Digital Intimacy, Gender and Sexuality – Jamie Hakim

Jamie Hakim interviewed by Jennifer Power

Jennifer Power (JP): Thanks for speaking to me Jamie, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the work you’ve been doing lately?

Jamie Hakim (JH): Mostly I do research around digital media, questions of embodiment, questions of intimacy, and recently questions of care. I’ve got a book out at the moment, called Work That Body: Male Bodies in Digital Culture, that looks at the way that over the last decade more men have been using digital media to sexualise their bodies. The argument that I make is that this has happened in relation to a certain set of historical conditions brought about by the 2007/2008 economic crash. So, in the UK particularly, the austerity context has meant men have not been able to rely on the forms of value creation that they once used to. So, they have been sharing images of their sexualised bodies to feel valuable instead. Currently, I’m leading a project called ‘Digital Intimacies: how gay and bisexual men use their smart phones to negotiate their cultures of intimacy’. We are taking a similar approach to the one I took in the book, looking at the kind of cultures that have developed around smart phone use, and trying to understand this within political, cultural, social and economic contexts. Over the next six months we are going to be interviewing gay and bisexual men in Scotland and in London about this.

JP: Are you including the full function of smart phones in this? Such as cameras and images as well as use of the apps?

JH: Yes. It felt to me that there is a tendency within some of the work on hook up apps and gay men to imagine that gay men only use the apps to negotiate casual sex. Although we are interested in casual sex, we’re also interested in a more capacious understanding of intimacy. So, we’ll be looking at different social media platforms, the phone itself, the camera, all sorts of things. We’re going to try and get a more holistic understanding of smart phone use, and in a way that tries to capture more about gay men’s sexual lives than casual sex, however important that might be to certain gay men. We haven’t started doing fieldwork yet, so a lot of our thinking is hypothetical at the moment.

JP: Can you tell us more about how you approach the concept of technology and intimacy in your work?

JH: In the 1960s and 70s, at the beginning of British cultural studies, there was a certain type of critique that argued that you need to understand technology in the context of its wider ‘conjunctural’ relations, namely in relation to the political, the economic, the social and so on; and that these things are continuously interacting with each other. I’m not sure that it’s especially fashionable anymore to use any sort of technological deterministic approach to technology, but this is a particular way out of that. We’re using this cultural studies approach to understand the technology as one part of a range of forces that are assembled in a certain way at a particular moment in time. We decentre technology slightly and try to understand its relation to what is happening now economically, politically, culturally, socially, institutionally, and so on—as one piece of the puzzle. When we started the project we obviously hadn’t anticipated there would be a global pandemic that would have such enormous political, economic and social consequences!

JP: COVID 19 might end up revealing a lot about people’s relationship with technology in their intimate lives, do you think?

JH: Yeah, I think, as your question suggests, there’s a real focus now on the way that technologies like smartphones and video conferencing platforms are being used to replace physical intimacy at this moment of social distancing. We’re definitely interested in looking at that. But we’re also interested in looking at the political, social and economic crises that the pandemic has precipitated in the UK (and globally) and what gay men’s place within these crises might end up being. So we’re looking at those things at the same time.

JP: It seems there has been a moral positioning of individual behaviours in terms of public health and social distancing in relation to COVID-19. People are called out as irresponsible if they see non cohabiting sexual partners and so forth. There is something in this that is reminiscent of some of the judgement of gay men’s sex lives in response to HIV. Public health enables moral scrutiny of people’s sexual and intimate lives. Do you agree?

JH: Absolutely. And something else that I’ve been thinking about is the reduction of the publicness of a gay cultures of intimacy during the pandemic. I mean, think about community spaces—community centres, bookshops, bars, clubs, sex on premises venues, outdoor spaces—obviously what’s happened as a result of COVID is the absolute retraction to the private sphere. This might work for some gay men in the age of gay marriage and homonormative domesticity, but it completely erodes the other kinds of spaces that gay men have historically relied on for intimate connection.

JP: I think you have written about that trend toward the privatisation of gay men’s intimacy before. Can you talk a bit about that?

JH: I have written about privatisation and gentrification of urban space, and what that has meant for gay men’s cultures of intimacy. I need to think about that more in relation to what’s happening now. I understand social distancing as a public health issue, where there has been an urgent need to lock down and keep people safe. I do understand that. But there are implications that it has had for gay culture that I think we need to think very carefully about. To be clear, I am not arguing against lockdowns as necessary measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. I am saying that we need to think intersectionally about the retraction of society to the private sphere and what it has meant for different social groups—gay men included.

JP: Human intimacy is often thought of as entirely human, something that exists between two people, whether that’s physical or emotional. Given this, how would you explain where technology sits within this dynamic?

