Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Jewitt, C. (1997) 'Images of Men: Male Sexuality in Sexual Health Leaflets and Posters for Young People'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 2, <>

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Received: 16/9/96      Accepted: 20/6/97      Published: 30/6/97


This article presents a social semiotic analysis of the social construction of male sexuality in the images of sexual health posters and leaflets for young people aged 13 to 19 years old. It explores how male sexuality is managed at a visual level in sexual health leaflets and posters, and examines the notions of masculinity, gender and sexuality which inform the imagery in them. The analysis of the main structures of the images in which meanings are encoded reveals a conventional representation of male sexuality. Sexual health leaflets and posters aimed exclusively at young men present a more positive and complex image with regard to some aspects of male sexuality, in particular sexual responsibility and sexual competence. Nonetheless, I conclude that the images in sexual health promotion leaflets and posters reinforce the dominant ideology of masculinity and fail to address the gap between young men's realities and cultural norms of masculinity.

Images; Masculinity; Sexual Health; Sexuality; Social Semiotics; Visual Representation; Young Men


Visual representations are acknowledged by sociologists to be influential in shaping people's views of the world. People constantly use visual data to interpret life, and visual data articulates the everyday realities that research based solely on written data may overlook (Ball and Smith, 1992). Images have a central role in perceptions of health promotion materials. Indeed, an audience's response to health promotion materials may be entirely image based (Bostock and Leathar, 1982). Images communicate messages, reinforce and clarify written messages, and reduce the threat of written messages (thereby increasing the likelihood that they will be considered). The target audience's self-identification with the imagery of health promotion materials is therefore a basic prerequisite for their effectiveness (Stockdale et al, 1989).

The images in a range of materials have been studied to identify the ways in which masculinity and male sexuality are managed at a visual level. This has included, studies of public art (Melosh, 1993), the images of men in antenatal and parenting literature (Graham, 1977; Meerabeau, 1987; Dingwall et al, 1991), images in boys' comics (Boyd, 1991), and advertising (Millum, 1975; Doty, 1993; Jackson, 1994). I chose to focus on the representation of male sexuality in formal sources of sexual health information (leaflets and posters) as they illustrate the established views on male sexuality amongst sexual health professionals. Images in young people's magazines and books, and sexual health leaflets with no imagery were excluded from the analyzis. The sample of leaflets and posters was drawn from sexual health leaflets and posters produced between 1986 and 1996 and currently widely circulated in England for use with young people and young men aged 13 to 19 years old. The leaflets and posters were gathered from the National Help for Health Trusts Database, organizations based in London and nationally and agencies with a sexual health remit. The World Health Organisation's definition of sexual health[1] was applied to determine whether a leaflet or poster came within the realm of sexual health. A total of 48 leaflets and posters were gathered, and a sample of ten posters and 22 leaflets was selected for the analysis using five criteria: the type of producer; the medium of an image; the main topic addressed by the image; the primary target audience; the format. A total of 74 images were analyzed.

The analysis of visual texts can take three approaches: what is in the producer's mind; what is in the reader's mind; or what is in the image. This article takes the third approach. This analysis has been considerably facilitated by Kress and Van Leeuwen's recent book, Reading Visual Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, (1996). The methodological approach of Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) is developed from social semiotic theory, in particular the work of the linguist Michael Halliday. Social semiotics assumes that linguistic and visual grammatical forms (the grammar of visual design) are formal rules which are not isolated from meaning (Halliday, 1985 cited in Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996). The method makes explicit how people produce and communicate meaning through the spatial configurations of visual elements in western societies. Meaning is encoded in the structures of images: the form of representation; the presentation of people, objects and landscape; the composition; and its modality and medium. The description and interpretation of these structures forms the basis of the social semiotic approach to analyzing visual texts.

Concepts of Masculinity

Societies ascribe different and distinct qualities to men and women. In western industrial societies the dominant culture considers being aggressive, autonomous, and active to be male qualities. The qualities culturally associated with femininity include being caring, warm, and sexually passive. There is considerable debate within sociology as to whether such qualities really are gender characteristics, whether they are biologically or socially determined, and in what ways they maintain male power. Indeed some sociologists question whether there really is something that social scientists call men that sets them apart from women (Edley and Wetherell, 1995).

