A study into social representations of sexuality

The main aim of this study was to investigate social representations of sexuality through the media of FHM magazine, in terms of body exposure. The hypotheses were that there would be more partially clothed women displayed than partially clothed men, and more fully clothed men displayed than women. This was a content analysis where all people featured in the magazine that were larger than an eighth of an A4 sheet of paper were counted. The men and women were classified separately into two categories: partially clothed or fully clothed. It was found that the greater proportion of those partially clothed were women, and the majority of those fully clothed were men. The results were statistically significant. This study concluded that women are portrayed as sexual objects more than men in FHM magazine.


Social representations are common sense ideas, thoughts, images and knowledge which members of a group share, that help us to interpret and understand our social world. They explain attitudes towards complex concepts such as sexuality, intelligence or education. (However, they differ from culture to culture, for example, the concept of education would mean something different to a Maori tribesman compared to a westernised American.) These representations exist in our minds and are circulated via communication – e.g. the media, and are truly social as they are generated in a social group (unlike schema theory, which focuses on the brain). They provide a means of communication within a group and distinguish one social group from another.

In his social representation theory, as discussed in Cardwell, Clark & Meldrum (2004), Moscovici affirms that the processes of anchoring and objectification help us to transform unfamiliar concepts into something more familiar. This helps to explain how representations change, which schema theory fails to justify. Usually when we encounter a social object or situation, we compare it with the existing stock of representations in our minds. If it matches sufficiently with one of them we categorise that instance. However, if the instance is unfamiliar, we anchor it to the representation it most closely resembles, and then objectify it (transform it into a form of reality that we can understand). This is achieved in three ways: figuration, personification and ontologising.

Our attitude towards sexuality is related to its representation; therefore if we study the representation we can understand people’s attitudes. Sexuality can be understood through objectification, for example, how it is portrayed in the media. Therefore it is appropriate to use a content analysis to explore an abstract notion such as sexuality, as it can be ontologised (interpreted as a material phenomenon) from such objectifications, for example, how advertisements show the roles in which women and men are portrayed, the activities they are depicted in partaking or the amount of body exposure.

Previous research has shown that portrayals of women in magazine advertisements reflect gender stereotypes (for example, dependency on men or being shown merely for decorative purposes). Courtney and Lockeretz (1971) studied 729 advertisements in total, categorising them in terms of product type, number of adults shown, sexes of adults and occupations and activities depicted. They found that women were rarely portrayed in working roles (9%) compared to 45% of men, with women hardly ever being co-workers to men. Most of the women partaking in activities such as smoking, drinking and travelling were accompanied by men; the majority of those who were shown without men in the real world were only being used for decorative purposes (70%). Although few of these advertisements were offensive to women, the picture presented did reflect clich�s about women’s roles in society – primarily as “sexual objects”.

This view was reinforced by the conclusions of Plous and Neptune (1997) who investigated six fashion-orientated fashion magazines from 1985-1994 depicting 1800 advertisements. They measured the body exposure of male and female models, focusing on body areas commonly associated with sexual display, for example: buttocks, cleavage, stomach, back and upper leg. They found that women were approximately four times more common than those with exposed men (9.2% of female models were presented with undergarments/bikini style swimsuit compared to 2.0% of male models).

This was consistent with previous content analyses showing an increase in the sexual portrayal of women in magazine advertisements. They concluded that there was a ‘trend toward sexualizing female models in magazine advertisements’, which reflected Courtney and Lockeretz’s conclusion that women were being regarded as sexual objects and that there was an increase in their sexual portrayal: the advertisements with exposed women were approximately four times more common than those with exposed men (9.2% of female models were presented with undergarments/bikini style swimsuit compared to 2.0% of male models).

Plous and Neptune focused exclusively on fashion-orientated magazines. We will be replicating this study, however, this investigation will focus on FHM magazine, a “lads mag” created for a particular gender (male) and age group (18-25). The aim of the research is to investigate social representations of sexuality in terms of body exposure through the media of FHM magazine. Null Hypothesis The null hypothesis is that there will be no difference in body exposure between men and women featured in FHM magazine.

Directional Hypothesis My directional hypothesis is that the greater proportion of those partially clothed in FHM magazine will be women, and the greater proportion of those fully clothed in the magazine will be men. Methods Nature of investigation The investigation is a content analysis. Experimenters The experimenters were a group of four female students in Year 13 of a sixth-form college in Chertsey, Surrey. Each experimenter examined two magazines in order to form a sufficient sample size for reliable results. However, although the raw results were culminated together to save time, each experimenter worked out all statistical calculations independently.

All the images (including advertisements, features, or photographs to illustrate articles) from FHM magazines were examined. The issues from July 2004, February 2006, July 2006, September 2006, November 2006, December 2006, August 2007 and November 2007 were used. See Appendix …

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