Under the Gaydar

For decades, gay men lived in a 'virtual' world outside the mainstream, so links between the subculture and the web are both logical and ripe for scrutiny. Matthew Reisz cruises the 'queer digital spaces' with academic Sharif Mowlabocus

October 21, 2010

"Uni_cock" is a pseudonym for a members-only website that offers very much what it says on the tin. It is based in a real British university and is solely devoted to facilitating quick anonymous sex within semi-public spaces.

A typical posting gets straight to the point: "14:07: Hi, I am now about ready and waiting for cock...will be around (name of building) toilets for the next hour or so...let me know guys!"

The sheer urgency of the request means it is likely to be taken up solely by men working within the university or very nearby.

Such "cybercottaging" is just one of the topics explored in a new book by Sharif Mowlabocus, lecturer in media studies at the University of Sussex, titled Gaydar Culture: Gay Men, Technology and Embodiment in the Digital Age (Ashgate). After a broad overview of the changing contexts for the British gay subculture since 1984, other chapters consider the nature of "digital cruising", the huge expansion in online dating sites such as Gaydar and the much more contentious area of "barebacking" (unprotected anal sex).

It is surely possible to work in a university for years without ever wondering how many blow-jobs take place in the lavatories. But as well as providing an intriguing new perspective on academic life, how did Mowlabocus see his book as developing - and perhaps subverting - the different academic disciplines it touches upon?

"Much of the earlier writing about gays and the internet didn't match up with my own or my friends' experience," he replies. "Television programmes such as Sex and the City and Queer as Folk were quick to spot gay men's use of the internet, especially for cruising, but it took a while for academics to catch up with popular culture.

"I also felt that digital studies started off by making some of the same mistakes as media studies and cultural studies, in that non-heterosexual communities were not taken into account. When people asked questions about whether the internet was providing a sense of community, their idea of 'community' didn't ring true to me."

While Sussex, where he is a member of the Brighton and Sussex Sexualities Network, offers an excellent environment for his areas of research, Mowlabocus still feels that issues of gender and sexuality tend to get sidelined within internet studies.

Yet there are at least two good reasons for exploring the links between gay men and the digital. One is a kind of natural affinity, argues Gaydar Culture: "The 'real world' is a heterosexual world, or at least has been, and it continues to be dominated by the norms of heterosexual thinking and being. Gay male identities and lives have thus been 'virtual' to the extent that they have had to be constructed, maintained and mapped alongside the world of 'normal' life." An enthusiastic embrace of the possibilities offered by queer digital spaces was only to be expected.

Furthermore, having lived in Brighton, Britain's "gay capital", for more than 10 years, Mowlabocus has seen for himself exactly how the internet has changed lifestyles.

"Where once cruising for sex in the 'rainbow city' meant standing on a freezing cold seafront for hours," he writes, "by the 2000s this term had expanded to include sitting at home, logging on to a website, chatting to someone on IRC (internet relay chat) and then (depending on who was more eager) either jumping on a bus to get to their flat or waiting around for them to turn up at yours."

This has not, however, meant the end of "traditional cruising grounds", since "the briefest of walks along Hove Lawns or down to Duke's Mound on a summer's evening will illustrate that these are by no means redundant spaces, and have not been vacated by men having sex with other men".

Any serious analysis of the gay male subculture now needs to take account of both real and virtual domains, and the constant traffic between them, he argues.

Mowlabocus' approach is both academic and highly personal. One chapter looks at the text and imagery used in members' profiles on Gaydar and the ways these draw extensively on pornographic motifs.

His analysis, he tells us, relies on "deploying a psychoanalytic reading that draws critical strength from feminist film theory". But he also stops to spell out his response to a picture of someone who calls himself "hotMA2guy". Mowlabocus is left largely unmoved by the clichéd clenched fist, shaved head, bomber jacket and macho posturing. What really interests him are hints of other dimensions in the life of "hotMA2guy", as revealed by the fridge magnet in the background.

Like an upmarket gay club or bar, Gaydar represents a safely gay space for men to meet, helps overcome any isolation they may feel in a straight world, gives them a place in the gay global village - and, incidentally, offers a great venue for advertisers chasing the "pink pound".

It is also, regardless of sexuality, the largest dating website in the UK. To that extent, it counts as essentially "respectable", part of what Mowlabocus describes as "the mainstream gay middle-class culture represented in films and on television". Yet he is also interested in examining forms of behaviour that cause anxiety even within this "mainstream" gay community, never mind the Daily Mail.

"I totally support civil partnerships as a move towards civil rights for gays," he says, "but there are also worries about the dangers of assimilating to more widespread norms. Some people will want to rebel against them or feel that they don't fit in with the way they live, so there are costs as well as very genuine benefits."

"Cottaging" has sometimes been seen as outmoded, a form of release that closeted and often married men indulged in before homosexuality became legal and acceptable, and which gay liberation would do away with. Yet it still seems to be thriving in at least one of our universities - perhaps, Mowlabocus suggests, as a hedonistic reaction to more sanitised and respectable kinds of gay lifestyle.

A far more striking and controversial form of rebellion is barebacking, where sexual partners ignore the widely observed strictures of the "condom code". (Some even direct their ire at the "condom Nazis" of the health agencies for interfering in their sex lives.) Mowlabocus focuses on two websites.

One is designed like a 1950s American diner and features options such as "smorg-ass-board" and "hot spicy links". It takes the view that, since unprotected sex acts are taking place, they ought to be discussed and made as safe as possible. The other openly celebrates the transgressiveness of barebacking ("We are the premiere home for all you studs who crave the feeling that only raw sex can provide. Who's afraid of the big, bad bug?"). Both refuse to abide by the standard rhetoric of safe sex and treat HIV as a real but manageable risk.

Although careful not to take sides in the fierce debates about barebacking, Mowlabocus suggests that "we have to see it as part of gay male culture and as emerging out of a highly successful campaign against HIV infection, though for some people risk has now become re-energised as erotic. There is a diversity within gay culture that needs to be continually remembered and explored."

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