Masculinity is sometimes discussed as a fixed singular identity. Morgan proposes that masculinity is not a monolithic identity isolated from the influence of race, class and culture, but a range of identities some of which are contradictory (Morgan, 1992). Some versions of masculine identity (ie. hegemonic masculinity) are more accepted within society than others (ie. subordinate masculinity). Hegemonic masculinity is constructed in the image of the White middle-class male and differentiated from subordinated masculinities (Holland et al, 1993). Hegemonic masculinity provides a set of normative attributes and rules against which other forms of masculinity are measured. In this way hegemonic masculinity prescribes endless and exacting requirements on men. In relation to sexuality, masculinity is usually described in terms of a dichotomy (eg. between the potency of a gladiator and the impotency of a wimp) (Holland et al, 1993).

Although masculinity is expressed and acquired in many contexts, sexuality is a central site in men's struggle to become masculine and the enactment of masculinity (Kimmel and Messner, 1995). The process of acquiring masculinity involves men in the exercise of power over women and exposes men to vulnerability and potential failure (Wight, 1992). Men are also vulnerable in relation to each other via competition, fear of rejection and openness, homophobia, and a lack of role models.

Within western dominant culture there are gender expectations regarding sexual competence and knowledge. Dominant conceptions of male sexuality and many of men's sexual anxieties centre on sexual competence (Tiefer, 1993). There is a general reluctance in dominant western culture to make explicit the difficulties of men in relation to sex. This reluctance is bound up with the tendency in western culture to define men as healthy and male sexual desire as natural, simple and straightforward in contrast to female pathology (Kimmel and Messner, 1995). There is a cultural expectation that men are sexually knowledgable and women sexually ignorant. However young women are usually better informed about general sexual matters than young men (Witwer, 1993). The environment in which young men acquire sexual knowledge is competitive and unsupportive, and the information they receive is often inaccurate (Sex Education Forum, 1994). The contradiction between the cultural expectations on young men and the lack of sex education they receive is managed by the social acceptance of young men's sexual exaggeration and lies.

Men play an important role in the use and choice of contraception. Contraception was considered the responsibility of men (by both men and women) until female methods of contraception became widely available in the mid 1960s (Schofield, 1973). Men's attitudes continue to influence strongly the use of both male and female methods of contraception (Edwards, 1993). Young men's attitudes to masculinity and gender roles influences their sexual behaviour, contraceptive use, and their views on fatherhood (Marsiglio, 1993). However, it is women who are generally perceived by society as the guardians of social and sexual responsibility. Current sexual discourses invest women with sexual responsibility without the power to enforce it and treat women as the victims of male sexual desire and sex as a male activity (Holland et al, 1993).

How Male Sexuality is Constructed in the Sample of Images

The main structures of images within which meaning is encoded were analyzed: the actions; the setting; symbols and props; the appearance of the represented participants[2]; the composition; the relationship between the image and the viewer; and the choice of medium.

The Actions of Men and Women

Analysis of the action in the sample of images reveals that men and women are represented as equally active, however, the nature and occasion of men and women's action in the images differs. Overall women are represented as passive or less active than men in the context of sex. It is men who initiate sex (eg. figures 1 and 2), and the man who is 'on top' (eg. figure 3). Rather than acting on their desire, women enforce sexual protection (eg. figures 1, and 4 - by refusing sex without a condom). Images of men engaged in contact-sport and competition contrast with images of women engaged in non-competitive exercise (eg. figures 5 and 6 - women exercise, men play football). Women are portrayed as looking passive more often than men.

The type of sexual knowledge attributed to men and women via their action also differs. Women are shown knowing what will happen in a medical context, they inform and reassure men, women are the 'sex experts', the agony aunts and the health professionals (eg. figures 7, 8, and 9). Men are shown to possess self-knowledge about sex. For example, compare the female character in the leaflet Guide To Healthy Sex (figure 10) with the male character (figure 11). (Each character is shown standing in front of a diagram of the male/female sexual and reproductive organs). She does not relate the diagram of the female body to herself - she looks out at the reader, her eyes closed, smiling, her finger to her mouth in a coy expression. In contrast, the male character relates the information in the diagram to himself suggesting he knows he may have a genito-urinary infection. The facade of male knowledge is, however, challenged in some leaflets and posters (eg. figure 12, an image of a young man with the question 'why do we men pretend to know all the answers?').

