Visualizing Deviance: The Promiscuous (Heterosexual World of Sport)

Before I was married, I truly lived the bachelor’s life. I’m no Wilt Chamberlain, but as I traveled around NBA cities, I was never at a loss for female companionship. . . . There were just some bachelors almost every woman in L.A. wanted to be with: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and Magic Johnson. I confess that after I arrived in L.A. in 1979, I did my best to accommodate as many woman as I could – most of them through unprotected sex.

Magic Johnson [“I’ll deal with it.”]

[…] Johnson’s HIV status immediately brought into question his sexuality, which remained an ongoing object of scrutiny, despite his implication that he had contracted HIV through “heterosexual sex” and corroborating statements by his doctor, Michael Mellman, and the Lakers PR Department. Johnson reasserted his heterosexuality in Sports Illustrated (“I’ve never had a homosexual encounter. Never.”) and the Arsenio Hall Show (“I’m far from being homosexual. You know that. Everybody else who’s close to met understands that.”), where his statement was met with enthusiastic cheering and applause. Under the cover of a recognition of a courageous political statement (“heterosexuals get AIDS too”), the applause is more properly understood as a homophobic display – and as an attempt to make visible, prove, and contain that which cannot.

The popular fixation on Magic’s sexual practices motivates a series of strategies meant to situate Magic and HIV outside of the general public. Under headlines like “Johnson’s HIV Caused by Sex ‘Heterosexual Transmission Cited; Wife is Pregnant’” (Cannon and Cotton 1991: A-14) we re-read the multiple codifications embedded in “heterosexual transmission,” which simultaneously initiate the production of Johnson as “family man” and “tragic figure” while appealing to the seemingly stable and mutually exclusive categories that organize the logic of “heterosexual/homosexual transmission.” Typical of the framing of post-1985 AIDS, the heterosexual AIDS narrative simultaneously asserts and destabilizes its possibility – thus the endless repetition of “AIDS is not just a gay disease.” In this case, Magic’s sexuality is made suspect and skepticism is invited by invoking the authorial voice of science and the statistical-AIDS-imaginary to suggest taken-for-granted transmission patterns. Those studies, recast by the dominant media, are summarized in the following quote: “the fraction of heterosexuals now infected is very much smaller than that of homosexuals” and therefore “the risk of it happening is far lower than in homosexual contact” (Cannon and Cotton 1991: A-14).


These studies [Cannon and Cotton 1991: A-14 and Kolata 1991: A-12] [1], again recast by the media, exemplify the knowledge/power nexus that simultaneously asserts and unsettles “heterosexual AIDS” by raising doubts about its possibilities.[2] As Watney explains it, heterosexual identity is not self-identical but is defined over and against what it is not: “[T]he figure of the gay man interrupts yet also reinforces the social and psychical boundaries of desire, and the relations of gender which are inscribed within them. Straight society needs us. We are its necessary ‘Other.’ Without gays, straights are not straight” (1987: 26). Such “stabilizing” strategies include a popular construction of “heterosexual sex” as monolithic and “missionary” through the repetitive displacement of the multiplicity of sexual possibilities. Sodomy (homosexuality) is made the predominant figure of unsafe sex in the cultural imaginary (Watney 1987).[3]

Yet, the attempt to contain the identity of the general public turns to the familiar trope of promiscuity and the hypersexual African-American man. Most explicitly, “guilt” is displaced onto the body of sexually active women in a metonymical slip which places them as figures for the “promiscuous world of sport.”

Michael Wilborn describes the sport world:

Sex and sports are as inseparable as the pick and roll. . . . If you’ve ever left an NBA arena late. . . . or followed a team back to the hotel. . . . you understand that the players don’t have to go looking for sex, it’s staring most of them in the face. (1991: D-3)

One more time, “it,” the act of sex, that is “staring most of them in the face” becomes an identity, specifically that of women. It is under headlines like “What It Boils Down To is Playing With Fire” (Callahan 1991: D-3) that women, necessarily, re-enter the sport-world to re-establish its heterosexuality. But, in this case, women enter in the position of villain, victimizing athletes, signifying threat and contagion to the family. The duplicitous heterosexual AIDS discourse appears, displacing the statistics invoked earlier by the mainstream media to problematize the possibility of female to male transmission, and to destabilize both Johnson’s sexuality and the possibility of heterosexual AIDS. In the genre of “the promiscuous world of sport,” there are no doubts: women are resurrected as the familiar outlaws and the polluting viles, their bodies marked as contagious and dangerous.

The trope of promiscuity figures women who are sexually active outside the prescriptions of Christian monogamy as prostitutes (Watney 1987), whose bodies have been historically depicted “as so contaminated that [they] are . . . ‘always dripping,’ virtual laboratory cultures for viral replication” (Treichler 1988: 207). The prostitute is viewed as self-destructive “rather than someone who has herself been infected by a man” (Watney 1987: 85). Additionally, these women are portrayed as looking for “the million dollar baby,” trying to “set up” professional athletes for paternity suits. Professional basketball player Eddie Johnson (“Outside the Lines”) comments: “women know if they do get pregnant, they do get paid.” The message is the popular press was clear: “the sex may be free, but there is a price to pay for the lifestyle” (Elson 1991: 77).

