Category Archives: HIV behavioural surveillance

Geo-sexual networking, apps, websites, and HIV prevention

I accepted an invitation from Zizi Papacharissi to contribute to a volume she is editing – The Networked Self ~ Love on the topic of gay social networking apps and websites.

My piece explores the sorts of solutions these devices propose to various, collectively felt, problems and asks how tech users, product developers and sexuality researchers might work together to construct better infrastructures for sex and sociability between men, among other users of these devices – with a specific focus on how various apps and websites have sought to incorporate and operationalise methods of HIV prevention.

Sexual networks such as Bareback Realtime, Grindr, Manhunt, Gaydar, Hornet and Scruff all feature in the discussion, which you can access by clicking on the title:

Mobilizing the Biopolitical Category: Problems, devices and designs in the construction of the gay sexual marketplace

Abstract: Drawing on previous work in which I have approached digital sex as a marketplace and conceived hookup apps and online cruising sites as market devices, in this chapter I argue that problematization (Foucault 1995) is a useful analytic for conceiving the design of online dating and cruising devices, because tech developers tend to rely on some problematization of the existing sexual marketplace, as it is being enacted, in their efforts to improve the prospects of specific groups of participants, qualify their products and secure a niche in the digital marketplace. Drawing on a rare interview with the founder of BarebackRT.com (‘BBRT’), the world’s largest hookup site for men looking for other barebackers, I discuss how this site was conceived and designed in an attempt to address certain problems its developers perceived in the gay sexual marketplace as it was digitally and practically enacted at the time of the site’s conception.  BBRT is an especially interesting example because it demonstrates how clinical indicators, among other personal and technical specifications, can emerge as criteria for discriminating between prospective partners, populating personal profiles and qualifying the self in the pursuit of sexual encounters.  In this respect, BBRT stands as a fascinating example of how innovations in digital culture can eventuate from convergences between digital and clinical media and how such convergences effect differences in the pragmatic qualification of social networking applications.  But it also stages the categories according to which members are required to present themselves online as provisional, historically situated, and available to experimentation and critical transformation.

 

 

 

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Filed under Affect, Antiretrovirals, Devices and technology, Engagement with medicine, Erogenous zones, Eroticism and fantasy, HIV behavioural surveillance, Masculinities, Medicine and science, Online meeting sites, Self-medication, Sexual practice, Sexual Sociability, The statistical imagination, Theory

Update: The Gay Science is out now, + info on new projects

Update: the book based on the research this blog was first set up to facilitate has just been released by Routledge in hardcover and e-form, with a paperback edition to be released in late 2018. It’s called The Gay Science: Intimate experiments with HIV (2018). here’s the cover blurb:

Since the onset of the HIV epidemic, the behaviour of men who have sex with men has been subject to intense scrutiny on the part of the behavioural and sociomedical sciences. What happens when we consider the work of these sciences to be not merely descriptive, but also constitutive of the realities it describes? The Gay Science pays attention to lived experiences of sex, drugs and the scientific practices that make these experiences intelligible. Through a series of empirically and historically detailed case studies, the book examines how new technologies and scientific artifacts – such as antiretroviral therapy, digital hookup apps and research methods – mediate sexual encounters and shape the worlds and self-practices of men who have sex with men.

Rather than debunking scientific practices or minimizing their significance, The Gay Scienceapproaches these practices as ways in which we ‘learn to be affected’ by HIV. It explores what knowledge practices best engage us, move us and increase our powers and capacities for action. The book includes an historical analysis of drug use as a significant element in the formation of urban gay cultures; constructivist accounts of the emergence of barebacking and chemsex; a performative response to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and its uptake; and, a speculative analysis of ways of thinking and doing sexual community in the digital context.

Combining insights from queer theory, process philosophy and science and technology studies to develop an original approach to the analysis of sexuality, drug use, public health and digital practices, this book demonstrates the ontological consequences of different modes of attending to risk and pleasure. It is suitable for those interested in cultural studies, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, digital culture, public health and drug and alcohol studies.

So thrilled that Indian-Australian artist Leon Fernandes generously granted me permission to reproduce his extraordinary piece Krishna in Erskinville on the cover, an artwork first exhibited at East Sydney Doctors Gallery the week I sent my manuscript off to the publishers (!!); AND to have received such generous endorsements from Lauren Berlant and Steven Epstein – such brilliant, inspirational and inspiring critics and social thinkers.