The objects of male and female action differ and women are more frequently the object of an action or look than men. The objects of the female actors' action can be characterized as risk reducers (eg. condoms, information booklets, and a prescription pad). In contrast, the objects of the male actors' action can, with the exception of condoms, be described as risk enhancers (eg. motorbike, sports car, and contact sport).

Symbols and Props

Sports equipment and settings, and sporting metaphors are used to signal competitiveness between men, as a signifier of their heterosexuality (eg. figures 6, 2, 13 and 14). The car and the motorbike shown in the posters, Explore The Possibilities (figure 15), and, Make All The Right Moves (figure 16), confer masculinity on the men in the posters. Both fast cars and motorbikes are potent cultural symbols of male virility and sexual prowess in western industrial society. Books are used to signify the participant's general sexual knowledge (eg. figures 7, and 8, which show female professionals with books) or their private knowledge (figure 17, which shows a man reading his diary). Dark glasses and hats are used to represent the participants' shame and desire for anonymity in relation to sexually transmitted infections and HIV (eg. figure 18).

The Settings

Analysis of the setting, the sexual health subject addressed, and the action in the leaflets and posters indicates that the setting of an image has an information function. In the sample the setting of an image is associated with the level of male sexual control and indicates whether or not sex has taken place. The settings in the images indicate that women and men are represented as having control of different sexual domains. Women are represented in the images as possessing sexual control in the home/domestic settings (eg. figures 3, 19, and 20), in social (public) venues (eg. figure 1), in medical settings (eg. figures 7 and 8), and in 'nature'- outdoors with grass and trees (eg. figures 21 and 22). Men are depicted as having sexual control in the urban (outdoor) environment (eg. figures 15 and 16). Men on the street are represented as sexually dangerous, but once in domestic settings they are shown to relinquish control to women (although this also requires women to relinquish some of the control they have in social settings).

The Use of Diagrams

The elements that are represented as relevant to the female and male sexual and reproductive organs (that is, the parts that are labelled and/or shown in the diagrams) vary depending on the topic of the leaflet (figures 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33). The inclusion or exclusion of parts or labels of the male and female sexual and reproductive organs encodes the producer's view of the function of sex and acceptable sexual activity. The images suggest that outside of the context of sexual disease the anus is either sexually irrelevant (as it is not shown) or taboo (it is shown but not named). The anus and the rectum are represented as a part of the body where men or women can get a genito-urinary infection rather than sexual pleasure. The diagrams in the leaflets promote the norms of heterosexual sex. The diagrams (figures 31 and 32) represent female sexuality as a hidden, internal process defined by a woman's reproductive capability. The entrance to the vagina is absent or obscured, the clitoris and the labia are excluded in both diagrams of the female sexual and reproductive organs. (In the diagrams of the male sexual and reproductive organs the external male organs are included). There is some evidence (in the number of parts labelled) to suggest that men's sexual and reproductive organs are represented in the diagrams as more simple and straightforward than women's.

The Appearances of Represented Participants and their Roles

Women with long, untied or unbrushed hair in the sample of images are represented as sexually unrestrained (eg. figures 15, 19, and 34) while the images of women with short-mid length hair, or tied back hair in the sample are of women in control and sexually restrained (eg. figures 1, and 3, and the Doctor in figure 7). On the few occasions where men are shown with un-greased hair they are depicted as in a state of panic, or under the influence of alcohol (eg. the man seated on the right of figure 1). In general, representations of messiness visually demonstrate a lack of sexual restraint, and orderliness is associated with sexual control (eg. compare the visual message of sexual control and messiness in figures 20 and 34).

There is little nudity within the images in the sample, but where nudity is shown it is an indicator that sex is being planned, or about to occur. The amount of skin revealed by the represented participants is a visual indicator of sexual availability. For example, compare the image of the woman in figure 1 and figure 3: the tight dress worn by the woman in figure 3 exposes the contours of her body, her shoulders, and her neck and face; the dress and hairstyle of the woman in figure 1 is less revealing, a scarf covers her neck, and her hair covers her face.

