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PrEPped Intimacies in Berlin: Affective Ambivalences and Embodied Subjects in Biomedical HIV-Prevention

PrEP-Intimitäten in Berlin

PrEP-Intimitäten in Berlin

Max Schnepf

Since the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the condom, and later on HIV therapy, have been the only ways to prevent the sexual transmission of the virus. A drug now promises a new era in HIV prevention: Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) has been proven to be highly effective in protecting against an HIV infection. Since September 2019, the costs for at-risk groups have been covered by public health insurance in Germany – especially for men who have sex with men. The implementation of the biomedical prophylaxis is characterized by ambivalences: Even before its launch, the drug raised hopes for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic and destigmatizing HIV. Yet, it has also incited moralizing debates about condom-free sex and the danger of spreading other sexually transmitted infections.

The project ‘PrEPped Intimacies in Berlin’ explores the multiple sociocultural effects associated with the implementation of PrEP. It inquires into the social and political transformations brought about by PrEP and its impact on gay sexuality and the queer community in Berlin: What political and epidemiological hopes and fears does the pharmaceutical evoke? How does it affect sexual fantasies and intimate encounters? Which meaning does sex without condom acquire – also against the backdrop of the 1980s/90s? What significance does HIV have today in the lives of gay men and in sexual communities in Berlin?

To investigate these transformations, the project uses methods from qualitative social sciences, particularly ethnography. This includes participant observation in prevention contexts and different interview formats with (potential) PrEP users, their partners and those who reject PrEP for different reasons. The ethnographic research is complemented by semi-structured interviews with experts in the field of HIV prevention and the analysis of epidemiological, political and media discourses.

The project draws on queer and affect theory’s engagement with intimacy and combines them with insights from medical anthropology on pharmaceuticals and biomedicalization. It conceptualizes PrEP as an affective, discursive, and material formation in the lives, experiences, and bodies of PrEP users and their partners. Additionally, it situates PrEP in the specific context of Berlin, a city with a high international appeal and a reputation for its sexual permissiveness. The project examines how the biomedical prophylaxis is negotiated in health publics, subcultural discourses, and therapeutic situations. In doing so, it analyses how PrEP, in its various contexts, shapes embodied subjects and transforms intimate encounters.

In this way, the project aims to provide practical insights into HIV prevention with regard to the potentials as well as socio-political exclusions that PrEP can create. At the same time, it contributes to queer and medical anthropology by conceptualizing intimate entanglements of biomedical technologies with configurations of gender and sexuality.


Funding: German Research Foundation

Director: Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Dilger

Research Associate: Max Schnepf

Research Assistant: Vincent David Kuhr Jopia

Duration: April 2022 - March 2024

Berlin Southern Theory Lecture