search for re-treats, multiple pleasuring of the same thing, a reiteration and repetition of the same pleasures that seek to revalidate a person's own self worth and existence through the possession of the object of desire via the 'possession through desire' of the self. As Michel Foucault has observed,

"The idea that bodily pleasure should always come from sexual pleasure, and the idea that sexual pleasure is the root of all our possible pleasure - I think that's something quite wrong ... The possibility of using our bodies as a possible source of very numerous pleasures is something that is very important. For instance, if you look at the traditional construction of pleasure, you see that bodily pleasure, or pleasures of the flesh, are always drinking, eating and fucking. And that seems to be the limit of the understanding of our bodies, our pleasures ... Pleasure also must be part of our culture. It is very interesting to note, for instance, that for centuries people generally, as well as doctors, psychiatrists and even liberation movements, have always spoken about desire, and never about pleasure. "We have to liberate our desire," they say. No! We have to create new pleasure. And then maybe desire will follow."8

In contemporary gay society there is not the reinvention of new pleasures but the reiteration and repetition of old pleasures through a desire for stereotyped 'ideals'. Despite the fact the gay men can reinvent themselves through the active nature of vision, the fluidity of identity, and the variability of bodily forms, changing their bodies by going to the gym, through cosmetic surgery, through the fluid identities of cyberspace where you can be whoever you want to be (Michel Foucault's 'technologies of the self');9 despite the fluctuations of identity and body image boundaries caused by the pressing of flesh in sexual encounters and the numerous different pleasures that are available for us to explore as human beings; despite all of these factors it would seem that some gay men are in pursuit of the ritual comfort of the fixed, singular, repetitive pleasure of wanting and having sex (in any way possible) with a powerful, phallic, stable masculine body image 'ideal' as a psychological buffer against a world that is confronting, uncomfortable, insecure, and ultimately isolationist.
Here is the paradox of desire for gay men, the desire for ritualised pleasures and non-ritualised pleasures, the desire for the stability of the body image as opposed to the instability and fluctuations of body image and identity boundaries that occur in sexual encounters.
Even though gay men may transcend their ordinary selves through the fluctuation of body image boundaries and the dissolution of identity that occurs during sexual intercourse gay men still (paradoxically) desire to possess (perhaps through a nostalgia and longing for the paradise of the perfect body) a man whose body is grounded in the authority and fixity of the sign of the muscular mesomorphic body image, the traditional image of a powerful, stable and secure masculinity which has become the epitome of what a gay man should look like. As Don Slater says, desire becomes associated with possession:

"It is human association and specifically the comparison with others that brings about an awareness of inequality and thus a motive for competition. Desire becomes associated with possession. There is a social pressure to have, as opposed to enjoy, the pleasure of the earth. The increasing refinement and sophistication of desire proceeds in a vicious spiral with the development of social competition. The healthy, because limited and therefore satisfiable amour de soi, is replaced by the unending pathology of amour-propre, desire for 'consideration on the part of others'. Needs are no longer anchored in nature but are linked to the approval and admiration of others, and therefore have no limit ... It actually delivers heteronomy (not autonomous) - man's needs are determined by the fashions, opinions and scrutiny of society, or he becomes 'other-determined'."10 (My bold)

According to Don Slater then, man's needs are 'other-determined' through the 'reflected appraisal' (Bourdieu)11 of society and human beings. Our bodies, subject to constant surveillance, are scrutinised by the gaze of the individual and society to see whether we measure up to the bodily 'ideals' that both the individual and society determine are desirable and a 'valuable' commodity. Our body image becomes reliant on the approval and admiration of others to attain its desirability as a sexual commodity. For some gay men possessing such a body has become a ritualised production, the ritual of going to the gym, of pumping and preening to fit this marketable 'ideal'. For others the ritualised production has become the fantasy of having sex with such a body, of possessing such a body through sexual intercourse. No longer is the gay body just a 'natural' body, a body of amour, or love, but one of a constrained and prohibitive a(r)mour, a body that evidences a paradoxical desire in others for an emotional (emotions are often linked to the feminine, the subjective, and loosing control) intimacy and connection with a man who possesses a hard, armoured, phallic, masculine body which can be seen as a metaphor for the power of the hidden penis. Through the constraint of a ritualised production of the body, sexual desires and needs, through a 'performativity' that reiterates and repeats these norms of behaviour and desire, gay men may enforce upon themselves the desirability of possessing a powerful, masculine armoured body but, conversely, in that enforcement open themselves up to eroticism and the transcendence of the everyday that erotic sexual interaction demands of them. Eroticism takes you out of yourself and into other planes of existence, transcending the limitations of the everyday. As George Bataille has noted,

