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Keywords:

  • internet;
  • HIV;
  • gay men;
  • sexualities;
  • public health

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

This paper addresses how London gay men use the internet to meet sexual partners, or for e-dating. Based on qualitative interviews conducted face-to-face or via the internet, this research develops an account of how information technologies mediate the negotiation of identity and risk in connection with sexual practice. E-dating itself is a bricolage, or heterogeneous DIY practice of internet-based-communication (IBC). A central aspect of IBC is ‘filtering’ in and out prospective e-dates based on the images and texts used to depict sexual identities. Interpretations and depictions of personal HIV risk management approaches in IBC are framed by the meanings of different identities, such as the stigma associated with being HIV positive. This paper argues for a sexualities perspective in a theory of network society. Further, HIV prevention in e-dating can potentially be addressed by considering the interplay of the HIV prevention imperatives associated with different HIV serostatus identities. There is a case for encouraging more explicit IBC about risk in e-dating and incorporating the expertise of e-daters in prevention activity. There is also a need to rethink traditional conceptions of risk management in HIV prevention to make space for the risk management bricolage of network society.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Gay men appear to have taken to the internet with alacrity. Between a third and a half of gay men in London report that they have used the internet to find sexual partners (e-dating) (Bolding et al. 2005, Elford et al. 2001, 2004c). According to its co-founder, Gay.com, a gay e-dating website, was at one point rated among the top 25 of all websites in terms of ‘. . . number of return visits, page views and time spent on the site . . . . . . [with] 10 million visits each month, with more than 100 million page views’ (Ellis et al. 2002: 33).

There is also a growing literature concerning sexualities and the internet. For example, researchers have explored the construction of sexual identity in internet communication (McKenna et al. 2001), the lesbian online community (Burke 2000), and ‘cybersexuality’ (Hamman 1997). The sexual potential of the internet is well recognised. Castells (2000) has made reference to the French Minitel system, noting how the sexual potential of the service was soon discovered and that its economic viability was due in part to its popularity as a method for dating.

Despite the apparent significance of e-dating for gay men, we are aware of only a handful of qualitatively-oriented studies of the experience of gay and other homosexually active men in the information society (Carballo-Dieguez 2001, McClelland 2002). Further, the recent ESRC ‘Virtual society?’ research programme does not appear to have explored sexualities and the information society (Woolgar 2002). E-dating among gay men, therefore, presents a significant opportunity for researching sexualities in the information society.

Another justification for attention to e-dating among gay men is HIV prevention. Increases in risky sexual practice among gay men have been reported in the UK and elsewhere (Elford and Hart 2003). Researchers have found an association between use of the internet and risky sex (Bolding et al. 2005, Elford et al. 2001, 2004c). While some have speculated that the internet may increase risk because it is anonymous (Rietmeijer et al. 2001) and facilitates increased numbers of sexual meetings (Bull and McFarlane 2000) others have questioned whether the internet per se creates a risk for HIV transmission (Bolding et al. 2005). Researchers have also begun to explore how to conduct HIV prevention through the internet (Bolding et al. 2004, Hospers et al. 2002).

The relationship, however, between internet-mediated sexual practice, risk for HIV transmission and the related challenge of preventing HIV cannot be separated from several other aspects of HIV risk. For example, the advent of widespread e-dating coincides with the advent of another ‘technology’, HIV treatment, and the emergence of a ‘post-crisis’ sensibility among communities affected by the epidemic (Watney 2000). Since the mid-1990s, effective HIV treatment has become available, altering the meaning of HIV infection (Flowers 2001). Effective treatment has also created a constellation of ‘. . .  manufactured uncertainties’ for the management of the epidemic (Beck 1998: 12). Examples are the role of treatment in preventing HIV infection, the rise of drug-resistant forms of HIV and an increased focus on the sexual conduct of the growing numbers of healthy and sexually active people with HIV infection (Marks et al. 1999).

Addressing the role of the internet in HIV prevention is also complicated by a moral panic about so-called barebacking among gay men that centres on e-dating (Rofes 1999). Part of this panic concerns seeking sex without condoms via the internet, particularly among gay men with HIV (Elford et al. 2004a, Signorile 1997). The panic about e-dating and risky sex also meshes with another debate in HIV prevention about the responsibilities of gay men with HIV in containing HIV transmission (Summerside and Davis 2002).

E-dating is therefore imbued with the post-crisis uncertainties and contests over HIV prevention, creating a research question about whether it is a ‘site’ for working out a practical ethics for HIV prevention in the contemporary epidemic situation. These various risk management aspects of e-dating need to be addressed to help ground an increasingly complicated and sometimes polemical debate about HIV prevention.

There is also a theoretical opportunity in research about e-dating. Much of the research about sex and the internet draws on the idea that it is a boundless, virtual space with both great potential and inherent danger. Research about sex and the internet has also relied on notions of pathology such as addiction and paraphilia, therefore setting aside less sensational aspects of the day-to-day experience of e-dating (Griffiths 2001). Such research also verges on techno-determinism, treating the internet itself as a ‘black box’. In contrast, we want to suggest that internet technology can be understood through the notion of reflexivity and some of its critical applications (Adkins 2002).