Overall, masculinity is visually represented as a range of identities within the images. The dichotomy between gladiator and wimp is apparent as two extremes on a continuum of masculinity (visualized in figure 35, which shows a line of men of different ethnicity, height, weight, and age, with a strong man at one end, and a wimpish man at the other), and the dominant representation of men in the sample is conventional hegemonic masculinity. Men are shown in competition in relation to masculinity and sexual prowess (eg. figures 2, 13, and 36). The representation of women in the sample of images confers heterosexuality upon the men in the images and signals the need to protect oneself from potential sexual disease.

In some images, props are used to highlight men's individuality. In the poster, Make All The Right Moves (figure 16), for example, the upright motorbike and open face helmet convey a strong sense of individuality - the man in the poster is not riding an average bike, he is not an average man. On the occasions when men are shown together in the leaflets they are usually shown as a collection of individuals, separated by the framing of the image or the lack of contact between them (as in figures 14 and 37). Men's individuality is emphasized by the difference in their clothes, age, height, and ethnicity (eg. figure 14, 36, and 37). The symmetry of the men in these images suggests that while being an individual is a defining feature of being a man, masculinity is a unifying experience which supersedes individual difference.

The images prescribe a range of roles for men and women in the sample - categorized by their appearance and action. The representations of men can be classified into six types of masculinity along this continuum from Gladiator to Wimp: Gladiator - Retro Man (figure 39) he is sexually active and in control; Protector (figure 40); Clown or Buffoon (figure 41); Romantic New Man (figure 42) he strives for equality in his relationships; Gay man (figure 43); and Wimp (figure 44) he is 'other', weak and passive. The representations of women range along a continuum from Vamp to Victim: Vamp (figure 45); Reassurer (figure 46); Guardian of Sexual Morality (figure 47); Mother; Clown (figure 48); Victim (figure 49).

The dominant roles women are cast in by the images emphasis care and guardianship. The roles of men emphasize sexual action and a continuum of sexual success or failure. It is interesting to note that while the female vamp is the equivalent to the male gladiator, the role of the victim remains an exclusively female domain.

Men are usually represented in the images on their own or with a woman. Women's absence from images may define men as fathers, and young men as pre-pubescent, or gay. Women are visually excluded from some aspects of male sexuality: images of fatherhood, men's promiscuity, male friendship, male puberty, testicular cancer, gay sexuality, and the experience of 'being a man'. Women are absent from the majority of the leaflets and posters aimed specifically at men. The exception is three posters and leaflets on safer sex and condom use for heterosexual young men (in figures 15, 16, 50, and 51). These images objectify men, and male bodies, to an extent only seen in the leaflet for young Gay men - the male models are the most salient element of the images and the lighting emphasizes their bodies. The presence of women in these images makes their consumption by heterosexual men acceptable and refutes the potential suggestion of gay sexuality in the process of men looking at other men. The depiction of heterosexual men together in the absence of women demands a context to ensure their relationship is not understood as gay. Sporting and educational settings are used in these images to establish competitiveness between the men as a signifier of their heterosexuality.


Analysis of the composition of the images, as outlined in Kress and Van Leeuwen's method, based on the value conferred on left and right, top and bottom, with conformity to the left to right, top to bottom reading of Roman script reveals the traditional and new qualities associated with male and female sexuality within the images.

The images present traditional male sexuality as predatory and promiscuous (figures 1, 2, 11, and 17), protective (figures 9, 49, and 50), penis-centred, competitive (eg. as in figures 6, and 13, and as suggested by the sporting setting in figure 2) and hierarchical (figure 35). The images in the sample represent other qualities as non-traditional and new to male sexuality, including emotional involvement (eg. figure 52, which shows a man in the role of a father), and taking responsibility (eg. figure 2, buying condoms). In contrast, traditional female sexuality is represented as sexually unknowing, anxious and passive (eg. figures 3, 10, and 15), and responsible (eg. figures 4, and 7). The qualities that are represented in the images as new to female sexuality (that is, the action depicted on the right side of the vertically polarized images in the sample) include sexual planning and the rebuttal of the notion of romantic love as unplanned (eg. figures 3, 15, and 16), being assertive (eg. figures 1 and 4), and being sexually active (eg. figures 19, and 50). That is, analysis of the images' composition shows that the images present male and female sexuality as the antithesis of one another.

