Media and the Ideology of Menstruation in America

Media and the Ideology of Menstruation in America
Michael Bell
University of Pittsburgh

Every culture has myths surrounding menstruation.  In some cultures it is considered to be unclean and women are forced to be alone during these times.   In pre-modern times it was believed that a woman who was menstruating could cause wine to spoil, meat to go rancid, and bread dough to fall (Merskin, Debra, 1999.) Native American cultures thought that women who were menstruating were unsafe to be around and would force them out of the village to sit alone until they were done bleeding.  Female peers, parents, and community leaders passed these myths down from generation to generation.  Women are taught from an early age that is something embarrassing, painful, and often times shameful and not to be talked about.  Even today, the myth that inserting a tampon will take away your virginity still prevails (Merskin, Debra, 1999.)
How does American culture portray menstruation in the media and why?  To find the answer to this question we must first examine where the ideas come from at a cultural level. Has the idea that menstruation is unclean, taboo, and embarrassing changed from the past? I interviewed five female friends about their views on menstruation and asked them what cultural taboos they felt were still in place.
One interviewee told me that when she was approaching 12 years of age, she was told by her aunt that she would “get the curse soon.”  She didn’t know quite what the “curse” was because her Aunt would not elaborate nor would her Mother. She had her first period soon after and her Mother said “now you know what the curse is.”  She explained that she was mortified by the thoughts of some mysterious curse and was relieved to find out that it was just her period!
A second coworker told me a story about how she was never told what to expect and menstruation was not discussed in her household.  She started bleeding one day and approached her Mother who told her that she was just having her period but because her Father was not home with the family car she would have to “stuff a cloth diaper down there and sit on it” until her Father returned with the car after work.  She told me how embarrassing it was.
During my interview, all five of the women in the group began talking about “the old days” when they were forced to wear bulky pads involving a belt device used to hold the pad in place.  They all agreed about how embarrassing and uncomfortable it was.  One woman talked about how that prior to modern products women were forced to stuff rags down their pants. All of the women agreed that menstruation was something that was not to be discussed growing up, was something embarrassing and not to be shared around men, and also that it was something that was miserable to go through.
Being a male, I can tell you that growing up my Mother would never discuss her period in front of me or my Father.  She would just say that she was “having female troubles.”  I can also tell you that the most humiliating thing was to be sent to the store to pick up tampons when my Mother ran out.  As a male, I was taught that menstruation is something taboo, dirty, and even the idea of taking about it makes you feminine. My Father’s face would turn ten different shades of red if the word Tampon or Maxi Pad was even mention within earshot.  An uncomfortable silence would permeate the room and a hasty change of subject would quickly ensue. Words like “vagina”, “period”, and “ female problems” also brought on the same reaction.
It seems that in America, menstruation is something thought to be embarrassing, taboo, dirty, and shameful.  How does this common way of thinking about menstruation translate over into American advertising strategies toward women? According to research, since the early 1920’s American advertisers have focused on the negative when it comes to menstruation.  Their message focuses on the consequences of “showing” that you are menstruating (Merskin, Debra, 1999.)
I took a look at several recent commercials and found that most marketing revolves around “the big cover up.”  One advertisement for Kotex showed a woman dressed in white from head to toe rolling around on a bed with white sheets in a white room with white curtains.  The add had no dialog but just said the name of the product at the end and the word “freedom” in prominent script on a black screen.  What message is this sending?  It is saying that “if you use our product, no one will have to know that you are bleeding!”