Hardey (1999) has provided a detailed description of heterosexual e-dating that establishes the relevance of cyber reflexivity and internet-mediated erotic interaction. For example, one of the most significant developments in the internet has been ‘browsing’, where users inspect web-pages and ‘surf’ according to their own preferences (Hardey 1999). Browsing was partly developed to address a practical problem of the size and rapid growth in online knowledge that made traditional systems of knowledge access, such as indexes, unworkable. In a sense, the idea of an internet user free to browse reflects and has enabled the development of the internet. The do-it-yourself rationality of browsing can also be connected with reflexive biography (Giddens 1991). In this regard, the use of the internet can be addressed in terms of engagement with self-construction, trust and security. A reflexive turn in research about the internet, and particularly e-dating, has a double relevance. For example, Giddens has argued that the self of late modernity finds itself in erotic relations, creating questions about how e-dating is used to construct the desiring self and to pursue ontological security (Giddens 1990: 122). Hardey has also developed this idea of cyber-reflexivity in connection with Goffman's notion of the interaction order (Hardey 2002, 2004). Goffman's (1983) conception of the interaction order hinges on the idea of ‘co-bodily presence’ (1983: 4). This idea of the boundedness of face-to-face interaction stresses embodied social experience, but also lays the theoretical grounds for thinking about what practices like e-dating might bring to the interaction order. For instance, Goffman also hinted at the potential for the telephone to extend the interaction order in time and space (1983: 13). Using the idea of co-presence, Hardey (2004) holds that the social practice of e-dating is applied by subjects interested in constructing offline, erotic relations. E-dating is distinct from face-to-face interaction because users can stage their online presence in interactions to their own advantage, gradually releasing information about appearance and interests to potential partners. E-dating is therefore bound up with the presentation of self, where emphasis is placed on the management of the textual and pictorial signs of identity such as status, gender, age, appearance and difference. But at the same time, e-dating follows a general logic of depicting the self to further erotic relations that will work online and offline – that is, in different arrangements of bodily co-presence. Following this interactionist perspective, inquiry about risk and the internet turns to describing how gay men achieve offline sexual interaction via online communication about their sexual preferences, their approach to safer sex, knowledge of HIV antibody status and the related imperatives of HIV prevention.

This paper therefore addresses e-dating with the aim of developing an interactionist account of the internet, sex and risk and its implications for the network society. The analysis draws on qualitative interviews with gay men about their personal experience of e-dating, with reference to the management of online presence and interaction, HIV sero-identity and methods of HIV prevention. This paper therefore addresses a gap in research knowledge concerning the personal-experience accounts of gay men about their e-dating practices with reference to HIV prevention.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Background

This paper is based on qualitative interviews conducted as part of an MRC study that used mixed (quantitative and qualitative) methods to address e-dating and HIV risk behaviour among London gay men (Elford et al. 2004b). The qualitative component of the MRC study had an iterative design. In the first phase we conducted interviews with gay men to explore the social practice of e-dating and to provide a conceptual framework for further qualitative research (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Phase 1 interviews were conducted ‘offline’ in the traditional face-to-face (FTF) mode and ‘online’ using synchronous internet relay chat-style software (Mann and Stewart 2002). Online chat (OLC) interviews were conducted to include e-daters who did not wish to do face-to-face interviews and to assess online chat as a data generation method (Davis et al. 2004). Based on these interviews, we conducted a second phase of ‘risk episode’ interviews, online and offline, with additional gay men including those who did not use or had stopped using the internet to find sexual partners. These methods have been described in detail elsewhere (Elford et al. 2004b). We combined FTF and OLC data from phase 1 and phase 2 interviews in our analysis, because these forms of data did not appear to provide contradictory depictions of e-dating and its connections with HIV prevention.

Sampling

Volunteers for the qualitative interviews were recruited when they had completed an online or pen and paper questionnaire for the quantitative arm of the study (Elford et al. 2004b). As such, interviewees were drawn from the recruitment sites for the quantitative arm: an HIV treatment clinic; HIV testing clinics; gyms used by gay men; and gay e-dating internet sites (Elford et al. 2004b). Additional purposive criteria were adopted to promote the relevance of the research for different e-daters: a range of ages; differing educational attainment and employment; different HIV serostatus; and differing patterns of using the internet for e-dating.

Volunteers for phase 1 interviews (n = 24) were recruited only from gay e-dating internet sites (UK chatrooms or profiles on gaydar and gay.com). They were interviewed either online (Internet (OLC) = 14) or offline (Internet (FTF) = 10). Volunteers for phase 2 interviews (n = 104) were drawn from all the recruitment sites for the quantitative arm. The combination of matching the recruitment sites for the quantitative research and the additional purposive criteria led to 104 phase 2 interviews (Internet (OLC): 21; Internet (FTF): 20); Gyms (FTF): 23; HIV testing (FTF): 20; HIV treatment (FTF): 20. All men said they lived in London and South East England. The overall sample had the following reported characteristics: Age-range; 20 to 66 years, median 36 years; Education-87 had a post-secondary qualification; Employment-92 were employed at the time of the interview; HIV status – HIV positive 38, HIV negative 73, untested 17, use of e-dating – Never, little, stopped 44, Mixed 36, Dominant/Exclusive 48.

