Acting out a paradox desire for masculinity: how internalized heteronormativity contributes to HIV risk behavior of MSM in Germany

Published: July 21, 2010

P.C. Langer1,2

1Bundeswehr Institute of Social Sciences, Strausberg, Germany, 2University of Potsdam, Department of Sociology, Potsdam, Germany

Background: Heteronormative discourses and practices have largely been emphasized as considerable psychological stressors for gay and bisexual men. However, evidence on their physical health outcomes is rare. The paper presents empirical data on the influence of internalized representations of a heteronormative masculinity on sexual risk behavior and HIV infection dynamics.
Methods: Within a community-based participatory research design, 58 semi-structured qualitative interviews with recently HIV-diagnosed MSM and untested MSM reporting sexual risk behavior were carried out in Germany (average age 37.44 years, range 19-72 years). The data was interpreted with categorical content and narrative analysis and the results were related to psychosocial queer and identity theories.
Results: Two comprehensive narratives were predominant in the interviews: an affirmative one of a traditional heterosexual masculinity and a critical one of non-masculine homosexuality. Masculinity was characterized as life-long and problematic challenge by the interviewees. The analysis identified a close correlation to the reported risk behavior that led to HIV infection: The internalization of social representations of a heteronormative masculinity contributed to a spoiled sexual identity. The identity conflicts were acted out in sexual risk practices that produced a sense of participation in an imagined “raw” masculinity. The HIV-infected body signified a new “positive” masculinity for these gay and bisexual interviewees. Their reported barebacking behavior was interpreted as a desire for masculinity that at the same time was experienced as violent in the own psychodynamic.
Conclusions: The study gives empirical evidence of the influence of heterosexual representations of masculinity on HIV risk behavior of MSM in Germany that can be seen as paradigmatic for other heteronormative societies. The HIV-related significance of heterosocial discourses and practices should therefore be addressed in prevention more explicitly. Strategies of differentiation and self-reflexive acquisition of non-hegemonial masculinities have to be discussed and implemented on subcultural and societal levels.

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