Some advertisements incorporated humor in advertisement to promote their product.  One such advertisement involved a woman in a white bathing suit diving into a pristine pool, swimming past a shirtless well-built man, and then exiting.  She looks back and the man is standing in water that is around his ankles.  She says “sorry about that.”  The inference was that her tampon had absorbed all the water from the pool.
  Almost all of the advertisement s that I looked at all had the same consistent theme, use our product and you can swim, run, and be in public, without having to be embarrassed by someone finding out that you menstruating. 
In a study done at the University of Oregon in the late 1990’s, researchers took a look at advertisements targeted at young girls from two popular magazines, Teen, and Seventeen, over a ten year period and did a content analysis.  A total of 94 advertisements were examined for content and broken down into textual content.  Several underlying themes emerged; Fear, Secrecy, Freedom, Peace of Mind, and Comfort.  Fear was the most commonly used element and occurred in 83% of the advertisements and it focused on retaining ones virginity and dispelling the myth that inserting a tampon would cause one to lose it.   One advertisement for Tampax portrayed a girl asking “Are you sure you will still be a virgin?", and another replies “Yes you will still be a virgin. No. We won’t laugh.”
The second most commonly used theme was secrecy, with an occurrence rate of 38%.  An advertisement for Stayfree Ultra- Thin tampons had a headline that stated “No One Ever Has to Know that You Have Your Period.”  Another for Tampax showed a young woman in a ballet class telling her friend that “Everyone will know I am wearing a pad.”  The tampon was the solution to her problem! The message of this advertising theme was that having your period should be kept a secret at all costs and that feminine hygiene products will help you do that.
Freedom was the third most commonly occurring element used in the marketing researched, with an occurrence rate of 24%. The idea that was communicated here was that feminine products could “set you free from worrying about others knowing that you were having your period.”  An advertisement for O.B. featured a woman in a white bathing suit with a slogan of “Keep it Simple, Set Yourself Free.”
Peace of mind was the fourth most commonly occurring theme used in marketing at an occurrence rate of 14%. Trust our product and you will never have to worry about being found out was the primary message being delivered by the advertisers. “Trust is Tampax” was one of the slogans used by Tampax in an ad featuring two girls riding bicycles while wearing white pants (Merskin, 1999.)
How does the public feel about feminine hygiene advertisements?  I think that a lot of people think that feminine hygiene ads are in poor taste. The women that I interviewed expressed this.  They said that they found advertisement to be “stupid” and distasteful.  A study done by Advertising Age did a survey about different types of advertising categories found in both magazines and also on television. The Mamaroneck, N.Y., research company surveyed 2,006 men and women ages 18 and older in in-home interviews.  Consumers were asked whether advertising was interesting/informative, entertaining or in bad taste. In TV spots, 39% regarded advertising of feminine hygiene products as being in bad taste.  Magazine ad results were similar, with feminine hygiene products drawing disapproval from 34%, cigarettes from 27% and liquor from 26% (Advertising Age, 1994.)
One must wonder if the distaste for the ads stems from people feeling that they really do a poor job of representing women or if it is just the cultural taboo coming through in their opinions?  In other words, did the people surveyed feel that the ads were in poor taste because of the way that the portray women who are menstruating or because old cultural taboos were rearing their ugly heads and the people being surveyed just felt the ads made people uncomfortable by forcing them to hear about menstruation?
Advertisers have done both good and bad things for women. They have done good things in the sense that they have made women’s bodies and biological functions more prominent than in the past when those things were not discussed.  In the contrary they have also used their marketing to send a message.  “If you don’t buy our product, you might have to face humiliation when someone finds out that you are menstruating.  On one hand, they are helping to make people more aware that, yes, women in fact to have periods, on the other, they are perpetuating the myths of the past.

