Publications & Reports

Constructing a 'target population': A critical analysis of public health discourse on substance use among gay and bisexual men, 2000-2020.

Schroeder SE, Bourne A, Doyle JS, Hellard ME, Stoové M, Pedrana A
Disease Elimination Program, Burnet Institute, Australia; School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Australia. Electronic address: [email protected]


BACKGROUND: Gay and bisexual men (GBM) have higher substance use prevalences than general population samples - often attributed to stigmatisation of sexual minority identities. We examined how influential public health research on substance use among GBM interprets this behaviour and what GBM-specific identities emerge through the discourses employed. METHODS: We searched Web of Science for publications on substance use among GBM, selecting 60 of the most cited papers published during 2000-2020. We studied the language used to describe and interpret drug-using behaviour using critical discourse analysis, focusing on interpretive repertoires and subject positions. RESULTS: Three distinct discursive tendencies were identified. First, in constructing a target population, GBM who use illicit drugs are positioned as deficient, socially irresponsible, and maladapted to dealing with stigmatisation and HIV risks. Second, in shifting the focus beyond the individual, the gay community is conceptualised as offering a safe space for socialisation. Nonetheless, gay community spaces are problematised as promoting substance use among vulnerable GBM through aggravating loneliness and normalising drug use as a form of maladaptive (avoidance) coping. Third, counterdiscursive movements add nuance, context, and comparisons that relativise rather than generalise substance use and focus on pleasure and self-determination. Such discourses centre the need for interventions that disrupt homophobic socio-structures instead of individualising approaches to limit non-conformity. CONCLUSION: ‘Expert’ assessments of substance use among GBM perpetuate pathologising understandings of this behaviour and promote abject subject positions, contributing to perpetuations of intergroup stigma and social exclusion based on drug and sexual practices. Our findings highlight the need for deliberate and critical engagement with prior research and a conscious effort to disrupt dominant discourses on GBM’s substance use.

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