Where a condom is the product being promoted in an image (eg. figures 15 and 16) the male reader is given the promise of financial and sexual success (a motorbike, a convertible sports car, or a sexually willing partner). In the poster, She Looks Safe, (figure 19) which shows a couple in an apartment about to enter the bedroom, alcohol is represented as the reality and the promise of the product is a lack of sexual restraint, leading to sexual danger. In the poster, Have You Told A Mate I like You, (figure 53) the promise of the statement is displayed in the image of the two men: a close non-sexual relationship which focuses on a university magazine. The writing itself is the product - that is, the ability to express one's emotions to a friend. In this image expressing one's emotions to a friend is linked with educational opportunity and the possibility of transcending one's social class: education is presented as an alternative to fatherhood as a route to status. In figure 36, which shows a row of naked men all with thought bubbles, the composition polarization between the thought bubbles at the top and the nudity of the young men at the bottom of the image presents men's expression of their concerns as an ideal and their focus on the physical as the reality of male sexuality. Ideals of male and female sexuality are also revealed when the composition of these images is analyzed. In figure 1, which depicts a couple in a night club, a horizontal line which cuts across the man and the woman's waist and polarizes the image into top and bottom is created by the contrast between the colour of the walls and the floor and the line of the seat in the background. The top section of the image represents the ideal of sexual relationships - above the waist. The bottom section of the image represents the reality- that sex is a physical affair focused below the waist.

The composition of the cover of the leaflet, What Happens Now, (figure 54) which shows a central image of a naked man circled by four images of men, combines vertical and horizontal polarization with a circular composition. The analysis of the vertical and horizontal polarization in the image and the central elements of the composition reveals the representation of puberty as a cycle revolving around man's biology: the arrangement of the figures around the central figure, the clock-wise direction of their gazes; and the symbolic change from shorts, through to plus-fours, to the symbolic pinnacle of male adulthood - full length trousers. In triptych compositions the mediator in these images (the central nucleus) is either a form of contraception (condom or oral contraceptive pills) or a woman (eg. figures 1, 3, 9, 15, 16, and 19). That is, women or medical intervention mediate male sexuality.

Interactive Meanings

The contact between the represented participant and the viewer in the images is created by the participant's gaze - a direct look is read as a demand, an indirect look is read as an offer. In the sample of leaflets, contact between the viewer and the images of the women is more often an offer than a demand. That is, men are visually represented as more demanding than women. In everyday interaction the norms of social relations determine the distance we keep from one another and this is visually created by the length of the shot. The relationship between the viewer and the represented men is presented as more intimate (close-up) when he is accompanied by a woman. Perhaps the presence of women in images enables a more intimate portrayal of men as she resolves the problematic issue of men looking at other men. The relationship between the viewer and represented men is more frequently represented as impersonal (distant) than the relationship with both men and women.

The horizontal angle between the represented participants and the viewer indicates the level of involvement between them. Within the sample a frontal angle is used to increase audience identification and involvement with represented participants who reduce sexual risk (eg. figures 2, 15, and the last frame of figure 9). The images in the sample which present men as detached from the viewer depict men as 'different' from the hegemonic norm. In several images an oblique horizontal angle is used to depict Black men as the 'other' in relation to White men (eg. the Black man in figure 6 is shown at an oblique angle and the White man is shown from a frontal angle; and the Black men in figure 53 are shown at an oblique angle compared with the frontal angle used to depict the White men in figure 38). Detachment is also used to illustrate failure to acquire the norms of hegemonic masculinity. For example, in figure 36 the oblique angle to the boy on the far right of the continuum emphasizes the difference between him and the other boys (and the viewer) - confirmed by his unbalanced posture, 'limp wrist', and glasses.