Works Cited:
 Merskin, Debra. Adolescence, Advertising, and the Ideology of Menstruation. Proquest Psychology Journals. June 1999;40: pg. 941-957.
Rickard, Leah. Consumers Would Rather Skip Feminine Hygiene Ads. Advertising Age. Section: Research News, 1994; pg 29.

Testosterone, Aggression, and Violent Crime

Testosterone, Aggression, and Violent Crime
Michael Bell, B.S.
University of Pittsburgh

Is it purely testosterone that causes aggression or is it a person’s background, genetic predisposition, or learned behaviors that cause the aggression?  
I looked at two different studies, one done on male inmates and one done on female inmates, and both studies showed a definite link between testosterone levels and violence.
In a study done in 1987, free testosterone was measured in the saliva of 89 male prison inmates. Inmates with higher testosterone concentrations had more often been convicted of violent crimes. The relationship between testosterone and violence was most obvious at the extremes of the testosterone distribution, where 9 out of 11 inmates with the lowest testosterone concentrations had committed nonviolent crimes, and 10 out of 11 inmates with the highest testosterone concentrations had committed violent crimes. Among the inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, those higher in testosterone received longer times to serve before parole and longer punishments for disciplinary infractions in prison. In the housing unit where peer ratings were most reliable, inmates rated as tougher by their peers were higher in testosterone (Dabs, H.M. et al, 1987).
In another study done at Georgia State University, with the objective of determining how testosterone levels, both alone and interacting with age, were correlated with criminal behavior and institutional behavior among female inmates, a similar result was found to the male study. 
Eighty seven female inmates had their saliva sampled to test for levels of testosterone and their criminal behavior was scored from court records.  Their behavior while incarcerated was scored from prison records and interviews with staff members.
The results showed a definite causal relationship between testosterone levels in women and violence, both in committing a violent crime and also continued violent behavior while imprisoned.  The study also showed a causal relationship between age, reduction in testosterone levels, and reduction in violent behavior.  Older women showed lower serum levels of testosterone, and also exhibited less violent behavior.  Younger women showed higher serum levels, committed more violent crimes, and exhibited violent behavior while incarcerated (Dabbs, H. M. et al, 1997).
Socialization theories suggest that violence is not only hormonal but also a learned behavior. Children coming from an “inadequate” background learn violent behavior, while children from an “adequate” environment learn prosocial behavior.  Prosocial behavior is defined as “helping” behavior versus aggressive behavior.  A third study done by Cambridge, claims that children who don’t learn to suppress innate violent behaviors are excluded by peers and are rewarded for positive behavior.  The study postulates that violence may be genetically predisposed, but it is developed during childhood from environmental factors (Cambridge, 2007).

Works Cited
"Aggressive and Prosocial Behavior." Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. Credo Reference. 20 Sept. 2007.
Dabbs JM Jr, Frady RL, Carr TS, Besch NF. Saliva testosterone and criminal violence in young adult prison inmates. Psychosom Med. 1987 Mar-Apr;49(2):174-82.
Dabbs JM Jr, Hargrove MF., Age, testosterone, and behavior among female prison inmates. Psychosom Med. 1997 Sep-Oct;59(5):477-80.

To view the results of my two online studies...click on the links in the right hand column of this page.


Oh How the Times Have Changed!

Kirkbride Buildings/Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in WV

Once state-of-the-art mental healthcare facilities, Kirkbride buildings have long been relics of an obsolete therapeutic method known as Moral Treatment. In the latter half of the 19th century, these massive structures were conceived as ideal sanctuaries for the mentally ill and as an active participent in their recovery. Careful attention was given to every detail of their design to promote a healthy environment and convey a sense of respectable decorum. Placed in secluded areas within expansive grounds, many of these insane asylums seemed almost palace-like from the outside. But growing populations and insufficient funding led to unfortunate conditions, spoiling their idealistic promise.
Within decades of their first conception, new treatment methods and hospital design concepts emerged and the Kirkbride plan was eventually discarded. Many existing Kirkbride buildings maintained a central place in the institutions which began within their walls, but by the end of the 20th century most had been completely abandoned or demolished. A few have managed to survive into the 21st century intact and still in use, but many that survive sit abandoned and decaying—their mysterious grandeur intensified by their derelict condition.

If you are interested in touring an existing Kirkbride Building, there is one located two hours from Pittsburgh.  The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has its own website that you can visit.  It offers daily historical tours as well as a special haunted tour around Halloween time.  Please click on the link below to visit their site.....

Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Web Page

16 Super Earths Found Outside Solar System

16 'super-Earths' found outside solar system

It's not like aliens put up a welcome banner or anything, but scientists now have newly identified at least one planet that could potentially sustain life.
The European Southern Observatory has just announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets (planets outside our solar system), including 16 super-Earths (planets whose mass is between one and 10 times that of our own planet).
One of these planets in particular could theoretically be home to life if conditions are right. It's called HD 85512 b, and scientists say it's about 3.6 times the mass of the Earth. This planet is about 35 light years from Earth. Its location with respect to its star suggests that this planet could have liquid water under certain circumstances.
Don't get too excited, though; there's a lot more work to be done to explore whether this planet is truly fit for life, in addition to whether there are alien life forms there.
The discovery comes from High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, or HARPS. HARPS is located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and is part of a telescope that's nearly 12 feet long.
Here's how it works, according to ESO: When a planet orbits a star, the star move towards and away from the person who's stargazing on Earth in a regular fashion. That's called a change in radial velocity. Because of the Doppler effect, changes in radial velocity makes the star's light spectrum move towards longer wavelengths when it's moving away, and towards shorter wavelengths as it gets closer. HARPS can detect this shift in the spectrum, and infer that there is a planet present.
So far, scientists have confirmed the existence of 564 planets outside of our solar system, according to NASA's PlanetQuest website, not counting this latest batch of more than 50. Beyond that, NASA's Kepler mission has found more than 1,200 exoplanet candidates.
"In the coming 10 to 20 years we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun's neighbourhood. Making such a list is essential before future experiments can search for possible spectroscopic signatures of life in the exoplanet atmospheres," said Michel Mayor, who led the HARPS team, in a statement.