The interviews

The interviews were conducted between October 2002 and January 2004 by MD. The same topic guide was used in both FTF and OLC situations. The interviewees were asked to compare and contrast e-dating and offline dating (with reference to efficiency, identity and risk). Interviewees were also asked to describe how they conducted e-dating with reference to HIV transmission risk and HIV anti-body serostatus. A generic e-dating online profile was used in the risk interviews to facilitate discussion, with reference to communication about approaches to safer sex. The interviewing practice followed the premise of the active interview method (Gubrium and Holstein 2002). All the interviews were between 45 and 120 minutes in duration. FTF interviews were audiotaped for transcription and analysis. The OLC texts were copy-pasted for later analysis.

Ethics

Interviewees were asked to provide written or email consent once they had read an information sheet that described the study purpose and how their interview would be anonymised and used in the research. Because the study included some online data generation, verbal/textual consent was also gained at the beginning, during (where needed) and at the end of all interviews (Eysenbach and Till 2001). The study was approved by the Research Ethics Committees for the City and East London Strategic Health Authority, the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust and City University London.

Analysis

Using constant comparison, themes were generated pertaining to accounts of e-dating and risk management (Strauss and Corbin 1998). Themes were justified with analytical memoranda. Analytical bias was addressed through transparent documentation (NVIVO), justifying the viability of themes with reference to negative cases and team-based interpretive analysis (Popay and Williams 1997, Silverman 2000). There is, however, an issue of generalisation concerning location. The accounts are specific to the experiences of interviewees in London, with the relatively large population and small distances afforded by the urban environment. E-daters living outside London may use e-dating in different ways. The interview extracts that appear in this paper are identified by their alphanumeric interview ID (P1 = Phase 1; P2 = Phase 2; FTF = face-to-face; OLC = online chat; I = Internet; G = gyms; C = HIV treatment clinic; T = HIV testing clinics), age, and the reported HIV status of the interviewee (HIV positive, HIV negative, untested).

Themes

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

The following section describes how the interviewees accounted for e-dating. First, we identify some of its key features with reference to internet-based-communication (IBC). We also make some comments about e-dating and the sexual culture of gay men. Next, we explore in more detail what appears to be a central aspect of e-dating to do with ‘filtering’, where e-daters choose to meet with other e-daters. We then address how filtering is mobilised according to the interpretation and self-construction of identity. The last section discusses how these aspects of e-dating are taken into the management of the risk of HIV transmission.

The IBC of e-dating

E-dating is a kind of information-technology ‘bricolage’ or DIY practice mobilised inside, and helping to extend, the sexual practice of gay men. E-dating, and the kinds of sexual networking it helps to sustain, echoes the practice of socialising for sex in public sex environments, such as cruising grounds and public toilets in cities and towns (Connell et al. 1993, Davis et al. 1991, Dowsett and Davis 1992). Like public sex environments, e-dating enables the connection and circulation of the sexually interested. Like public sex, e-dating concerns the material and symbolic management of sexual identity, desire and HIV risk. However, e-dating has a different kind of relationship with the social organisation of sexual practice. While public sex environments provide spatial foci for sexual action in urban environments, e-dating is a method for distributing sexual action in urban space.

In technical terms, e-dating is achieved by combining different forms of IBC. IBC includes registering membership on gay websites; posting online dating ‘profiles’ that specify appearance and sexual interests; browsing profiles to choose a likely partner; instant messaging to attract the attention of other e-daters and to gain more information; exchanging pictures to enhance the matching of sexual taste; synchronous chatting in chatroom environments; and e-mailing via external internet services. E-daters also use telephone calls and SMS text messaging to help organise meetings. Because it is a reference point for choosing e-dating partners, the online profile is a focus for e-dating.

Contrary to popular conceptions of the internet, online chat does not appear to take precedence. For example, some e-daters keep their dating browsers open for many hours, doing other tasks like house cleaning or working while they wait to see if they have attracted another e-dater. Few of the interviewees had ever engaged in sustained online communication with a person they had never met. The depiction of e-dating provided by our interviewees therefore differs from the notion of ‘online community’ described in cyber-ethnographies, which make much of the role of the internet in constructing new identities (Rival et al. 1998, Turkle 1995). In contrast, the interviewees we recruited did not appear to explore the sexual internet widely, restricting themselves to several gay-identified websites and thereby helping to construct a bounded ‘electronic milieu’ of sexual connectivity.

Because it was mainly exercised to facilitate meetings for sex, e-dating was not depicted as a replacement for face-to-face meeting. For example: ‘I don't think you can substitute one-to-one interaction’ (P1, FTF07, 31, HIV negative). Interviewees also expressed the limitations of e-dating compared with offline social interaction. In the next example, the interviewee compares and contrasts e-dating and bar culture:

I think I prefer bars! but the internet is a much easier medium!!! I try to think of it as a cyber bar and the rejection is easier online rather than face to face . . . . . . [But] I like to watch people! I like to see someone smile at me and the eye contact (P1, OLC07, 36, HIV negative).

E-dating appears to make it easier for users to cope with the rejection of social advances. Conversely, FTF interaction is valued for its potential for non-verbal communication. Further, the non-verbal drawback of e-dating contributed to ambiguity in communication:

. . . it's [IBC] not proper communication. It's like us talking now. That's proper communication. You can see my expression and you can hear the tone of my voice. Whereas on the internet, you can type something and it can be completely misconstrued . . . (P1, FTF10, 33, HIV negative).

