Monash University

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A sociolinguistic exploration of sexual language: discourses of sexuality in the Australian media

posted on 2017-02-09, 06:00 authored by Burns, Melanie Claire
This thesis examines the language used to refer to sex and sexuality in Australian lifestyle magazines. From a social constructionist perspective, understandings of the social world are always mediated by language, which acts to shape our experiences of ‘reality’. This is manifested in discourses, characteristic ‘ways of talking’ about aspects of the sociocultural world. This thesis explores one facet of reality, that of sexuality, a topic which encompasses aspects of behaviour, identity, and gender. By exploring the language used to refer to the biological, physical, and social aspects of sexuality, the wider discourses informing understandings of these topics can be uncovered. It is argued here that discourses are upheld and given credence by dominant institutions within a society; thus, the media are a particularly important social force in the shaping of reality. Therefore, linguistic analysis of media messages about sexuality can shed light on how people may conceptualise their own sexual and gender identities and behaviours. To explore this, ten Australian-produced lifestyle magazines published from June 2008 to May 2009 are analysed. To allow an examination of how the construction of sexuality may differ according to gender and age, the magazines selected for analysis have a range of intended audiences: teenage female (Girlfriend and Dolly magazines), young adult female (Cosmopolitan and Cleo), adult female (Women’s Health and The Australian Women’s Weekly), young adult male (Zoo Weekly, Ralph, and FHM), and adult male (Men’s Health). All are primarily directed to a heterosexual audience. Using a discourse analytic framework, content, textual, and linguistic analyses of the cover lines, advice columns, and feature articles of these magazines are conducted, with a particular focus on the lexical items, speech acts, and pragmatic functions associated with references to sexuality. From these, broader discourses of sexuality are identified and examined. These discourses are discussed through reference to semiotic, feminist, and post-structuralist paradigms. The findings reveal that sex and sexuality within the sampled texts are framed within danger, pleasure, and gender discourses. The extent to which these discourses are drawn upon differs according to the audience of the magazine and frequently varies within each magazine. In all the magazines sampled, sex and sexuality are placed within wider discourses of individualism, whereby individuals are encouraged to take responsibility for their own sexual enjoyment and health. The analysis of the different language forms used to refer to sexual behaviours and identities reveals characteristic differences in how sex and sexuality are constructed in magazines targeted to women and men, and to teenage and adult women. This thesis contributes to existing research in this area by utilising linguistic analyses of sexual language within the Australian lifestyle media to identify sexual discourses which may contribute to common understandings of sex and sexuality. As language is our means of creating and reproducing sociocultural knowledge about aspects of social organisation, relationships, and individual behaviours, the sexual language used within a dominant social force like the media can have a great influence on how individuals conceptualise their own sexuality.


Principal supervisor

Julie Bradshaw

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Department, School or Centre

Languages, Cultures and Linguistics/ Linguistics Program


Doctor of Philosophy

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Campus location



Faculty of Arts

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