Let’s talk about sex

How do researchers go about interviewing people about sex and sexualities? To what extent do we – or should we – share our own experiences? And what kind of ‘spaces’ do these highly personal conversations fit into?

DEPTH researcher Dr Sam Miles was invited by the academic journal Area to write a blog for their outreach website Geography Directions, based on his recent article ‘“I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research’. In the blog, Sam explores the ethics of fieldwork in sex and sexualities research. Have a read… 

The (in)famous male-male dating and hook-up app Grindr recently celebrated its 10th birthday. To mark the anniversary, a whole range of articles have cropped up variously celebrating and lamenting Grindr’s influence across the world (by which I mean literally across the world – it counts nearly 4 million active users across 234 different countries (Grindr, 2019)). What makes this generation of mobile phone matchmakers different from the online platforms that went before them, for example Gaydar, match.com, Yahoo chatrooms? Apps such as Grindr are GPS-enabled, which enables users to ‘rank’ other users of the app by proximity, ensuring that potential matches can be discovered and introduced in real-time across physical space.

Reflecting on Grindr’s first decade, The BBC identifies a ‘rocky relationship’, whilst VICE magazine explores Grindr’s relationship with identity fraud and drug-based ‘chemsex’; meanwhile, Gay Times reports that 56% of Grindr users believe they can find true love on the app. Whatever your opinion on it – and there are many – there is no doubt that this mobile phone matchmaker, along with its competitors Hornet, Scruff & Jack’d, has had a profound impact on gay and bisexual communities. These apps have also opened up new avenues for men seeking sex with men (MSM) who for whatever reason – familial, cultural, or religious – do not identify as gay or bisexual.

Grindr Stock image

The bigger question raised by these recent articles seems to be: how do dating and hook-up apps impact on same-sex and queer relationships today? This question cannot be answered by quantitative usage data alone. After all, we know that high usage does not necessarily mean high popularity. We need to explore peoples’ real life experiences in order to more fully understand the impact of dating and hook-up apps on same-sex and queer relationships.

I decided that the best way to get a detailed understanding of how these apps influence sexual and social behaviours would be to interview users about their experiences online, offline, and in the ‘hybrid’ space bridging the two, where virtual introductions result in real-life encounters. My doctoral research revealed some important findings: (1) that dating and hook-up apps play a significant role in how men now meet other men, especially within wider debates about the ‘death of the gay bar’, and (2) that the relationship between mobile phone dating app users and the people they meet can be awkward, with social cues yet to catch up to the sophistication of the technologies in use.

The sensitive nature of the research topic meant that there was an array of ethical and practical challenges for me to grapple with during my doctoral fieldwork. In my recent Area paper, I reflect on some of these challenges and explore how researchers and participants can work together to create a meaningful space that not only enables data collection, but facilitates honest and valuable conversation. I consider what the researcher’s responsibility should be for a participant’s safety in this discursive space. I also reflect on how ‘involved’ I should be as a researcher. I’m a person, not a robot, and several decades of feminist research has already explored the strengths and issues bound up in bringing ‘yourself’ into the research field (for example, see Bain & Nash (2006) and Smith (2016)). But the opposite extreme of the objective, positivist robot researcher is the inappropriately involved one, a role which would be both institutionally unethical and personally unacceptable. I therefore identified my own boundaries as well as the participants’s boundaries. The result was a co-constructed discursive space that we worked together to construct, perhaps surprisingly, in totally public venues and in one-off, hour-long interviews rather than more private or longer-term meetings. These were not ‘intimate’ spaces in a traditional sense, but nevertheless the space-within-a-space that we constructed invited app users to speak about highly personal experiences, some for the first time ever.

I also make the case for the using public places for staging sensitive conversations. The assumption that private matters cannot be discussed in public requires a rethink. Public spaces like libraries or cafes enfold within them more private spaces – not just actual booths or nooks, although these can contribute – but I’m thinking here about more conceptual spaces. These are built simply via one-to-one, in-person conversation in a space where a hubbub of background talking, or the hiss of coffee machines brewing, provides a backdrop to conversation that can be very productive.

Finally, when it comes to dating and hook-up apps in particular, I suggest that people are particularly keen to share their views because the social norms of dating app use are so complex and still so poorly understood. For lots of people online dating remains taboo. In this context, the chance to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences when it came to the digitally-introduced, physically-involved relationships these platforms offer may have been liberating.

