Tag Archives: geographies of sexualities

Let’s talk about sex

By Sam Miles, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

How do researchers go about interviewing people about sex and sexualities? To what extent do we – or should we – share our own experiences? And what kind of ‘spaces’ do these highly personal conversations fit into?

The (in)famous male-male dating and hook-up app Grindr recently celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the anniversary, a whole range of articles have cropped up variously celebrating and lamenting Grindr’s influence across the world (by which I mean literally across the world – it counts nearly 4 million active users across 234 different countries (Grindr, 2019)). What makes this generation of mobile phone matchmakers different from the online platforms that went before them, for example Gaydar, match.com, Yahoo chatrooms? Apps such as Grindr are GPS-enabled, which enables users to ‘rank’ other users of the app by proximity, ensuring that potential matches can be discovered and introduced in real-time across physical space.

Reflecting on Grindr’s first decade, The BBC identifies a ‘rocky relationship’, whilst VICE magazine explores Grindr’s relationship with identity fraud and drug-based ‘chemsex’; meanwhile, Gay Times reports that 56% of Grindr users believe they can find true love on the app. Whatever your opinion on it – and there are many – there is no doubt that this mobile phone matchmaker, along with its competitors Hornet, Scruff & Jack’d, has had a profound impact on gay and bisexual communities. These apps have also opened up new avenues for men seeking sex with men (MSM) who for whatever reason – familial, cultural, or religious – do not identify as gay or bisexual.

The bigger question raised by these recent articles seems to be: how do dating and hook-up apps impact on same-sex and queer relationships today? This question cannot be answered by quantitative usage data alone. After all, we know that high usage does not necessarily mean high popularity. We need to explore peoples’ real life experiences in order to more fully understand the impact of dating and hook-up apps on same-sex and queer relationships.

I decided that the best way to get a detailed understanding of how these apps influence sexual and social behaviours would be to interview users about their experiences online, offline, and in the ‘hybrid’ space bridging the two, where virtual introductions result in real-life encounters. My doctoral research revealed some important findings: (1) that dating and hook-up apps play a significant role in how men now meet other men, especially within wider debates about the ‘death of the gay bar’, and (2) that the relationship between mobile phone dating app users and the people they meet can be awkward, with social cues yet to catch up to the sophistication of the technologies in use.

The sensitive nature of the research topic meant that there was an array of ethical and practical challenges for me to grapple with during my doctoral fieldwork. In my recent Area paper, I reflect on some of these challenges and explore how researchers and participants can work together to create a meaningful space that not only enables data collection, but facilitates honest and valuable conversation.  In this context, my Area paper offers one way (of many out there) in which social science researchers can make a productive, protected space for sensitive interviews. I also consider what the researcher’s responsibility should be for a participant’s safety in this discursive space.

I reflect on how ‘involved’ I should be as a researcher. I’m a person, not a robot, and several decades of feminist research has already explored the strengths and issues bound up in bringing ‘yourself’ into the research field (for example, see Bain & Nash (2006) and Smith (2016)). But the opposite extreme of the objective, positivist robot researcher is the inappropriately involved one, a role which would be both institutionally unethical and personally unacceptable. I therefore identified my own boundaries as well as the participants’s boundaries. The result was a co-constructed discursive space that we worked together to construct, perhaps surprisingly, in totally public venues and in one-off, hour-long interviews rather than more private or longer-term meetings. These were not ‘intimate’ spaces in a traditional sense, but nevertheless the space-within-a-space that we constructed invited app users to speak about highly personal experiences, some for the first time ever.

I also make the case for the using public places for staging sensitive conversations. The assumption that private matters cannot be discussed in public requires a rethink. Public spaces like libraries or cafes enfold within them more private spaces – not just actual booths or nooks, although these can contribute – but I’m thinking here about more conceptual spaces. These are built simply via one-to-one, in-person conversation in a space where a hubbub of background talking, or the hiss of coffee machines brewing, provides a backdrop to conversation that can be very productive.

Finally, when it comes to dating and hook-up apps in particular, I suggest that people are particularly keen to share their views because the social norms of dating app use are so complex and still so poorly understood. For lots of people online dating remains taboo. In this context, the chance to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences when it came to the digitally-introduced, physically-involved relationships these platforms offer may have been liberating.

Love dating apps or hate them (or both), what I hope the article communicates is that we need to talk more with users about the ways in which technologies impact on our personal lives, in order to think about the social codes developing from their use that will inform a whole range of wider contexts.

About the author: Sam Miles is a qualitative social sciences researcher who focuses on young people, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and technology. Sam is based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

References:

Bain, A., & Nash, C. (2006) Undressing the researcher: Feminism, embodiment and sexuality at a queer bathhouse event. Area, 38, 99–106. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00663.x

Damshenas, S. (2019) 56% of Grindr users believe they can find love on the app, study finds. Gay Times. Retrieved from: https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/community/119691/56-of-grindr-users-believe-they-can-find-love-on-the-app-study-finds/

Fox, L. (2019) 10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47668951

Grindr. (2019) Grindr.com. Retrieved from: https://www.grindr.com/

Miles, S. (2017) Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1595-1610: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1340874?tab=permissions&scroll=top

Miles, S. (2018) Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass. e12407. ISSN 1749-8198 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12407

Miles, S. (2019) “I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research. AREA. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/area.12550

Smith, S. (2016) Intimacy and angst in the field. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 134–146.