Want to participate in an online sex research survey about intimacy and the quality of  orgasm?  Click on the link below.  You must be OVER  18 and in a long term relationship to qualify!  Results will be posted on this website at a later date so check back for the results!

Take our Online Survey


Small Blue Planet

This past weekend I attended a class and the theme of the lecture for that class was called The Psychology of Terror.  When you think of a terrorist, most people make the assumption that they are crazy, demented, psychotic, or have some sort of antisocial disorder.  This assumption is incorrect believe it or not.  In depth research has proven that terrorists in fact, are lacking in psychologic pathology.  A study done where a researcher attached an actor to electrodes, and told the test subject to ask the actor a series of questions after which an electric shock was to be delivered after an incorrect response, proved that most of us, 65% of us in fact, would be willing to deliver a lethal dose of electric shock if instructed to do so.  Sixty five percent of people like you and I would be willing to potentially kill someone if coherced into doing it. That is a scary thing!
I talked to my friend Shon about this and he had some very interesting view points.  Shon is Israeli and grew up around the daily potential to have a car bomb  go off or a building blow up.  Shon had a point.  We all share the same planet....the same rock that floats in space....why do we find it necessary to racially discriminate, exclude people because of differences, and try to kill each other?  My friend Ibrahim, who is Palastinian also grew up in conflict and watched his best friend get shot in the head for no reason, watched his family starve, and saw friends and neighbors die.  Here are two men, who are essentially natural born enemies, who both feel the same....why does this violence have to go on.  What's the purpose? 

As my Father used to say, desperate people do desperate things.  I remember Ibrahim telling me how the government stole land, refused to let Palastinians work to the point that people were starving and then when they had to steal to survive they said "see, look how they are!"  The people are every day people like you and I, its the governments that create the hate. 

I think that its so easy to put people in another group and label them.  We all need to remember that we are all human....we all breathe the same air, and think, and bleed, and hurt the same.  


Pride and Predjudice for Gay Men

Pride and prejudice for gay men
Gay men are four times more likely to suffer from depression than straight men. The reason? According to therapist Alan Downs, it's a toxic cocktail of anger and rejection, which he calls "velvet rage". Here, he discusses his controversial self-help manual – plus, starting right, we hear five very personal "coming out" stories

"I couldn't accept that I could be with a fella": Andy Goff in his pub in Redhill, Surrey. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer
The window of Alan Downs's therapy practice overlooks Santa Monica Boulevard and the heart of Los Angeles's glossy gay ghetto, West Hollywood. The psychologist can stare out at the gay gym he uses and the "very gay" restaurant he dined at the evening before we talk. In the distance is the Hollywood sign. Downs is at the heart of LA's gay community, yet the book that has made his name completely reassesses the modern gay experience, holding up an unsparing mirror to it.

Downs's spry self-help manual is called The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man's World. It is becoming a touchstone in gay culture just as Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin was in the 30s, Larry Kramer's Faggots in the 70s and Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story in the 80s. But The Velvet Rage is not fiction: it addresses the myth of gay pride and, after three decades of post-Aids concentration on gay men's physical health, turns inward to their mental wellbeing.

Its snappy title is slipping, sometimes ironically, into the gay lexicon. Man orders fifth pint at the bar: "It's OK, it's just my velvet rage." Boyfriend finds partner trawling through the thousands of profiles on sex-on-demand website Gaydar: "But it's my velvet rage."

