Meeting Report: Marco Bernardini – (Gender) identity: some visceral temptations.

Marco Bernardini finished his PhD in Politics at Reading University in 2015 and has been another familiar face to GSRN-ers ever since, so we were delighted to welcome him this week as a presenter. Marco’s talk was a work in progress and sparked some productive discussion.


Marco’s interest in writing about this topic was piqued when he came across some scientific articles announcing the existence of the ‘microgenderome’; a derivative of the ‘microbiome’, i.e. the bacteria living in the gut, the ‘microgenderome’ is a term recently coined to describe the interaction (and the effects this interaction produces) between the sexual biological features of a given organism (such as a mouse or a human being) and the gut bacteria that live in its guts. Marco analysed three articles: ‘Welcome to the microgenderome’ overviews discoveries made in an experiment conducted on mice and it is where this concept was introduced. The other two articles, ‘Support for the microgenderome: associations in a human clinical population’ and ‘Support for the microgenderome invites enquiry into sex differences’, use the microgenderome to advance a novel explanation for the differences in symptomatology men and women affected by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) experience.

After some introductory remarks, Marco started off by proposing that the three articles are underpinned by a number of assumptions: for example, every entity, from human beings to bacteria, is characterized as bounded and in possession of unique ‘essential’ features. And as for sex difference, the articles understand it in reductive terms, as the presence or absence of hormones and/or hormone receptors. He also noted that far from being stable and problem-free, all these assumptions are traversed by destabilizing tensions; these tensions became apparent in later parts of the talk.

Marco went on to discuss in some detail the two articles that address CFS in human beings; the purpose of this analysis was to cast light on the conceptualization of human identity that animates them. He particularly focused on a number of passages that discuss why men and women experience different CFS symptomatology. The articles propose two possible explanations for this: one is that this difference could be due to the way in which men and women are socialized, in other words to their gender identity. Although deemed entirely plausible, the articles ultimately reject this and instead propose a purely biological explanation: it is the unique way in which the microgenderome works in men and women, they say, that would account for differences in CFS symptomatology. Analysis of these passages allowed Marco to conclude that the articles rely on a conceptualization of human identity that distinguishes between gender and biology-based sex identity. In addition to this, a critical reading of these and other passages provided him with a jump-off point of sorts to imagine a type of human identity that problematizes and transcends the cultural/biological, human/non-human, gender/sex and other value-laden dichotomies. Drawing on and developing the internal tensions highlighted at the beginning of the talk, he sketched what this identity would look like and concluded that, while not unproblematic, the payoffs deriving from embracing it could be significant.

We concluded with some Big Questions, and very few concrete answers! Questions were raised about the maintaining of a border between sex and gender, and how these terms are distinguished and conceptualised differently between the arts and the sciences. We discussed at length disciplinary conventions and research cultures which fail to think critically about gender and sex, and how language determines identity more generally. Rather than rejecting ‘boxes’ entirely, perhaps we need to take a critical approach to the boxes we find ourselves in?

Thanks to Marco, and all who attended, we were very happy to see some new faces this week and we do hope you come back next year! That’s all of our scheduled meetings for this academic year – thanks to all who generously shared their work as presenters this year, and all who came along and contributed to the discussion.

Amy and Faye


FOSTA and SESTA: It’s not just about sex workers. Or America – Clara Sky Barnhurst

FOSTA: The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act
SESTA: The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act

Clara Sky Barnhurst has been a regular attendee of GSRN for over a year, so we were delighted to welcome her back this week as a presenter. Clara’s background as a blogger and freelance journalist, as well as an Open University student, gave her scope to explore the ever-changing and troubling landscape of digital censorship and sex worker experiences.

Clara began with a screenshot of a provocative message sent to her by an acquaintance in the field of humanitarian aid, which she used to highlight a key issue with current discussion of sex work; the conflation of sex work with human trafficking. The idea that sex workers are inherently victims, and that human trafficking is a form of sex work, Clara argued, has shaped how many people engage with and understand sex work in today’s society, and as a result puts sex workers at more risk. She argued that to adequately address the rights and protection of sex workers, their work must be legitimised in the eyes of the law, and a clear distinction made between consensual sex work and human trafficking.

