Sex and activism are seemingly strange bedfellows. For many LGBTQ folks, the two have unexpected overlaps. It is this precedent, beginning in the 1980s with the advocacy group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), that elucidates a burgeoning phenomenon involving a sect of influencers using their bodies as currency to collect and redistribute attention to a given cause. But for whose gain?
Earlier this year, photographer Aaron Williams posted a photo of himself in white boxer briefs. "In 2016, New York City reported over 7,121 hate crimes with a 30 percent increase in LGBTQ related hate crimes since the election," he captioned the photo, leading way to his introduction of "Ugly Faggots," a photo series intended to serve as "a call to arms, expressing that we will not hide in the shadows or live in fear. Resist. Fight back. Protect each other."
The result was dozens of images of chiseled bodies -- mostly white -- photographed in New York City subway stations. In contrast to viral campaigns like #GrabYourWallet, which has pushed 22 retailers to drop Trump-branded products, this one felt a bit misguided.
But sex and activism have long been intertwined. "Those ACT UP meetings were so cruisy that some went to AIDS protest meetings to get laid," Lady Bunny tells The Advocate. From dates and romance to cruising and hookups, man-on-man desire was a huge ingredient in getting bodies in the room -- and it was the large number of bodies that helped garner attention.
"When it's a job, the paycheck keeps people working. But in activism -- with no paycheck -- fun is a huge motivator," adds William Dobbs, who attended some of the original ACT UP meetings.
Now, experiences are predicated on the understanding of our ability to shape them to others: It's not about how much fun I had at the beach, but rather how effective I was in making you think I had fun. That same concept -- the keen attention to branding a perception versus a reality -- can be applied to some forms of activism today, when a new generation of influential LGBTQ figures are using their large social followings to attract attention to issues and causes. Clever? Surely. Effective? Maybe. Genuine? You decide.
Regardless, let's face it: Activism is good for the image. Earlier this year, model Max Emerson, who boasts 778K followers on Instagram, posted a photo depicting himself flanked alongside fellow Insta-hunks Kain O'Keeffe and Kyle Krieger.
The three -- whose collective following could fill Yankee Stadium over 27 times -- posed shirtless with sullen expressions, their abs and hip bones clearly on display. They stood positioned in front of a severely damaged housing unit in the ninth ward of New Orleans. Hours later, after harsh blowback from commenters and at the encouragement of Krieger, Emerson removed the photo.
"People were livid," Emerson shares. "My first reaction was 'eff you, don't tell me what to do' but then I realized that as someone in this place of extreme privilege"-- Emerson is a cisgender white gay man -- "we owe it to the community to take those few extra steps."
Writer Kevin O'Keeffe has earned a reputation for his unrelenting chronicling of this phenomenon on Twitter. He says he started "following a handful of Insta-gays out of what I would say was 60 percent thirst, 40 percent [in] awe at the audacity of it." O'Keefe's fascination kicked into high gear the morning after Donald Trump became president. "This was the one thing that was giving me any sort of giggle, the audacity of these people who are so invested in ... posting shirtless photos about whatever happens to be going on in their lives. It was about the election in this case, and to switch off of that, to stop thirst-trapping, would have been unfathomable for them."
Later, O'Keefe received a message from one disgruntled user suggesting that rather than giving them the attention they want, we, as a community, should come together in a moment like this. "I find that sentiment so disappointing," he says. "If somebody is doing something I find bullshitty, I consider it not only my place but other queer people's place to call it out."
For others, the issue is simply a surplus of supply devoid of any demand. "It's like television for me," explains Instagram user B. Graeter. "I feel like I'm watching VH1 and I don't come to VH1 to watch a CNN news broadcast... I come here for a specified reason: I'm supposed to laugh, I'm supposed to look at outfits, I'm supposed to look at beautiful people, and then I want to get off."
For Jeff Dorsman, who has been working in brand marketing for nearly a decade, it's not all bad news. "If influencers can strike a balance ... I say more power to them," he says, adding, "Whether what they're screaming out is bullshit or not, if they have a large following, people will respect what they have to say by virtue of their huge following. That's the struggle society is facing as a whole, in and out of Instagram."
But for some, that intention is more direct. Take, for instance, Adam Eli. His activism via social media is a little different. Eli cultivated his following through his work as an activist for organizations like ACT UP and Gays Against Guns. "My whole thing with activism is this: People care and want to help, they just don't always know how," Eli says. "Once you create the opportunity, people are ready to jump on board. I see it as my role as an activist to find ways, or create ways, that are easily accessible for people to do that. And then I promote that on social media."
Eli has created a number of social media rules that he lives by. Rule #1: "If it's not hopeful or a direct call to action, I will not post it. I'm not a news station." Rule #2: Never police anyone else's activism or posting. "Social media is nothing but a form of self-expression, and we don't tell other people how to express themselves." Rule #3: Make the message clear. "I want my Instagram to be somewhere that you can look at either for hope, like 'It's going to be OK, we got this,' or 'I'm upset, what can I do?' -- and I want either message to be clear and concise."
If there's one grand takeaway, it lies in our ability to follow and unfollow at our own discretion. If Instagram is where you go for sweat-drenched post-gym selfies, you do you. If you go to seek out information about a Black Lives Matter rally, more power to you. But in many cases, activism plays second fiddle to the power of the thirst. Strange bedfellows indeed, but such is the world we live in.
EVAN ROSS KATZ is Mic's senior style editor. He previously served as managing editor for Logo's NewNowNext and has contributed to Out, Refinery29, Men's Health, Thrillist, Men's Fitness, Instinct, and more.