CONCLUSION TO THE RESEARCH PROJECT 'PRESSING THE FLESH: SEX, BODY IMAGE AND THE GAY MALE'

 
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.

14 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.
Desire for their body image 'ideal' was initially predicated upon a visual desire, this visual desire then supplemented by numerous other histories, memories, and conditions that were present in different situational contexts that influenced the actions/interactions that occurred depending on the particular relationship of the participants in the sexual encounter.

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.

 

Though 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.
The paradox is that gay men desire an emotional intimacy and connection with this polished edifice, a sur-face, a face that is above them and hangs over them, a metaphorically cold armoured body that has power over them, and will do anything to 'have' such a body that is seemingly free from disease and dis-ease. The pluralities present in the post-modern, post-human multiplicities of identity and action/interactions seemingly all work towards the goal of attaining the 'ideal' of the fixed modernist (plat)form of the muscular mesomorphic body image, the restating of a non-ironic traditional masculine 'ideal'. I observe that these pluralities, fluctuations of body image boundaries of the ego and the self, the emotional, the impulsive, the noumenal, the (sub)conscious, do not change the individual nor the 'ideal' permanently, for gay men will always desire the iterability of the fantasy figure above that of a lived reality, the here and now of imperfection. It appears likely that gay men will continue to use their bodies as a marketable commodity tool (through whatever means, including having unsafe sex) to attain and possess the object of their desire even though they themselves may be victims of this addiction: 'possession through desire'. This may cause a dis-ease among gay men when they experience living in their real body with unease, when the existential and mortal body in reality does not match the body of the always youthful, always beautiful 'ideal'; when they compare the actuality of their lived body to the fantasy of the paradisiacal body, a longing for the lost heavenly body of paradise.

This is not a biological fact nor an essentialist argument but a representation of how things appear to be.
I suggest that gay men's desire for the muscular mesomorphic body image as an 'ideal' may be a learned behaviour (which in some gay men may reinforce 'natural' desires), a ritualised form of desire which is acquired soon after they enter the environment and territories of the gay community. The implications of this conclusion on the prevention and management through safe sex campaigns, advertising, and other public relations and educational programs of unsafe sex is quite profound. How can we make gay men more aware that there are other pleasures to be explored, other body types, other fantasy figures that are desirable, not just the ritualised comfort of a learnt desire for the muscular mesomorphic body image?
What needs to be addressed is the illusory conservative 'ideal' of the muscular mesomorphic body image, and the positioning and placement of this image within certain valued individual and cultural disciplinary systems. The symbolic signification of the muscular mesomorphic body image is reliant upon these systems for its power and the entrenchment of this 'ideal' as the epitome of what a male body should look like within a hierarchical 'order of desirability'.
I suspect that gay men feel a deep seated insecurity as to their place within this 'order of desirability' and when the opportunity comes along to have sex with a body that is seen as a valuable, as higher up in this 'order of desirability' some gay men will do anything to have sex, to have intimacy and connection with such a body with no thought, care or concern for the possible consequences of their actions and for their physical health.
(Note that I do not include mental health, for in having unsafe sex with a body image 'ideal' the self-esteem and mental health of a gay man may improve in the short term as he attains union with a long held fantasy 'ideal').
What deeper psychological and cultural conditions may be causing such despair at ever finding intimacy and connection with another man, such loneliness and longing for the muscular body image 'ideal' in individual gay men that can then be seen collectively in the interview data? What is the alienation from the self, the fear of rejection by society and by other human beings being caused by?

 

I 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.
As men try to live up to the image, the 'simulation' of reality which is posited by the signifiers of a commodity society, a sense of anxiety and doubt creeps over the very fabric of existence for the difference between the meaning of an image and its referent in reality is ever expanding and promotes as a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and uselessness. As a conclusion to this research project I suggest that the muscular mesomorphic body has become the last stable image in which gay men can believe, a psychological buffer against the insecurities, vicissitudes and isolations of everyday life; a body possessed through desire which desires to possess the body as signifier of an 'ideal', a muscular mesomorphic ideal formulated as a stereotypical construction, the body as phallic fetish, a powerful edifice a(r)moured against the wonderfully profligate nature of an unstable lived reality.

 

 

 

POSSIBLE DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

 
Possible directions for future research that come out of my research project might include:

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.

 

 

Footnotes

1. "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 ...
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 ...
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."

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.