[STOP SESTA & FOSTA – picture from Stop SESTA FOSTA website]
Internet service providers up until FOSTA/SESTA was enacted in April 2018 had been immune for criminal prosecution for any criminal activity of their users but as a result of this legislation can now face prosecution. Clara emphasised that sex work has largely been invisible in the discourse surrounding the introduction of these acts, yet FOSTA/SESTA has potentially lethal consequences for sex worker communities. She argued that FOSTA/SESTA is one step in a longer term trend of the clamping down of online spaces used by sex workers, such as Craigslist Personals and, which were shut down earlier in 2018. This legislation has resulted in the closing of sites in which sex workers could share information, create bad client lists, and organise safe spaces, resulting in the loss of resources and information sex workers rely on for personal safety.

backpage screenshot
[screenshot of FBI seizure notice on, taken 12/3/19]
Clara linked the idea of protection with the idea of legitimisation; sex work is yet to be ‘legitimised’ in law, meaning that sex workers are not subject to the same legal protections as other forms of labour. Clara reminded the audience of the statistic that one in three incidents of violence against a sex worker in the US was at the hands of law enforcement officers. With the closing down of online spaces, sex workers find themselves increasingly at the mercy of such officers. One sex worker revealed to Clara that she now carries a firearm as a result of the loss of such information; Clara shared the words of current sex workers in the US and UK who she has interviewed to illustrate the personal and individual consequences of the delegitimisation of sex work.
Clara shed light on the situation in the UK as a result of this legislation; whilst an American Act, FOSTA/SESTA impacts any online data which travels via the US, and the upcoming Digital Economy Act will also create further digital boundaries not just for sex workers here in the UK, but anyone who posts or discusses sex and bodies online. Facebook’s latest community standards update, which is yet to be fully integrated into the sites’ algorithms, contains concerning language which Clara argued can effectively be used to police not only sexuality on Facebook, but has the potential for information on puberty and sexual health to also be censored, with lasting repercussions for us all.

[Clara Sky Barnhurst]
We’d like to thank Clara for her insightful and enlightening talk, and her interviewees, whose impactful words shed light on the reality of the situation for sex workers in today’s political climate.
Join us again on Monday 25th March, 4pm, this time in Edith Morley, room 288, when we will welcome Reading University alum Marco Bernardini with his paper, ‘Gender Identity: Some Visceral Temptations’; keep an eye out for more information soon!

Upcoming Seminar: ‘FOSTA AND SESTA: It’s not just about sex workers. Or America.’

On Monday 11th March the GSRN is pleased to host independent scholar, blogger, Open University student, and GSRN regular Clara Sky Barnhurst! Clara will be presenting her paper ‘FOSTA and SESTA: It’s not just about sex workers. Or America.’

Be sure to come along to room G08, Old Whiteknights House/UoR Graduate School at 4pm – we look forward to seeing you there!

Clara GSRN Poster

Revolvers and Ostrich Feathers: Images of Women’s Militancy in Revolutionary Ireland – Meeting Report

The Gender and Sexuality Research Network was excited to welcome Jess McIvor, all the way from the University of Bristol, to present her paper Revolvers and Ostrich Feathers: Images of Women’Jess Photo1s Militancy in Revolutionary Ireland. Jess was fresh from the archives with this one, so it was a great opportunity for us to have a glimpse into her ongoing analytic process.

Jess started by contextualising her paper within a timeline of Revolutionary Ireland starting with the Easter Rising in 1916 through to the ratification of the Irish Constitution in 1937 (and beyond!). During the 1919 War of Independence, women’s militancy was rife in the guerilla campaign against the British Forces, with women acting in both a militant and domestic capacity. Despite the majority of women rejecting the treaty which ended the conflict, once the Constitution of Ireland was ratified, they were actively neglected. The Catholic image of the ideal women did not support the militant framing of women, and as such, the women’s role, post conflict, was back in the home.

However, some women were treated as exceptional: Countess Markievicz was just one of these women. The images of her oscillate from a feminine, traditional figure (using imagines produced prior to the uprising), to a militant, masculine figure wielding a gun. This led Jess to wonder about the impact that the portrayal of one woman had on the way other women were portrayed in the conflict.

Quilt Barracks
The Commemorative Quilt at Richmond Barracks celebrating the role of 77 militant women in the Easter Rising 1916

For Jess, the negotiated visibility of one woman rendered the roles other women played in the conflict invisible. However, her research revealed the successes that can be in memorialising marginalised experiences by engaging with local communities. In Richmond Barracks the role 77 women played in the conflict is commemorated by a quilt, in a way which doesn’t use women militants as ‘window dressing’ by anonymising them. By detailing the women, the Richmond Barracks Commemoration Quilt conveys the rich lives of women, generating ‘ethical memories’.

Thank you to our GSRN-ers who facilitated a rich and lively Q&A! And of course, an extra special thank you to Jess for travelling to Reading to present her fascinating and nuanced research with us. We wish you all the best with the paper and we will keep a close eye out for its publication!