Downs coined the phrase to refer to a very specific anger he encountered in his gay patients – whether it was manifested in drug abuse, promiscuity or alcoholism – and whose roots, the book argues, are found in childhood shame and parental rejection. "Velvet rage is the deep and abiding anger that results from growing up in an environment when I learn that who I am as a gay person is unacceptable, perhaps even unlovable," he explains. "This anger pushes me at times to overcompensate and try to earn love and acceptance by being more, better, beautiful, more sexy – in short, to become something I believe will make me more acceptable and loved."

It is a controversial theory, but for a book whose only marketing campaign has been word of mouth, it is having a profound impact. The Velvet Rage was first published in 2005, but it has been a slow-burn success – in each of his royalty statements Downs has noticed that sales have markedly increased. On the last, the figures doubled. And his appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show hasn't hurt his cause. Downs's invitation, as he understands it, came after the boyfriend of one of the show's producers left her for a man. She picked up a copy of the book in the aftermath and begged Oprah to put the author on the couch. Winfrey took the book home and became one of The Velvet Rage's first and most powerful advocates.

Downs's argument is that feelings of worthlessness can be created in childhood quite unintentionally, and these lead gay adults to search for an unachievable perfection. "We have created a gay culture that is, in most senses, unlivable. The expectation is that you have the beautiful body, that you have lots of money, that you have a beautiful boyfriend with whom you have wonderful, toe-curling sex every night… none of us have that. To try to achieve that really makes us miserable. The next phase of gay history, I believe, is for us to come to terms with creating a culture that is livable and comfortable."

Downs's belief is shared by other mental-health professionals. Therapist David Smallwood, who is the former head of addiction treatment at the Priory, and a blunt-speaking recovering alcoholic, goes one step further. "Gay pride is an adaption," he says, "a way of dealing with something we can't deal with. We put on this TV picture and what we show is: 'I'm proud to be gay.' Underneath that, we might be dying inside."

Downs identifies a litany of compulsions as adult manifestations of "velvet rage". "If you give people in pain an anaesthetic they make use of it," says Tim Franks, from the British gay charity Pace. "They may then become habitual users of that anaesthetic."

Less problematic gay issues, but ones that struck a deep chord with me, include the unusually sophisticated knowledge of superficial cultures – pop music, fashion or film, for example – among many gay men. These can be seen as inauthentic compensations for the rejection we felt as children. Downs notes the high numbers of gay men working as stylists, hairdressers and fashion designers. "Because of our childhoods we're good at these jobs. It is a specific gay talent because of invalidation. We are talented at stepping into something that's a mess and cleaning it up and putting a fabulous facade on it."

All the rage: Author and therapist Alan Downs.
The Velvet Rage also deals with depression, self-harm and suicide, body dysmorphia and eating disorders – four times as likely in gay men as their straight counterparts. Conspicuous consumption and a culture of exhaustive gay acquisition – that absolute need to have the newest and shiniest and best of everything – is deconstructed. If Downs seems to penetrate to the centre of the modern gay condition with almost preternatural ease, it is because he's writing from confessional as well as professional perspective. His research was drawn from treating patients in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and from his own upbringing in a small-town, conservative Pentecostal church family in Louisiana.

"Clearly, because I was Pentecostal, I was going straight to hell for being gay," says Downs. "Hence my own experience with shame. I often say the God of my childhood had anger-management problems." Churches are particularly culpable, believes Tim Franks, for velvet rage. "Some gay men grow up in cultures where they will be told in no uncertain terms that God hates them. That's a very significant message to grow up with." Educational establishments don't acquit themselves too well, either, he adds. "Homophobic bullying in schools in this country is still epidemic. It's absolutely rife. Most British schools are not safe places to be gay."

By putting the more celebrated, creative aspects of gay culture in the spotlight, and suggesting that beneath them lurk serious psychological issues, the book has caused a stir, and Downs himself has drawn criticism. "It's a minority of readers, but it's a sizable minority," he says. "Probably somewhere around 15% of readers will get quite angry. The question I get a lot is, 'If I want to have as much sex as I want then what is the problem with that? Why pathologise that?' I am not, in fact, pathologising that, but people have interpreted it as such. My response to that is if that's working for you, if that's bringing you lasting fulfilment and creating a life that you feel really is the life that you want to live, then go for it."

