I am a critical social psychologist and chartered psychologist, who draws on interdisciplinary theory and research to examine the intersections of sexuality, gender and embodiment using creative qualitative research methods.
My research interests cohere around two overlapping strandsThe first strand focuses on critical explorations of sex and sexuality and forms a key part of a growing body of work known as Critical Sexuality Studies. This research originated in my PhD research (Loughborough University) which examined the discursive construction of sexual consent in young women’s accounts of their experiences and perceptions of heterosexual sex – including non-consensual sex. This resulted in a series of publications exploring how sexual consent was constructed in young women’s talk about sex and relationships, and foregrounded the value of discourse analysis for feminist research.
More recently my work has explored the ways in which sexual difficulties are pathologized in medical, scientific and media discourse, and how they are constructed in ordinary talk. Using talk about orgasm as a focal point, I have examined how gendered discourses construct orgasm as an imperative for individuals to work at, and aspire to, and how this impact the construction of both gender and sex in the heterosexual matrix.
The second strand examines the ways in which appearance and body image are made meaningful in relation to sociocultural discourses about gender and identity. This research explores the ways in which an altered appearance (through illness, disease and its treatment) is managed and negotiated by patients, families/carers and the professionals who work with them. Understanding the ways in which appearance changes can positively and negatively influence a person’s sense of themselves is important for helping people to manage what is often a difficult transition in their life history. My research has also explored more mundane appearance transitions, looking at the ways in which people using clothing to present themselves and their bodies to others.
My most recent research brings these two interests together in the exploration of embodied sexuality – examining how the meanings of bodies and sex are mutually constituted. As such, my research brings psychology into dialogue with sociology, social policy, gender studies, critical sexuality studies, and health sciences.
Postgraduate research supervision
I currently supervise three PhD students on university and ESRC studentships.
I welcome applications for PhD research on all aspects of sex and sexuality, including (but not limited to):
- Sexual embodiment
- Sexuality and the senses
- Medicalisation and sexuopharmaceuticals
- The experience and pathologisation of sexual difficulties
- Sexualities and sexual minorities
- Teaching and training in relation to sex
- Professional practice and sex therapy
- Representations of sex/sexualities in image and text
- Sexual advice
- Digital sexualities and mediated intimacies.
I will also welcome projects with innovative methodological approaches and creative methods.
Completed postgraduate research projects I have supervised
I've supervised three PhDs and one ProfDoc to completion.
Visual representations of orgasm – whether in the flesh or mediated through a screen – are produced in a context of intense uncertainty about whether what is being seen represents an authentically experienced bodily event. Despite detailed scientific scrutiny and close attention to bodily signs, the authenticity of women's orgasm remains a site of cultural anxiety and contested gender politics. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the construction of female orgasm as inherently invisible or un-see-able, and ‘faking’ orgasm as a prevalent social practice. Drawing on existing literature from psychology, sociology and porn studies, this theoretical paper explores the problem of visually representing orgasm in the context of these uncertainties, and examines how the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is structured by discourses of authenticity. Pornography and everyday sexual interactions provide ideal contexts for exploring the practices of producing and consuming visual representations of embodied experience because both necessitate a see-able orgasm which consumers/lovers can read as ‘real’. This paper demonstrates that considerable interpretative work is necessary to read the female body as authentically orgasmic in the context of cultural uncertainty, and that distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ are continually reworked. Drawing on the contrast between ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ acting (Hochschild, 1983), I argue that the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ cannot be established by recourse to unmediated bodily experience, and instead, researchers should consider how and when this distinction has traction in the world and the implications of this for gendered power relations, subjectivities and practices.
