Bikes, Men and Risk

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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Bikes, Men and Risk


Jose Maria Espada Calpe.

Photographic project and dissertation:


"What do ‘bikes’ mean in your life?
-You have the power between your legs (Mrtn)
-It is the meaning of life (Mlcm)
-Oh my God! I really love my bike! (Jm)

Yesterday I was wondering why the very strong sensations that speed made us feel during our trip meant for them pleasure and joy, meanwhile the only thing I could think of during the ride was that ‘I do not want to die’. Yesterday we went to Hastings and I took very good pictures. I think that owing to the presence of my camera I encouraged these guys to do the rashest things anyone could imagine.

When I started to shoot bikers I found it very difficult to catch their spontaneity. The presence of the camera disturbed the interaction. Perhaps, by modifying in a new way the usual everyday performance of the people. Not only the camera but also the fact that somebody was observing them, somebody probably dodgy, forced them to measure their behaviour. My past was not clean, I sold my bike last summer, and this is the worst thing that a biker can do. I could feel their suspicion of me. I had the presence of an outlaw. I was in a dangerous position imposing on the group that feel their passions questioned by someone from main stream society. I could be a representative of that society, a spy, somebody who was going to stereotype them again and promote renewed prejudices. My aims are far away from promoting new ‘folk devils and moral panics’ but more of an attempt to understanding this ‘culture’. In using the word ‘understanding’, I mean an exercise of comprehension and critique -that implies self-critique- and not always justification.

I have been a biker for nine years, and I keep on finding the ‘otherness’ of bikers a stimulating and interesting area for study. Anyone can say they are mad, but I think this is precisely what we have to understand, because this other ‘weltanschaung’ is part of our own culture. For A. Maxwell what motivates people to pursue an activity, which generally is perceived as extremely dangerous and in which one risks life and limb, is that bike commitment and sense of community is effective at resisting fragmentation which characterises post-industrial urban society. I consider the argument is partially correct but not entirely satisfactory. Thus, a second question arises: why are the majority of bikers men? But paradoxically the question becomes answer. At least it becomes a partial answer that gives us an account of more general processes implied in being men today. 

Bikers can be representatives of general processes of production and social reproduction of masculinities.

During the last quarter of century, western society has been changing radically. However, social reproduction goes on functioning and we ought to talk about permanencies. Women’s movement criticism denied legitimisation of the traditional male status, proclaiming gender equality: either underlining ‘difference’ and reinforcing feminine identity, or stating that gender identity is constructed, and as a construction depends only on learning. The social practices, as far as women were incorporated into the public sphere, plainly showed how false the presuppositions are about women’s dissimilarity and incapacity. Women showed competence at least equal to men’s. As a result, the boundaries between masculinity and femininity were blurred. Male and female identity constitutes a relational dichotomy that has been redefined. However, whilst women had been active increasing their primary identity with new patterns -that were exclusive to men until then; men found themselves facing a very ambiguous situation. Men have began to reject a plain conventional masculinity, whilst they were not able to create new accepted and feasible reference frames. Simultaneously, men have been requested to assume tasks attributed for so long to women, tasks that in the case of men, used to provoke a clear social, disapproving reaction. Lack of valued non-traditional masculinity models; lack of self-comprehension about men’s resistance to the change; weak support among ‘egalitarian’ men; and hard social sanction to the transgressors of the traditional hegemonic model, are some of the factors that help us to understand men’s struggle against change and their paralysis. This results in a lack of motivation for the attitude of change. Change is seen and lived as a loss instead of being conceived as social and personal enrichment.

Primarily, ‘male identity’, ‘gender’, and ‘subjectivity’ may be seen as interchangeable terms. I consider ‘masculine subjectivity’ fruitful because I regard it is impossible to talk about one collective subject defined as ‘men’. ‘Men’ as a homogeneous whole do not exist. Therefore, it is necessary to appreciate the historic; contingent; differential, various and diverse features which show the different divers ways to be a man. By analysing these specific realities, it is important to regard how men are located in complex social and private relationships, as women are. Their identifications are multiple and change during their lives. Both men’s and women’s identifications are not only related with gender but also with the colour of their skins, nationality, social class, education, believes, sexual preferences, political situation of their countries...etc. From this point of view it is not possible to talk about essences, about a male universal culture.

The risk behaviours displayed in modern western societies, specifically riding bikes, provide a rich framework in which to study at depth, the masculine subjectivity of contemporary men. The majority of bikers are men. Also, the statistics of crashes and traffic accidents show that men are mainly involved in these. Then social construction of various masculinities, and the relations between hegemonic masculinity and subordinated ones will be a valid framework in order to understand the powerful motivations that explain the masculine taste for bikes. Felix Ortega exposed, in relation to Spain, that -while alcohol appears to cease being, at least exclusively, a ‘men’s issue’- other consumerist values and products arise as being typically definitive of current masculinity. Cars, bikes, and the taste for speed are some of them. All the indicatives that are available are completely conclusive. The survey of Ortega shows that the majority of men (above the 90%) are very concerned with anything that is related to driving, the opposite can be said for women. Thus, the passion for driving is more attractive for boys. That is the reason why they start to drive sooner; they are available to drive or borrow their parent’s car. Being the owner of a motorbike is a very widespread desire that usually is satisfied by parents.