Is this all about rebranding self-loathing for a new era? "Only if you buy the argument that the cause of our problems is being gay," says Downs, "and not the invalidation we went through as children. I do fear that as the book becomes more popular those who would like to misinterpret it or to take some small piece of it and take it out of context could do so. But what I'm saying is that it's invalidation – not being gay – that creates the problems."

Everyone WHO I speak to about Velvet Rage insists it is important to remember, amid the hype around the book, that, as Franks puts it: "Many gay men are able to grow up and have happy, successful adult lives with meaningful relationships, friendships and sex. I don't want us to get into this idea that we're all broken."

You imagine that if the book brings greater awareness of gay mental-health issues, that can only be a good thing. Franks began his work at Pace with a systematic review of National Institute for Mental Health research. "What they found was that lesbian and gay people were up to two-and-a-half times more likely to become alcohol or drug dependent, over two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression disorders. Gay men particularly were up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. The report concludes by saying that 'lesbian, gay and bisexual people are at significantly higher risk of mental disorder, suicide ideation, substance abuse and deliberate self-harm than heterosexual people.' This is a very, very serious issue."

The report further says: "It is likely that the social hostility, stigma and discriminations most LGB people experience is at least likely to be part of the reason for the higher rates of psychological morbidity observed. Prejudice against homosexuality is unlike other intolerance in that it can reach into families. Rejection by parents of their own children because of their sexual orientation is likely to have a severe emotional impact."

The government welfare cuts are not good news here. "By default rather than by design we are going to be massacred," says Franks. "We're in deep trouble. Less than a third of mental-health services in this country monitor sexual orientation. Our needs are invisible. When mental-health charities are planning what to provide for we are not on the radar. Nobody is looking."

Franks is setting up a research project in association with Brunel, Southbank, Aston and Greenwich Universities into mental-health issues for gay people. Working with David Smallwood, he is also in the planning stages for running velvet rage workshops around the country in conjunction with Attitude magazine. Editor Matthew Todd dedicated a whole issue to the subject last year "and received more mail from readers than we have had on any subject in the 15 years I have been here".

If gay men are going to have to self-diagnose and treat their own mental-health issues, lending a well-thumbed copy of The Velvet Rage might present the first Elastoplast to the problem. "When you read it, it all seems so very obvious," says therapist David Smallwood, "but no one had written it down before. I don't want it to seem like I'm a single-issue fanatic. All I'm saying is that when I see someone that is troubled in this way I will bet my next 20 years' salary on where it started. I start dealing with gay men that have issues around sex or drugs or alcohol and within five minutes I know that we are into their childhood. So I think that every gay man to some extent will have been affected by velvet rage."

Downs has assumed an almost messianic place in the lives of those who have absorbed his thinking. He has broken the implicit language of half a century's gay culture and flipped it on its head. The central axis of an individual's gay narrative, one that used to concentrate on the coming-out story either as a teenager or later, has been shifted back into childhood. The result is that gayness appears to be a psychological as much as sexual condition. Historically, gay culture has been underpinned by the word "pride". Now Downs has identified a clear relationship with shame.

"I do think that a lot of the issues in The Velvet Rage have pushed gay men and gay culture to create thoroughly wonderful things," says Downs, "but the question that each of us must ask is: 'Is this the life that I want for myself?' When you read the biographies of most people who have been incredibly successful in the creative world, they haven't always achieved a personal life that is satisfying and fulfilling. That is my concern as a psychologist."

Downs is currently writing his follow-up book. It will be called Peter Pan Becomes a Man. "The subtitle is The Eternal Boy Grows Up. The new book really delves into our emotional adolescence and how we seem to be stuck in a cycle and how it stops us leading deeply attached and healthy relationships."

For now, though, Downs is delighted he got his publishers to change the artwork on the paperback edition of The Velvet Rage from the original bland illustration of a man in a suit. It now features a black-and-white photograph of young schoolboys in a row – one standing out in his shocking-pink tie.

Was it a gay man exploring his own velvet rage who designed it? "I have no idea," says Downs. "But I'm thrilled with it."

