Have you ever thought about who you are? Or what makes you, you? Well, on a day-to-day basis it isn’t something we do, we are busy with other things – planning where we’re going to go for birthday drinks next week, working out how to get to Camden Town on TFL’s journey planner, or trying to scour Amazon for Christmas pressies, and other such things that stop us from thinking about anything philosophical like who we are. Well, thinking about our identities is something that is important for HIV prevention, even if on the surface they may seem quite unrelated.
Recently people like Judith Butler (see link here ) have argued that we must ourselves as ongoing projects rather than tick boxes. We are ‘doing’ our identities instead of ‘being them’ (OK, maybe that sounds a little abstract, but bear with me). For example, we might think of ourselves as gay, or Jamaican or a chef and we might think of these things as fixed categories that we neatly slot into, but actually identity theorists like Butler have said that we must see our identities as things we are always ‘working at’ and becoming (interested? read more here). So, being gay, for example, is not something we are, but something we do through our day-today behaviours, and the repetitions of these behaviours make it seem like our identities our fixed (even if they are not). These behaviours include everything from the way we speak, the words we use, the places we go, the music we listen to and even the food we eat. Together, and through the fact that we keep doing each of these things means that are always becoming who we are, whether that is a gay man, or anything else.
‘There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender…identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results’ – Judith Butler (in photo below).
Right, I’m with you, but how does that relate to HIV prevention?
So, viewing our identities in this way – as open, fluid and dynamic – impacts the way in which we do HIV prevention. If all men we worked with were the same, and their identities were static, it would be easy to come up with a fixed and fail-proof approach to HIV prevention. There would be a copy and paste ‘fit-all’ model that works for everyone. The truth is, we don’t fit into neat boxes and our identities are much more complex. We do our identities through the things we do, like coming out to workmates, taking drugs, ordering a drink, sending messages on Grindr etc and these things are not set in stone. The ramifications for HIV prevention mean that we need tailor-made approaches that are focused on the complexities and differences of our identities (rather than assuming that we represent homogenous groups). This might include things like how we go about relationships, our feelings about being a gay man and our worries about becoming HIV positive and other factors that are different for everyone. This explains why one-to-one behavioural work, such as counselling and mentoring (see here for info), is such a crucial part of HIV prevention. They allow participants to explore their identities and behaviours in a participant-led approach, which focuses on the individual’s understandings, motivations, desires for (not) having protected sex. Another interesting point is that through HIV prevention focused on our identities as becoming, and not being, client can begin to see themselves as open to change. They can recognise the potential to change their own behaviours and create their own identities, rather than viewing them as static (i.e. I am a gay man, so I have to behave like this….). This can be extremely empowering to the clients we work with and can help them see the opportunities they have to change their behaviours and make the decisions necessary to have they sex they want to have, rather than being told how to do this.
For more information on the one-to-one support we provide at the GMI Partnership please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 716000941.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the GMI Partnership.