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Arts & CultureSociety

Digital Intimacies

Since smartphones became widely available in 2007 both media, communications & cultural studies and public health academics have been researching how gay and bisexual men use them to negotiate their cultures of intimacy. This research has tended to focus on how these men use 'hook-up' applications, such as Grindr and Scruff, to organise casual sex encounters, particularly in relation to safer sex negotiation. In doing so, much of this research has enriched our understanding of gay and bisexual men's casual sex practices; informed HIV prevention strategies; and begun to shed light on the role of digital media in both of these related contexts.

Digital Intimacies seeks to build on this research by shifting the focus away from hook-up applications and on to ‘intermedial’ smartphone use. Gay and bisexual men (like most smartphone users) frequently migrate between different aspects of their smartphones (e.g. the phone itself, the camera, other social media applications) to practice different sorts of intimacy (e.g. monogamous relationships, open relationships, one off sexual encounters, on-going casual sex relationships, relationships within sex-based scenes, infidelities etc.). Researching these practices will have implications not only for popular understandings of gay and bisexual male intimacy (which are often over-determined by notions of problematic promiscuity), but also for how effectively the public health sector can provide services that improve the overall health and wellbeing of these men beyond HIV prevention.

Digital Intimacies also seeks to situate these practices within the wider socio-cultural conditions in which they occur. Gay and bisexual men use smartphones to negotiate intimacy in socio-cultural contexts in which not only ideas and attitudes towards gay and bisexual men are changing (e.g. the legalization of gay marriage, liberalization of more general attitudes to gay and bisexual men) but the material conditions in which they practice intimacy are changing too (e.g. the gentrification of gay nightlife venues; changes in HIV prevention and treatment; and constantly updating smartphone and internet technologies). This project begins from the cultural studies perspective that media use cannot adequately be made sense of outside of the cultures in which this use takes place. It therefore aims to understand the various ways that gay and bisexual men use different aspects of their smartphones to negotiate different sorts of intimacies within these constantly shifting socio-cultural conditions.

It does this by deploying an interdisciplinary team of researchers with backgrounds in public health and media and cultural studies and by working closely with the project's partners – Terrence Higgins Trust, London Friend and Waverley Care – all key third sector organisations working with gay and bisexual men. Drawing on these various expertise, this project will use an innovative mixed method approach that combines cultural analysis with qualitative methods. The qualitative methods will be interviews and focus groups with 40 men from two different locations in the UK - London and both rural and urban parts of Eastern Scotland. The cultural analysis will look at a wide range of documents that will help map the context for this smartphone use, from, for example, media representations to policy documents. The project will form its conclusions by performing a cross-case analysis across the data sets - providing a rich and nuanced picture of this sort of smartphone use in relation to the wider socio-cultural conditions in which it takes place.


Steering Committee

Kath Albury is Professor of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. Kath’s current research projects focus on young people’s practices of digital self-representation, and the role of user-generated media (including social networking platforms) in young people’s formal and informal sexual learning. She is especially interested in exploring new approaches to workforce training and professional development for health promotion and sexuality education professionals who wish to develop a deeper engagement with digital media practices (including sexting, selfies and hook-up app cultures).

Dr. Adam Bourne is currently Associate Professor of Public Health and Head of LGBTI Health Research at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society (ARCSHS). At ARCSHS, Adam takes a leading role in the development of research that examines the health and well-being of LGBTI populations, at both a domestic level and in an international context. He also maintains active involvement in HIV research among key populations, including the TRANSFORM bio-behavioural study, which examines social and sexual networks of men who have sex with men in Kenya and South Africa.

Paul Byron is a Research Associate on the 'Safety, risk and wellbeing on digital dating apps' Linkage project, at Swinburne University of Technology. His research interests include digital cultures of care; friendship intimacies; informal peer support (particularly the use of Tumblr among LGBTIQ+ young people); health promotion’s engagement with digital media cultures; and everyday negotiations of dating/hook-up apps. He has a teaching and research background in digital media and communication, gender studies, and the sociology of friendship.

