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Getting It On Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity

Author: John Edward Campbell
Publisher: Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2004
Review Published: August 2005

 REVIEW 1: Adi Kuntsman
 REVIEW 2: Nina Wakeford
 REVIEW 3: Monica Whitty
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: John Edward Campbell

I first want to thank Adi Kuntsman, Nina Wakeford, and Monica Whitty for their close readings of the book and their insightful reviews. I also want to express my gratitude to David Silver for the opportunity to respond and for creating and maintaining such an important resource for cyberculture researchers. I thought it would be useful to briefly discuss my intentions in writing the book and provide an update on the state of these particular online communities. I conclude by speaking directly to reviews which I find to be, for the most part, thorough and astute. I also have to add that I experienced a particular thrill at seeing a review by Wakeford whose pioneering work proved an important influence on my research.

Adapted from my Master's thesis, the book represents an ethnographic study of gay male communities on IRC (Internet Relay Chat). When I started the study in the fall of 1997, there were few exemplars of online ethnography and almost an utter absence of scholarship addressing sexual minority communities in cyberspace. At the time, many of the generalizations made about social interaction in cyberspace where based on observations of online straight (and predominantly white) communities. I set out to complicate these understandings of the social landscape of cyberspace by suggesting that the offline positionality of individuals in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and class fundamentally shape (though not necessarily determine) online social relations. My decision to focus my research on sexuality -- and more specifically on gay male sexuality -- should not be misconstrued as denying the significance of other social constructs, but rather as a response to a conspicuous dearth in the existing literature.

In the study, I set out to explore the incorporation of computer-mediated communication into the negotiation of everyday life, the role of the body in online communication, the complex ways offline positionality informs online social relations particularly in regard to non-normative sexualities, and the methodological and epistemological issues surrounding online ethnography. What I actually found online were tangible stories of erotic exploration and community formation amongst individuals who felt displaced from the gay male mainstream. I felt a certain sense of urgency in relating the stories of these particular online communities -- stories meriting inclusion in discussions of the quotidian experience of cyberspace. Despite important work that had been done on differences that continue to make a difference even in cyberspace, including Nakamura's examination of online racial representations (2002), those communities coalescing around queer erotic practices remained neglected in cyberculture scholarship. I envisioned this book then as a modest invitation to explore the diverse constellation of online sexualities and the ways in which erotic desires inform media use. I never conceived of this book as constituting some definitive statement on the sexual minority experience of cyberspace.

In writing the methodology chapter, I hoped to provide the variety of discussion I wish I had available to me when I started the study. As has been well established, online ethnographic work presents many distinct challenges not necessarily faced by the offline researcher. At the time I started the study, those monographs available to draw from were primarily offline ethnographic studies, including the work of Weston (1991), Kaufman (1992), Willis (1977), and Kennedy and Davis (1993). Although these works provided many critical insights into ethnographic work -- including the complex power dynamics encountered when the researcher and the researched share membership within a sexual minority -- they could not prepare me for some of the unique problems I encountered in conducting a study in cyberspace. Certainly, Sherry Turkle (1995) proved an important influence thematically, but as her work is better characterized as a collection of compelling psychological case studies, she did not provide a methodological model for my research. Thus it was offline ethnographic monographs that played the most significant role in influencing the shape of the book. For instance, in Weston's study of gay kinship, I was struck by the poignancy of the stories her subjects related and her ability as an author to capture (or rather reconstruct) the sense of immediacy in her writing. I endeavored to provide a similar feeling of immediacy in my writing, wrestling with how best to represent the voices of community members. One of the greatest strengths of the study for me was the openness of those participating in it. I held a deep sense of privilege and responsibility that these men were willing to talk so candidly about their online experiences even when recounting events which had proven emotionally painful. As those participating in the study were so forthright about their online experiences -- including their online erotic experiences -- I was intellectually and political obliged to be open about my own online (erotic) experiences with the reader despite the fact that such candidness often left me feeling vulnerable and exposed.

However, it merits mentioning that I employ ethnography as a communication scholar, making no pretense to being an anthropologist per se. Certainly anthropological methodologies have been well utilized by media and communication scholars -- the work of Henry Jenkins (1991) for instance -- revealing important insights surrounding the role of media artifacts in society. I see my work as following in this line of scholarly inquire, exploring the incorporation of new media technologies into the mundane lived experience of gay men. In this exploration, two important influences on my thought were published during my final year of rewriting -- Lori Kendall's Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub (2002) and Frank Schaap's The Words That Took Us There (2002). For me, both Kendall's and Schaap's research represents a new stage of maturity in online ethnography which avoids easy conclusions and celebratory discussions of cyberspace as utopian space. Rather, these ethnographies explored the complexities and contradictions inherent in online social scenes, seamlessly interweaving direct observations with theoretical discussions. Their work informed my discussion of the communities I studied as I negotiated between the Scylla of celebrating these individuals as resistors of hegemonic models of sexuality and the Charybdis of condemning them as potentially misogynistic and racist political subjects.

