Meeting: February 2020
Article: Race, K. (2015). ‘Party and Play’: Online hook-up devices and the emergence of PNP practices among gay men. Sexualities, 18 (3), 253-275.
Kane Race’s (2015) article ‘“Party and play”: Online hook-up devices and the emergence of PNP practices among gay men’ is a generative analysis of technologically mediated sexual encounters that include drug consumption, or Party ‘n’ Play (PNP) practices. The article traces the complex arrangement of technologies, objects and environments, together understood as ‘infrastructures’, that shape these encounters and the forms of sociality that emerge therein. While the article offers an expansive analysis of these infrastructures, we focus primarily on Race’s examination of the role of drug consumption, generally crystal methamphetamine and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), in these practices and the implications of the analysis for health education.
The article stems from an ‘insider-ethnography’ of the changing contexts of HIV prevention in Sydney, Australia. The broader study includes a dataset made up of observations, qualitative interviews and analysis of textual and historical material. In this piece, however, Race primarily works with data generated by his own participation in the sociosexual culture under study. Much of Race’s argument is based on an analysis of screenshots of conversation between him and prospective sexual partners on hook-up phone apps such as Grindr and Scruff. While the dataset may be unfamiliar to researchers more used to traditional social science methods commonly encountered in alcohol and other drug journals, the data offer a rich and, indeed, pleasurable encounter with the subject matter of the article.
PNP practices or ‘ChemSex’ have attracted considerable concern in public health research and popular culture (see, for example the 2015 Vice documentary Chemsex). As Race argues, within these sites PNP is positioned as a pathogenic site in which risks associated with drug consumption and HIV transmission coalesce. While not denying the risks that can emerge, Race suggests that a singular focus on them ignores how PNP is also a site in which important social bonds, logics of care and community connection can emerge (256). In focussing on the forms of pleasure, play, community and care that emerge through PNP, Race questions pathologising theories and accounts of ‘unsafe sex’ or drug consumption between men who have sex with men. Instead, he takes seriously the forms of sociality that emerge through PNP with the aim of ‘equipping participants with more attentive ways of navigating them’ (269).
The consumption of illicit drugs such as crystal methamphetamine and GHB during PNP events or ‘extended sessions’ is a key reason they are positioned as a public health concern. Race offers a nuanced analysis of drug consumption during these events, emphasising that they are used to expand and produce new bodily capacities that contribute to the emergence of novel forms of sociality and experimentation. For example, in discussing crystal methamphetamine, Race suggests:
The drug […] delays ejaculation, sometimes indefinitely, which suggests that ‘getting off’ is not necessarily the privileged aim of the sexual encounter. Rather, what is valued is the capacity to maintain focus on various sexual possibilities and activities, and the staying power or stamina required to sustain these erotic engagements.
Race presents a complex picture of the forms of experimentation or play produced in PNP. As he argues, extended sessions can be understood as a specific enactment of an ethic of experimentality established through PNP (268). While often focussed on pleasure and play, Race is careful to acknowledge that pleasure and desired drug effects are not guaranteed, rather they are experiments that can go array. For example, participants may consume crystal methamphetamine but be unable to generate a fulfilling sexual encounter resulting in loneliness and frustration rather than playful social connection. Drug effects then, are understood to be co-constituted by the infrastructures that produce PNP – technologies, objects and environments that must be properly accounted for in any attempts to research or otherwise engage with this sexual sociability and related drug consumption.
The article convincingly demonstrates that PNP is best understood as a ‘form of play and sexual speculation in which men experiment with bodily possibilities to produce more expansive experiences of pleasure and masculinity’ (269). The emphasis on the role of technologies, objects and environments throws up a challenge for health educators and harm reduction more generally. How does health promotion engage with a thoroughly emergent practice co-produced by a complex array of forces? For Race, health education needs to develop a mode of engagement that provides participants with increased agential capacity to navigate the infrastructures that produce PNP. For Race,
This would imply a different form of health education than that which addresses itself to the sovereign, intentional, rational-choice actor, since agency is understood here, not as a matter of individual sovereignty over circumstances, but as something that emerges from provisional relations and attachments. (269)
This is a form of health education in which participants become sensitised to the emergent capacities of the forces, including drugs, making up these infrastructures. Importantly, this is an approach that does not pre-emptively position non-normative health practices such as PNP as good or bad but rather acknowledges and works with the pleasures and risks that emerge from them.
This is an example of conceptually and methodologically novel research with important implications for researchers, health educators and harm reduction more generally. Race effectively argues that by attending to the infrastructures producing – and forms of sociality emerging from – PNP, we are better able to develop effective and ethical responses to them.
Drysdale, K., Bryant, J., Holt, M., Dowsett, G., Aggleton, P., Lea, T. and Treloar, C. (2020). Destabilising the ‘problem’ of chemsex: Diversity in settings, relations and practices revealed in Australian gay and bisexual men’s crystal methamphetamine use. International Journal of Drug Policy, 1-8.
Farrugia, A. (2015). ‘You can’t just give your best mate a massive hug every day’: Young men, play and MDMA. Contemporary Drug Problems, 42 (3), 240-256.
Moore, D. (2020). ‘Masculinities and intoxications: Notes towards a co-constitutive approach’. In Cultures of intoxication: Key issues and debates, F. Hutton (Ed.), 211-235. Palgrave: Cham.
Pienaar, K., Murphy, D., Race, K. and Lea, T. (2020). Drugs as technologies of the self: Enhancement and transformation in LGBTQ cultures. International Journal of Drug Policy, 78, 1-9.