Research profile: Juanne Clarke

As a professor of women and gender studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and a medical and health sociologist by training, Juanne Clarke has focused much of her research on the portrayal of health, gender and sexuality in the media.

These subjects intertwine in Clarke’s recent work published in the journal Health, Risk & Society.

Two of her recent publications discuss the portrayal of sexually transmitted
infections in women’s magazines.

When studying magazines geared towards young adults, particularly Cosmopolitan and Glamour, Clarke found that “sex is portrayed as being fun and recreational, while at the same time [young adults] are being told that its consequences are very dangerous.

“It’s incredibly paradoxical.” These magazines do little to promote monogamy, she said, rather encouraging women to be sexually adventurous.

Clarke said that young women are given the message that they should seek to enjoy sexual endeavours, but at the same time warned of unpleasant
consequences. “So go and have fun, but watch out, you can get STDs from doing this, this and this – in fact, from doing everything.”

This paradox also appears in magazines aimed at middle-aged women, such as Ladies’ Home Journal. In these publications, Clarke explained, “Sex is emphasized as a duty that is necessary to satisfy their husbands.” With similar warnings about STIs, these magazines also provide their readers with mixed messages about sex.

Magazines for teenage girls, such as Seventeen, avoid the subject of sex almost altogether and obscure associated risks. “For teenaged women sexuality is not discussed as much, with sexually transmitted diseases seldom being described,” she said.

For Clarke, the important aspect to consider is the role of media in our society.
“What we understand to be true and false, our attitudes, our behaviours are all reflected by, and influenced by the media,” she said. She said the media produces strong and often conflicting ideas about sexuality. “Whether it’s teenagers or adult women, the ideas [in the media] about sexuality reflect gender roles.”

Although Clarke’s research does not focus on the portrayal of sex and STIs in men’s magazines, she acknowledged glaring discrepancies.

While women’s magazines, particularly Cosmo, are often overwhelmingly sexualized, magazines appealing to male readers are less conspicuous when it comes to this content. “Sex does not dominate to the same extent in men’s magazines and therefore there is little mention of sexually transmitted infections,” she said.

While Clarke may return to this topic for further research in the future – examining ethnic differences in media portrayals of sexuality – her focus has shifted.

Currently she is researching children’s mental health as portrayed in the media and recently examined depression and gender portrayals in media.