The construction of sexual violence between heterosexual partners as a problem of communication (a misunderstanding in which consent or non-consent is poorly communicated or inaccurately understood) has been at the heart of debates about the nature of sexual negotiation, what 'counts' as rape, and how to eradicate sexual violence. But womens' refusals are often not heard, ignored or overruled, and establishing women's right to refuse sexual activities (of any kind, with any one and under any circumstances) and to have these refusals recognized has been central to campaigns asserting that 'No Means No'. This chapter explores the 'problem' of sexual negotiation and communication—often simplistically characterized as saying 'yes' or 'no'—as represented in both academic and lay discourse. In lay discourse, women often report that they fail to say 'no' clearly or effectively, or that their behavior is misperceived as indicating sexual interest, while men report difficulty understanding women's communications about sex. The 'problem' of communication also underpins two of the most popular explanations for rape (especially acquaintance rape) in academic discourse—sexual script theory and miscommunication theory. Script theory asserts that culturally prescribed 'scripts' for sexual interactions ascribe the role of sexual initiator and pursuer to men and sexual gatekeeper to women. So, women are responsible for limiting and saying 'no' during sexual interactions which follow cultural patterns of activities in a preset order. Miscommunication theory suggests that 'acquaintance rape' results from poor communication between men and women, in which women fail to say no clearly and effectively while men fail to understand or act upon women's refusals. This chapter explores the interplay between lay explanations for difficulties in sexual negotiations and these academic theories. Drawing on discursive psychology and conversation analysis, the chapter highlights some of the limitations of sexual script and sexual miscommunication theories for understanding rape and sexual aggression, but also seeks to account for their prevalence in young heterosexuals' everyday talk about sexual interactions
Orgasmic Bodies explores how bodily experiences of orgasm are worked up as present/absent, complicated/straightforward, too slow/too fast, fake or real, in the doing of masculinities and femininities. Engaging with both science and popular culture it examines the meanings given to orgasmic bodies in contemporary heterosex.
This article explores a number of examples of how appearance and the reading about it operate to produce class-based divisions and the different emotional registers which are used to do so. First it examines how the brief description of a woman called Teresa Bystram's appearance in Britain's largest circulation daily tabloid newspaper, The Sun positions her as a ‘chav’ — a figure which circulates through popular cultural representations and has become a pervasive term of abuse for the white poor, evoking mockery and disgust. Second, it examines how mockery, disgust, and humiliation are the emotional registers through which makeover television shows engage in symbolic violence against the working classes, before moving on to consider the implications of makeover shows which adopt a different emotional register.
When orgasms are positioned by biomedical discourse as the pinnacle of healthy sexual expression, and when popular culture urges individuals to work on their sexual technique to get bigger, better, and more intense orgasmic pleasure, how do people account for the absence of orgasm? This question was explored in a qualitative study using the story completion method where participants complete the end of a story in which a male or female partner does not have an orgasm during sex. Story completion was originally developed as a projective measure within psychoanalytic traditions, designed to access people’s inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations. This case study describes the benefits of using the story completion method as a social constructionist approach to examining the sensitive topic of sexuality. Considered in this discussion is the use of ambiguous stimuli; the benefits of writing about others rather than the self; the creative method of responding; and its merits as a relative quick, cheap, and effective method of data collection. The research demonstrates how discursive imperatives including (1) placing orgasm as central to demarcating problematic from unproblematic sex, (2) emphasizing sexual skill and working technique in pleasuring one’s partner, and (3) making open communication and reciprocity pivotal to successful relationships coalesce in accounts of orgasmic absence to produce different entitlements and obligations for men and women in heterosex.
Digital technologies are deeply embedded in everyday life with opportunities for information access and perpetual social contact now mediating most of our activities and relationships. This book expands the lens of Cyberpsychology to consider how digital experiences play out across the various stages of people’s lives. Most psychological research has focused on whether human-technology interactions are a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing for humanity. This book offers a distinctive approach to the emergent area of Cyberpsychology, moving beyond these binary dilemmas and considering how popular technologies have come to frame human experience and relationships. In particular the authors explore the role of significant life stages in defining the evolving purpose of digital technologies. They discuss how people’s symbiotic relationship with digital technologies has started to redefine our childhoods, how we experience ourselves, how we make friends, our experience of being alone, how we have sex and form romantic relationships, our capacity for being antisocial as well as the experience of growing older and dying. This interdisciplinary book will be of great interest to scholars and practitioners across psychology, digital technology and media studies as well as anyone interested in how technology influences our behaviour.