Risk behaviours related with bikes do not originate from self-destructive attempts. Behaviours identified with the ‘hegemonic’ maleness, could be understood as ways in which men try to preserve their self-image in the public sphere –public sphere that could be thus ‘symbolic’ thus ‘real’. Men are not only ‘susceptible’ of using their bodies and risking their lives, moreover they ‘have to’ in order to be accepted as ‘men’. The damages that sometimes happen because of the risk behaviours are unwanted consequences of different attempts to prove and affirm maleness.

For several men there exists a very close relation between the social definitions of masculinity and their personal self-esteem. Masculinity is not given through the biological condition but has to be proven by, the acquisition of the ‘hu-man condition’, through ‘rites of passage’. Maleness is always at the hands of social approval and recognition. Adherence to the hegemonic social definition of masculinity is needed at the risk of stigmatisation. Maleness may be lost if the basic socially assigned roles are not fulfilled. Bikes are a powerful means to show and construct this adherence.


For example, almost every questioning of the masculine condition is experienced by men as an attack to their whole human condition as it can be observed when the masculine condition is in question (No balls means you are not enough man). Masculinity is usually identified with a heterosexist and homophobic sexuality. E.S. Person exposed, as pivotal phenomenon, that sexuality consolidates and confirms gender in men, whilst it is a more changeable way of identification for women. Hegemonic masculinity is expressed through contemporary men’s sexuality. Impotent man feels threaten his masculine identity and also his sexuality. The sexual efficiency counts as one of the most pivotal points of the heterosexual masculine identity.

My thesis is that bikes are tools of hegemonic models of male self-esteem. The bike is a ‘Phallus’, a pleasure tool, a self-esteem tool, and a means by which to get recognition. The exhibitionism of bikers and the audacity of their driving makes motorcycles more symbols than mere ways of locomotion. Bikes represent independence, freedom, risk and audacity, status and power. This symbolic sphere is related with individualism, heroism, and aggressiveness. A. Maxwell said that engaging a bike demands that one be assertive even in its more sophisticated and quietly subtle expressions. Also, some bikers refer to this individualism in the sense that the bike is ‘an excellent vehicle for expressing one’s self-concept’. And they support this in the idea that motorcycles are very accessible and that bikes have a more personal scale than a car. But that arguments are no more than a mystification that conceals a ‘psychological’ ideology of the individual. Usually, the very big companies sell accessories to personalise bikes and influence the meanings associated with those accessories, through the media and publicity. The ‘Biker‘s World’ is a highly commercialised world.

Everything about the bikes is designed for the exhibition: sound, baroque look.… and riding is conceived as spectacle. Driving is acting. Baroque’s appearance, speed capabilities, loud and specifically built sounds, are desired in order to ensure the attention of spectators. Not only the road but bars, pubs, discos, entrances of workplaces, garages, gasoline stations, motorbikes meetings, rides, rallies, races … are points of meeting and exhibition. This public exhibition characteristic has a double function on the male self-esteem. As a symbol of economic status, the bikes support the self-esteem of the owner, associated with social success goals more than with affective goals or other social recognition values not linked with traditional male roles.

In this way I have tried, through my photographic report, to show bikers’ ‘courage’. This courage is developed in two stages. Speed riding, or plainly riding, requires of bravery. Secondly owning a bike requires great expenses -special clothes and accessories, taxes, gasoline, maintenance, etc- and hard work is needed in order to ‘feed’ the bike. A. Maxwell gives account of these facts in two ways. One of them is that, attending the average annual income of northamerican bikers, the bikers’ average is much higher than the general population average ($33.200 vs. $28.900). Moreover, the annual average income of the members of the American Motorcycle Association is $57.300. Secondly, Maxwell gives notice of the ever-masculine identification and worry with the economic and employment as symbol of status. His informants often spoke of the anxieties brought on by the loss of job and/or lateral or downward movements. He quoted then the slogan: ‘work to ride, ride to work’. Bikes are very expensive machines. The maintenance costs of bikes are a very heavy economic weight and guarantee that the owner of a bike has a secure economic position or tries to show that he/she has some economic power.

This intermingle between heterosexism, demonstrations of power and skill, frames the context of the use of bikes. Riding may be a very satisfactory experience, may be safe and it is not necessarily linked with rash behaviours. However, bikers are conscious of the inevitable high risk factor entailed in their activities; but this is not to say that crashes are always caused by riders’ imprudence.


For instance, A.Maxwell pinpoints that bikers are aware about the risks. Another article that focuses on this point is ‘On touring: The limits of safety’ by C. Salvadori. But being aware about risks does not mean taking care about them, or avoiding facing risks. In fact for a very big group of bikers, especially in Europe and Japan, speed and risk are the highlights of riding. However, strong arguments occur within bikers’ world. Stereotypes of bikers as outlaws, as bad boys, and anti-social blokes are always on the stage.

