News
3 min

Calculating erotic capital

How race, class & appearance affect HIV risk

COMPLEX EQUATION. Sociologist Adam Isaiah Green found race, age and income all affected sexual desirability, which in turn had an impact on safer sex practices. Credit: Ajay Bikram Thapa

You can’t believe he just came into your room at the baths. You’re an average Joe at best, but he’s an Adonis — whatever that means to you. Maybe he’s lean and buff and you’re beyond chubby. Maybe he’s in his 20s but you’re pushing 60. Maybe he’s white and you are not. Maybe he’s well groomed with perfect teeth and you had to save up just to get into the place.

Next thing you know he’s on all fours in front of you. Or he’s bending you right over. He’s aggressive and that’s hot. And you go ahead — no rubber. He’s into you and it feels so good to be valued, to be desired, so you just go ahead.

Maybe you complete that unprotected act or maybe you snap out of it and switch to something safer. If you’re HIV-negative, it’s an ambivalent evening followed by three months of worry, until you can get a reliable test done. If you’re HIV-positive, you wonder how you could let yourself get carried away and you hope the other guy’s okay. If you’re not sure, you experience all those emotions and more.

Scenes like this play out in Toronto every day. “For gay men being considered sexually undesirable can have serious health consequences ranging from psychological issues to risky sexual behaviour,” says Adam Isaiah Green, a sociology prof at the University of Toronto. Green’s research, published in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, demonstrates how the notion of “erotic capital” — who’s considered hot and who’s not — leads to unequal treatment that can fuel serious consequences.

“I found that young, white, middle-class men are considered much more sexually desirable than men who are racial minorities, over 40 or poor,” says Green. These men described repeated experiences of sexual rejection, avoidance and shunning, sometimes leading to depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness and trouble negotiating safer sex.

It’s tempting to see safer-sex decisions as rooted solely in the notion of personal responsibility — good people and bad ones, self-control or abandon, sane and logical decisions versus risky, unhinged ones. But systemic inequities can have an impact on our actions and that’s something AIDS service organizations need to consider, says Green.

“Prevention outreach needs to be attentive to the issue of perceptions of sexual attractiveness, and the ways in which gay collective sexual life is organized by sexual-status structures that impact gay men’s mental health and sexual agency.”

The power-lines of desirability interlace with broader social rifts, according to the results of Green’s study, which involved interviewing dozens of men who frequent Toronto’s Church St queer social scene.

So some men are deemed more attractive than others — is this any big newsflash? No, says Green, but he adds he was caught off-guard by some ways this manifested itself, particularly when it comes to race.

“I was surprised by how common it was for nonwhite men who feel racially marginalized to nevertheless describe their primary objects of desire as white men.” Green wonders whether this means the men of colour “who frequent Church St do so because they are attracted to white men” or if it suggests the effect of a deeper socialization process where white men are universally esteemed.

Racism in sexual realms may have an effect on consistent condom use, according to Jeffrey Aguinaldo, a sociology professor at Wilfrid Laurier whose work focuses on gay Asian men and HIV risk.

“Gay Asian males,” he says, “are subject to a range of racial stereotypes — that they are effeminate, submissive and so on — that render them undesirable.” Aguinaldo says a growing body of research suggests gay Asians are less likely to insist on safer sex specifically when interacting with white men.

Although Aguinaldo says Green’s findings are in line with his own research he’s concerned about any proposed solutions that recommend men of colour simply get counselling to cope with being considered less desirable. “Interventions should be aimed at those who enact these forms of discrimination,” he says, “not on those who suffer because of it.”

Green says the white men he spoke to were explicitly aware of their power in the sexual marketplace. “I found this surprising,” he says, “since whiteness is often an invisible privilege that goes unrecognized by white people.”

This level of self-awareness is a good starting point, argues Green. “I don’t know that we can easily change what gay men desire as these desires are… internalized over time at the level of the unconscious.

“Nevertheless if we are aware of sexual-status structure, we can become more sensitive to the needs of those who are marginalized within it. We might even work to enter into this deep socialization process by changing or diversifying the kinds of representations of desirable men that magazines like Xtra produce.”