Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are substances that can facilitate muscle growth and development. They are of appeal to a variety of individuals, including competitive athletes and persons dissatisfied with their body image--especially gay men. hi this qualitative study, 16 elite gay male athletes from the United States, Canada and Australia were interviewed regarding their opinions of AAS, masculinity, homosexuality, and sport, among other issues. The athletes expressed a general dislike of AAS, asserting the substances were un-masculine, un-natural, un-healthy, and un-sportsmanlike. Despite these reservations concerning AAS, the athletes described their own use of other ergogenic substances. A contradiction thus exists between the athletes' reasons for not using AAS and the athletes' reasons for using other substances. These findings are used to critique and nuance contemporary theory in body image research, masculinity, and sexuality.
Keywords: gay men; athletes; body image; anabolic-androgenic steroids; masculinity; hegemonic aesthetic
Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) are substances that can enhance muscle mass by mimicking the actions of testosterone within the human body. This ability of AAS to facilitate muscle growth may be of appeal to a number of individuals. Peters et al. (1999) delineate four groups of potential AAS users. These are (A) competitive athletes, who use AAS to provide enhanced sporting performance; (B) competitive bodybuilders, for whom AAS may assist in providing a more ideal physique for their sport; (C) individuals who require additional muscle mass for their jobs; and (D) people who are body image dissatisfied, many of whom are gay men, who seek additional muscle mass to achieve a culturally idealised body type. While AAS may assist these men in their pursuit of muscle, it is important to recognise that steroids use may yield serious physiological and psychological side effects (Kanayama et al., 2008; Monaghan, 2001; Straus & Yesalis, 1991). Thus, AAS may pose risks to the health of users.
In this qualitative investigation, we describe the attitudes toward AAS of a group of individuals whose identities overlap between the groups described above: gay male athletes.
Masculinity, Body Image, Steroids, and Gay Men
While there exists a social perception that steroids are a problem related to sport (Diacin et al., 2003; Hartman, 2008; Monaghan, 2001), competitive athletes actually constitute a minority of AAS users. For example, Peters et al. (1999) indicate that in a sample of 100 users of AAS, only 11 were competitive athletes. A far greater percentage (61%) came from users whose primary motivation for use was to enhance body image. Likewise, McCreary et al. (2007) suggest AAS may be of particular appeal to men who are body image dissatisfied and wish to attain additional muscle mass.
Those findings support those of Kanayama et al. (2006), who also suggest that users of AAS often report negative or distorted body image, and are more likely to endorse stereotypically masculine traits and characteristics (e.g. the collection of traits coined "orthodox masculinity": Anderson, 2005). Likewise, Halkitis (2001; Halkitis et al., 2004) found many AAS users espoused stereotypical (i.e. orthodox) masculine attitudes and beliefs. These results are consistent with those of other studies (e.g., Kimmel & Mahalik, 2004; McCreary et al., 2005), which reported an association between muscle dissatisfaction and conformity to masculine norms. Thus, endorsement of orthodox masculinity may act as a risk factor not only for body dissatisfaction, but also the use of dangerous substances in the pursuit of an ideal body. Findings such as these are part of a larger body of literature that links masculinity to poor health outcomes and risky health-related behaviours (Courtenay, 2000; Kimmel, 2008).
While use of AAS may be linked to some enactments of masculinity, these substances have a special relationship to queer masculinity. Simply stated, a large proportion of steroid users are same-sex attracted men. For example, 30% of the Peters et al. (1999) sample were gay or bisexual men. Additionally, among men who use steroids, gay men are significantly more likely to use AAS for body image reasons, (1) as compared to straight men, who are more likely to use AAS for sporting or occupational reasons (Dillon et al., 1999). Finally, in an analysis of 311 gym-active men-who-have-sex-with-men [i.e., "MSM"], 10.6% reported steroid use in the previous 6 months (Halkitis et al., 2008); similarly, an analysis of 772 gay men revealed 15.2% had used steroids (Bolding et al., 2002).
This prevalence of same-sex attracted AAS users is not surprising, however, given the wide spread nature of body image dissatisfaction in the gay community. Indeed, gay men have been reported to be at heightened risk for body image problems (Conner et al., 2004; Kaminski et al., 2005; Martins et al., 2007) perhaps due to the emerging hyper-emphasis on the male body within Westernised cultures (Atkins, 1999; Bergling, 2007; Dotson, 1999; Drummond, 2005b).
This relationship between gay men, body image, steroids, and masculinity was noted in groundbreaking ethnographic work conducted by Signorile (1997). In particular, Signorile noted the importance of achieving the proper "look" so as to be accepted on the gay scene. This look--muscled, toned, and youthful--was often couched in masculine language. Indeed, the pursuit of this look was coined "the cult of masculinity" (p. 3) which was described as "the overriding, highly commercialized and quite rigid body culture" (p. 13) that is evident in mainstream, contemporary, Westernised gay culture. For many gay men, Signorile notes, steroids become an essential method by which to achieve an idealised body and hence gain access to the gay scene and attract potential partners.
Gay Male Athletes and Steroid Risk
Given the above discussion and taxonomy, it would appear evident that several groups of people are at risk for steroid use. In particular, men who endorse orthodox masculine values, and men who are body image dissatisfied, may be at risk for using AAS. These traits and characteristics would thus strongly implicate athletes--who tend to espouse orthodox notions of masculinity (e.g., Anderson, 2005; Connell, 1990; Curry, 1991; Drummond, 1996)--as well as gay men, who, as noted earlier, are at enhanced risk for body image problems. And, indeed, the taxonomy described above (Peters et al. 1999) has included both athletes and gay men (encompassed under body image users) as potential steroid users. It is therefore interesting to consider an overlap between these two groups, and the attitudes toward steroids of those captured by such a cross-over. Gay male athletes are one such group.
Little research has been conducted on the somatic perceptions of gay male athletes. However, Bridel and Rail (2007) analysed body image and embodiment among gay male Canadian runners. The men interviewed suggested the importance of the body to sporting success. Many of the men believed they "naturally" possessed the optimal body for running, and suggested that they were naturally masculine. They contrasted this natural body with the "gym bodies" achieved by many gay men for no other purpose of looking good. These results were largely corroborated by interviews with Australian tennis players (Filiault & Drummond, 2008). The tennis players described a masculine body as being a natural body and claimed such a body is developed through means such as a sport, with the purpose of doing something well. This natural body was contrasted to an unnatural body that is developed through the gym, simply for the purpose of body aesthetics.
It is evident that while gay male athletes place high emphasis on orthodox masculinity, gay athletes also place a high emphasis on the "natural male body." While adherence to orthodox masculinity, as well as homosexuality, may be risk factors for steroid use, an endorsement of "natural bodies" may be protective against use of AAS since steroids clearly are not a natural means by which to achieve an ideal body. Given that contradiction, and the public health importance of investigating groups at risk for steroid use, as noted above, the present study sought to investigate the actual perceptions toward steroids of elite level gay male athletes from three English speaking nations.
Theoretical Orientation: The Hegemonic Aesthetic
In consideration of the centrality of both masculinity and the body to research about AAS, this study is framed upon a particular theoretical construction of the relationship between the body and masculinity. This theory, coined "the hegemonic aesthetic" (Filiault & Drummond, 2007), is a re-formulation of Connell's (2005; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) influential concept of "hegemonic …