As we have discussed elsewhere, e-dating relies on textual communication (Davis et al. 2004). Ambiguity is therefore a significant aspect of e-dating. Interviewees expressed awareness of these drawbacks, and therefore shaped their online communication to ensure that meaningful interaction was sustained.

It also seems to be the case that e-dating permeates offline society. This interviewee referred to using his e-dating profile URL with men he met in bars: ‘I actually prefer to meet people in a bar or a club and discover that they have a profile. And we exchange IDs and maybe get together later on’ (P1, FTF04, 47, untested). In this example, the profile URL takes the place of the phone number or the email address. Social interaction is therefore not only mediated by the internet, but through multi-faceted e-dating profiles. In addition sexual networking flows out of and into sexual cyberspace. In this sense, e-dating is threaded through sexual culture, supporting and embellishing it through the capacities of the internet to transfer information about sexual interests.

Another valued aspect of e-dating pertained to sexual practice itself. In this example, the interviewee explains how e-dating figures in the different methods for achieving sexual interaction and also underlines the connection it has with public sex environments:

MD: So if you had to kind of choose one way of getting sex, which would you choose?

Interviewee: Depends what kind of sex I wanted. If I wanted bareback sex then I would prefer the internet. If I wanted instant sex I'd go down to the cruising ground (P1, FTF03, 40, HIV positive).

Applied in this way, e-dating appears to help users to differentiate their sexual lives according to taste and whim. This example also draws attention to barebacking, where some gay men with HIV use e-dating to find other HIV positive sexual partners with whom to have sex without condoms, as observed in the quantitative arm of the study (Bolding et al. 2005).

Filtering

One of the central aspects of e-dating among gay men is ‘filtering’, a practice also described by Hardey (2004) among heterosexual e-daters. IBC provides different methods for mobilising partner choice, sexual practice and as we argue, HIV prevention. E-dating therefore serves the interaction order because it is a method for ‘. . . quiet sorting’ (Goffman 1983). It allows systematic arrangement of sexual encounters, revealing the production of sexual culture in the action of users. E-dating is also ‘extra-situational’ (Goffman 1983) in the sense that it prefigures offline co-presence, allowing users to establish some assumptions about their prospective partners and the sexual action that might take place. As noted by Hardey (2004), e-dating is also protective in the sense that it guards against risks to self-identity and by extension, HIV transmission. E-dating can therefore be construed as a kind of ‘hyper’ sorting of interactional life.

In the following example, the interviewee coined the terminology we adopted in our analysis: ‘Well it's a way of filtering out a lot of people who are manifestly not going to be interested in . . . . . . the things that I'm interested in’ (P1, FTF05, 56, untested). The term filtering summarises how e-daters choose between potential partners and also how they construct an online presence with reference to the filtering practices of other e-daters.

The underlying logic of filtering is choosing and therefore constructing sexual experiences and networks. In this example, the interviewee refers to the philosophy of choice that informs e-dating:

Well it's there for people to make choices. I'm gonna look at people who have sent me messages. I’ll send people messages. If I'm not interested, I’ll say: ‘No. Sorry. Thanks for the message, but not what I'm looking for’. I’ll always say something polite (P1, FTF07, 31, HIV negative).

But filtering also implies self-construction. A profile has to be carefully assembled to reflect e-dating desires. Some e-daters filter by waiting to see who approaches them via their own carefully designed profiles.

Sexual taste can also be exercised via filtering. In this example, the interviewee described his criteria for e-dating partners:

Who would I not approach? Overly overweight guys . . . . . . guys where it is patently obvious that whatever age they have put on is not true. Which is rich coming from me. But it's do as I say not do as I do . . . . . . but then I think I can get away with 29. Not desperately hairy guys. Not ones who say they are particularly into barebacking or some of the more . . . . . . like you know, piss and scat and all that kind of stuff . . . (P1, FTF01, 33, untested).

This example is important because it reflects how sexual taste and judgements about risk are bound together. Barebacking is bracketed aside with esoteric sexual activities such as scatophilia and urolangia. In this second example, the interviewee also relies on this sense of esoteric sexuality and risk-taking: ‘. . . most people who are into fisting are usually into bareback as well . . . . . . people who are into piss tend to be into it as well’ (P1, FTF03, 40, HIV positive). Through reference to the appearance of desirable e-daters and the differentiation of sexual taste, it seems that filtering is applied to the formation of networks of desire and therefore the organisation of sexual culture. The sexual e-culture created by gay men is not a boundless universe. The familiar conventions of sexual taste and risk judgements are reflected in the practices of filtering that support e-dating.

Filtering could also be applied to HIV sero-identity. In the following example, the interviewee suggested that he used IBC to filter out unwanted rejection connected with HIV positive serostatus:

. . . it clearly says on my profile that I am so it cuts out the wankers . . . . . .  the ones that chat for hours then when they find out you are poz they ‘go away’ never to be seen again (P1, OLC09, 32, HIV positive).

It seems that online presence can be managed to reduce social rejection connected with the stigma of HIV infection. In this sense, e-dating and the IBC methods and filtering it implies is imbued with the meanings of sexual desire and HIV sero-identity.

