How do Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises? – Meeting Report

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.

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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: For more information about the St Mary’s University Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster visit:





How Do Men’s Magazines Talk about Penises?

The GSRN is happy to have Craig Owen, from the department of psychology at St Mary’s University, presenting his research on how men’s magazines discuss penises.

Do join us in Edith Morley 175 4-5pm for what I am confident will be a fascinating presentation followed by Q&A. As always, discussion are likely to continue at the SCR!

Abstract: Constructions of masculinity have shifted and changed but the central role of the penis has remained firm. The messages men receive about their manhood is apparent in articles in men’s magazines. We conducted a discursive analysis of the ways in which penises were discussed in four market leading UK titles: Loaded, Men’s Health, GQ and Attitude. Two broad discourses were identified, termed Laddish and Medicalised, both of which create fear ridden spaces where men are bombarded with unachievable masculine ideals and traumatic examples of mutilated members. This may have implications for how men approach their sexual health needs.

Craigs Poster

Meeting Report: Breaking the Taboo: Menstruation in Maïssa Bey’s Bleu blanc vert and Marouane’s La Jeune fille et la mère

University of Reading teaching fellow Maria Tomlinson gave a talk on the 23rd January at the second meeting of the GSRN this term on two Francophone Algerian novels Bleu Blanc Vert (Maïssa Bey, 2007) and La Jeune Fille et la Mère (Leila Marouane, 2007). Both novels centre young women growing up in Algeria, Maria focusing on the aspects of the narratives that offer a mediation on some of the domestic and social tensions that arise though reactions to menstruation. In particular, she suggested that the novels offer a critique of  menstruation currently characterised as a cultural taboo in the region by anthropologists, and indicate that education and self-reflection independent of familial circles are potentially crucial factors in establishing generational changes of attitude.

Maria began by discussing the fact that some media and social media outlets (such as the Huffington Post) described 2015 as the ‘Year of the Period’, after hastags such as #happytobleed and #periodsarenotaninsult were widely shared. In the summer of 2014, however, French photographer Marianne Rosenstiehl had helped to blow the cover of societal silence around menstruation in France with her daring Paris exhibition La Malédiction, which included multiple images of models on their period with visible blood. Maria suggested that the range of images and emotional tones suggested an affinity with Gayatri Spivak’s critiques of second wave feminism’s supposed universalities of the menstrual experience.

This trend itself was partly a response to high-profile instances of derogatory and discriminatory comments and actions directed at menstruating women: Maria highlighted the fact that in 2015 several Hindu temples in India banned women from entering during their menstruation period to avoid the holy sites becoming ‘polluted’. Maria suggested that in addition to the stigma of ‘dirtiness’, the ‘shame’ of menstruation is powerfully linked to the fact that in many cultures period blood is what Jane Ussher calls ‘the great unseen’, whose visible presence confers a sense of guilt.

In the Maghreb, where these novels are set, menstrual anthropologist Nadia Guessous’ research has shown that this ‘pollution’ is specifically associated with a concept of ‘dishonour’. Fascinatingly, her research also suggests that this ‘dishonour’ can come from other sources of flowing blood – particularly when associated with the loss of virginity. In Bleu Blanc Vert, Lilas is a young woman living in Algeria who at one point in the book’s 30 year chronology (1962-1992) goes through puberty and shares the experience of her first period with her mother. These first few drops of blood are seen by the mother as a traumatic event: the mother does not explain the significance of the blood, but instead uses the opportunity to issue a warning about the dangers of sex and the shame that comes with the loss of virginity. This conflation is more dramatic in La Jeune Fille et la Mère, as the mother of this novel’s female protagonist, Djamila, has been training her daughter to be resistant to attempts on her virginity from a young age.

The role of the extended families in these menstrual narratives is crucial in framing female sexuality as an inconvenience that needs to be tackled and hidden, especially when compared to young boys. Any discussions of periods or menstrual blood in Bleu Blanc Vert must be done solely in the presence of women, and Maïssa Bey has set out these dialogues in a cold and pragmatic manner. However, when the rite of passage concerns male sexuality, such as when the boys are circumcised at a young age, the entire household erupts into unified celebration. Maria suggested that certain impersonal French constructions found in the scenes of female sexuality, though not the male may be seen as evidence that this divide is a wider societal one in the Francophone world, beyond the book’s narrative of the experiences of a particular Algerian family.

Maria concluded by suggesting that a role is partially mapped out for secular education as a ‘way out’ of controlling family structures. Djamila in La Jeune Fille et la Mère has competing plans for her sexual life mapped out for her by both parents, with her father arranging a young marriage for her (that she does not want), and her mother trying to expose her to a wider education (which she is also uneasy with) to allow her to experience a supposedly better life than she herself read. However, Lilas in Bleu Blanc Vert finds a medical book about menstruation and therefore accesses knowledge about herself from an outside source, and via her own agency, suggesting that this independence may be a key factor for a young woman’s engagement with potential processes of de-stigmatisation.

