Digital Intimacies: how gay and bisexual men use smartphones to negotiate their cultures of intimacy

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Art, Media and American Studies


Since smartphones became widely available in 2007 both media, communications & cultural studies and public health academics have been researching how gay and bisexual men use them to negotiate their cultures of intimacy. This research has tended to focus on how these men use 'hook-up' applications, such as Grindr and Scruff, to organise casual sex encounters, particularly in relation to safer sex negotiation. In doing so, much of this research has enriched our understanding of gay and bisexual men's casual sex practices; informed HIV prevention strategies; and begun to shed light on the role of digital media in both of these related contexts.

However, by focusing on hook-up apps, this research has so far overlooked some important issues that relate to smartphone use and intimacy amongst these men. Gay and bisexual men do not only use hook-up apps to negotiate their intimate lives, which are not exclusively defined by casual sex; they frequently migrate between different aspects of their smartphones (e.g. the phone itself, the camera, other social media applications) to practice different sorts of intimacy (e.g. monogamous relationships, open relationships, one off sexual encounters, on-going casual sex partners, infidelities). Researching these practices will have implications not only for popular understandings of gay and bisexual male intimacy (which are often over-determined by casual sex), but also for how effectively the public health sector can provide services that improve the overall health and wellbeing of these men beyond HIV prevention.

The existing research also has a tendency to decontextualize this smartphone use, not fully accounting for the wider socio-cultural conditions in which this use takes place. Gay and bisexual men use smartphones to negotiate intimacy in socio-cultural contexts in which not only ideas and attitudes towards gay and bisexual men are changing (e.g. the legalization of gay marriage, liberalization of more general attitudes to gay and bisexual men) but the material conditions in which they practice intimacy are changing too (e.g. changes in gay nightlife; changes in HIV prevention and treatment; and constantly updating smartphone and internet technologies). This project begins from the cultural studies perspective that media use cannot be adequately made sense of outside of the cultures in which this use takes place. It therefore aims to understand the various ways that gay and bisexual men use different aspects of their smartphones to negotiate different sorts of intimacies within these constantly shifting socio-cultural conditions.

It will do this by deploying an interdisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in public health and media and cultural studies and by working closely with the project's partners - Terrence Higgins Trust, London Friend and Waverley Care - all key third sector organisations working with gay and bisexual men. Drawing on these various expertise, this project will use an innovative mixed method approach that combines cultural analysis with qualitative methods. The qualitative methods will be interviews and focus groups with 40 men from two different locations in the UK - London and both rural and urban parts of Eastern Scotland. This dual sited approach is designed to capture place-based cultural differences in smartphone use amongst this group. The cultural analysis will look at a wide range of documents that will help map the context for this smartphone use, from, for example, media representations to policy documents. The project will form its conclusions by performing a cross-case analysis across the data sets - providing a rich and nuanced picture of this sort of smartphone use in relation to the wider socio-cultural conditions in which it takes place.

Planned Impact

This collaborative, interdisciplinary project will impact on the activities of two major groups outside of academia: i) third sector organisations that work to improve the sexual, mental and emotional wellbeing of LGBT+ communities, ii) gay and bisexual men outside of third sector and academic settings.

Impact has been built into the project from the outset through a series of meetings with the project's partners - the Terrence Higgins Trust, London Friend and Waverley Care - all key representatives of third sector organisations working with gay and bisexual men. All organisations explained that there has been a recent growth in issues relating to smartphone use amongst their clients. All believe that the project's findings will provide a reliable evidence base that organisations like them can use to more effectively manage and advise on these issues.

The project will have this impact by engaging in the following knowledge exchange and transfer activities: i) continuous consultation with the project partners for the duration of the project; ii) the publication of grey literature containing interim findings to be distributed to third sector organisations via the project personnel's and partner's networks; iii) an end of project symposium where both academics and third sector organisations will be invited to attend to discuss the project's results and the impact they will have on their activities. This pathway to impact will be measured via testimonials written by the project partners, and questionnaires distributed during the end of project symposium.

The project will also engage gay and bisexual men from outside third sector and academic settings in the following ways: i) via a podcast series produced at the end of the project, where the principal investigator and co-investigator discuss the project findings in non-technical and accessible language; ii) working with the UEA press office and the principal investigator's long established contacts in the gay media to secure media coverage for the project. The desired effect is for the project findings to impact on the ways gay and bisexual men both practice and reflect on their intimate lives in ways that will improve their overall health and wellbeing. Impact will be measured by the analytics provided by the website hosting the podcast (Libsyn), the comments section on the podcast page of the project website, and the amount and type of coverage secured by UEA's press office.

At the end of the project all data relating to impact will be analysed and published as an impact report on the project website.


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