Sexuality is a complex and multifaceted domain – encompassing bodily, contextual and subjective experiences that resist ready categorisation. To claim the sexual as a viable research object therefore raises a number of important methodological questions: what is it possible to know about experiences, practices and perceptions of sex and sexualities? What approaches might help or hinder our efforts to probe such experiences? This collection explores the creative, personal and contextual parameters involved in researching sexuality, cutting across disciplinary boundaries and drawing on case studies from a variety of countries and contexts. Combining a wide range of expertise, its contributors address such key areas as pornography, sex work, intersectionality and LGBT perspectives. The contributors also share their own experiences of researching sexuality within contrasting disciplines, as well as interrogating how the sexual identities of researchers themselves can relate to, and inform, their work. The result is a unique and diverse collection that combines practical insights on field work with novel theoretical reflections.
Pictures of our first day at school, a special birthday, holidays, weddings, friends, and new additions to the family; photograph albums capture particular moments in a life. In providing opportunities for storytelling, generating laughter over outdated fashions or changing hair-styles, and allowing the rehearsal and creation of family histories, photographs are also a site for constructing a sense of the past and creating a bridge between the past, present and future. Photograph albums offer a means for narrating the lives of ourselves and of others (Van House et al., 2004; Brookfield et al., 2008) and for charting biographical continuity. In contrast, an illness, such as cancer, can provoke a sense of ‘biographical disruption’ – a critical break between past (before the illness), present and future lives (Bury, 1982). The diagnosis of an illness, and in particular cancer, forces people to experience many changes in their lives, including the reality of an uncertain future, threats to identity and sense of self, and a re-evaluation of the person’s place in the world (Frank, 1995). As such, the stories that cancer patients tell about themselves as they negotiate their way through diagnoses, treatment regimens, changed bodies, and disrupted identities are not just a way of making sense of an illness, but also a life (Mathieson and Stam, 1995). Narratives and storytelling are a medium through which people can make sense of, organise and draw together fragments of their lives into a cohesive whole, and are characterised by a temporal ordering of events (Hydén, 1997). Narratives are considered an invaluable source of experiential knowledge, a resource for developing empathy and patient-centred care, and an important conduit for aiding coping among patients (Charmez, 1999; Frank, 1995; Greenhalgh and Hurwitz, 1999). Drawing on a photographic study of women’s experiences of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, I consider the ways in which asking women to visually represent their lives engages them in the task of creating memories and doing ‘biographical work’ to establish the place of their illness within their identities and life worlds. Asking women to mark out particular moments as significant, invites them to enact a bittersweet experience of creating memories that they might rather forget (a cancer diagnosis can be traumatic, and chemotherapy treatment unpleasant), while documenting a move towards recovery and a re-integration of the self into ‘normal’ activities (Radley and Taylor, 2003a). Re-viewing these images and using them to narrativise their experiences during an interview calls on women to remember past events and to confront images of past selves. Against this backdrop, this chapter explores the work that women do to re-image ‘missing’ photographs, and explores the role of absent images in creating boundaries around what selves are available to be remembered. In other words, I examine how the materiality of photographs is implicated in the biographical work done by women undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer as they narrate their experiences. But first, I will briefly describe the study from which the data are drawn.
This qualitative research extends current theorizing on behavioural strategies for managing body distress by exploring how women manage body image through clothing practices. Eighty two women reported their subjective understanding of how body evaluation and clothing practices are interconnected in response to open-ended questionnaires. Thematic analysis of responses revealed that clothing practices are a mundane and agentic part of the adjustive and self-regulatory processes for managing distressing body image (cf. Cash, 2002b). Clothing is used strategically to manage bodily appearance and anxiety by hiding ‘problem areas’, accentuating ‘assets,’ and flattering the figure. Body image is actively negotiated and managed through everyday behaviours which fluctuate on ‘fat’ days and ‘thin’ days. These data illustrate the processes which underpin the active negotiation of body image and capture the fluidity of body evaluations and strategies for managing the appearance of the body. These findings raise a number of challenges for theorizing and research including the need to adopt methods which capture the dynamic interplay of body image processes, and the need to address body appreciation as well as distress.