The next scheduled talk, by GSRN co-organiser Faye Bird, is unfortunately not going ahead, so we will see you all on Monday 11th March for Clara Sky Barnhurst’s paper ‘FOSTA and SESTA: It’s Not Just About Sex Workers. Or America.” See you then!

Jess Photo 2




Upcoming Seminar – “Revolvers and Ostrich Feathers: Images of Women’s Militancy in Revolutionary Ireland” Jess McIvor

On Monday 18th February the GSRN is pleased to have Jess McIvor from the University of Southampton and the University of Bristol present her paper for us “Revolvers and Ostrich Feathers: Images of Women’s Militancy in Revolutionary Ireland”.

Be sure to come along to G08 in the University of Readings Graduate School at 4pm!

Jess McIvors poster

Meeting Report: Penile Code: Cartoonish Censorship and Phallic Satire in the Yakuza Films of Miike Takashi

On Monday 28th January the Gender and Sexuality Research Network was happy to welcome Mark Player from the University of Readings Department of Film, Theatre and Television! Having completed his degree in film production at the University of Derby, Mark has spent 9 years working on his independent research projects on Japanese film. By honing in on this expertise and adding ideas of sexuality and gender in the portal of the penis, his paper ‘Penile Code: Cartoonish Censorship and Phallic Satire in the Yakuza Films of Miike Takashi’ puts forward a fresh and cutting-edge analysis of the Yakuza film genre.

Mark Player2

Starting with a film clip of a man revealing his, larger-than-life, censored penis, Mark assured the GSRN that there would be much more of such clips in store. The bold use of censorship, Mark informed us, speaks to the frequent censoring of genitalia within Japanese media. Such censorship follows from the legal proscription on displaying the genitals in film, animation, print etc. as per Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code.

Despite this legislation, it is sporadically enforced, and its vague wording gives rise to much flirting with what exactly constitutes ‘censorship’. Within this climate of lax enforcement, Misshitsu, a sexually explicit hentai manga (published in 2002), was held to have fallen foul of Article 175, in what appeared an arbitrary and pointed display of legal action. After the magazines author, Yuji Suwa was arrested and convicted after pleading guilty, the trial (the first of its kind for twenty years) was said to have had a ‘chilling effect’, shrinking efforts to subvert the law.

It is within this context that Mark places his research, seeing a growth in creative censorship styles across different media platforms emerging from a restrictive environment. Techniques such as ‘mosaic censorship’, ‘blurring effects’ and ‘embedded censorship’ (often stylized effects worked into the film for satirical effect) feature increasingly, and so his paper turned to focus on a specific type of film: the Yakuza films of Takashi Miike.

Yakuza films, being targeted at the white-collar worker, the single man, portray a classic ‘man’s world’ view. Women appear as wives or prostitutes and the machismo on screen gives little opportunity for anything but bullet proof men. The 1990s resurgence of this genre was hypermasculine to the degree that we might be inclined to call them a parody of those released in the 1970s. In Miike’s parody of the machismo, we see that “the larger the penis the larger the power.”

The phallic censorship that Mark traces in the Miike films closely follows this relationship, pulling out examples from films such as Dead or Alive 2: Birds 2000. The placement of the unrealistic and absurdly sized penises (always hidden behind a screen of pixilated, mosaic censoring) reveal the power and prestige of the proud penis holder. It is frequently associated with the success of the Yakuza member, their sexual prowess and ability to pleasure women,and often used in opposition to the emasculated man, the unfortunate bearer of a realistic and human sized penis. In effort to avoid censorship, artistic portrayals of the penis increase in absurdity and hypermasculinity, at times appeared weaponised and bio-mechanical.

Mark Player1We would like to thank Mark for presenting his paper which was fascinating, thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure! We wish you all the best with the paper and with your research in the future.

The GSRN will meet on Monday 18th February for Jess McIvor’s paper titled ‘Revolvers and Ostrich Feathers: Images of Women’s Militancy in Revolutionary Ireland’. Join us at 4pm in the Graduate School G08 for what we are sure will be another fantastic paper.

Faye and Amy

Spring Term Programme 2019

We have a jam-packed schedule of talks this Spring! We began last week with Mark Player from Film, Theatre and Television, and will continue in a few weeks time with our guest Jess McIvor from the University of Southampton.

GSRN Spring 2019

Please note that for Faye and Marco’s talks, the room is still tbc, so keep an eye on the blog and our social media pages for info closer to the time. We hope to see you on the 18th February!

Amy and Faye