The Gay Science flyer

Meanwhile I’ve commenced a new ARC Discovery Project with Dean Murphy, Toby Lea and Kiran Pienaar on LGBTQ drug and medication use, ‘Chemical Practices: Enhancement and experimentation‘ this year (DP17), which proposes to treat queer and trans drugtaking practices as intimate experiments (in the science studies sense) while considering the forces that constrain and enable such experiments to assemble and find their publics and thus become more collectively and carefully elaborated. More details and a link to the project’s website, still in development, to follow

I’m also continuing work on my interest in the design and transformation of geo-sexual networking devices and how they structure the arrangement of sex between men, as well as dreaming up a new project about the normalising effects of the terms of national membership in Australia and the opportunistic policing of citizenship via mundane legal provisions that serve as pretexts for increased surveillance of migrant/ethnic and queer & gender minoritized communities & populations.

This project will work across ‘queer’ and ‘wog’ practices of body modification in Australia (car modification culture and queer drug and party practices mainly) to bring anti-racist critiques  into better articulation with queer counterpublic theory in critical studies of the  disciplinary terms of Australian citizenship and national membership, as well as the ethico-political and aesthetic dimensions of self-experimentation, body-modification, collective self-transformation, and how they are inter-implicated with evolving markets, cultural economies, and gender identities in the pre- and post-digital context.

Tentative working title-headers for this longer term project are taken from the subcultures this work will learn form and have particular vernacular relevance within them respectively.  They include “Policing Cruising: body-modification and resistance within queer and wog scenes in Australia”;  “Defected”; or maybe just “@toughstreetmachines”

 

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Thinking with Pleasure

I’m off to Norway to give some workshops and a couple of talks about my research at the University of Oslo.  I’m excited to have the opportunity to meet researchers and students from the schools of public health and medical anthropology there.  I’ve organised the workshops around my work on pleasure, digital sex, HIV prevention and harm reduction – and I’ve attached the outline here: thinking-with-pleasure-norway-workshops.  It will be a great opportunity to workshop these pieces so I can pull them all together, as they’ll form the basis of the monograph I’m due to deliver by the end of the year: The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV

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Gay Sex and Drug Use Demand Better, Less Phobic, Forms of Attention

Review of Chemsex

(2015, dir. Gogarty & Fairman, Pecadillo Pictures & Vice Productions)

 

3 December 2015

Our relation to drugs is highly ambivalent ­– and understandably so. The Ancient Greeks captured this instability with their concept of the pharmakon, which they used to refer to those things that can function as both poison and cure: their identity is unstable.

The instability of drugs has been used again and again to condemn them. We’re much more comfortable attributing stable identities to drugs and categorizing them as either good or evil. But as Isabelle Stengers has argued, our desire to categorize drugs definitively “allows the question of the appropriate attention, the learning of doses and the manner of preparation, to be done away with”.[1] This is a problem, because the propensity for a drug to be good or dangerous depends precisely on these considerations.

 Chemsex, Intimacy and Paranoia

I was reminded of the fundamental ambivalence of drugs when I watched Chemsex, the recently released documentary that explores gay men’s use of drugs for sex in London, UK (dir. Gogarty & Fairman, Pecadillo Pictures, 2015).

It’s the dangerous end of this spectrum that the documentary Chemsex takes as its principal focus: the film sets out to investigate what it describes as a “hidden healthcare emergency” in London. We’re introduced to guys who slam [inject] the amount of crystal meth that would last most users several days in a single hit. We see disturbing interviews of men in the midst of crystal meth psychoses, or in the throes of the intense euphoria having just injected methedrone (a drug rarely seen in Australia, unlike crystal meth).

While the film presents footage of a variety of different drug practices, it’s injecting (rather than the much more common habit of snorting, or smoking methamphetamine) that features most prominently in the film, and the eerie soundtrack by Daniel Harle trains the viewer to lump all these practices together as the same, disturbingly abject and sinister, phenomenon.[2]

For those unfamiliar with gay fetish scenes, this effect would be compounded by the documentary’s graphic footage of gay BDSM activities and group sex.

For those less fazed by such practices, the participants’ openness to allowing straight male documentarians to film them is probably the real source of astonishment. But then, when people are high on psychoactive drugs, they’re prepared to do a lot of things they’d normally be reticent about, as Chemsex in general amply demonstrates.

 Relocating Partying

The topic has received a flurry of attention and alarm in British public health circles recently, but the phenomenon itself is not new: it’s been a source of concern and excitement in urban gay centres in the West for over a decade.

