It has long been argued that success in HIV prevention depends on an understanding of the social contexts and histories in which sexual lives are developed (e.g. Altman, 1986; Dowsett et al., 1992; Watney, 1993; Gatter, 1995). Sociologists such as Hart and Boulton have argued that a fuller account of social context is required for understanding properly how and why sexual risks are taken, and that we need to aim for ‘the development of a sociology of risk that can account for and explain risk in terms of community membership and social structural location’ (Hart and Boulton, 1995: 56). The purpose of such work is to transcend the limitations of earlier enquiry into sexual risk which focused on individual decision making within a psychological or social psychological framework. In particular, Hart and Boulton argue that we need a less abstract treatment of social variables:
In [psychological and social psychological schemas] . . . socioeconomic location, age and ethnicity are simply descriptive variables included with others in statistical analyses rather than what they really are – shorthand terms for complex and multi-dimensional social processes and experiences. (Hart and Boulton, 1995: 57)
In line with this perspective, attention has turned to an operational concept of gay community as it may influence knowledge, attitudes, and risk behaviours relating to HIV. Notable analyses of the significance of gay community and degrees of gay community attachment have come from Australia, particularly in the work of Dennis Altman, Susan Kippax, Bob Connell and Gary Dowsett (Altman, 1994; Kippax et al. 1993). Indeed, a sophisticated understanding of the role of community must inform HIV prevention strategies:
It is clear we need a more complex understanding of the social and sexual structuring of communities, of how each community operates, what its cultural rituals, processes and resources are, and situate the local epidemic at the
heart of that understanding, if we are to mobilise communities more effectively in HIV/AIDS programmes. (Dowsett and McInnes, 1996: 3)
In recent work, Dowsett and McInnes have explored the differences between gay communities in Sydney and Adelaide using critical ethnography,1 finding that Sydney had a large gay community focused on a particular area of the city (Oxford Street), and associated with an open gay lifestyle. Adelaide in contrast had no distinct gay locale, but gay life here depended instead on friendship circles and loose social networks. These contrasting situations have implications for how sexual health promotion might best be attempted. Such differences also suggest that in a metropolis the size of London assumptions of homogeneity are unwise.