Staples, L. (2019) Grindr Users Talk Highs and Lows After Ten Years of the App. VICE Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59x83d/grindr-users-talks-highs-and-lows-after-ten-years-of-the-app-1

Before same-sex marriage: finding ‘homonormativity’ in rural Wales in the early 1980s

By Gavin Brown (University of Leicester)

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

World Pride Toronto (June 2014). Photo Credit: Gavin Brown

On 26 June 2015 the US Supreme Court ruled that state-level bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Four days before marriage equality was approved in the United States, the Pitcairn Islands, with a population of just 48 people (and no known same-sex couples) also joined the growing list of nations to recognize and allow same-sex marriage. The accelerating acceptance of same-sex marriage around the world is part of a wider trend, over the last two decades, of greater social tolerance towards sex and gender minorities in many countries. This has been accompanied by new forms of legal recognition and protection for lesbian, gay and transgender people in some countries (at the same time as more repressive legislation has been threatened or enacted elsewhere).

Geographers and other social scientists have attempted to understand and make sense of these changes in social attitudes. One popular explanation is that these changes are an expression of a ‘new homonormativity’. This concept was first articulated by Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, who argued that the incorporation of some lesbian and gay people (particularly those in settled couples) into American society’s normative understandings of appropriate sexual conduct was an expression of ‘the sexual politics of neoliberalism’. By this, she meant that society was increasingly willing to accept and support lesbian and gay people who took responsibility for their own well-being (without recourse to state welfare benefits) and who preferred to express their sexuality within domestic spaces rather than the public sexual cultures of earlier (lesbian and) gay neighbourhoods in major urban centres. Homonormativity is said to have domesticated gay culture. ‘Homonormative’ lifestyles are understood to be socially liberal, but fiscally and sexually conservative.

As I have previously argued (Brown 2012), although there is a lot of merit in many analyses of contemporary ‘homonormativity’, too often they focus on the experiences of people living in major urban centres (in Europe and North America) at the expense of those living in provincial cities, smaller towns and rural areas. By studying lesbian and gay lives in a wider range of locations, it is possible to reconsider what it means to be socially ‘normative’, and what it takes for sexual minorities to fit in, or feel part of, different types of localities. The geographical study of sexuality and sexual politics is diminished if scholars over-emphasize urban (and specifically metropolitan) sexual cultures at the expense of other places.

In the 1970s, lesbian and gay subcultures became more visible in the urban landscape and many lesbians and gay men migrated to large cities in the hope of finding community and the possibility of leading more open lives. At the same time, and in parallel with a wider ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, smaller numbers of lesbians and gay men left the cities for a ‘simpler’, more self-sufficient, and ‘environmentally friendly’ life in rural areas. I have recently been revisiting the archives of a lesbian and gay organization from the period, the Gay Rural Aid and Information Network (GRAIN), which offered practical support and encouragement to gay people who wanted to move to rural England and Wales (see my paper published recently in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers). Although many in the network believed that they were socially and politically progressive, I find their rejection of urban gay subcultures and their promotion to domestic-level self-reliance, to be more complex and contradictory, at times being socially and sexually conservative. Even so, the economic practices pursued by these lesbian farmers and gay smallholders were far removed from the emerging (urban) neoliberal economies from which they had fled. They engaged in all sorts of non-waged labour, domestic production, bartering and skill-swaps. Some of these practices were part of their ideological commitment to living sustainably on the land; but they also helped to embed them, as lesbians and gay men, in the existing diverse economies of the rural areas to which they had moved. Although these people (and the places where they lived) are very different to those normally considered in debates about contemporary ‘homonormativity’, I believe traces of emergent homonormative beliefs and practices can be found in their lives.

Thinking about the diversity of economic practices and social relations that might be associated with the emergence of homonormative attitudes over recent decades emphasizes that ‘homonormativity’ is not as a single entity, but a cluster of traits, relationships and values. Geographers can make an important contribution to understanding homonormativity by demonstrating that homonormativities are multiple, as well as time and place specific. A cultural and historical geography approach to these questions can help find traces of homonormativity in some very unexpected places.

About the author:

Gavin Brown is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester where he leads the Critical and Creative Geographies research group.

60-world2 BBC (2015), ‘US Supreme Court rules gay marriage is legal nationwide’, 27 June,

books_icon Brown, G. (2012), “Homonormativity: a metropolitan concept that denigrates ‘ordinary’ gay lives,” Journal of Homosexuality 59 (7): 1065 – 1072.

books_icon Brown, G. (2015), ‘Rethinking the origins of homonormativity: the diverse economies of rural gay life in England and Wales in the 1970s and 1980s’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, doi: 10.1111/tran.12095

60-world2 The Guardian (2015), ‘Pitcairn Island, population 48, passes law to allow same-sex marriage’, The Guardian, 22 June

60-world2 Halberstadt, A. (2015), “Out of the Woods”, New York Times, 6 August.