Sexual Choreographies: Collaborative research on gay sex and the politics of affect

sexuallearningCollaborative research with the AIDS Council of NSW, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, and NSW Health, 1998-2006

What can gay men tell us about sex? A series of research collaborations aimed to reinvigorate understandings of gay sex by listening closely to what gay men say about what they do. We canvassed a variety of places where gay men have sex, including commercial sex venues such as saunas and sex clubs. We explored how sexual experiences unfold in interaction between men and what sex means to those involved. And we investigated how gay men learn to have sex by asking what happens when they experience something new during sex or when they encounter limits in their capacity for sex.

Contrary to popular ideas about sexual revolution and gay liberation, we found that sex for gay men is more like a project, pursued over time and in interaction with others. In the stories men told, there are certainly moments of sexual pleasure and pride, but there are also moments of sexual learning, of ineptitude and shame. By charting the dynamics of affect in these stories, we attend to the way gay men learn sex ‘on the job’ and the way sexual experiences transform those having sex. Through our analyses, we develop a more pragmatic and less idealised understanding of the politics of gay sex.

What distinguishes this research is its focus on sexual interaction, on the way sexual encounters unfold in interaction between men. In undertaking these projects, we developed an innovative approach to collecting stories about gay sex. We didn’t just ask men to list what they did, where and with whom. We asked them to recount how they had sex on particular occasions in all its intricate, complex and ‘choreographic’ detail. This complexity and detail provides the basis for a new understanding of the dynamics and politics of gay sex. Instead of a politics of liberation from repression, our analyses indicate a politics of interaffectivity as the condition of transformation within sex.

Related publications

  • Bollen, J. & McInnes, D. (2006) ‘What do you like to do? Gay sex and the politics of interaffectivity’, Gay and Lesbian Issues in Psychology Review, 2/3: 107-13.
  • Bollen, J. & McInnes, D. (2004) ‘Time, relations and learning in gay men’s experiences of adventurous sex’, with David McInnes, Social Semiotics, 14/1: 21-36.
  • Dowsett, G.W., McInnes, D., Bollen, J. Couch, M. & Edwards, B. (2001) ‘HIV/AIDS and Constructs of Gay Community: Researching educational practice within community-based health promotion for gay men’, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 4/3, 2001.
  • McInnes, D., Bollen, J & Race, K. (2002) Sexual Learning and Adventurous Sex, School of Humanities, University of Western Sydney.
  • Hodge, S., Slavin, S. & Bollen, J. (2002) Having An Impact: ANET Evaluation Report, National Centre in HIV Social Research, University of New South Wales.
  • Gray, B., McGuigan, D., Bollen, J. & McInnes, D. (2002) When You’re Hot You’re Hot: An Easy Guide to What You Always Wanted to Know about Sex Venues But Were Afraid to Ask, Sydney: AIDS Council of New South Wales
  • McInnes, D. & Bollen, J. (2000) ‘Learning on the job: Metaphors of choreography and the practice of sex in sex-on-premises venues’, Venereology, 13/1: 27-36.
  • Bollen, J., McInnes, D., Couch, M., & Dowsett, G. (2000) ‘Over it and on with it: Gay community and the scene in inner Sydney’, in Considering Australian Gay Communities in HIV Health Promotion, David McInnes (ed), Research Centre in Intercommunal Studies, University of Western Sydney.
  • McInnes, D., Bollen, J. & Prestage, G. (2000) Sex On Premises Venues Project: Research Report, University of Western Sydney, Nepean & AIDS Council of NSW.