JH: There are certain kind of critical perspectives that are being used at the moment that can help make sense of this question. Science and technology studies and ‘actor network theory’ in particular describe non-human objects like technology as having a degree of agency. Another way of putting it is that agency is distributed across assemblages of humans and non-humans. This is a perspective I admire and find very useful, although don’t draw from it much in my work. The concept of intimacy that I am working with at the moment comes from Lauren Berlant. She describes intimacy as the attachments that we depend on for living. This opens a far more capacious understanding of what intimacy is beyond the common sense understanding of intimacy as the private thoughts or feelings two people share. I think questions about the human and the non-human were not in the forefront of critical theory at the time Berlant wrote this, but you can see how it moves us beyond the human. She did write about fetishistic attachments to objects—sexual fetishes—but of course we can develop life-sustaining attachments to technology. We did a focus group a few weeks ago with five gay and bisexual guys in London and what became apparent was that the phone itself was absolutely central to their intimate lives. They actually had an emotional investment in the technology, because it was so crucial to the way that it mediated their human relations, and as a result they had absolutely become very invested in it as an object. There was this great quote from one participant who said: “I wonder when [Alexander Graeme Bell] invented the telephone if he realised that we’d end up investing so much emotions in this piece of technology.”

JP: I think anyone who’s had a long-distance relationship would concur as well with that. The phone becomes so central to that everyday connection. There can be anxiety if the phone’s not with you.

JH: Yeah, the participants talked about that. They also talked about the way blue ticks on Whatsapp dominated their life, especially the investment in the blue ticks. The blue ticks show someone has read their message, so they know and then wonder why they haven’t got back to them, or why hadn’t they read it. I mean this wasn’t incidental, it was very much part of it. The phone and the blue ticks became ways of mediating their relationships. They also talked about what we’ve called purely mediated intimacy, so for example the relationship they have with porn stars and so forth.

JP: So, imagined relationships or actual interactions?

Imagined relationships. So there’s this whole kind of continuously shifting terrain of technologically mediated intimacy in which people and technology are, using a word which I think is useful from post-humanism, ‘entangled’. These things are entangled: they’re separate, but they are deeply entangled—like spaghetti you can see the strands are separate but they’re impossible to delineate. I think that is a useful image to describe the ways that the human and technological relate, certainly now with digital media.

JP: That makes a lot of sense to me. Even just to go back to that long-distance relationship example, if you had a lover in different city or country 20 years ago you couldn’t have maintained the constant connection in the way that you can now with phones. So technology is neutral in that sense, it shapes what’s possible and becomes entangled in that relationship.

JH: Exactly. I 100% agree with you. Did you see [the television series] Normal People? There is a scene where the two main characters are watching each other sleep using Skype.

JP: That’s my favourite scene, I’ve thought about that many times when talking to people about tech and intimacy. I never imagined Skype could be so intimate. Or at least the scene was filmed in a way that made it seem intimate.

JH: Yeah and as I’m talking, I think I realise we’re talking against a more common-sense idea that technology interrupts intimacy or is inauthentic intimacy. But then people’s experience is not necessarily this. It came up in the focus group—there was definitely a sense that meeting in bars is much better than meeting on Grindr because a Grindr meet was always somehow inauthentic. But later on the participants were saying things that completely contradicted this and that their intimate lives absolutely depended on apps like Grindr and their smartphones more generally.

JP: I agree, I hear a lot in kind of contemporary discourse or discourse on technology about it being an inauthentic or a stilted form of intimacy. But I have also heard some people speak about the way technology opens intimacy or gives people confidence to say more or be more vulnerable because it is often communication that is at a distance but also quite spontaneous—like texting or messaging. Has that come up in your work?

JH: That’s a really interesting question. Well I mean, one of the examples I can think of is from my own life, where my partner is better and more comfortable expressing himself in writing, which can be annoying! So if we have had an argument later on he’ll send text messages and I’m like ‘oh right that’s what you meant’. Text messages enable him to express intimate thoughts more clearly.

JP: Do you think some technologies are part of human intimacy in unexpected ways or perhaps that there are technologies entangled with human intimacies that are not on even our radar when we look at tech and intimacy?

Yeah, I think space and place is relevant here. One of the things that I’m concerned about is small and medium sized businesses in London. They were already having a hard time before COVID, and now they might be forced to close because of the economic crisis being precipitated by the pandemic. Most gay businesses fit into this category. For example, there is a restaurant called Balans which was a cornerstone of the opening up of gay Soho in the 90s in London. It was a destination for gay men and remained a destination restaurant for the past 30 years. It was one of those physical spaces which was absolutely central to gay nightlife in London and its cultures of intimacy. The other week it announced its closure. I don’t know how places like that are going to fare after the epidemic. And those technologies of place and space, which made certain types of intimacy and intimate life possible, are not going to be there, I think, or are going to suffer a further reduction.

And there is an important role that the digital plays in navigating this new terrain. Digital media has played a huge role during the pandemic but, in terms of certain types of intimacy, I don’t know if it’s the same as bodies in spaces. I don’t think digital media always produces a diminished form of authenticity but outside of social distancing the overwhelming tendency has been for digital and physical intimacy to be entangled in different configurations in different cultures. It will be interesting to see how the human desire to be physically connected to other people, in a space with each other, will play out during the remainder of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see what happens in a post-pandemic world and what role technology will play in our intimate lives.

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Dr Jamie Hakim is a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of East Anglia, where he has been since 2014. His research interests lie at the intersection of digital media, intimacy, embodiment, gender and sexuality. He explores these themes in his book Work That Body: Male Bodies in Digital Culture (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019). The book explores the recent rise of different types of men using digital media to sexualise their bodies, arguing they do this as a way of negotiating living through post-2008 neoliberalism. Dr. Hakim is the principal investigator on the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded ‘Digital Intimacies: how gay and bisexual men use their smartphones to negotiate their cultures of intimacy’.

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