Doing identity with desire: online masculinities among men who have sex with men

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: School of Languages Linguistics and Film


This project examines the construction of self and sexual
identity among men who have sex with men (MSM). Taking
Japan as a case study, I investigate how MSM represent their
subjectivities in online spaces and how this is perceived by
others in that space. This allows me to consider how broader
sociocultural discourses influence the construction of online
identities. As research on MSM is lacking, both on- and
offline, the project fills a major empirical gap. Moreover,
sexual and gender identity in Japan continually fluctuate and
are renegotiated in a culture that is resistant to this change.
Thus, the Japanese case provides new critical insight into the
complexities of MSM identities and the positioning of these
online subjectivities relative to offline social realities.
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Previous research on the construction of gay/queer
masculinities in language have largely assumed a correlation
between self-representation and ascriptive identity (e.g.,
Ascencio 2011; Podesva et al. 2002). Yet many men present
in digital spaces wish to appear sexually appealing to other
men while also rejecting identity categories typically
associated with same-sex attraction (Birnholtz et al. 2014;
Blackwell et al. 2015; Gudelunas 2012). Online spaces are
unique as users must represent themselves and their
desires using images and language alone. They thus provide
a wealth of data which may trouble our understanding of how
sexual identity is linked to discourses of desire (Ward 2007,
2008; VanderStouwe 2017).
Yet, it is not necessarily the case that online spaces exist in a
vacuum separated from the offline context in which users
otherwise live. Past work on MSM self-representation online
has shown that, for example, racial stereotyping is often the
basis of perceived masculinity and sexual role (Plummer,
2008; Tenuis 2007). Another study comparing profiles from
the USA and China on the MSM dating app Jack'd
demonstrated that higher levels of societal homophobia in
China motivated more Chinese users to portray themselves
as relationship-oriented and less interested in casual sex,
which carries higher stigma (Chan 2016). Similarly, men
living in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal, construct
their online identities much less around same-sex desire and
more around discourses of male friendship, likely to protect
themselves in the event of arrest (Miller 2015).
Japanese queer studies is a growing field, yet the online
behaviour of Japanese MSM remains unstudied. Japan - and
its unique societal attitudes to gender and sexual identity -
offer us a very different sociocultural context to explore and
enhance our understanding of discourse, identity and desire.
Being openly LGBT in Japan is still detrimental to one's social
standing and job prospects, despite the fact that onee TV
personalities (a genderqueer-male entertainer character with
no true equivalent in the Anglosphere) are feted celebrities
endorsing consumer products from toothpaste to kitchen
blenders. Studying MSM online behaviour within this unique
context will greatly improve our understanding of how queer
identities online are mediated by offline social realities.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2322795 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2019 31/10/2025 Liam Michael O'Hare