At the same time women are portrayed as prostitutes and villains, male athletes are positioned through racially inflected codes that build on the trope of the compulsive, reckless, and absent inseminating black male repopularized through Reagan’s familial politics and the war on drugs. In a shift back to the positioning of the male athlete as necessarily hypersexual, Wilson (1991) continues:

I’m not suggesting for one millisecond that athletes are the only people who take potentially deadly risks. . . . But no group of men, with the exception of high-profile rock musicians, goes through life being as sexually tempted and as frequently as professional athletes . . . Not only is it not “easy” to say no, it’s almost impossible. To abstain, we’re talking about a level of self-control that I certainly, for one, would not have under similar circumstances. (D-3)

As I discuss earlier, the discursive construction of heterosexual-AIDS remains destabilized but heterosexuality is stabilized through its articulation of family values and the body which produces a pure-heterosexual whose risk is determined by having sex outside the “home.” Little attention is given to safer sex practices without appealing to and supporting abstinence; instead the narrative draws on the repetitive policing of desire: It is “multiple partners (who) put you at risk” (Cannon and Cotton 1991: A-14). Once again act is conflated with identity-it is multiple partners rather than unprotected sex with someone infected with HIV that presents risk. Just say no.


The opening segment of ESPN’s edition of “Outside the Lines: Men and Women, Sex and Sports,” outlines the conflicts and questions that frame the narrative that transforms Johnson’s seropositivity into an optic that allows “us” to see racially coded transgressions: “Do some athletes live dangerous sexual lives?” (here we see the image of a remorseful Magic Johnson, wiping a tear from his cheek). “Do they feel entitled to grab whatever they can?” (cut to a police-escorted, hand-cuffed Mike Tyson-followed by a soundbite from Nigel Clay, former Oklahoma football player convicted of rape). “From the earliest there can be unreality in an athlete’s life (cut to white basketball player, Daemon Bailey [sic], surrounded by the press and fans). “Later a barrage of material pleasure and privilege” (cut to a close-up of post-gambling scandal, Michael Jordan in dark glasses, sitting in what we are to assume is a high-priced car) . . . “Have athletes changed their behavior since the shocking announcement that Magic Johnson has the AIDS virus?” And, we are told by Bob Ley, the host of the report, that “[t]he game’s people play extend beyond the playing fields,” after which he asks, “at what costs is pleasure indulged without consequence?”

The visual images, ordered as apparent responses to the questions raised in the voice-over, feature prominent African-American athletes involved in a well-known and publicized scandals or crimes articulated to give physical form and identity to the dangerous sexuality, excess, and criminality that apparently sature the world of professional sport. The ESPN report, like the coverage that generates the “promiscuous world of sport” more generally, is a narrative of moral outrage and normalization, organized through the optic of family values that renders visible and inscribes immorality and danger. “Threat” is generated through the repetitive figure of the black man as criminal/rapist and a slippage that operates through the logic of addiction: an escalation of desire and entitlement that moves from promiscuity (Magic Johnson) to rape (Mike Tyson). Since media accounts do not racially specify the bodies of the “groups,” the enormous amount of media attention focused on the professional athlete’s lifestyle can be understood as a connotation of cultural anxieties around miscegenation.


Johnson, initially positioning himself as an advocate for safe sex, subsequently embraces a position that suggests that it was sex outside of the family that created the possibility for his infection. In his autobiography, My Life, Johnson’s (1992) dedication line, which apparently captures both his love and regret, reads, “For Cookie, You were right. I should have married you sooner.” Watney (1990: 184) would argue that Magic has been positioned in the final discursive space of the AIDS agenda, the AIDS victim: “Crushed, submissive . . . he or she accepts and justifies the ‘punishment’ of AIDS for the unforgivable capital offense of daring to live beyond the narrow and sadistic intelligibility of familial consciousness.”

This aspect of the Magic Johnson story reproduces identities sustained by and invested in familial ideology. It is a neat and tidy story of sin and salvation through the normalizing optic of the family.”

Cole, Cheryl L. 1996. “Containing AIDS: Magic Johnson and Post[Reagan] America.” Pp. 280-310 in Queer Theory/Sociology, edited by S. Seidman. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc. [From the section, “Visualizing Deviance: The Promiscuous (Heterosexual World of Sport),” pp. 293-298. Also see here for a condensed version that appeared in the October 1994 issue of Critical Sociology. Notes and references below:]