Identity

E-dating also mediates identity. And filtering according to aspects of identity is necessarily a combination of interpretation and self-construction. In the discussion that follows, we consider how the interviewees accounted for e-dating in terms of ‘interpreting the other’ and ‘constructing the self’.

Interpreting the other.  Different aspects of identity such as personality, cultural and sexual tastes, risk-management preferences and HIV serostatus form part of the interpretation of e-dating profiles and therefore form the basis for filtering. Further, the interviewees appear focused on sorting out ambiguous meanings and verifying online presentation with other information such as telephone voice. The interviewees therefore suggest that a ‘discerning’ self is required in e-dating. A focus on discerning the other resonates with the idea that identity is traceable in the literary practices of the social actor. This perspective connects to a previous point in the analysis about ambiguity in online communication and the correction of mistaken assumptions. E-daters appeared to want to know about the appearance and intentions of other e-daters, in the interest of satisfactory offline meetings. E-daters were therefore focused on the ‘true’ identity of the other. E-dating, and IBC more generally, appear to raise a tension for interviewees to do with what the world is and how it can be known, embodied in the quest for a sexual connection. Perhaps a feature of the internet is that it opens up a tantalising/frustrating gap between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. Importantly, however, this gap was not a space for the limitless exercise of desire. Instead, the desiring self is bent to the discernment of the ‘real’, revealing an ascendant interest in grounding the social experience of e-dating.

The interviewees provided examples of discerning literary or cultural references in profiles and other aspects of IBC:

. . . someone had got the name XX as amongst their music tastes and I had one of their first orchestral pieces performed by an orchestra . . . . . . and this guy had XX as his, you know music interests, and I thought: ‘Oh my God that's amazing. He must be a musician. He must either write music or he must be into the same kind of contemporary music I'm into . . .’ (P1, FTF04, 47, untested).

Interpretive skills also came into use for determining the ‘character’ of the other person. One interviewee likened his filtering practices to literary studies and the determination of the ‘real’ author of an antique text:

. . . it sounds so pretentious. It's like when scholars use linguistic analysis to decide whether Francis Bacon or Shakespeare wrote a play. It doesn't matter what handle [online name] they’re using. You begin to recognise that there is a pattern in this interaction . . . (P1, FTF06, 56, HIV negative).

These taste-oriented skills were not only a focus for an elite. Another interviewee gave the impression that accumulating knowledge about the other person provided a more accurate depiction of their character:

. . . the more you speak [i.e. chat and message] to someone, the more of a picture you can build of them. You speak to them over a few days. And stories about themselves start changing. You can usually smell a rat. The more you speak to someone, the more you can learn about them (P1, OLC14, 20, HIV negative).

Sometimes discerning the identity of the other concerned online imagery: ‘. . . oh no God he looks a wanker’, ‘. . . even about the sort of kind of picture that they do’ or ‘. . . something about the profile’ (P1, FTF01, 33, untested). Discernment could be articulated through other facets of IBC:

. . . just an inkling sometimes that this person is somebody you really don't want to talk to because they are going to spend the whole evening talking about how fabulous they are (P1, FTF01, 33, untested).

Interviewees likened these kinds of discrimination to assessment or the logic and coherence of an interview:

. . . if you can get them in a situation such as this and you chat for long enough you can almost do a psychometric test on them (P1, OLC09, 32, HIV positive).

It's like interview techniques, you ask them the same question a slightly different way another time, and if you remember the answer the first time and if there's a difference . . . (P1, FTF05, 56, untested).

A consumption metaphor was also applied to the hermeneutic practice of filtering out other e-daters who might not be quite what they suggested online:

. . . it's like shopping at Tesco! If I want Cadbury's hot chocolate then that's what I want not Tesco ‘own brand’ chocolate (P1, OLC07, 36, HIV negative).

Depicting the self.  E-daters were focused on presenting themselves in desirable ways. For example, the accounts suggested that user names were used to depict identity and send messages about what e-daters wanted to achieve in a sexual encounter. The focus on depictions of the self may reflect an interest in establishing individuality and creating a connection with someone who understands your background, personality or sexual taste. Online identity construction and its intelligibility is perhaps a focus for the ‘ontological security’ of the cyber-citizen.

With reference to self-presentation, marketing the self was a key strategy: ‘You have to be good at marketing yourself and so therefore the text that you put up has to be interesting and maybe intriguing’ (P1, FTF04, 47, untested). Marketing could be targeted at sexual desire: ‘I have a particular technique, which I always recommend to people that you play on people's fantasies’ (P1, FTF04, 47, untested). Through this focus, self-presentation became a way of manufacturing the self in relation to the desires of the desired other: ‘. . . you listen to what your customers say and what they value and you recycle that, that's who you are’ (P1, FTF06, 56, HIV negative).

There was also a notion that explicit images of unsafe sex communicate sero-identity:

MD: So how do you present yourself on the website? Do you say you are positive?

Interviewee: I used to do and I deleted that part of my profile. If people ask me the question I will always tell the truth. If you look at my site, my name and the fact that I say I never practise safe sex and just look at the pictures that I have got posted there. Quite frankly if you have to ask the question then you’re being pretty damn naïve (P1, FTF02, 45, HIV positive).

