Feelings of unattractiveness can lead to health problems and risky sexual practices among urban gay males, according to a recent study by U of T sociology professor Adam Isaiah Green.
Green observed life in Toronto’s gay community over three years and conducted interviews with 70 gay men who frequented the area of Church Street between Wellesley and Carlton streets known as “the Village.” For many of the men he interviewed, sexuality and social life are intertwined.
In the study, Green outlines four main factors – youth, ethnicity, physical fitness and social class – that contribute to a gay male’s attractiveness, arguing that the Village’s status structure favours young, fit, middle- and upper-class Caucasians. On the other hand, black, Asian and Aboriginal men, working-class men and men older than 40 or overweight, faced considerable disadvantages in social status.
Green found that men in these latter groups were repeatedly rejected by potential partners and were avoided, ignored or in some cases overtly shunned in the sexual marketplace. “For instance, a man over 50 can have a really hard time in the urban gay downtown, and Asian men report they’re marginalized in the status structure,” says Green.
As a result of their low sexual status, less desirable males can suffer from low self-esteem and lack of control over their sexual life. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and alienation, depression and anxiety and to substance abuse. Green found that some were willing to agree to unsafe sex in order to please a desirable partner. “Older men may ‘trade off ’ safe sex to solidify a sexual interaction with a younger man,” according to the study.
These findings could have implications for battling HIV transmission in Canada’s largest gay community. As well, social workers should consider how feelings of perceived sexual attractiveness affect an individual’s overall physical and mental health, self-esteem and social support, says Green.
While working on the study, Green amassed a large collection of posters, magazines and flyers from the Village. Nearly nine out of 10 feature an image of a young, fit, white model. For gay males who don’t meet this criteria, “it creates a feeling of disempowerment and of marginality,” says Green. “In some cases it can be quite consistent and severe.”
The research may be relevant outside of the gay community. Green refers to similar sexual status structures that exist in the heterosexual world, particularly among young, unmarried people and divorced men and women who return to the dating scene in mid-life.
The study was published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour in December.
This story is adapted from an article published in The Varsity.