A low vertical angle is used to confer power on the represented participant - the viewer is positioned as looking up to the subject. Men are represented as powerful in the role as fathers, when in education, their pretence of knowledge, their sexual planning, and their lack of sexual restraint (eg. the men in figures 2, 12, 19, 50, 51, and 52).

The Conceptions of Masculinity Revealed in the Images

The analysis reveals the concepts of gender and male sexuality encoded in the sample of images. I shall now outline how the structures of the images[3] combine to present a polarized representation of male and female sexuality informed by conventional concepts of sexuality and gender. Within the sample of leaflets and posters I also compare the construction of male sexuality in the materials aimed exclusively at young men with those aimed at young people in general.

The analysis of the visual structures of the sample of images shows that male sexuality is visually located in the physical aspects of sex. The use of symbolic attributes (eg. fast cars and contact sport) in the sample convey an association between male sexuality and physicality. The men's action processes in the images focus on sexual technique and competence. The analysis of the analytical processes in the representation of male sexual and reproductive organs suggests that male sexuality may be presented as less complex than female sexuality. Finally, the analysis of composition meanings and medium highlights the central role of the male body/biology in some of the images.

Several of the images use setting, symbolic attributes, and the framing of the images to visually assert that competitiveness is a traditional aspect of male sexuality. The individuality of men is emphasized in the sample of images in a number of ways. For example, the difference in men's appearances is highlighted, and the framing and composition of the images are combined to highlight men's autonomy.

The findings of the analysis show that the images aimed at young people in general associate sexual irresponsibility with male sexuality. The action processes in these images indicate that male action focuses on sexual risk and female action focuses on sexual protection. The settings of these images function to represent heterosexual men as sexually dangerous outside of a domestic setting (which signifies a monogamous relationship). Analysis of the action processes in the images, the roles men and women occupy, the symbolic attributes in the images, and the composition of the images, combine to present men as sexually self-aware and women as sexually innocent, and men as less responsible than women. Analysis of these structures also reveals that they emphasize the ability of women to ignore their sexual desire and encode the message that male sexuality is more potent than female sexuality. The visual structures of the images display the context for sex as either heterosexual reproduction or sexual infection is a dominant theme in the majority of the leaflets.

Overall, the representation of male and female sexuality in the cartoon strips are informed by the same concepts as the other leaflets in the sample. However, the cartoon strips differ from the other leaflets in three ways. Firstly, men are portrayed as possessing sexual health information and occupying roles as health professionals. Secondly, the language used in the leaflets to describe sex and physiology is more colloquial. Finally, the use of humour in cartoon strips addresses young men's fears about sexual competence and lack of sexual knowledge.

In what follows the main concepts informing the leaflets and posters in the sample are discussed in detail. The differences between the leaflets aimed exclusively at young men and those aimed at young people in general are also outlined.

Male and Female Sexuality are Opposites

Male and female sexuality are represented in the leaflets as different in every respect. The analysis of the action processes and the settings in the images show that men and women are presented in the images as having different sexual concerns and sexual goals, and controlling different sexual situations. The types of representations in the images, the roles men and women occupy, the action processes, and the symbolic attributes depicted in the images represent male and female sexuality as polarized: men take risks, women protect; men are sexually knowing, women are sexually innocent; men are simple, women are complex; men are physical, women are emotional; men are irresponsible, women are responsible.

My earlier discussion of the literature demonstrates that certain values are commonly associated with male and female sexuality. The findings of the analysis of the composition meaning of the images show that this is also true of the sample of images. The analysis of the images' composition reveals that traditional male sexuality is represented in the images as predatory and promiscuous, protective of female partners and children, and competitive with other men. In contrast, the analysis presents an association between traditional female sexuality and emotional involvement, sexual anxiety or ill-health. In other words, the qualities associated with female sexuality are the antithesis of male sexuality, and vice- versa.

In the leaflets for young men in which male sexuality is not defined in opposition to female sexuality (that is, those in which women are visually absent) the analysis of the action processes and roles men occupy represent men as more caring and emotional than in the other leaflets. This suggests that the absence of women enables a visual redefinition of masculinity.

