The Difference Practice Makes: Evidence, articulation and affect in HIV prevention

This paper considers the difference that a conception of sex as social practice has made to the relations articulated in HIV social research in Australia.  In defining sexual practice as “fluid, embedded in specific social formations, and involving the negotiation of meaning” (Kippax & Stephenson, 2005), social researchers put their own research categories and questions at risk by constructing situations in which their objects of research were given occasions to differ.  Taking this risk produced sharp insights about the evolving dynamics of the sexual and prevention fields and produced distinctive, interesting findings.  It enabled the articulation of the practice of “negotiated safety” and later strategies of HIV risk reduction emerging from gay men’s practice, for example.  I draw on Latour’s (2004) concept of articulation to make sense of these innovations and query some of the key distinctions that organise the field of HIV research:  qualitative/quantitative; social/biomedical; subject/object; human/nonhuman; interpretations/evidence.  In the present context, I argue that keeping HIV prevention effective, engaging and interesting will require ongoing attention to the embodied articulation of HIV relations.

[This post is the abstract of a paper of mine just submitted to AIDS Education & Prevention.  Should be of interest to HIV prevention geeks and potential prevention geeks mainly ; )]

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Filed under Affect, Antiretrovirals, Engagement with medicine, HIV behavioural surveillance, Policy and programs, Sexual practice, The statistical imagination

Provocative Objects

Things are moving fast in the world of HIV prevention and sexual practice, with the introduction of new techniques such as Treatment as Prevention and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (billed as ‘a pill a day to prevent HIV infection’) being purposed for prevention purposes.  While the latter is not yet available in Australia, it has been the subject of a whole lot of controversy as well as some very provocative and creative cultural production in North America, including the My Life on PREP series by blogger Jake Sobo, who gives a fascinating account of how his perceptions, experiences, practices and theorisations of risk change as he starts using the drug for HIV prevention.  He really accounts for himself as a sexual subject “in process” and the result is both fascinating and informative.


If that wasn’t creative enough, check out this recent  Youtube clip, “The Key” adapted from one of Jake Sobo’s blogs, that positions PREP as an intervention into the forms of shame, sexual judgement and aversion to stigmatic identification that circulate in gay male domains like the online world and which could be seen to hamper effective HIV prevention.  Most of us know the territory, but as far as confronting these things, it’s been a while since I’ve seen an intervention this bold.  There’s much to admire about this clip – the funky  beats, the uncompromising confrontation of online dynamics and interaction, and the sharp analysis of how investment in normative ideals of intimacy can precipitate forms of self-deception around risk and sexual practice.

What I am less sure about is the invocation of PREP as THE key  - as though an exclusive – way of solving this problem of sexual stigma, shaming and aversion. I have huge admiration for this intervention, and I  have also been very interested in the provocative powers of PREP,  but I’m  keen to hear people’s responses to this clip.  How well does it handle your concerns about PREP?  What does and doesn’t it deal with?  What else might one need to know to consider engaging with this preventive strategy?  What issues or concerns does PREP raise for you?

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Filed under Affect, Antiretrovirals, Devices and technology, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, HIV behavioural surveillance, Medicine and science, Self-medication, Sexual practice, The statistical imagination

When sex delivery systems don’t deliver

I’ve been thinking a lot in this project about the possibilities but also frustrations afforded by online cruising sites/ apps and how they are figuring in the ways gay men are presently organising their sexual and emotional lives. They can function as a great and effective way of hooking up with people (often not as effective as people would like!) but there is an abiding anger, sense of resentment and frustration about what they make us do, and what they don’t do, and how people behave when using this medium. All this even while many people understand the desire for casual or no-strings sex, and use these sites happily for these purposes themselves …  often in the ways they complain about in relation to the conduct of prospective partners!

I managed to dig up this old interview from an event back in 2010 hosted by SIDACTION in Paris where David Halperin, Barry Adam and a much earlier version of myself were interviewed in connection with a conference on homosexuality, social science and HIV.  Barry’s comments at the end of the interview have stuck with me ever since and I have been thinking about them more and more.  He raises the problem of how participants try to negotiate needs for connection and intimacy so evocatively:

“We often live in gay worlds which are quite efficient sex delivery systems but men then have to focus a great many of their emotional needs into this one avenue and that itself creates new risk situations which are again often inadvertent but that we are called upon to manage one way or another”

I love this way of formulating the problem: how to negotiate satisfying intimate lives in the context of hyper-efficient sex delivery systems?  It’s an ongoing and active question …

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Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Online meeting sites, PNP culture, Sexual practice

Inspired mixtape by Seymour Butz

No more pussy footing around

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Filed under Affect, Online meeting sites, Parties

Party and Play: new infrastructures of sexual sociability

Here’s what I’m thinking: in the form of an abstract submitted to an upcoming drugs conference.  Comments and ideas v welcome!