IBC therefore affords a hermeneutics of self-presentation that gives rise to a panoply of texts and images about how one wants to project oneself. The richness of this culture of self-presentation also suggests another important aspect of filtering. E-dating may be a kind of double hermeneutic where e-daters create texts and images to depict themselves in light of how they want to be seen and understood, especially, it seems, in relation to the meanings of identity to do with sexual desire. The double hermeneutic notion becomes quite complicated if we consider that e-daters ‘market’ themselves to the desired other in terms of what they assume the other's desire.

Serostatus and the framing of the meanings of HIV risk

This last section addresses HIV risk and e-dating. It argues that the e-dating practices of filtering and self presentation provide methods for the management of HIV transmission risk. By declaring HIV serostatus, a position about safer sex, or by filtering out e-daters whose safer-sex position is not acceptable, e-daters choose forms of sexual interaction and risk management. Goffman (1983) has suggested that knowledge and assumptions about the other makes interactional life possible. Our analysis suggests that gay men with HIV rely on the ‘extra-situational’ feature of the interaction order to manage both self and HIV prevention through e-dating.

In the next example, the interviewee indicates how he excludes interaction with some e-daters according to their preferences for safer sex:

Well in the profiles it says safer sex and there is an option for ‘never’, ‘sometimes’, ‘always’ or ‘un-displayed’ and if it is ‘undisclosed’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ . . . . . . I don't even send them a message (P2, IFTF12, 35, HIV negative).

Sexual experience, networks and HIV risk management are therefore mediated through e-dating. The interview accounts, however, suggest that the HIV serostatus of the e-dater appears to frame the meanings of risk articulated in IBC. In particular, gay men with HIV seem to make assumptions about risk with reference to their own identities as HIV positive. Lather has made reference to positive and negative sero-identity and the differing implications for engagements with HIV prevention rationality (Lather 1995). Different engagements with HIV prevention also suggest the moral imperatives of contagion, that is, the difference between being ‘at risk’ and ‘a risk’ (Douglas 1992). E-dating appears to mix the desiring/desirable self and the self as understood through the risk management logic sponsored by knowledge of HIV antibody serostatus and related prevention imperatives. The mingling of the desiring/desirable self and sero-related prevention imperatives appear to give rise to two distinct interpretive frames for the meanings of HIV risk. One frame represents the internal, ‘a risk’ view of HIV transmission risk; the other reflects the external ‘at risk’ position.

There were several ways of adopting the interior position in risk management. For example, interviewees who said they were HIV positive suggested that adopting a stance of eschewing safer sex in e-dating profiles and related aspects of IBC could be taken to indicate HIV serostatus. In the next example, the interviewee explains that his own HIV serostatus is implied in how he manages his online presence and that other e-daters are expected to comprehend his own risk-management approach:

. . . I mean on my profile it says I only do safer sex ‘sometimes’. It is quite clear what I am into and if you are a positive guy yourself you will know. Negative guys know what it means as well but that isn't necessarily something that stops them from sending messages and having sex with me. If somebody sent me a message on the website after seeing that I am into bareback and he is quite happy to have bareback. I will not be asking them: ‘Are you positive or negative’. I will make an assumption that they are [positive] (P2, IFTF16, 28, HIV pos).

This account relies on a normative understanding of HIV prevention, that is, safer sex all the time. But for this interviewee, indicating a preference for something apart from safer sex all the time is taken to suggest HIV positive sero-identity. The interviewee suggests that other HIV positive men share knowledge about what it means to indicate that he does not always do safer sex. He also implies a kind of contract with potential e-daters. They are expected to understand the risk implications of having sex without condoms with him, something that also relies on the logic of safer sex all the time. In this example, the interviewee appears to rely on the other meanings of safer sex to imply his serostatus:

I don't disclose. I still just find it very embarrassing I don't mind telling you. It's one of those things. It's not great leading to sex. It's like putting the goddamned condom on in the first place. There is nothing sexy about discussing you’re HIV positive prior to doing the deed . . . . . . if you put ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ for safe sex on your profile, everyone assumes. ‘Cos I have had people who have only said to me: ‘cos you've only got “sometimes” for safer sex on you’re . . . . . . internet, are you HIV positive?’. So they assume that if you only put ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ that you are. To the point that you almost don't want to bring it up ‘cos you assume that everyone is at the same point. It is still an uncomfortable issue to bring up (P2, CFTF03, 34, HIV positive).

The extract presented here underlines how stigma figures in e-dating for gay men with HIV. The interviewee suggested that he was concerned with maintaining his attractiveness in e-dating, and therefore implied his serostatus in his e-dating profile. It seemed that for him, implying serostatus via expressions of desire for sex without condoms was an easier, and perhaps sexier, way of disclosing. Importantly, saying one wanted sex without condoms did not necessarily mean that condoms were out of the question:

So I would say that ‘generally’ says to me that this person is HIV positive . . . . . . because if they’re prepared to only practice safer sex ‘sometimes’, then it says to me that they must be HIV positive because they are prepared to have sex without a condom. But they’re generally fairly responsible and therefore if you want them to put on a condom, they will (P2, GFTF19, 41, HIV positive).