Shaka McGlotten, Associate Professor in media studies at Purchase College (SUNY), is a social anthropologist with a background in the fine arts. Their work brings together the theoretical insights of queer studies with the methodological toolkit of anthropology to consider new media technologies in relation to queer cultures. They have published and lectured on public sex, online cultures, pornography, gaming, zombies, human waste, voguing, and more. They have just completed Dragging; or, the Political Aesthetics of Drag (Routledge, forthcoming). Currently they are at work on Black Data: Queer of Color Critique Meets Network Culture Studies.

Susanna Paasonen is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Turku. With an interest in studies of popular culture, affect, sexuality, and media theory, Paasonen is PI of the Academy of Finland research project, Sexuality and Play in Media Culture (2017-2021), treasurer of the Association of Cultural Studies, and an editorial board member of the journals New Media & Society, Social Media + Society, Sexualities, Porn Studies, International Journal of Cultural Studies, Capacious, Journal of Scandinavian Cinema and Monstrum. Her current book-length projects focus on boredom and distraction in social media (with Michael Petit), on feminist tactics and humour in social media (with Jenny Sundén), and on the notion of objectification (with Feona Attwood, Alan McKee, John Mercer and Clarissa Smith). Her full CV and list of publications can be accessed at

Kane Race is a Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. He is a founding member of the Association for the Social Sciences and Humanities in HIV/AIDS and has published widely on the impact of HIV antiretroviral therapies on gay cultures, practices and politics. His work has explored embodied engagements with medicine across various different contexts and cultures of consumption: HIV/AIDS; sexual practice; drug use (both licit and illicit); and more recently, markets in bottled water. His current work is concerned with the ways in which online devices and technologies participate in the making of new cultures, spaces and practices.

Project Team

Ingrid Young (she/her) is the Co-Investigator on the Digital Intimacies Project. Ingrid is tasked with the overall development of our research. Ingrid has also been instrumental in maintaining our ongoing partnerships with sexual health organisations Terrance Higgins Trust, London Friend, and Waverly Care. Ingrid is a sociologist and qualitative researcher who works in the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh. Her current research explores pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), HIV literacies, LGBTQ+ health, health activisms and arts-based methods. Ingrid is particularly interested in how experiences of and inequalities across gender, sexualities, race and technologies can shape sexual health and wellbeing. She is an active member of the Scottish Interdisciplinary Research in Sexual Health (IReSH) Network, which works collaboratively with clinical, community and research partners.

Lauren Redfern (she/her) is the Digital Intimacies Research Assistant. Along with managing our social media accounts, Lauren will be responsible for producing a fanzine and an end of project report and that engages with findings from the Digital Intimacies Project. She will also be orchestrating an academic symposium to help disseminate the project findings to third sector organisations. Before joining the team, Lauren was based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she was pursuing a PhD in Medical Anthropology. Her PhD research explores the use of testosterone and considers the ways in which the social and biomedical can interact to inform our perceptions and understandings of the body and its processes.

Lewis Clarke (he/him) is the Digital Intimacies Research Fellow and is responsible for coding our interview data. Lewis is exploring the complexities within participant narratives and identifying some of the common threads that run through our participant narratives. Lewis has joined the Digital Intimacies team from Edinburgh Napier University where his PhD in Psychology focused on the intersection of health and sexuality and how these converge and influence the perceptions of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and HPV vaccination among Scottish sexual minority men. When not researching he’s an avid rugby player playing in both Edinburgh and Falkirk.

James Cummings (he/him) was a Senior Research Associate on the Digital Intimacies Project, conducting our London-based interviews. James has been involved in the preliminary stages of analysis helping to develop the discussion of emerging themes. James left the Digital Intimacies Project in December 2020 to pursue a position as an ESRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Newcastle University. However, James remains a close friend of the project and will be involved in writing up our findings! James’ research interests lie in gender and sexuality, with a focus on the People's Republic of China (PRC). He is particularly interested in the role digital technologies have in the construction and regulation of sexual identities in our everyday lives. James is currently expanding his PhD research, which explores the everyday lives and identities of gay men in Hainan, an island province of the PRC.


Our Partners


London Friend


Waverley Care

Project status: Ongoing
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Principal Investigator