Using combined qualitative data from multiple case study interviews and an online survey, this study explored the impact of appearance change on 22 adolescents receiving cancer treatment aged 13 to 18 years and six of their parents. Data were analyzed using template analysis. Appearance changes were a major concern. Adolescents typically struggled to adapt to new experiences and concerns related to this highly sensitive issue. Many felt anxious and self-conscious and were reluctant to reveal appearance changes in public. These feelings were compounded by the negative reactions of others (e.g., staring, teasing, and inappropriate questioning), which sometimes lead to avoidance of social activity and threats of noncompliance. Parents of these children felt ill-prepared to manage appearance-related anxieties. Adolescents wanted support to develop the practical and social skills necessary to maintain a “normal” appearance and manage the negative responses of others. However, some adolescents showed resilience and, with support from friends and family, developed strategies to manage their altered appearance and its social consequences. These strategies are explored, which can inform interventions to support adolescents and parents.
Class is often overlooked in sociological studies of death, just as studies of class overlook death. The controversial media coverage of the death of Jade Goody provides a useful focus for exploring contemporary class-making. Recent sociological analyses of class representations in popular culture have demonstrated how denigration and humiliation serve as mechanisms which position sections of the white, working class (chavs) as repositories of bad taste. We argue that these are not the only (or even the most prevalent) affective mechanisms for class-making. In this article, we explore how cultural imperatives for ‘dying well’ intersect with what could be perceived as more positive or even affectionate representations of Jade to produce ‘good taste’ as naturalised properties of the middle class. As such, we demonstrate that the circulation of inequalities through precarious and dynamic cultural representations involves more complex affective mechanisms in class boundary work than is often recognised.
In the context of a purported shift from humiliation to the benign exemplified by the marked contrast between How to Look Good Naked and What Not to Wear, this article examines the cultural work performed by the ‘space of the benign’. We identify three main mechanisms — body appreciation, synthetic friendship and suspended sexuality — which manipulate existing constructions of female friendship and homosexuality to produce the host as the ‘gay best friend’. As such, the host sidesteps the heterosexual scopic economy while seeking to re-place women within it, and avoids the censure frequently directed at female presenters. At the same time, by coaxing women towards an acceptance of their body as is, How to Look Good Naked provides a ‘feel-good’ sense of empowerment while preserving individualistic framings of body problems and solutions. We conclude that the show rehabilitates women within the heteronormative scopic economy, and reinscribes them as neo-liberal consumers.
Most academic work exploring the makeover genre has argued that TV “experts” draw on a narrative of humiliation to push the participant to adopt more appropriate forms of feminine appearance. However, shows like How to Look Good Naked, while sharing the problematic logics of the makeover, are qualitatively different in tone and style from more aggressive shows. We extend emerging analyses which argue that makeover shows can be read as reflecting struggles for recognition by demonstrating that TV “experts” can also interrupt processes of mis-recognition by offering alternative symbolic systems of interpretation of the body by which the body can be recognised, visible and valued. We argue that humiliation is not the only point of affective engagement for audiences of these shows, while wanting to avoid the seductive illusion that this makes the shows more empowering or less malevolent. We conclude that in failing to embrace the wide variety of affective mechanisms by which we might be able to appreciate the popular appeal of reality TV, we do a disservice to female audiences and women participants, as well as limiting our own theoretical insights.
Drawing on insights from conversation analysis, this article explores a discussion about orgasm on an internet forum. Critical of sex education for failing to address young women as sexual subjects with embodied desires, some feminists believe the internet offers alternative spaces for young women to discuss pleasure. I argue that the micro-political work done by offering ‘congratulations’ on one such site serves to mark young women’s orgasms as both ‘newsworthy’ and ‘good news’ in ways which simultaneously disrupt the idea that sexuality is inappropriate for young women while paradoxically reaffirming conventional ideas about the centrality of orgasm to sexuality.