This paper traces the complex and shifting materialization of gay lives in the context of transformations in drug practices, drug policing and modes of sexual sociability over the past decade in Sydney, Australia.  I argue that the government of drug practices is bound up in complex ways with the materialization of sexualities, forms of community and identification, and modes of political consciousness and activism. I connect two processes that have had a marked effect on sexual sociability among men who have sex with men and queer communities in urban contexts: (1) the intensification of drug policing which is increasingly experienced as – and has been used as a pretext to conduct – a systematic assault on gay communal spaces and the ethos of dance culture, and (2) the emergence of online sex sites, which has made possible new, more secluded, and arguably more risky forms of at-home partying and drug consumption (‘PNP culture’).  Drawing on insights from science studies, I approach these developments as new sexual infrastructures, or infrastructures of intimacy, that can be seen to mediate sociosexual encounters in specific ways.  Where institutions allocate resources and establish hierarchies of authority, infrastructures facilitate and shape encounters in ways that become more or less durable even as their constructed and/or enacted nature is grasped.  What this analysis brings to science studies is an illustration of the implication of sociotechnical infrastructures and regulatory practices in the production of affective atmospheres – their ontological manifestation, effects and transformation.  In conclusion, I consider the significance of affective climates for harm reduction and what I have termed ‘counterpublic health’.  I argue that the concept of ‘affective climates’ provides a more nuanced perspective on the ways in which stigma may be understood to interfere with collective elaborations of care.


Filed under Affect, Devices and technology, Drug dogs, Engagement with medicine, Medicine and science, Online meeting sites, Parties, PNP culture, Police, Self-medication, Sexual practice, Theory

Police intimidation: no way to work with community

The Hon. Barry O’Farrell, MP, Premier of NSW

Monday 11 March, 2013

Open Letter

Dear Premier,

Last Friday evening I attended the protest against police behaviour during Mardi Gras at Taylor Square.  Over a thousand concerned citizens turned out to protest police practices surrounding the event.  Although the full circumstances surrounding the treatment of Jamie Jackson have yet to be established, the footage has clearly hit a nerve and unleashed much more widespread community dissatisfaction and longstanding feelings of mistreatment at the hands of police among communities participating in Mardi Gras.

Community organisations are meeting with police next week to discuss ways of addressing the situation.  Among the proposals that are put to them, a clear message must be sent that we demand the removal of sniffer dogs from the arsenal of police techniques used at our events and on our streets.

For over a decade now, NSW police have used drug detection dogs as a pretext to subject sexual and racial minorities, the homeless, and youth attending music festivals to harassment and intimidation. This practice must be stopped.  Nowhere else in the western world is such widespread, active and high profile use of sniffer dogs accepted or tolerated except in highly circumscribed contexts such as airports and during bomb threats.  It sends the wrong message about police attitudes to the public they say they want to work with and it reeks of contempt towards the communities the police are meant to serve.  I firmly believe that there will be no improvement in community-police relations until the Police Powers Act is amended to bring this practice within the same sort of highly restricted parameters as civilised jurisdictions internationally.  Indeed, the community response to the Jamie Jackson incident suggests that despite years of dedicated hard interagency work on the part of Gay and Lesbian Liaison Officers, community organisations, and concerned officers within government and the police force, a deep sense of hostility and resentment towards police seethes beneath the surface of our community, largely attributable to this practice and its unnecessary use in otherwise peaceful community spaces.

The suitability of drug detection dogs as a means of responding to drug use has been roundly criticized by public health specialists and criminologists and this is not the place to rehearse these points (but see the damning NSW Ombudsman’s review of the practice in its 2006 report). Suffice it to say that the practice has been evaluated as not only very costly but ineffective with respect to drug detection, and counterproductive in terms of drug harm.  It is deemed by many specialists to be inconsistent with harm minimisation principles. Drug detection dogs are likely implicated, for example, in the 2009 death of Gemma Thoms at a music festival in Perth, where she panicked at the sight of police dogs and took her three ecstasy tablets at once to avoid detection.  Meanwhile, the many people who do not use drugs at these events are subjected to unwarranted suspicion and surveillance, including full body strip searches in recent documented cases at Mardi Gras.

Less often discussed at a policy level is the way this policing technique positions our community: as suspects rather than worthy recipients of state protection and care.  The 2011 government finding that sniffer dogs yield around 80% false positives suggests that police enthusiasm for this technique is based on nothing more than the license that the presence of a dog would seem to give them to stop and search whomever they please.  Sniffer dogs serve as an opportunity and often a pretext for intimidation, harassment and invasion of personal space.  They effectively constitute the policed as guilty until proven innocent.  This is a major infringement of civil rights.

