Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Soul Beneath the Skin

The first thing one notices about David Nimmon’s The Soul Beneath the Skin: The Unseen Hearts and Habits of Gay Men is that it is written by a very funny and witty man.
Readers with an interest in Queer Theory might want to glance at the theoretic note on page 221 and the use of the word “gay” in these pages. For less academic types, who hear the term gay subject position and think “doggie style”—go pour yourself a drink and we can get started (p.4)
This is a book about the social experiment over the last 50 years—the development of gay (male) communities in the US (though there are references to experiences elsewhere). Nimmon is concerned to show (1) how much is positive in that and (2) what a radical departure in human societies they represent.

Nimmon—who is the central figure in the Manifest Love movement—quotes a wealth of information to show that gay men display a wide range of positive characteristics: features which are wildly under-reported.

Compared to average (and particularly compared to straight men) gay men are more socially tolerant (pp 30ff), much more likely to be volunteers or work in caring/service jobs (pp50ff) and show higher levels of care-giving (pp42ff). They have more (p.117ff), more varied (p.103) and more intense friendships.

Statistically, gay men are nicer than straight men.
While rates of domestic violence are no greater in gay relationships than straight ones (remarkable in itself, since domestic violence is disproportionately male: there is some evidence that, if you separate out gay relationships by sex, gay male relationships actually have lower rates of domestic violence than straight relationships [p.25]), gay males are wildly less likely to engage in other forms of violence (pp 4ff): this despite the fact that gay males are more likely to have suffered violent abuse when growing up, which is usually a predictor of future violence (p.24).

Gay guys are also twice as likely to be celibate than straight ones (p.81), part of the wealth of information about the open and expressive sexual culture gay men are evolving. So males who identify as gay are also much less likely to engage in unsafe sexual behaviour (p.61). HIV positive ones are particularly likely not to do so (p.65). Gay men actually talk about sex, and do so in a direct and open way.

But gay men also develop much more varied forms of intimacy and personal connection: both the intense and personal and the open and general. Nimmon has a fascinating discussion of the dance party phenomenon (Chapter 8). Which he connects to the wide range of “third sex” social forms in human cultures.

Nimmon quotes Foucault quite a lot, but we won’t hold that against him. Mainly because he concentrates on Foucault on the gay/homosexual experience, where Foucault seems thoughtful and perceptive. Indeed, the text is interspersed with lots of striking quotes. Alas, unlike everything else in the book, they are not sourced.

Not that, at any point, Nimmon thinks it is all sweetness and light. In Chapter 9 in particular, Nimmon examines the downsides of contemporary gay culture (particularly cynicism and bitchiness) and suggests ways things might be improved.

I found Soul Beneath the Skin a fascinating read because of its wealth of information and insight on contemporary gay male culture. That it is a funny and witty read is just a bonus. It is also a very thought-provoking book.

There is a lot more to contemporary gay culture than sex, drugs and dance parties. This is an excellent book to discover that.

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