The following example raises the other important aspect of the interior position. Risk management is contingent on the preferences of the other e-dater. For example: ‘“Sometimes” conveys you will wear a condom or you won't wear a condom, depending on the situation’ (P2, GFTF19, 41, HIV positive). It seems that for gay men with HIV, the ‘situation’ is constituted by preference:

. . . I always look at whether it is ‘always’, ‘sometimes’ or ‘never’ and most of the time I will go for people who are safe sex always. There are times when I just think I want unprotected sex. Why I don't know. It just happens sometimes. And this last time was with somebody who was negative and I told him I was positive and he said: ‘Well it's all right as long as you use condoms’ (P2, IFTF11, 43, HIV positive).

In contrast with these accounts, for other interviewees, an e-dater who expressed a preference for something other than a universal subscription to safer sex was discerned to be dangerous and flawed. This idea of a risk-taking e-dater was informed by several formations of ‘failures of reflexivity’. Such e-daters were seen as dangerously unaware, actively flouting safer sex guidance or passively failing to initiate condom use. For example, in this transcript, the other is seen as dangerous: ‘. . . it means he is not particularly aware. He does whatever he fancies at the time. Have to watch out for that one’ (P2, IFTF20, 60, HIV negative). Preferences apart from safer sex were interpreted as resisting HIV prevention guidelines: ‘. . . I think someone who puts “sometimes” is a bit anti-safer sex’ (P2, IFTF07, 26, HIV negative). A variation on this meaning was the adoption of a risky-lifestyle on the part of the other e-dater:

. . . if you’re being fucked and you’re not using a condom you are making a lifestyle decision because that carries a risk of affecting your lifestyle and clearly that would tie in with the drink and drugs general lifestyle (P2, GFTF15, 39, untested).

Judgements about safer sex were sometimes relayed into a general position about healthcare. Another interpretation was a lack of commitment to safer sex:

‘Sometimes’? They do not particularly worry. They do not particularly care whether they have safer sex or not. If it arises that they are going to have sex and there are no condoms they will still fuck without I guess (P2, GFTF12, 31, HIV negative).

It also needs to be stressed that profile filtering was not a mechanical process. For example, interviewees reported that they could use their profiles to signal their safer sex intentions and to match with e-dating partners, but that there was a general expectation that ‘always’ was the normal preference:

One of the options is safe sex ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘sometimes’ and something and mine says ‘always’. In fact there aren't many people who have anything else. In fact I probably wouldn't notice ‘coz I wouldn't look at that part. I would probably just skim over it expecting it to say ‘always’. But then I think the people who don't want to have safe sex tend to advertise themselves as being interested in barebacking and I just think well, I'm not interested in any of that (P1, FTF08, 24, HIV negative).

It is also important to recognise that the interior and exterior interpretive positions in risk management are not coextensive with serostatus. Not all of the HIV positive interviewees subscribed to the idea that ‘sometimes’ was an effective risk management strategy. For example, indicating that you ‘sometimes’ do safer sex was seen as erratic:

Well that is all over the place. I mean for me that is why I don't even say ‘sometimes’. I don't fill it in because what I define as safer sex is . . . . . . safer sex is to me is between two people of the same status that is safer sex. But that isn't what they mean (P2, IFTF14, 40, HIV positive).

This interviewee therefore suggests that ‘sometimes’ is too ambiguous. He suggests that he prefers to make no reference to his safer sex approach at all. For the next interviewee, safer sex ‘sometimes’ is seen as ‘stupid’:

I just think that is stupid. The person is stupid . . . . . . you should always practise. Not sometimes. No. I mean I wouldn't even entertain it anyway if it said there ‘sometimes’ practice safe sex . . . (P2, CFTF20, 52, HIV positive).

In addition, some interviewees who reported that they were not HIV positive, appeared to recognise that ‘sometimes’ referred to HIV positive sero-status and preference for anal sex without condoms:

. . . whenever I see something like that I skip the profile because . . . . . . they are probably positive because it means that it depends on the partner. ‘Sometimes’ depends on the partner that they have and if you want bareback fine . . . (P2, GFTF20, 35, HIV negative).

Interviewees also recognised that ‘sometimes’ foregrounded personal preference and the need for awareness:

. . . you have been forewarned. So that is your choice. If you are going to go out with a guy who has safer sex ‘sometimes’ you’ll have two situations. Either you’re making sure that he has safer sex or he doesn't have it with you. Or you two will play this game and have safer sex ‘sometimes’ with the possible consequences that we have discussed. You have those options. He has opened up the options for you. He has not put you into a false situation (P2, TFTF04, 56, HIV negative).

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

This paper has identified several new perspectives on the connections between the internet, sexual practice and HIV risk among London gay men. The internet is often depicted as a boundless universe of technical and imaginary innovation, qualities that afford both potential and danger. The present analysis, however, suggests a different way of conceptualising the internet and, in particular, its sexual uses and risky qualities. With reference to personal-experience accounts, this paper provides a grounded conceptual framework of the links between e-dating and risk management. It suggests how e-daters living in London engage with the virtual properties of IBC in the interest of things ‘real’. E-dating also has importance in the mediation of sexual networks with reference to the interpretation and construction of identity. On the basis of these perspectives, this paper has traced out how, in combination with self-knowledge about HIV serostatus, e-dating mediates the cultural construction of risk management in sexual practice.

