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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Between Men

November 2003: Between Men is the title of a recently published manual I wrote for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, designed for organisations in the developing world that want to start working in HIV/AIDS prevention with men who have sex with men. The excerpt here is from the introduction, which provides an overview of some of the situations in which such men live.

Peter, a seventeen-year old in a boarding school in South Africa, sometimes crawls late at night into the bed of his sixteen-year old friend Daniel. They play with each other. Peter talks about girls and so does Daniel, although the younger boy is more interested in his friend.

Vladimir, a twenty-year old Russian, has been in prison for a year. He had a girlfriend before he was arrested for drug dealing, but he doesn't think he will see her again. Every night he has sex with Boris, a large, violent man in his forties, because Boris protects him from other, more violent men.

Twenty-three year old Lal is a rickshaw driver in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Some nights he goes to one of the big parks in the city where he can meet men who are attracted to other men.

Thirty years ago, Julia was born a boy in a small town in Costa Rica, but since the age of sixteen she has dressed as a woman and taken hormones to develop her breasts. She makes a little money as an entertainer in bars in San Jos, the capital, but most nights she stands on a streetcorner and waits for customers to drive by.

Shen-Wah is an unmarried thirty-three year old in Shanghai, China. He has just discovered the city's latest gay bar, where he goes two or three times a week, hoping to meet a man to fall in love with.

Jorge and Hideki are two men in their forties in So Paulo, Brazil. They have lived together for sixteen years. Very occasionally they have sex together, but more often each has "adventures" with other men.

Sunil, thirty-five, and his partner Raj, fifty, consider themselves lucky to share a large house near the ocean in Mumbai, India. They have just celebrated ten years of living together and being faithful to each other.

Ren is a fifty-five year old businessman in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. He is married and has three children. At night he sometimes drives down one of the main avenues in the city looking for the young men who wait under the trees for men like Ren to stop and call them over.

A universal phenomenon

Sex between men is found in every stratum of every society, among the young, middle-aged and old, rich and poor, married and single, educated and illiterate, the ethnic majority and ethnic minorities, criminals and honest men, singers and sportsmen, beggars and businessmen, postmen and politicians.

It is a phenomenon as old as history. In ancient China, it was called the Love of the Cut Sleeve, after an emperor who cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than wake his male partner who was sleeping on it. In ancient Greece and mediaeval Japan warriors took teenage boys as lovers. In many North American tribes men who dressed and lived as women spent their lives with other men. Mediaeval Arab literature has many examples of poetry and stories of men who made love to younger men.

Social attitudes change over time but men continue to have sex with other men regardless of whether society approves or disapproves. In Western Europe in the nineteenth century, sex between men was a criminal offence; today it is widely accepted. In many parts of Africa before colonisation, some forms of sex between men were accepted; today some people claim it is "unAfrican". Classical Indian sculpture and art shows men embracing, yet Indian law, drafted by the British colonisers, penalises sex between men.

Men who have sex with men are not a discrete group, somehow set apart from the rest of society. Most also have sex with women; many ― perhaps the majority ― are married.


Men have sex with other men for many different reasons. Most men do so from desire, but others do so for money or other reward, because women are not available, or because they are forced to.

In every society a minority of men are sexually attracted to other men. Many have wives or girlfriends and children but they prefer sex with men. Some are single and only occasionally have sex with women. Some never have sex with women.

Some men have sex with other men for money or gifts. They may prefer men or they may prefer women but need or want the rewards that other men give them for sex.

Some men have sex with men because no women are available. Teenage boys in boarding-school or adult men in single-sex situations, such as prison or the military, may seek other men for sexual release. "Men need to use their dick to feel like men, and if they don't have a woman, then they screw a guy," explains Enrique, a prisoner in Costa Rica.

Most sexual acts between men are consensual. However, some men are raped or otherwise forced into sex, especially if they are young or weak, by other men, for sexual release, as punishment, or to establish power; this is common in prison, but can occur anywhere. And some men use psychological, rather than physical, coercion to oblige other men to have sex with them.

When two men have sex, they don't always do so for the same reason. In a commercial exchange, for example, the client probably prefers men, while the man he is paying may prefer women.

We don't know why most people are sexually attracted to the opposite sex but some men and women prefer their own sex. Some people suggest that sexual attraction is influenced by a child's relations with other people, in particular its parents. Others suggest that preferring your own sex is a matter of willpower and men who have sex with other men do so from a wish to be "perverse". However, there is little evidence for either of these theories. The most likely explanation is that sexual attraction, whether to one's own or the opposite sex, is like right- or left-handedness, inborn and cannot be explained or predicted.*

Social Constructs

Although men have sex with other men for different reasons, the words used to describe them usually refer to what they do rather than why they do it. These words reflect social constructs  -  the way in which societies think about sexual behaviour and social relations.

In Western countries, such as North America, much of Europe and Australia and New Zealand, sexual behaviour is defined according to the sex of one's partner: to prefer one's own sex is to be homosexual, to prefer the opposite sex is to be heterosexual, and to have more or less equal preference is to be bisexual. Other words used include "gay" ― to be homosexual and to demand the same legal and social rights as as the rest of society ― and to be "queer" ― to assert that Western society oppresses heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.

In many other parts of the world, however, sexual identity (who you are) and sexual behaviour (what you do) is often defined according to whether you penetrate or are penetrated. In many parts of Latin America, for example, a man who takes the penetrative (also known as active) role in sex, whether with a woman or another man, is described as macho, while a man who allows himself to be penetrated (takes the passive role) is maricn (Spanish-speaking countries) or bicha (Brazil). In South Asia and elsewhere similar distinctions are made; in Hindi and related languages a kothi is a man who is penetrated, a panthi is a man who penetrates men and double-deckers may take either role.

Even within a culture, social constructs and definitions may vary. For example, most middle-class Costa Ricans would not recognise the distinctions drawn in the country's prisons between cacheros, who perform active anal sex, guilas, young men who are penetrated, travestis, who are men dressed as women, and others.

* Okay, I'll come clean. I do have a theory, which I am still developing, and which of course could not be attributed to the Alliance. I may write about it at one point in the future.

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