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
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
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
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
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.*
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.