This research project has produced an interactive CD ROM and now website that reveals the possible contribution of self-esteem and body image desire on some gay men to participate in unsafe sexual activity. The artistic content of the CD ROM illuminates the empirical data, evidencing the feelings and desires, the aesthetic and emotional responses and tendencies that were evoked by this data.
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'. This image is usually constructed on the signifier of the muscular mesomorphic body as the epitome of that 'ideal' within a commodity society.
respondents to the interview questions stated that they had unsafe sex
with a body image 'ideal' (pre-dominantly 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 astatistical 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.
As I have observed in the Rubber Press chapter,
"Self-esteem DOES impact on the decision to have unsafe sex through the medium of the desire for the 'ideal' muscular mesomorphic body image, the fulcrum around which self-esteem and unsafe sex is linked. In the respondents that I interviewed most conditions, tendencies, behaviours and decisions relating to the link between self-esteem and unsafe sex were focused around a desire for, and attainment of, the idealised body image, mainly that of the muscular mesomorphic body image. For some gay men I think that,
SELF-ESTEEM AND UNSAFE SEX ARE DIRECTLY LINKED THROUGH A DESIRE FOR THE 'IDEAL' MUSCULAR MESOMORPHIC BODY IMAGE.
I believe that,
LEVELS OF SELF-ESTEEM AND DESIRE FOR BODY IMAGE 'IDEALS', WORKING (IN)DEPENDENTLY, DO INFLUENCE THE DECISION OF SOME GAY MEN TO HAVE UNSAFE SEX."
However shifting and variable the nature of these categories, contexts, conditions, tendencies, behaviours and outcomes (i.e., having unsafe sex) analysed in the interview data, they were mainly predicated on the link between self-esteem and a desire for the image of the idealised muscular mesomorphic body. These categories, found in the research, do not necessarily all occur or, if they do occur, all occur together, nor occur in any predetermined sequence, nor work in isolation or simultaneously, nor are attached to specific levels of self esteem. I believe that in their orthogonality they are (in)dependently and unpredictably variable, not working in isolation from each other and not standing alone. These categories are mostly focused on the attainment, possession of, trust in, and revealing intimacy with,1 the idealised body image, that of the muscular mesomorphic body.
we live in an age, in a culture, where our sense of 'what the body is'
has never been more called into question, more adaptive, more discursive,
less a singular entity but rather a plurality of voices that forms a
whole, it is still the body as surface, as 'simulation', as fetish,
the idealised muscular mesomorphic body image as a fixed form, as the
ultimate in desirable forms, that is the epitome of the gay fetishistic
body image 'ideal'. Gay male desire is predicated on a desire for this
fixed form, a conservative, traditionally powerful, masculine body image
that affirms gay men as "real" men and enforces a hierarchical
patriarchal homosexuality where some gay men have power over other gay
men through the embodiment of their body as fetish.
I suggest that the body has become the commodity, is
the 'face' which we present to others, the 'simulation' of an image
that has become reality embodied in the eyes and embedded in the fantasies
and desires of many gay men.
is not a biological fact nor an essentialist argument but a representation
of how things appear to be.
believe that this insecurity is part of a wider insecurity as to the
place of all men (not just gay men but affecting gay men doubly so because
of the 'nature' of their sexuality and the fact that they are still
trying to prove themselves as 'real' men) in a society in which the
dominance of patriarchal masculinity is under threat. In a commodity
society this insecurity is predicated on and correlated to a semiotic
language, where signs dictate the exchange value of merchandise and
determine what 'lifestyles' are seen as valuable and what bodies are
seen as desirable within a network of power, that of the disciplinary
market system. One of the networks that power flows through is the disciplinary
system of the stereotype. In the case of this research project I have
examined the disciplinary code of the muscular body image and the 'Party
Boy' lifestyle. The norms and standards of this stereotype have been
replicated and disseminated throughout the gay community, health organisations
the media and individuals. In the circulation and reinforcement of stereotypical
muscular male body images, there is an active determination of social
relations between desirable and undesirable gay men which creates a
hierarchy of desirability and through that hierarchy subject positions
(more or less desirable; more or less beautiful, etc., ... ). This determination
depends on who proposes the disciplinary system (in this case the body
image and 'lifestyle' stereotype), the elitism of that system and who
has the power to enforce it. Usually it is the individuals that make
up a group or institution who possess the desired attributes (significations)
of the disciplinary system who hold the power within that system. What
they possess is seen as desirable and 'valuable' not only by themselves
but other men as well; all men are therefore affected
in their interactions with the disciplinary system.
1. An exploration of the relationship between the portrayal of male bodies in the Italian Renaissance and contemporary representations of the male body. Such research might examine the social power structures used by different cultures to control the image of the male body in order to understand how such structures are used by individuals, groups and societies to limit the desirable 'nature' of the male body.
2. The commissioning of a qualitative study of gay men in Australia to further qualify the conclusions of the current research project. My research project was based on 31 in-depth quantitative interviews with gay men. The results of my research project would benefit from further research based on a larger qualitative study focused on the sexual habits of gay men which could examine the linkage between self-esteem, body image and unsafe sex in a statistical format.
3. Quantitative research which would examine the underlying reasons behind the (non)disclosure of HIV status by HIV+ men in casual sexual encounters and longer term relationships which may put their partners at risk of HIV contraction. This research would seek to investigate the thought processes, attitudes, and interactions that occur within specific sexual contexts in order to understand the influence of these conditions on the respondents (non)disclosure of their HIV status.
4. Research into the connection between guilt and levels of self-esteem. Does feeling guilty about something (in this case having unsafe sex) necessarily lead to a change in levels of self-esteem? Is there a correlation between feeling guilty and lower or higher levels of self-esteem? I believe that research into this issue would be of great benefit in understanding how gay men perceive and react to having unsafe sexual intercourse and its possible consequences. The outcomes of this research could be used to inform the construction of new prevention strategies that could help to limit the transmission of the HIV virus.
5. An investigation into the hypothesis that the relationship between 'off-line' and 'on-line' thinking is a symbiotic one, a relationship of meaning that flows in both directions, both lines containing powerful semiotic languages that affect each other to a significant extent. This research would seek to discover the 'nature' of such a symbiotic relationship, and the impact it does have on the decision of gay men to participate in unsafe sexual activity.
6. Further research into the construction of the stereotypical 'ideal' of the muscular mesomorphic body image, and the positioning and placement of this image within certain valued individual and cultural disciplinary systems. The outcome of this research would provide greater information on the ability to change the semiotic language of these systems in order to open up to gay men a greater range of body images that they can find desirable as fantasy figures.
7. An investigation into the codes of communication that are present in casual sexual encounters. I propose that my research project indicates that there are other codes of communication present in casual sexual encounters that characterise these encounters as no less intimate and no less revealing than the revelations in a supposedly more intimate longer term relationship. An investigation of these codes of communication would help to validate this hypothesis and would be beneficial in helping to understand exactly how gay men reveal themselves in casual sexual encounters, exactly what is being revealed, and how this revealing affects their interactions within the casual sexual encounter.
"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 ...
Bunyan, Marcus. Pressing the Flesh: Sex, Body Image and The Gay Male. Unpublished CD ROM. Melbourne: RMIT University, 2000. Theoretical Press Interview Questions, Analysis of Data, and Development of Evolving Theory 3: Analysis of Data 2: Subcategory: Intimacy, Connection, and Trust in Unsafe Sex. Hard copy of Project notes, p.122.