On 26th February 2018 the GSRN was excited to welcome to Reading Dr. Craig Owen, a lecturer in the department of psychology at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham and member of the St. Mary’s own Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster. Drawing on his research expertise in gender and masculinity, and a recently published paper of his in the Journal of Health Psychology, Craig presented his research on how men’s magazines talk about penises.
Craig started by introducing the idea that the penis and masculinity are intimately connected, as is clear when we consider the very word ‘manhood’. When we consider male behaviour and how that links to the penis, gendered norms of male stoicism and risk-taking can be understood as bearing on the way in which men access, or withdraw from, their sexual health needs.
In our increasingly imagine conscious society, Craig argues that the penis can engender fear and anxiety when it comes to sexual issues. The lack of penises on display generally, in tandem with the vast number of homogenised penises on display in porn, most notably characterised as large and constantly erect, give space for anxiety in relation to the penis to grow. Men increasingly feel pressure to be concerned with the appearance of their genitals, with signifiers come from many sources, for example Gillette introduced into their marketing the supposed desire of women to be with a man with ‘trimmed’ public hair.
Whilst signifiers are everywhere, Craig decided to focus his Foucauldian discourse analysis on men’s magazines as these act as unique cultural sign posts, focusing on GQ, Attitude, Loaded and Men’s Health magazines. What emerged from his analysis of the articles relating to the penis in these magazines were two distinctive types of discursive practices: a ‘laddish’ discourse and a medicalised discourse. Whilst there was a clear celebration of the penis, what was visible in both were discussions which invoked fear and anxiety around the penis. Fear was omnipotent in both discourses.
In the ‘laddish’ discourse, the penis was celebrated as the ultimate symbol of masculinity. Cartoon depictions of the penis were used in the magazines to reinforce an ideal of the penis as large and desirable to women. Certain male, notably white, celebrities were celebrated due to speculation that they had large penises. Within this celebration the penis was often compared with ‘tools’, framed as mechanical pieces of equipment which ultimately sets men up to fail due to the reality of the penis as a soft body part.
The medical discourse was seen by Craig as attempting to counter the infallible, stoic image of the penis propounded by the laddish discourse, and did so mostly in reference to sexual intercourse with women. The medical discourse stressed that the anatomy of the female body meant that women did not require a large penis to be satisfied by sex with a penis. What the medical discourse stressed was that a penis should be beautiful, using studies to evidence that heterosexual women preferred men with trimmed public hair.
For Craig, the medical discourse represented healthism and neoliberalism at work, with individuals stressed to target their bodies and to undergo penis surveillance. Many of the articles featured stories of deformed penises, or penises broken in the process of sexual intercourse, often using examples seeking to ‘other’ the individuals who experienced these issue, often on the basis of race or nationality. The sequence that was often used within this discourse was one of symptoms, diagnoses, treatment, and longer-term management. In effect, the penis became a machine for sex that needed constant surveillance and management.
Whether premised on inadequacy of penis size and appearance, or on penis vulnerability to injury and deformity, fear was a central theme identified by Craig within both the laddish discourse, and the medicalised discourse which seemingly countered the masculinity issues within the laddish discourse. This evidences a key issue with how health issues are addressed, particularly relating to men’s health concerns and the issues of masculinity that arise in relation to this.
A huge GSRN thank you to Craig Owen for giving such a thought provoking and engaging talk, and for facilitating such a lively question and answer session. We are very pleased to have established a link with the St. Mary’s Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster and look forward to building on this in the future. Thank you as always to both the committed and new members of our network for always bringing such interesting perspectives and enabling such interesting discussions.
The publication of Craig’s article ‘How Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises’ in the Journal of Health Psychology can be accessed at the following link: http://journals.sagepub.com.idpproxy.reading.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1177/1359105317745333 For more information about the St Mary’s University Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster visit: https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/areas/human-and-applied-sciences/gender-and-sexuality.aspx