Andy Goff, 48, pub owner, Surrey

I'm a tough butch guy, a geeza I suppose, and with the guys I was hanging around with, watching football, I couldn't accept that I could be with a fella. It wasn't an option. Sexually, I thought, fine, but not the kissing, cuddling, walking down the street side of things. It wasn't that I thought it was disgusting I just couldn't see that working for me.

I first had a sexual experience at school – boys just mucking around – and I didn't think much of it. I dated some girls and even got engaged, but my life was just about hanging round with my mates drinking beer, going on stag nights, that kind of thing.

My first grown-up gay experience was in my 20s when I was working as a builder. I was painting some offices in Croydon at night because there was no one in them. I had to move the van and I went for a pee in a public toilet – no one believes me when I tell them that's why I went in but it's true – and there was a guy hanging around and one thing led to another. I didn't get into it, it was seedy. I've got no shame about it, it's not what I'd do now, it was just a need at the time.

After that I realised there was something going on inside me and from time to time I'd go to the underground clubs of the 80s. They weren't out in the open like they are now, but that was better because I was getting to actually meet people. I didn't tell anyone and didn't really accept it. It wasn't until my early 40s, a few years ago, that I actually thought, you know what, I'm gay and I need to do something about it.

I started going on dates, from the internet or with people I'd chat up in bars, trying to meet someone special. Then by coincidence I met Michael. After six months I knew he was the one. I still wasn't out. And then one day someone from work saw me leaving Revenge, a gay club in Brighton – so the cat was out of the bag.

No one's been bothered by it and I haven't looked back. I never told my mum and dad. They both died years ago and I often wonder if they knew. But my brothers are completely accepting of it. I don't care who knows now. I'm comfortable with who I am.

Michael and I have been together for four years and are getting a civil partnership in 18 months' time on the sixth anniversary of when we met.

Les Pratt, 36, radio producer, Manchester

Photograph: Gary Calton for the Observer
I was a late starter. I grew up in the 80s when the tabloids constantly portrayed gay men as paedophiles and freaks and so thinking you were gay was fairly horrifying. I wasn't any of those things. I drank bitter and went to football matches and the two things didn't seem to go together so I just pushed it into my subconscious. I didn't tell anyone or do anything until my last year at university.

I did a degree in music at Leeds and spent my last year at a music college in Holland, where I gradually fell for a Turkish baritone. A bond developed, though I wasn't sure what it was exactly. He was openly gay, but I hadn't even admitted it to myself let alone anyone else, so nothing happened until a few days before I was due to come back to the UK. He said he was sad I was going and declared his undying love for me. It was incredible. I sensed it was coming and when it did I felt every part of me tingling. It was like a bomb going off.

We spent the night together and then I got the ferry back to Hull and that was the end of that. But it was the watershed moment. I thought OK, I've done this now, this is what I am and I felt ready to confront it and start to tell the people I cared about. It turned out my friends had all worked it out for themselves.

My brother was the most difficult. He was 13 years older than me and he was my hero growing up. He is a devout Baptist and I thought it might be difficult in case he thought any less of me or stopped me seeing my nephews. I told him in Pizza Hut. I just dropped it into conversation as though it was the most normal thing in the world rather than saying, "I've got this big thing to tell you." I mentioned that I was going on a date with this guy, something as mundane as that. He flinched slightly and that was the biggest reaction I had. He had no issue at all with it.

My parents were the last to find out. My mum understood as she had a gay brother and my dad came round. I still go to football matches and drink bitter. When I'm with my dad at a game I show a different side of my personality than I do when I'm with gay friends. I'm not putting on an act; I'm just being me in whatever social setting I'm in.

Ian Drummond, 38, landscape garden designer, London

Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer
I realised I was different from the other boys when I was seven, but it wasn't until I hit puberty at 12 that I understood I was actually gay. It was very isolating. I became anorexic, found it difficult to socialise and got bullied a lot.

I'd always known I wanted to work with flowers and plants so I left school at 16 and went to work for a large florist in Victoria. The company was mixed and there were a few older gay guys working there and we'd all often go out for drinks after work. One of those nights, when I was about 18, one of them suggested going to a gay pub up the road called the Vauxhall Tavern. I was nervous, but didn't want to look homophobic so I went along. Inside, I tried to look comfortable, but I was terrified and couldn't wait to leave.