There are several characters implied in the riding of bikes and the identifying of bikers. There are several types of bikes, and several ways of driving that corresponds to various life styles and communities of bikers. Even within each group of bikers we can observe there is a huge diversity of motivations and styles. Andrew Maxwell drew a classification of bikers in three groups: cruisers, sportbikers and ‘dressers’ –touring and sport touring bikes-. The article of A. Maxwell needs a more exhaustive study because of its lack of reflexivity, and in my opinion, because of its sexism, ethnocentrism, and ‘socio-centrism’.

For this author there exist an ‘ethos’ constructed from the experience of riding and that consists in ‘the interposition of such a machine between a person and his or her environment and the control of such power’. For this author ‘motorcycling requires a commitment’ and ‘by this means, that a person’s existence largely is informed by motorcycling even when not riding (...) motorcycling constitutes a world view; it is a lifestyle’. I am in agreement, to some extent, with the idea that riding could become a lifestyle and constitute a community. But this very general definition of the biker closes the possibility of understanding lots of practices in which the driver does not have to identify with a riders’ community and may consider riding a way of earning money, a useful means of transportation, a hobby, or a sportive practice. For the author, everyone who owns and rides a motorcycle is not a biker if there is not a internalisation of this essentialist ‘ethos’, or this internalisation is incomplete, partial and instrumental. The prove of a well-internalised ethos is ownership of a big bike and its use for pleasure in long distance trips. With this idea, lots of bikers are excluded from the community: moto-cross, enduro racing, trial, scooters, couriers, or simply people who use the bike to go to and from work in heavy traffic urban conditions.

Maxwell develops an inside view of bikers. It is clear in the article that he is a white, Anglo-Saxon, middle age, American professor, who identifies with the community he is studying. This is not a negative departure point if there is a self-reflexive effort. His main argument is that motorcyclists constitute a community linked by solidarity. This community becomes a clue of resistance to the fragmentation of the ‘fin de siecle’ capitalism. This solidarity crosses the social boundaries (gender, race, age, social status). He recognises diverse lifestyles among motorcyclists and tries to attack the prejudices and stereotypes of bikers as anti-social. This, he mainly blames on the media and journalists, as the creators of these stereotypes and exhaustively analyses some books, films, articles that clearly depict bikers as bad boys.

However the author is strongly identified as American. He acts as a voice for an American public. He tries to convince to the mainstream American that bikers are the same as any other American citizen. Of course, when he pretends to defend bikers, he is defending himself, because the image of the biker he is defending is a reflection of himself. He complains about the general image of bikes as a simple means of transportation, as utilitarian objects. He cites as an example the massive use of mopeds all around the Third World. Yet, moreover, he is shocked that ‘even in London’, motorbikes are used as taxis and are the favourite vehicle for couriers. He contrasts the outlaw lone biker with the image of the happy middle class couples who travel all around the Interstate motorway system. I suspect that this image is the usual practice of himself as a biker. Finally I just consider this text as a very interesting ethnographic speech, but the author by trying to break the mainstream society stereotypes, in my opinion, he was not aware about his own stereotypes, resulting in a mystification of motorcycling.


I am aware that I did not address the current debates about image/textual, evocative/descriptive and other issues related with the subject of our course. I did mainly because I felt the need to address one of the main observations that arise from my short ‘fieldwork’, that is the position of the anthropologist inside or outside the group studied. Also I felt the need of writing and clarifying the theoretical background in what frames my visual project. I think it is very important to regard the differences between visual and textual ways of representation. However, at least, it is as important to this considerations, regard the theoretical background that is going to be expressed by a photographic report.

Anyway, one of my constant worries was how to express, through still photography, abstract concepts. Thus arises the ambiguous nature of the image. It could be thought that image is more ambiguous than written ethnographies, but I found quite interesting the evocative qualities of the image. The ambiguity of the image, obligates the spectators to make a stronger effort to understand the image. This involves spectators in the actual creation of the meaning of the image. Therefore, still photography becomes a more participatory genre than, for instance, film –at least upon the viewing of the photograph, if not the actual shooting of the picture. What sometimes makes the meaning of the image more direct is the sharing of social codes among the photographer, the spectators, the work itself, the social context in which the picture is viewed, the general social context and its historic happenings. But this conjunction does not always result in same meanings being understood by all parties involved. It is therefore clear that meaning is constructed in this interaction. In some way I regard image from a semiotic point of view. This means that images are texts, visual texts. And visual texts shares all the same worries about the rethoric as traditional written ethnographies.

That game is full of ironies. And as I underlined with the critique to the article of Maxwell, the author is aware about the audience he is talking and what codes he has to use to find the reaction he is looking for. However, I think, he is not aware about his own social positioning and how this influences his point of view.

One biker dropped me at home one night of february that we came back from Whitstable after having some pints there. That night I was really scared because the harsh riding he performs. The picture shows a kind of ‘burnout’ over the grass of my house front entrance, he did. That night, just after he left me, he had a crash.


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I've just been approached by some bloke who's a student of Visual Anthropology here, and wants to interview bikers for his research (I think he's going to start putting flyers on people's bikes to recruit them) if you can help him, he wants you to get in touch with him - jme1 or Internal line 5269.

Annexe 2.



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