It was very good to have Maria, who founded this network, back in the seminar and presenting, and be exposed to such an important topic through a non-anglophone lens. We thank her for her excellent talk and look forward to perhaps one day reading her translations of these novels, which some of those attending would no doubt love her to do!

Stigma, Vulnerability to Abuse and Labour Market Outcomes: Cases of Sex Work and Domestic Work in India – Meeting Report

The GSRN was lucky to welcome Neha Hui from the University of Reading’s economic department for the first presentation of the spring term, on the differential earnings between sex workers and domestic workers, using the labour markets of India as a case study. Neha bought us a fresh and insightful take on a long standing debate on sex workers, by moving away from discussions of agency, victimhood and objectification, framing the conversation in economic terms as a way to shed light on some of the costs and benefits of working in the sex trade.


Neha first introduced the network to some of the literature surrounding sex work that sought to explain the substantially greater earnings that sex workers receive. Whilst some academics sought to explain the wage differential in terms of a premium that reflects the opportunity cost for foregoing marriage (Edlund and Korn, 2002), others considered it to reflect the high risks that are involved in the trade (Arunachalam and Shah, 2008). Such risks include sexually transmitted infections, with the risker the behaviour, such as unprotected sex, the higher the premium paid to the sex worker. Della Giusta et al (2008) argues that the premium paid is a form of compensation for the stigma of being associated with the trade.

The idea of stigma is something that became central to Neha’s research. She proceeded to demonstrate the complex nature of stigma by considering the different ways it has been conceptualised. In 1960 Goffman stated that it is a process of the social construction of identify, with Link and Phelan arguing that it is the co-occurrence of labelling, stereotyping, separation, status loss and discrimination.

Neha noted how stigma can attached itself for different reasons, observing the high wages paid to those who work in ‘dirty work’, particularly so when it relates to the body, such as waste disposal. For Neha, sex work, in its relation to the body, would fall within this understanding of stigma. Further, a sex worker is stigmatised due to ideas of femininity, and being considered a deviant from socially sanctioned norms regarding women’s behaviour around sexuality (Wong et al, 2011).

The difficulty for Neha’s research is that stigma as a concept cannot be measured. Thus she sought to assess the stigma explanation using a comparative method, using the trade of domestic work as a basis on which to compare the two differential earnings. To ensure that this comparison was rigorous, Neha had to confirm that these two types of workers, sex workers and domestic workers, were legitimate comparative groups.

Neha demonstrated how the two trades in India, sex work and domestic work, employ from similar groups of people. Namely women from similar socio-economic backgrounds with similar levels of education.  Because most of the women employed into these two lines of work enter into the trade at a similar age, with similar levels of education and formal training, they hold similar labour market options (Wadhawan, 2013). To further compound the similarities between the trades, many women who enter into sex work report previously provided unpaid sexual services in the context of their paid domestic labour (Durbar Mahila Samanavaya Committee, 2006; Jameela, 2009).

For Neha’s comparative study she compared brother based sex workers with ‘live out’ domestic workers, noting that there categories of workers have greater bargaining power than the street based sex worker and the ‘live in’ domestic worker. The data was collected from a primary field survey of sex workers and domestic workers from two cities in India Delhi and Kolkata. Due to the hidden and sensitive nature of the two occupational groups, Neha used the snow-ball sampling technique using the networks from the informed NGOs that worked within the areas.

Neha found from her statistical analysis that having faced violence in the past increased the likelihood of an individual becoming a sex worker. However, this did not suggest that risk, or vulnerability to abuse, were factors to attribute the wage difference to, as within the sex worker group women who have been abused do not, on average, earn significantly more than those who have not. She also found that there was a significant difference in earning between domestic work and sex worker, with a sex worker being expected to earn 130 percent more than her counterpart domestic worker. For Neha, what explained this difference of earnings was the stigma attached to the sex trade, a stigma that is not attached to the domestic work trade.

A massive GSRN thank you to Neha for presenting just a small part of her fascinating work from her successfully completed PhD in Economics. From all at the GSRN, we want to wish Neha all the best with her current post doc research at the University of Reading on economic history and post-slavery indenture worker migration from the Indian subcontinent to British colonies. We are confident that Neha will continue to generate more valuable insights from the field of economics on complex issues.

I Saw their Stars: Race, Rape and Policing in the US South – Meeting Report

The 27th November 2017 saw the last GSRN session of 2017 presented by Reading University PhD student Liz Barnes. Liz is a sessional lecturer and module convenor in the history department, working on sexual violence in the post-civil war US. She is also the history editor over at Question.