Infotech bricolage and desire

E-dating and the various forms of IBC it implies mediate the sexual practice of London gay men who use the internet. The information shaping and transfer properties of the internet are therefore threaded through the sexual practice of gay men, describing and extending sexual networks, informing partner selection and revealing the desirable and therefore the desiring self. E-daters engage with the interplay of ‘virtuality’ and ‘reality’ that arises in the use of IBC (Slater 2002). They depicted themselves as interested in constructing the ‘real’ in terms of revealing themselves, discerning the personal qualities of the other e-dater and securing offline dates. Baudrillard (1994) has noted how information culture gives rise to the ‘frisson of the real’, investing in the ‘real’ an otherness derived from the perspective of the ‘virtual’. While the interplay of the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ in online experience may have been tantalising and frustrating for e-daters, this analysis suggests that they were also interested in sifting out the reality constructing properties of the internet, in the effort of making it work for them in their sex lives. The interviewees seemed less interested in exploiting the virtual. Moreover, they used various hermeneutical strategies to ground their own interpretations of IBC and combined these with other forms of communication such as verifying appearance and hearing the sound of the voice of the other e-dater on the telephone. In this sense, the accounts reflect the importance of erotic relations for the sense of being-in-the-world and therefore ontological security for the reflexive self (Giddens 1990). There is cause to argue therefore for a different understanding of the links between the internet and sexual practice. Popular constructions assume that the internet happened to sexual practice and thereby has reconstituted it and introduced both potential and danger, such as the risk of HIV transmission. But it is equally possible to argue that sex happened to the internet. Erotic subjectivity helps describe the potential of information technologies. In this sense, e-daters engage in a kind of ‘infotech bricolage’, combining different communication technologies and applying these to the exercise of sexual connection. Castells has made the point that information technology cannot be separated from its social settings and applications (Castells 2000). Combined with the analysis provided here, there is an argument for a sexualities perspective in theory of information society.

Identity

E-dating also has implications for the construction of identity. E-culture has been addressed from the theoretical points of view of presentation of self (Hardey 2004, Miller 1995) and communication theory (Whitty and Gavin 2001). This research adds to these perspectives and suggests how e-dating is an art of online presence. It relies on the interpretation of the desirable other and the construction of a desirable self. In substantive terms, the e-dating culture of gay men is quite familiar in respect to the conventions of attractiveness and sexual taste that exist in offline settings. Nevertheless, IBC is an aesthetic domain where the focus for interpretive activity is how e-daters express their interpretations and innovations of the conventions of sexual taste. Much of the discussion about the effects of the internet on social experience is figured around its transformatory powers in terms of time/space management and the circulation of informational goods, and therefore the place of information technology in globalisation and consumption. The analysis we offer here argues that the internet age also concerns the transparency of self. The internet has social value through its capacity to reveal identity and to circulate this knowledge in reflexively made techno-sexual networks.

E-dating and HIV risk management

The management of HIV risk can also be mediated in e-dating. Drawing on cultural accounts of risk, the interpretation of the interview accounts suggests that risk management is informed by the two interpretive positions of ‘a risk’ and ‘at risk’ predicated on, but not wholly coextensive with, knowledge of own HIV serostatus. These risk frames inform how e-dating profiles are interpreted and constructed, and imbue HIV prevention with differing meanings. Some gay men with HIV say they do not do safer sex. But they do not also mean to indicate that they resist HIV prevention advice. In this sense, such men operate in the interior space constituted by the contagion meaning of ‘a risk’ and its imperatives. But other e-daters, in the ‘at risk’ frame, regarded anything other than the espousal of a universal approach to safer sex as a failure of reflexivity. The clashing of these interior and exterior interpretive frames resembles a debate about HIV prevention that has been played out in news media, research and policy analysis (Marks et al. 1999, Signorile 1997). The debate has centred on the additional HIV prevention responsibilities of those with HIV infection and the demonising of those who apparently choose to have sex that might transmit HIV. The present analysis affords a significant adjustment to such discourse. By recognising the cultural meanings of contagion mediated in e-dating, in particular the interior and exterior interpretive frames, we can see that problems for HIV prevention partly lie in the clashing and misinterpretation of risk meanings. This is not to say that risky sex does not occur through the internet. The perspectives offered here, however, suggest that what for some appears to be resistance of HIV prevention, for others may be a form of HIV prevention. The prevention logics of the avoidance and containment of HIV transmission (respectively ‘at risk’ and ‘a risk’) need to be considered as two parts of a larger system of risk management and, on that basis, jointly interrogated and problematised. The accounts also suggest that there is an enduring problem of stigma and sexual confidence for gay men with HIV, a situation that informs how they construct e-dating. With reference to e-dating itself, there may be a case for supporting e-daters to make their personal safer sex strategies more explicit in an effort to overcome problems of ambiguity. In general, this research suggests how e-dating bricolage or the nuanced information technology expertise of e-daters in matters of risk management, could become the basis of enhanced online and offline prevention activities. This idea of placing the network society ‘bricoleur’ at the centre of HIV prevention seems to us to be an exciting and innovative prospect.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

This research was funded by the Medical Research Council (grant number GO 100159). The authors would like to thank gaydar, gay.com, Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust hospital, Barts and The London NHS Trust hospital, central London gyms as well as all the men who agreed to be interviewed for their participation and support.

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  5. Themes
  6. Discussion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References
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