Facilitating a ‘good’ death is a central goal for hospices and palliative care organisations. The key features of such a death include an acceptance of death, an open awareness of and communication about death, the settling of practical and interpersonal business, the reduction of suffering and pain, and the enhancement of autonomy, choice and control. Yet deaths are inherently neither good nor bad; they require cultural labour to be ‘made over’ as good. Drawing on media accounts of the controversial death of UK reality television star Jade Goody, and building on existing analyses of her death, we examine how cultural discourses actively work to construct deaths as good or bad and to position the dying and those witnessing their death as morally accountable. By constructing Goody as bravely breaking social taboos by openly acknowledging death, by contextualising her dying as occurring at the end of a life well lived and by emphasising biographical continuity and agency, newspaper accounts serve to position themselves as educative rather than exploitative, and readers as information‐seekers rather than ghoulishly voyeuristic. We argue that popular culture offers moral instruction in dying well which resonates with the messages from palliative care.
Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke, Hannah Frith, Nikki Hayfield, Helen Malson, Naomi Moller, and Iduna Shah-Beckley came together at the University of the West of England (UWE) in July 2017 to discuss and share their enthusiasm for the story completion method. Virginia nominally “led” the discussion to keep us on track. This is a transcript of the discussion, edited by the Special Issue editors, principally Hannah Frith, which we have all read and commented on. The discussion begins with the contributors introducing themselves and their experience of the story completion method. It then identifies a series of “knotty issues” about story completion which we explored: 1) what can stories tell us?; 2) research practicalities, comparative design, and sample size; 3) what happens when story completion doesn’t go to plan?; and 4) getting published. The conversation ends by considering “future possibilities for story completion research.” Our aim was not to reach consensus of definitive “answers” but to debate and gain perspective on an open issue. Hence, we reach no “conclusion” for any of these issues.
Positioned as the ‘peak’ of sexual experience, orgasm is packed with sociocultural meaning. Exploring the construction of orgasm in Cosmopolitan magazine in the context of the shift towards a postfeminist sexuality and the neoliberal shift towards the rational management of sex as work, this article argues that magazines offer a ‘pedagogy of the body’ by teaching women to: (1) become aware of how to touch their body; (2) strengthen muscles and master bodily responses; (3) position the body and understand how male and female bodies fit together, and (4) instruct men in how to interact with female bodies. Postfeminist, neoliberal and pedagogical discourses merge to offer explicit instruction in how to develop a ‘technology of sexiness’ by training the body to ensure orgasmic success
Orgasms are central to academic and lay debates about sexual ‘normality’ and ‘dysfunction’ and are culturally constructed as the peak of heterosexual sex (Potts, 2000). Conversely, sexual interaction without orgasm is positioned as ‘only foreplay’, a failure or dysfunctional. Examining how people account for orgasmic absence during heterosex using a story completion method, this article addresses three key themes: (1) ‘reciprocity, blame and the orgasmic imperative’, which places obligations on both men and women to elicit or deliver an orgasm to another; (2) ‘sex work, technique and the orgasmic imperative’, which indicates the growth of a ‘performance imperative’ in which both men and women must work to improve their sexual skills and (3) ‘honesty and dishonesty in sexual communication’ in which open communication is positioned as difficult but key to solving sexual difficulties. Collectively, these themes demonstrate how gendered discourses of sexuality coalesce to produce an orgasmic imperative that provides different entitlements and obligations for both men and women.
Women's orgasms have long been subject to vociferous scientific debate, but over the last 10–15 years a small but growing body of largely feminist qualitative research has begun to explore how the sociocultural construction of orgasm finds contemporary articulation in popular culture and in lay accounts of heterosex. This work is explicitly concerned with gendered power relations and how these operate. This paper provides a critical review and synthesis of this work by exploring three discursive imperatives: (1) orgasm and the coital imperative (2) efficient orgasms and hard work (3) and the ethic of reciprocity. Drawing on these insights, this paper outlines how a focus on embodiment, on situated meaning-making and on everyday sexual practices would further extend our understanding of the social construction of orgasm. Finally, the paper argues for the importance of locating these processes of meaning-making in relation to socially structured material realities.