Love dating apps or hate them (or both), what I hope the article communicates is that we need to talk more with users about the ways in which technologies impact on our personal lives, in order to think about the social codes developing from their use that will inform a whole range of wider contexts.

What do you think? Let us know by commenting below…

References:

Bain, A., & Nash, C. (2006) Undressing the researcher: Feminism, embodiment and sexuality at a queer bathhouse event. Area, 38, 99–106. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00663.x

Damshenas, S. (2019) 56% of Grindr users believe they can find love on the app, study finds. Gay Times. Retrieved from: https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/community/119691/56-of-grindr-users-believe-they-can-find-love-on-the-app-study-finds/

Fox, L. (2019) 10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47668951

Grindr. (2019) Grindr.com. Retrieved from: https://www.grindr.com/

Miles, S. (2017) Sex in the digital city: location-based dating apps and queer urban life. Gender, Place & Culture, 24, 1595-1610: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1340874?tab=permissions&scroll=top

Miles, S. (2018) Still getting it on online: Thirty years of queer male spaces brokered through digital technologies. Geography Compass. e12407. ISSN 1749-8198 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12407

Miles, S. (2019) “I’ve never told anyone this before”: Co‐constructing intimacy in sex and sexualities research. AREA. https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/area.12550

Smith, S. (2016) Intimacy and angst in the field. Gender, Place & Culture, 23, 134–146.

Staples, L. (2019) Grindr Users Talk Highs and Lows After Ten Years of the App. VICE Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/59x83d/grindr-users-talks-highs-and-lows-after-ten-years-of-the-app-1

Presenting at the forthcoming BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference

Last week, we headed to Glasgow for the BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference to share a sneak preview of our findings from This Sickle Cell Life: voices and experiences of young people with sickle cell.

Sickle cell disease is a genetic blood disorder disproportionately found in minority ethnic communities in Britain. It is a chronic debilitating condition that both causes cumulative damage to multiple organ systems, and causes acute pain.

This Sickle Cell Life is part of the work of DEPTH research group at LSHTM. The project explores how people move from using child to adult healthcare services and asks young people about their experiences of living with sickle cell. Transitioning to adulthood is obviously not just something that affects clinical experiences and so we also explore education and relationships, and ask young people what is important to them.

At the BSA MedSoc conference we talked about how healthcare transitions shape the identity of young people, and how these transitions help ‘make’ particular kinds of patients.

Why focus on identity? Health transitions need new health knowledge and new behaviours to develop, but they also need development of self-perceptions and understandings of how a person should behave as an adult (rather than a child) patient. In this way, identities play an important role in shaping health practices and beliefs. Understanding identity development during transitions can help explain why some young people transition smoothly or less smoothly into healthy adulthood.

In our presentation, we talked about how ideas and discourses about self-management and healthy lifestyle within healthcare today act as a way to discipline young people “at a distance”, to quote Miller & Rose (1990) and influence their behaviour. These healthcare self-management discourses intersect with demands from schools that are often not compatible. For instance, schools demand that young people excel and become entrepreneurial, competent individuals, but excelling at school is far more difficult for young people who have to spend time in hospital, or who have to rest regularly to avoid having a pain crisis. These intersecting demands can translate into conflicting “self-disciplining” identities.

For young people with sickle cell, we found that transitions to adulthood involve relentless self-disciplining and self-surveillance to try to be as healthy as possible, while also aspiring to work hard so that they can develop and meet educational and career goals.

You can check back on our updates from the BSA conference on the Sickle Cell LifeTwitter account, here.

Welcome to our DEPTH research blog

 

Hello readers,

Welcome to our DEPTH research blog here at LSHTM. DEPTH stands for Dialogue, Evidence, Participation and Translation for Health. We are a research hub in the Public Health & Policy faculty of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. The research hub is made up of LSHTM staff members Cicely Marston, Alicia Renedo, Catherine McGowan and Sam Miles, along with doctoral researchers who you can read more about here.

We’ve recently developed our own website, including academic publications, updates and links to our research areas including This Sickle Cell Life, sixteen18 and patient & public engagement. To ensure maximum interaction with readers, we have made this WordPress website to allow (indeed, to positively encourage!) reader comments. We feel that this is a crucial part of our work. We see our blog as a space for communication and conversation – not just with academic colleagues, but also in policy debates, in education systems and with the wider public.

Welcome in!