Bling, Burberry and back to their council flat: that's 'chavinism', innit?

A study of a form of gay class tourism has raised some unusual ethical issues, writes Matthew Reisz

July 21, 2011

Credit: Alamy
Roughing it in chavland: Mild role play or the unselective male libido?

Researchers are facing uncommon ethical dilemmas as they aim to shed new light on a form of gay class tourism sometimes known as "chavinism".

The project arises out of a paper written by Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, and Gavin Jack, now professor of management at La Trobe University in Australia.

Although the term is both pejorative and stereotypical, they write, "chavs are imagined as young working-class men and women, usually white, with a taste for particular kinds of sportswear, branded goods and ostentatious diamond and gold jewellery, whose vernacular mixes R&B slang with text-message code".

"Chavinist" behaviour, as christened by one participant in the research, consists of "gay men buying clothes in order to dress as chavs, listening to or watching recordings of chavs having sex...or even seeking 'real' sex with tracksuit-wearing, baseball-cap-sporting youths" at "chav nights" in clubs.

Such role-playing can lead to a certain amount of confusion.

The paper cites the case of one middle-class gay couple who tried to pick up "'Burberry-capped' Rob" for a threesome and said they "wouldn't mind going back to his council flat" - only to discover he was just as affluent as them.

Professor Brewis and Professor Jack did not carry out fieldwork - which might anyway have posed difficulties for the former as a woman - but drew on a first-hand account, along with sources such as chat lines, articles in gay consumer magazines, advertisements for club nights and pornographic films.

The phenomenon of "chavinism", they argue, tends to undermine "safe" images of "the gay man as desexualised, cultured, bourgeois consumer par excellence". But did it offer genuine opportunities for working-class gay men or turn them into sex objects?

Was it just "a harmless postmodern game of dressing up", "a licensed, short-lived transgression for the professional middle classes" or a form of behaviour that reinforced "the familiar construction of the male libido as utterly unselective"?

It is questions such as these that Professor Brewis hopes to examine in further research looking at "people's experiences of chavinism, their motivations for getting involved and what effect it is having on the wider gay scene". Yet the obvious approaches raise both practical and ethical issues, many of them not covered by standard protocols.

Ethnographic research involving active participation would clearly lead to questions about informed consent (and what "participation" might consist of).

A "netnographic" approach may mean signing up to a site such as Gaydar, but would it be legitimate to use the resulting blogs or interactions as data?

Another option would be to advertise for people willing to take part or interviewing people such as nightclub owners, whom Professor Brewis describes as "cultural intermediaries involved in managing chavs as a consumer product".

A further option is for Professor Jack to carry out a comparative study to see whether the figure of the "bogan", perhaps the closest Australian equivalent to the "chav", plays a similar role in gay culture and fantasy.

"I see the subject as a critical case both in terms of subject matter and methodology," Professor Brewis said. "There hasn't been enough research about sexuality and class and I feel there is still a lot more mileage in it."

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