Male Sexuality Centres on Sexual Competence

The findings of the analysis of the action processes, the symbolic attributes, and the composition of the images in the sample supports the assertion that dominant conceptions of male sexuality centre on sexual competence, the penis, erection and orgasm (Tiefer, 1993). Analysis of the composition of several images shows the central role of biology and sexual competence in the representation of male sexuality. In several images the action processes and the setting combine to portray sex as a skill or technique to be acquired by men - comparable to driving a car. Other leaflets use action processes, settings, and symbolic attributes to draw a parallel between sex and sport. The physical nature of male sexuality is also conveyed in the goals of men's action processes - for example, when men and women are embracing, where women's sexual goal is cerebral (above the neck), men's sexual aim is physical (below the waist). These structures in the images work together to suggest that for men sex is primarily a physical activity rather than an emotional experience.

The images in the majority of the leaflets and posters aimed at young men do not acknowledge men's fears of sexual incompetence regarding condom use. Instead these leaflets and posters visually focus on male sexual competence, and associate condom use with sexual success. However, a few images, particularly the cartoon strips, do visually acknowledge young men's sexual anxieties.

Male Sexuality is Competitive

The findings of the analysis demonstrate how the images use action processes, symbolic attributes, settings, and composition and framing, to present male sexuality as competitive. Images of sexual competitiveness between men are explicit in the settings, symbols and action processes in several of the leaflets aimed at young men. Competition between men is embodied in the images of men engaged in sport or in a sporting setting. The analysis of the composition of the images reveals their presentation of competitive sport as a traditional aspect of masculinity.

Men are rarely shown together in the images unaccompanied by women. When men are shown together the framing and composition of the image underlines their individuality, or a setting is used to ensure that the relationship is not understood as sexual (unless that is the intention). The roles men occupy in the images, the setting, the action processes and the objects of men's action are used to convey competitiveness between men in the images to legitimize the depiction of men together: competitiveness confirms that men are engaged against each other, rather than with each other. The analysis of these structures shows that the visual display of intimacy between heterosexual men is restricted to designated social contexts: sport, business, and family groups. Men shown together outside of these contexts are Gay.

In the leaflets aimed at young people in general, men are rarely shown together and the role of sport and competition to confirm heterosexuality is replaced by the presence of a woman.

Male Sexual Responsibility

The leaflets aimed at young men and those aimed at young people in general are informed by different concepts of male sexual responsibility.

The findings of the analysis of the images in the leaflets for young people in the previous section concur with the suggestion in the literature that women are viewed as the responsible guardians of sexual morality (Waldby et al, 1990). Analysis of the composition and action processes of the images reveals that promiscuity and risk taking are represented as traditional masculine traits. In contrast, the action processes in the images present women as having a central role in sexual protection. The analysis of the action processes and symbolic attributes in the images represent women as possessing and sharing sexual health knowledge (eg. the public display of books) and men as withholding knowledge (eg. the possession of private diaries detailing sexual liaisons). Analysis of the action processes, the roles men and women occupy, settings, and the composition of the images, visually associates men's lack of responsibility for contraception (and women's need to enforce condom use) with displays of conventional masculinity (such as aggression or sexual prowess) as suggested in the literature (Marsiglio, 1993). Analysis of the composition of these images suggests that sexual responsibility is not a traditional male quality. The association between condom use and embarrassment is acknowledged in the action processes of images of the leaflets and the roles in which men and women are cast.

Within the leaflets and posters for young men, male sexuality is portrayed via the action processes, the representation of the actors, the choice of symbolic attributes, and the composition of the images as adventurous and exploratory. However, in contrast to the materials aimed at young people in general, men are also depicted as sexually responsible. Whilst the link between masculinity and risk suggested in the literature is apparent in the images, the use of cultural symbols of risk (such as fast cars and bikes) in some of the images confers masculinity by a non-sexual risk. These images confound Kimmel's (1987) accusation that HIV prevention messages suggest that men stop having sex like men (ie. taking risks). The theory that men with long-term education or employment goals are less likely to view becoming a father as enhancing their masculinity and status is also made apparent in the action processes, setting, and composition of one poster in the sample (figure 53), Have You Told A Mate I Like You (B Team) (Marsiglio and Sheham, 1993).

