The saying goes ‘names can never hurt you’; but they just might. The insults and slurs so often thrown around amongst young men, directed both at heterosexual or gay men, may ultimately re-assert rigid ideas of masculinity and ultimately affect how (or whether) they protect themselves, and their sexual partner(s) from HIV. Tyler Brown, a PhD student at McGill University hopes to address this question in his research into masculinity and men’s sexual health practices.
Tyler got his start in research with his MA at McGill, where he looked at how anti-gay slurs were used by heterosexual men to demonstrate their masculinity following situations where they felt their gender was threatened. He gained a better understanding of the social processes that stigmatize the gender identity of gay men. As Tyler explains, for his PhD, he’s approaching masculinity from another angle, “As my research progressed, I became increasingly curious about how the stigmatization of gay men’s gender identity may impact their psychological and physical health.”
With the support of the 2013 CAHR/CIHR Doctoral Student award in Social Sciences, Tyler is looking into masculinity as an aspect of internalized heterosexism (internalized negative social attitudes about sexual orientation). When gay men internalize traditional ideas of masculinity, are their safe sex practices affected? Past research has shown that masculinity can influence heterosexual men’s sexual health practices, yet similar research on its influence in gay men is lacking.
Tyler suggests that masculine taboos against affectionate behaviour between men may increase risky sexual behaviours amongst gay men. Gay men that tend towards traditional ideas of masculinity may engage in more unprotected anal intercourse; perhaps due to perceptions that taking precautions to protect their health or their partner’s may be viewed as feminine and that they are affectionately concerned with their sexual partner(s).
Masculinity research steps out of the ‘traditional’ view of masculinity as a norm and turns the topic on its head. As Tyler explains, “Rather than investigating masculinity as a normative point of reference, masculinity can be studied as a construct that can be problematic for men and those interacting with them.” By looking at masculinity from a critical standpoint, the role that it plays in physical and psychological health can be investigated.
Tyler’s Supervisor, Dr. Nathan Smith points out the benefits of Tyler’s work, “By exploring the role of male gender role, a research topic too often confined to heterosexual men, Tyler’s research will provide important insights into the ways that gay and bisexual men enact masculinity and how enacting masculinity is related to risk for HIV transmission.”
“I hope that my research will demonstrate the value of exploring and furthering our understanding of masculinity in the context of health-related research and encourage novel ways of thinking,” says Tyler. In conjunction with earlier work on gay men’s health, Tyler believes his work can strengthen current preventative strategies and HIV interventions can be designed to focus on the internalized heterosexism and subjective masculine experience of gay men to reduce the risk of HIV transition through unprotected anal intercourse.
Tyler says he’s honoured to have received the CAHR/CIHR award and admittedly, relieved too; “It means a lot to me to be able to carry out my research without being distracted by the stress associated with not having a steady source of funding,” he explains. The CAHR award is helping him to pursue his research goals and has strengthened his commitment to men’s health research.
Good luck in your research career Tyler, and congratulations on receiving the CAHR/CIHR Doctoral award in Social Sciences!