In the early 2000s drugs such as crystal methamphetamine and GHB replaced ecstasy as drugs of choice for a subset of gay men, while the internet replaced socializing as the most common way of looking for sexual partners. In this context, it became possible to party at home and cruise for partners without going out in public. Activities that once took place at saunas, dance parties and cruising grounds were gradually relocated to private homes and became much easier to organise and more accessible from these locations. The communal pleasures of the dance-floor gave way to the erotic intensities of sex on drugs, which – for many enthusiasts – seemed to cut to the chase at any rate.

But many of us gays miss dancing, and the changing geography of gay partying has also given rise to new dangers – indeed, sometimes very serious ones. It’s hard to know when to ‘call it a night’ when there’s no risk of the DJ stopping playing, and drugs like crystal meth can keep you buzzing for days. Not only is crystal easy to integrate into domestic practices and everyday routines, it seems designed for repeat administration (just ask truck drivers or computer workaholics). In short, it’s frighteningly easy to become dependent on it for a range of different purposes.

Meanwhile, taking too much G can cause users to lose consciousness, become comatose and (in the worst-case scenario) die. Unlike some clubs and dance events, private homes are rarely equipped the right care and emergency services to prevent these occurrences. In their own ways, then, each of these drugs demonstrate the critical significance of “the learning of doses and the manner of preparation”, to recall Stengers’ comments.

 Sex in the Era of HIV/AIDS

There’s a lot to be learnt from Chemsex about the complexities of gay sex in the wake of the HIV epidemic, which has ravaged this community for the past 30 years. Despite the availability of effective treatment and much better therapeutic prospects for people living with HIV, gay men are still processing the traumatic effects of the epidemic and its cultural impacts on sexual desires, fears and intimacy. For at least some men, drugs seem to provide the most ready-to-hand contemporary solution to the age-old question, ‘how to have sex in an epidemic’. (But this must ultimately an indictment on the state of sex education today, which tends to be organised around reproduction rather than the practicalities of achieving sexual happiness, especially when it comes to the desires of non-heterosexuals).

For some gay men growing up in this context, drugs facilitate a process of what psychologists call ‘cognitive disengagement’ from the many fears and stipulations associated with having sex in the shadow of HIV/AIDS. [3]

For other gay men, these substances are simply valued for much the same reason that many in the wider community value alcohol: They can make sex more fun, sensual, intense, uninhibited and/or easier to negotiate.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the difficulty of fostering intimate or effective relationships when the process of arranging sex is divorced from other social contexts, as it is on digital platforms – and the dangerous effects of the isolation some men experience as a consequence.

We meet David Stuart, the founder of the pioneering program at 56 Dean St (a London sexual health clinic) that provides much-needed services to gay men who find themselves in trouble as a result their drug use for sexual purposes combined with this sense of isolation.   As Stuart reports, hook-up apps and websites have made chemsex much more visible and easier to access in the course of looking for gay friends or sexual partners in the city.

What the film neglects to mention, though, is that chemsex remains a minority practice within this population,[2] and that many app-users remain quite capable of exercising what they believe to be the best judgment.

Chemsex also provides us with rare accounts of what people enjoy about sex on drugs and the happiness and connections it has allows some men occasionally to develop. Rarely, though, does it take these accounts at face value. More often they seem to be framed as delusional. But this is it’s mistake. These ‘good’ experiences are precisely the reason that some men continue to use these drugs in full knowledge of their dangerous possibilities in some situations.

Against the idea that drug use is always the product of some state of reckless abandon, there is fascinating footage in the film of the careful lengths some men go to arrange group sexual encounters that are consensual, pleasurable and free of unwanted dangers.

One fellow organising a sex party at his home even goes to the trouble of drawing up a detailed timetable to schedule his guests’ G consumption as a way of ensuring their safety. Indeed, the film could have said much more about the techniques and ‘manners of preparation’ some gay men have devised to occasionally enjoy the pleasures of drugs, while keeping themselves and their partners relatively safe from harm. Indeed, these techniques are much more interesting and important to their practitioners than the film seems prepared to give them credit for.

 Unconstructively Moralizing

Unsurprisingly, normative morality about both sex and drug use is centrally at play here. Chemsex is framed in such a way that the many pleasures associated with illicit sex and drugs are only ever allowed to emerge as dangerous. The spectacle of non-normative sex and illicit substance-use gives the film an ominous tone that works against a more constructive treatment of its subject matter.