An important aim in recasting the thesis into book form was rendering the discussion accessible to a lay audience. I set out to convey the theoretical insights of such people as Foucault and Butler in language non-academic readers would understand. Although I do not believe that presenting theoretical arguments in accessible language necessarily involves oversimplification, it does entail avoiding arcane terminology even when such terminology proves economical. While I continue to struggle with how best to make my scholarship broadly accessible, I remain resolute as to the intellectual and political importance of such an endeavor. The accessibility of the discussions in the book has resulted in what I find to be the most rewarding form of feedback obtainable -- that from the very communities under study.

I have been contacted both online and off by gay men who felt compelled to comment on how those stories related in the book mirror their experiences of cyberspace. Many have indicated that having such erotic practices as muscle worship, gaining, and vacuum pumping discussed so straightforwardly provided them with some affirmation of their own erotic desires. Even within gay male culture, those whose sexual predilections diverge from the standard roles of "top" or "bottom" can experience a profound sense of marginalization. One of the aims of the book was problematizing notions of normalcy and deviancy as they are applied to sexual practices. There can also be a painful form of marginalization experienced by those gay men whose bodies do not conform to the dominant ideals of beauty within the gay male community. Some of these individuals have remarked on how reading stories of gay men who celebrate nonconforming bodies provided them some sense of reassurance as they question their own attractiveness.

Indeed, there is a need for more investigation into how body type informs online social relations, especially as I have increasingly encountered online discriminatory practices based on body type. Since finishing the book, I have learned of several web sites targeted at specific gay male subcultures that discourage those not possessing the appropriate body type from posting pictures and profiles. While I discuss the policing that occurs in some IRC gay male communities surrounding the body, these sites represent a new level of regulation that renders the "undesirable" body invisible. Indeed, even in the "bear" community which once celebrated those male body types marginalized within mainstream gay culture there is now a new model of beauty -- the "musclebear." Those men not measuring up to this ideal -- those not muscular enough, hard enough, or hairy enough -- may find themselves shunned by the same community that once welcomed them. One of the analytical limitations I would expand upon if revisiting the study concerns the corporeal lived experience of those bodies eroticized on these channels. What does it mean to negotiate offline life as an exceptionally obese or muscular man? Are those bodies celebrated in these cyberspaces sources of anguish in both offline heterosexual and homosexual worlds?

And what of the communities I write about? I'm still in touch with many of those who participated in the original study, and a few of them I count amongst my close friends. However, those communities on IRC discussed in the book have declined significantly in numbers. Many of those who once chatted primarily on IRC now keep in touch with their online acquaintances using instant messaging services like AOL IM and Yahoo IM. They also use websites oriented towards specific gay male subcultures to expand their social networks, including BigMuscle.com, BigMuscleBears.com, Bear411.com, and Gainrweb.com. For all of those who I am still in contact with, online communication continues to play a vital role in their day-to-day negotiation of life, and arguably their use of these technologies has grown in sophistication. If I were to expand the study today, I would examine in far greater breadth the proliferation of gay male subcultures in cyberspace, which I believe speaks to the complex ways sexuality intersects with other axes of identity, in particular race, gender, class, age, and body type.

Both Wakeford and Whitty offer important insights on where the study could have explored in greater depth the cultural dimensions of these social scenes, notably the strategic presentation of self online and the relationship of such online presentation to representations of non-normative sexualities in the mainstream media. I hope their suggestions will be read by future cyberculture scholars as an incitement to explore the interrelation of online social scenes with the broader cultural sphere. To their suggestions, I would add the need to investigate the ways in which both class and age inform the cultural landscape of cyberspace. Some recent work (Kendall 2002, Riggs 2004) has begun to take up this challenge with interesting results. Certainly these are phenomena I hope to incorporate into my current work on surveillance and the commodification of online sexual minority communities. I am now examining Internet affinity portals that purport to serve "the LGBT community" in an effort to understand how the tensions between the political aspirations of a marginalized community and the corporate imperative of profit are played out in cyberspace.

I want to make a final comment regarding the cover design for the book. It was a source of significant frustration that I was afforded no meaningful input into the cover design process. When I viewed the initial design, I expressed my dismay that the only body to actually appear on the cover epitomized the very body type these gay men were seeking to avoid -- the young, smooth, lean body of the "twink." I had hoped that the cover would feature body types generally rendered incomprehensive as erotic bodies in the mainstream media -- the obese male body, the exceptionally muscular male body, the hairy male body. In response to my protests, the publisher indicated that they had to employ a cover design that would appeal to consumers and ensure sales. Their marketing ideologies presupposed the undesirability of the very bodies I discuss in the book -- bodies that if shown would impede sales and threaten profits. There is a distressing irony that the cover design replicates the very hegemonic discourses surrounding the desirable male body I set out to problematize.


Jenkins, H. (1992). Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Kauffman, B. (1992). Feminist facts: Interview strategies and political subjects in ethnography. Communication Theory 2(3), 187-206.

Kendall, L. (2002). Hanging out in the virtual pub: Masculinities and relationships online. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kennedy, E. and David, M. (1993). Boots of leather, slippers of gold: The history of a lesbian community. New York: Penguin Books.

Nakamura, L. (2002). Cybertypes: Race, ethnicity, and identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge.

Riggs, K. (2004). Granny@Work: Aging and new technology on the job in America. New York: Routledge.

Schaap, F. (2002). The words that took us there: Ethnography in a virtual reality. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Aksant Academic Publishers.

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Weston, K. (1991). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. London: Saxon House.

John Edward Campbell


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