"The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity [death] ... The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participants as they are in their normal lives. Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self ...
Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals."
12 (My bold)

In other words eroticism entails the breaking down of 'performativity', the repetition of norms. If eroticism is combined with the need not to maintain a 'face' in an anonymous sexual environment (where a gay man feels he doesn't have to maintain the practices he employs to maintain a ritualised equilibrium in everyday life), this can and does, as we have seen in the analysis of the interview data, affect his feelings and his subsequent actions/interactions. If a gay man feels no compunction to obey his normal 'face' he may well feel free to engage in what society would regard as dangerous activities with no care for himself at all. He can momentarily forget the problems of his normal life and may well feel transcendentally liberated enough to express his Dionysian tendencies, his innermost desires. Gay men can surrender to a state of 'possession through desire' through which they can, conversely, seek to possess the body of an'other' who may have power over them. Being 'possessed through desire' themselves they also seek to possess another. They may surrender their body (either passively or actively) to an'other' more powerful body either through enclosure (the taking in of the power of the partner's penis) or through their own penis being enfolded within their partner and this enclosure/enfolding is combined with the feel, texture and touch of the body they are fucking with. I believe that the feel and texture of the body is critical in both confirming the power and the agency of the muscular body as a desirable sexual commodity whilst at the same time upsetting the ritualised equilibrium of gay men by causing a transcendence from the repetition of everyday norms.

 

Footnotes

1. Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1972, pp.44-45.

2. "Phil feels that if he wanted sex any time he could go out and get it (sauna, Club 80) and this would not be based so much on body image. Does not use his body to go out and get sex. He has lower self-esteem in regards to positioning his body in an order of desirability - more people higher up the body chain with better bodies than him."
How does that make you feel?
" He shuts himself off to this when cruising. On the street it does not matter as he has higher self-esteem there."

Interview with Phil, 23, 5'10", 73kg, English, robotics technician, middle class. Melbourne. 13/09/1997.

3. Goffman, Erving. Behaviour In Public Places: Notes on the Social Organisation of Gatherings. New York The Free Press, 1963, p.33, quoted in Schilling, Chris. The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1993, pp.82-83.

4. "Visible bodies are caught on webs of communication irrespective of individual intentions and this can exert a considerable influence on behaviour."

Burns, T. Erving Goffman. London: Routledge, 1992, p.38.

5. Mieli, Mario. Homosexuality and Liberation: Elements of a Gay Critique. London: Gay Men's Press, 1980, p.168.

6. "I would suggest that 'performativity' cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularized and constrained repetition of norms. And this repetition is not performed by a subject; this repetition is what enables a subject and constitutes the temporal condition for the subject. This iterability implies that "performance" is not a singular "act" or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance." (My bold)

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993, pp.94-95.

7. For a discussion of Goffman's ideas see Giddens, Anthony. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991, pp.82-83.
See also Goffman, Erving. Behaviour in Public Places. New York: Free Press, 1963.

8. Gallagher, Bob and Wilson, Alexander. "Sex and the Politics of Identity: An Interview with Michel Foucault," in Thompson, Mark. Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, p.31.

9. "... we must understand that there are four major types of these "technologies," each a matrix of practical reason: (1) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform or manipulate things; (2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols or signification; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality."

Foucault, Michel. "Technologies of the Self," quoted in Martin, Luther and Gutman, Huck and Hutton, Patrick (eds.,). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. London: Tavistock Publications, 1988, p.18.

10. Slater, Don. Consumer Culture and Modernity. London: Polity Press, 1997, p.78.

11. "The chances of experiencing one's own body as a vessel of grace, a continuous miracle, are that much greater when bodily capacity is commensurate with recognition; and, conversely, the probability of experiencing the body with unease, embarrassment, timidity grows with the disparity between the ideal body and the real body, the dream body and the 'looking-glass self' reflected in the reactions of others (reflected appraisal)."

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. (trans. Richard Nice). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, p.207.

12. Bataille, Georges. Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo. New York: Walker and Company, 1962, pp.17-18.