If you want to get a sense of how moral fears about gay sex are being exploited to frame our emotional responses to Chemsex, imagine setting the film’s creepy music as the soundtrack for a documentary about the activities and excesses associated with popular mainstream events like Melbourne Cup, or St Patrick’s Day, or Anzac Day. I guess it would make a good comedy. But most garden variety, casual drinkers just wouldn’t take it seriously. Nor should they.

By treating the drugs it deals with as inherently bad, and stabilizing the pharmakon in this way, Chemsex ultimately fails to find an appropriate “register of attention” to deal with its subject matter. For this reason, I worry that the film runs the risk of doing more harm than good, by further marginalizing the vast majority of occasional users (not to mention casual sex enthusiasts).

This is a great shame, because people’s emotional and social circumstances change, making them much more vulnerable to some of the situations the film deals with, which are undoubtedly concerning.

Despite the (presumably) good intentions of the directors, what Chemsex demonstrates most powerfully is that the complexities of gay sex and drug use demand much more careful, creative, open and intimate forms of attention.

Ultimately, Chemsex sells gay men out and deprives gay drug users of even the slightest sense of agency by portraying them as inevitable victims of their own – “pathological” – sexuality.  In this sense, the makers themselves put it best: “It’s a horror story”.

 

****

The original, truncated version of this review was published in The Conversation

Footnotes

[1] Isabelle Stengers (2015) In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Lüneburg: Meson.

[2] Rates of injecting are much higher and have increased much more steadily in London compared to Sydney gay men, among whom they have remained stable at around a third of the 11% of gay men who have used crystal meth at all in the last six months in community samples for some years now. In 2014, only 4% of gay men surveyed report regular use of crystal meth (defined as ‘at least monthly’). The findings of these surveys are presented here.  Some experts attribute the higher rates of injecting among gay men in London to the availability of the drug mephedrone, which is much more painful to snort than most other uppers, but rarely a part of chemsex practices in Australia.

[3] See Race, K. (2009). Pleasure Consuming Medicine: the queer politics of drugs. Durham: Duke University Press, Chapter 7.

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The Gay Science

Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV

I’m in the throes of preparing my manuscript for Routledge on gay sex and HIV prevention in the pharmaceutical and digital context

And I think my aha! moment has finally struck me.  My key wager is that science and related knowledge practices should both be guided by, and promote, an embracing of the pleasures some seek in sex.

Because science, too, is best when it feels the risk of its involvement – but also acknowledges its investment in – being transformatively affected by its encounters, experienced as events.

The determining question is the range of feelings one activates in response to such events.

I’m using this proposition to frame a range of social scientific and gay male sexual responses to HIV/AIDS in our digital times. What happens when we treat the sexual and social practices of affected groups as situated experiments and consider how they get articulated with the problems HIV science and policy put forward?

My thinking derives much of its energy from bringing the later work of Foucault on problematisation and ‘bodies and pleasures’ into conversation with A.N. Whitehead’s adventurous definition of events.

For an early experiment with this, see my piece ‘Reluctant Objects’ in the first edition of GLQ this year, 2016.

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Reluctant Objects, out now

My piece on PREP and sexual pleasure has now been published in the first ed of GLQ this year.  Linked here for those who can’t access through uni libraries.  Hope you enjoy!

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Exceptional Sex

How does crystal meth participate in the continuing experience of HIV among gay men, and how have responses to HIV shaped gay men’s crystal meth use and surrounding practices?  The topic recurs with surprising regularity in gay community discourse:  We’ve had a number of excellent community forums on this issue in Australia in the last few months alone – and seen the production of some useful resources locally and internationally – yet some of the themes, findings and positions taken in these forums have persisted for a decade if not more.

Exceptional Sex was an attempt I made in 2007 to make sense of the evolving construction of “the Tina epidemic”, or whatever you’d like to call it – #WiredPlay, #Chemsex, #PNP, the “double epidemic”.  Each of these terms have tried to do the work of naming, in different geographical contexts, what nevertheless seem to be some common patterns and emerging forms in urban gay scenes internationally.

I’m sharing Exceptional Sex here because I think the analysis if offers remains topical, but the text itself is hard to access in electronic form.  (You can always buy the book  hint hint – Pleasure Consuming Medicine (Duke UP 2009), where the essay was later published).

But I’m also curious – what’s changed?  what’s stayed the same? what’s missing? where do we go from here?

What can we make of this issue?

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