There are those who will fall back on the illegality of drug use in order to substantiate this policing practice and disqualify the sort of complaints made here. But this sort of dissimulation is entirely disingenuous and ignores the message that the strategy sends out to the communities on which it is inflicted.  In short, it is not just the brutality depicted in the footage of the Jamie Jackson incident, but the sniffer dogs, the strip searches, the intimidation, the aggression, the humiliation and the disrespect that this police method embodies that caused people to gather en masse in Taylor Square on the evening of 8 March.  This is no way to a position a community that has undertaken, with respect to HIV/AIDS, one of the most impressive public health responses in the world, largely on the basis of the strength of community bonds forged at events like Mardi Gras.

If police and the relevant decision-makers are serious about improving community relations they will reconsider and revoke this strategy.

Yours sincerely,

Associate Professor Kane Race ,

Chair, Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney

Associate of the Sydney Institute of Criminology


Filed under Drug dogs, HIV behavioural surveillance, Parties, Police, Policy and programs

Can you unlock?

One of the things I’m aiming for in the Changing Spaces project is to achieve an account of how the internet is participating in changing forms of gay sociability that grasps what is happening now but avoids getting trapped in the ‘decline of gay life’ thesis that has become such a familiar lament in both everyday and academic discussions.  You know the one: “once upon a time we had gay community, but then the internet destroyed all that/ Once we were public, communal, sharing caring types of people, now we are individual and isolated consumers/ Once we knew how to socialize and flirt and have fun, now the only offshoot of cruising is RSI”.  Not that there aren’t elements of truth to claims like these, and of course the alternative position – ‘nothing’s changed’ – is just as unsatisfying.  But I want to think more carefully about what is, or could be, emerging in relation to online phenomena and the relays and subtle interferences with more established practices and venues of social life.

Here, I’m encouraged by internet scholars’ Daniel Miller and Donald Slater’s refusal of the ‘merely virtual’ account of the internet (i.e. the idea that the internet is another world completely divorced from real life).  They propose to treat online phenomena as ‘embedded in and continuous with’ other social spaces, and the move makes a lot of sense. You only need think about the way details of people’s online profiles enter into everyday conversation to recognise this point. Use of sexual media is threaded through urban gay sexual culture – supporting, extending and reconfiguring existing venues of sexual socializing – often in quite funny ways – while also drawing from many of its practices and conventions.

One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how the existence of online cruising profiles adds a whole new sphere of information to public discussion.  Just as Facebook allows the transmission of a whole lot of recent details without face to face contact, such that we often know someone’s intimate news well before catching up for coffee, sexual media allows some types of information to circulate that may make for a different sort of sex public, to borrow a term from Berlant and Warner’s dynamite essay. (Incidentally, Berlant and Warner don’t seem enthusiastic about the possibilities of online sociability in “Sex in Public’.  They `refer to ‘cathecting the privatized virtual public of the internet’ as though it were some sort of sad alternative to the ‘real thing’.  I share their frustration at the apparent loss of certain sexual spaces, of course, but the essay stops short of thinking about how the internet is actually done and carried over into other spaces and practices)

This new sphere of information consists of statements – usually pretty graphic statements – of sexual interests, sexual self-presentation, the ubiquitous cock-pic, etc. – once considered intrinsically private, but which now become par for the course in face-to-face chat and discussion. ‘’Check out what he says on his profile!” “Didn’t you know? That’s Sydneypig!”  Who would have thought 15 years ago you would know more about someone’s bits or preferred sexual activities before having a conversation with them or even knowing their name?  Usually this public discussion is conducted in the mode of gossip, rumour, scandal, intrigue, hearsay etc. But unlike earlier instances of gossip and the like, what is different is that these details can now be substantiated, in principle, with reference to a relatively accessible, public archive.  It’s a whole new reference point and source of intimate speculation.

Typically this observation would raise the standard privacy concerns – some things just shouldn’t be aired in public.  But I guess I’m more favourably disposed to the fun and momentum of sexual community, which has always relied, after all, on teasing at the distinctions between public and private so that new forms of experience can be shared.  I like that this has become a new dynamic that is giving rise to playful new sorts of exchanges between people (which is not to say these exchanges are always comfortable or without risk).  The most interesting question, I reckon – though I don’t have an answer to it yet and hope people can help me think about it – is how this new articulation between ‘private details’ and ‘public banter’ is playing out in practical terms?  What is it affording, what’s distinctive about it, what is it producing and what can be made of it?


Filed under Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, Online meeting sites, Parties, Sexual practice, Uncategorized