I didn't think about it again until a few months later when we had a work event in Soho. I knew that was where London's gay bars were and, as I'd had a few drinks, I went for a walk to try and find one of them. I knew I couldn't deny it forever. I went into a bar called the Yard on Rupert Street. The people inside were nearer my age and it felt a bit more relaxed and fun. I'm quite confident socially and I started chatting to people.

I struck up a conversation with a guy just a couple of years older then me. He was attractive and funny, and just a regular bloke like me. It felt natural and exciting, like it is when you're 18. He became the first man I slept with. It was the start of a few years of socialising on the gay scene. I probably slept with too many people, but when you've been repressed for so long, coming out you feel like a kid in a sweet shop.

My life is great now. I have a rewarding job, great friends and family and a wonderful partner. I'm very close to my mother, but I have never said the words "I am gay" to her. I think she knows. I mention Allan a lot and she knows I do work for the Elton John Aids Foundation and other HIV charities and she's very proud of me.

Fiez Mughal, 30, dentist, London

Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
I announced to my dad that I was gay when I was nine. He laughed at first then took me to see a child psychologist. That made me realise it was considered wrong and I played it down and never spoke of it for another 12 years. I grew up thinking I had to prepare for the future more than others – work harder, get a better job, be financially secure and independent so if I was rejected I could cope.

When I eventually told my parents at 25 my dad sighed and said, "But why are you like this?" My mum was crying. I let them say what they wanted, with my dad saying it was disgusting and my mum saying it was against Islam, because I wanted them to get it off their chests. My mum said anal sex was considered wrong in our religion. I'm glad she was so direct rather than pretending there was no issue, but I explained that being gay was about love and relationships, not about sexual mechanics. My father was concerned about our community finding out, but he said that if anyone was to challenge him he'd say, "Yes, he's gay, so what! Mind your own business!"

I was brought up to be religious. At school I did have feelings of shame regarding being gay and my religion, but I've realised that God made me the way I am and that it can never be a sin to love someone. People seem to expect the Muslim community to be very homophobic, but if you talk to people about it they realise it is not a big deal.

I had a boyfriend when I came out to my parents, someone I ended up being with for more than seven years. My dad didn't really want to meet him, but Mum did. When he announced he was converting to Islam it opened the floodgates for her. She got some books for him and would always ask how he was.

Three years ago she died very unexpectedly, which knocked me for six. My partner came to her funeral and it forced my dad to put it into perspective. I am so glad I was honest with her and we had made peace. It isn't easy for anyone's parents. My mum brought me up to be happy and comfortable with being Muslim and British and her teachings have helped me to be comfortable with being gay as well.

Matthew Cavan, 21, actor, Northern Ireland

Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for the Observer
Queer As Folk made me realise I was gay. I watched it aged nine in my bedroom with the sound turned down so my parents didn't know. I started to get bullied at secondary school, not because I told anyone, but because I wasn't into sports and preferred drama and music. I was called queer, beaten up and had death letters and gay porn sent to my house. The boys wouldn't let me change for PE in the same room. They said I'd like it too much.

I found the dating site Gaydar when I was 14 and I met up with a local lad who was 15 and we messed about a couple of times. I came out when I was 16. I used to go to a group called Christianity Explored. The youth leader talked about how you shouldn't hide anything about who you are because God knows everything. I thought, "Well now's the time" and came out to him. He was a family friend and he was great about it. My parents were, too. My mum cried, but said she was just worried about me "having a harder life". I wanted a more dramatic reaction, but they've always been brilliant. I started going out on the gay scene in Belfast when I was 16 and really enjoyed it. It gave me a sense of being normal.

On 9 September 2009 I got really drunk and went to a gay sauna. I can't remember what happened apart from that I knew I had unsafe sex. Six weeks later I got a bad flu, I had an HIV test and it was positive. I didn't know how to tell my mum. I was crying and crying, but she knew what was going on because she's a midwife. It's frustrating because I have negative feelings about sex and I very rarely have it.

I went into a deep depression earlier this year. I've only met one other person who is positive. People seem to not want to talk about it. I want to help show it's something that people can talk about. I don't hate being gay, but it annoys me when people say it's a choice. I've had to go through a lot and I wouldn't have chosen all this. My family and friends have rallied round me and I'm hoping things will get better.

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