The title of the talk, I saw their stars’, is actually a quotation from court testimony from black freedwoman Lucy Smith, who was raped by during the Memphis Riots shortly after the end of the civil war, between 1-3 May 1866. According to Lucy, she had in fact been raped by the Police, whose recognisable silver insignia had remained visible on a breast pocket or lapel during the assault. The brazenness of the assault, Liz suggested, has many important connotations for the role played by race, gender and class in the historical development of US policing.  The present-day consequences of US law enforcement’s civic origins are of particular interest given the widespread outcry in recent years around institutional racism in Western nations (including the UK), and the emergence of groups like Black Lives Matter.

I saw their stars - sheriff

C.M. Bell, Unidentified Capitol Police Officer, 1873[?], Library of Congress

Law enforcement in the antebellum South was dominated by elected Sheriffs and slave patrols, the latter of whom were a mix of state-backed militia and informal or commercial thugs. As one would expect from an almost completely unregulated group whose subjects had no human rights at all, they had a reputation for corruption, extortion and blackmail. Liz was keen to stress that these patrols would often be conducted in a spirit of great reverie, and punitive ‘raids’ mixed with heavy drinking were an important social event for patrolling white men. Black female slaves were routinely targeted, with black male slaves being beaten or whipped away so women could be raped. Such was the predilection of these groups for targeting women that female slaves were far less likely to stray from plantations for fear of sexual assault, but the prevalence of domestic raids was common enough that many sought still more isolated refuge in swamps or dense woodland.

A crucial aspect of the racial dimension to these practices was that free blacks were also commonly victimised, which bound the sense of a person as property more closely to skin colour. The racist worldview that celebrated violence against blacks and particularly women persisted even when it was no longer fully concentric with legal reality, which Liz argued became more complex after the abolition of slavery itself. Though no longer legal, the so-called ‘colour line’ was maintained by the absorption of violent, anti-slave behaviour into official police forces or via the transformation of informal slave patrols into racist vigilantes such as the Klu Klux Klan. As with the slave patrols, the systematic rape and abuse of black women was a key feature of  post-civil war police conduct. Liz highlighted one instance where a free black woman named Mary was actually taken back to her former master’s house by the police and gang-raped. The atmosphere of a wild party persisted in police practice too, with extended home invasions taking place where officers would demand to be supplied with alcohol and food.

While such horrors were not uncommon, it is interesting that after the civil war domestic raids such as the one on Mary were done under false pretences, however flimsy. Liz later added in the Q &A that the anonymity provided by the conical hoods of the KKK was also a sham, as they would often take their hoods off during attacks and jokingly refer to each other by name. It is perhaps for this reason that it was during the anarchic few days of the Memphis riots the opportunity was taken by many members of the police to rape and kill newly free black citizens. But as the titular example of Lucy Smith makes abundantly clear, although the police would theoretically conceal their actions in an administrative sense, the authority that came with a visual uniform was a key tool in making black communities feel permanently unsafe, and in effect extending the social reality of slavery after its abolition. A particular striking example of how the bodies of female black citizens remained, in a sense, a white person’s property, is in the case of Elvira Walker. Elvira was molested by an officer in uniform who told her that he would rape her unless she paid him five dollars – a situation whereby Elvira had to buy back her own body from its supposedly pre-existing status as the property of a white man, in this case also a representative of the state.

One aspect of Liz’s research which is highly original is her use neglected testimony from the few black women who actually did prosecute their attackers. Many women did not feel able to report these crimes at institutions dominated by their attacker’s colleagues and friends. Evidence seems to back up their fears of institutional collaboration or covering up: not only where imprisoned attackers sometimes deliberately allowed to escape, but Southern authorities were often reluctant to prosecute at all. In the testimony of Hannah Tutson, who along with her husband was the victim of a violent domestic raid, the couple did not particularly emphasise the rape that took place, but the other general violence that took place, which suggests they believed a conviction for ordinary assault more likely.

The similarities between antebellum slave patrol behaviour and post-civil war police conduct is striking, as is the persistence of an ideology that perceived black women’s bodies as property or even territory after that stopped being a legal fact. At the end of her talk, Liz discussed some contemporary instances that show markedly similar traits: during the 2015 prosecution of Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was eventually convicted of raping thirteen different African-American Women, victim Jessica Testa was candid in the fact that she had doubts and concerns about being taken seriously by an institution ran by the officer’s mostly white, mostly male peers.

We are all grateful to Liz for her talk, which although on a very harrowing subject, is one of incredible importance today. The wealth of original sources and research made for an invigorating talk that we were grateful to host. We wish her the best of luck with the rest of her project!