  1. The narration of AIDS continues to be organized through categories that under-emphasize and misrepresent the possibility of HIV infection among women, despite evidence that has existed since at least 1983 that demonstrated that women could be infected with HIV and could transmit HIV to partners. In some countries, the rate of infection among women is almost equal to that among men (Treichler 1988: 192). Although the figure of the prostitute remains central to AIDS narratives, prostitutes are more likely to contract HIV through contaminated needles than through sexual activity (prostitutes routinely use condoms for protection against sexually transmitted diseases (ACT UP/NY Women’s Book Group 1990, Treichler 1992). See Treichler 1992 for an examination of the contradictory and complex representations of gender in AIDS narratives. She argues that narration of gender through pejorative stereotypes discourses women from recognizing possible risks and preventive practices. The article also provides examples of what I have referred to as the duplicitous discourse of heterosexual AIDS and critiques the classificatory strategies through which HIV infection is documented.
  2. No mention is made of the disproportionate number of African-American women and African-American gay men infected with HIV and dying from AIDS related complications.
  3. For an explanation of the continual reinvention of heterosexual AIDS, see Watney 1992 [This reference missing from the References section in the text.]. I should also point out that these “knowledges” are embedded in a series of ethnocentric and postcolonialist assumptions that either eclipse the epidemic of AIDS in Africa or produce an exotic “African AIDS.” See Cindy Patton (1992), esp. pp. 77-97, for an account of the Western invention of African AIDS.



ACT UP/NY Women’s Book Group. 1990. Women, AIDS, and Activism. Boston: South End Press.

Callahan, Tom. 1991. “What it boils down to is playing with fire.” Washington Post, Nov. 10: D-3.

Cannon, Lou and Anthony Cotton. 1991. “Johnson’s HIV caused by sex: ‘Heterosexual transmission’ cited; wife is pregnant.” Washington Post, Nov. 9: A-14.

Elson, John. 1991. “The dangerous world of wannabes: Magic Johnson’s plight brings fear into locker rooms across the country and spotlights the riskiest athletic perk: promiscuous sex.” Time, Nov. 25: 77-8.

Kolata, Gina. 1991. “Studies cite 10.5 ears from infection to illness.” New York Times, Nov. 8: A-12.

Outside the lines. 1992. Men and Women: Sex and Sports. ESPN.

Patton, Cindy. 1992. “Rock hard.” Keynote paper presented at the annual meetings for the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Toledo, Ohio.

Treichler, Paula A. 1988. “AIDS, gender, and bio-medical discourse: Current contests for meaning.” In AIDS: The Burden of History, eds Elizabeth Fee and Daniel M. Fox. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Also here.]

Treichler, Paula A. 1992. “Beyond Cosmo: AIDS, identity, and inscriptions of gender.” Camera Obscura, 28: 21-78.

Watney, Simon. 1987. Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Watney, Simon. 1990. “Photography and AIDS.” In The Critical Images: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squires. Seattle: Bay Press.

Wilborn, Michael. 1991. “Available at your peril.” Washington Post, Nov. 10: D-1, 3.

2 thoughts on “Visualizing Deviance: The Promiscuous (Heterosexual World of Sport)

Add yours

  1. This article conflates a lot of different narratives, many of which I have developed significant feelings about as I have studied them myself and/or remember when they happened. The inclusion of Damon Bailey tickled me. I met him when he was at his peak of popularity. We got his autograph, sure that he was going to be the next MJ.

    Magic Johnson did as much to break down the stigma of HIV as Ryan White (who I never met, personally, but remind me to tell you the story about how he got me kicked out of a car on the side of the road sometime). I heard him speak at a conference a couple of years ago and his HIV status was barely even acknowledged. In retrospect, this is amazing to me because it was simply HOW he was defined for the early 1990s. It is difficult for me to see him compared to Mike Tyson whose narrative of the 1990s is so radically dissimilar. I am surprised the author didn’t throw OJ into the mix, as well.

    I would have to reread this a few times in order to put aside my thoughts about HIV stigma and gender violence so as to look solely at the dynamics of the sexually promiscuous sports hero.


    1. The author included O. J. Simpson as well as Clarence Thompson and Michael Jackson, though only in a footnote for a paragraph that I excluded from this excerpt. The omitted paragraph is the […] after the picture of Mike Tyson:

      “In this genre, mechanisms of containment work to racially codify and pathologize the lifestyle of professional athletes and the culture of professional sport, described by Bob Ley as a “closed society” that is “testosterone rich” (“Outside the Lines”). Social psychologist Chris O’Sullivan speaks in this report as an expert to explain professional male athletes: “They sort of don’t belong to society, they belong to a separate society, this outlaw society. And women have no place in that society, they certainly have no respectful place in that society. How are they going to relate to women, they don’t fit into this world at all.” Male athletes are represented as a “special breed, who develop an unrealistic sense of “entitlement.” We are told in a voice-over by Bob Ley that the male athlete is “impervious to all discipline” and “social creature of his physical success” as we watch an African-American man as he is escorted through a prison.[Endnote 32: The suggestion is that (like the representations of African Americans, including the “crack mother,” in crack-cocaine narratives) African-American athletes are beyond rehabilitation. The ESPN report also demonstrates the complexity of gender, race, and sexuality in the national imaginary. As masculinity and sexual politics have become the objects of national scrutiny, such issues and dynamics have been made visible through the criminalization of black bodies: Mike Tyson (date rape); Clarence Thomas (sexual harassment); Michael Jackson (child sexual abuse); and O. J. Simpson (domestic violence).]”


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