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).
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.
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).