The type of representation, the composition, the actors and action processes in the image of the leaflet, A Man's Guide To Contraception (figure 17), represent women as responsible throughout history for contraception. This image contradicts men's historical responsibility for contraception (Seidler, 1992).

Men are Individuals

The wide range of activities which men are shown to undertake, the focus on the differences in men's appearances, the choice of symbolic attributes (eg. an open face motorbike helmet), the range of roles men occupy, and the medium, framing and composition of images present men as autonomous individuals with a range of masculine identities. The action and roles of men and women identified earlier confirm that images prescribe men and women particular roles (as proposed by Millum, 1975). The roles men are cast in include: Gladiator; Protector; Competitor; Clown; Romantic New Man; Emotional Man; Gay Man; Wimp. The simple dichotomy between gladiator and wimp is however not apparent, although it does provide the two extremes at either end of a continuum of masculinity.

Although the action processes, the settings, the representation of men's appearances and symbolic attributes in the images combine to convey the individuality of men, the leaflets aimed at young men also use composition and framing to represent men as individual members with a collective identity - confirming that individuality is itself a part of the construction of masculinity (Morgan, 1992).

Masculinity is Hierarchical

Despite the range of masculine identities shown in the sample of images, and the use of setting, composition, the roles men occupy and their action processes, the majority of representations of men in the images conform to Brannon's rules of hegemonic masculinity: to avoid feminine behaviour; to focus on success; to be emotionally distant; and to take risks (Kimmel, 1987). The analysis of composition and interactive meaning in the images also shows that White men, Black men, and Gay men are represented differently in the images. The relationship between White men, Black men, and Gay men reflects the hypotheses in the literature of a hierarchy of masculinity: in the images White men are represented as the bearers of hegemonic masculinity whilst Black and Gay men are assigned to subordinate (deviant) masculinities.

The analysis of the action processes and settings of the images provides some evidence to support the assertion (Jackson, 1994) that Black male sexuality is socially constructed as more predatory (deviant) than White male sexuality. However there are few images of Black men and Gay men in the sample and more images would be required to test this hypothesis.

Women are the Guardians of Sexual Morality

The findings of the analysis of the action processes, the roles men and women occupy, the settings, and the composition of the images in the leaflets aimed at young people in general suggest that men's sexuality needs to be controlled by women. Women are depicted in many of these images as sexual mediators and the guardians of sexual morality. Analysis of the action processes in the images shows that women assess, veto or acquiesce to sex and have a central role in enforcing sexual protection. In these images the role of the sexual health expert is filled in the main by women, and women offer men reassurance. The analysis of the settings in the images shows women to have control of domestic, social, and medical domains in relation to sex. Analysis of the composition of the images also shows that women are physically placed in the images to guard sexual boundaries and mediate the transition from social to personal space. The findings of the analysis confirm that the images reflect current discourses which treat women as the victims of male sexual desire and sex as a male activity (Holland et al, 1993).

Women are not cast as the guardians of sexual morality in the leaflets and posters aimed specifically at young men, but they are represented, via action processes, as the assessors of male sexual competence.

Men are Sexually Knowing and Women are Sexually Innocent

The analysis of the images supports the conclusion that the cultural expectation that men know about sex informs the images in the sample.

The analysis of the action processes, the choice of symbolic attributes (eg. books), the role of women as sexual victims and the composition of the images in the leaflets and posters targeted at young people in general present men as sexually self-knowing. The roles women occupy in the majority of the leaflets (eg. the guardian of sexual morality, the reassurer, the mother, and the victim) represent women as possessing knowledge of sexual health services but not necessarily possessing sexual self-awareness. The analysis of the composition of the images reveals the images portrayal of female sexuality as passive and sexually anxious/unknowing. In contrast the analysis of the action processes and the roles men occupy in the images represent men as possessing sexual self knowledge but lacking information about medical services. The roles women occupy, the action processes, and the use of settings in the images addresses the perceived difficulty men experience in attending sexual health services (Kimmel, 1995). The representation of men in the majority of images, however, fails to acknowledge the level of young men's sexual anxiety identified in the literature (Hall, 1991).

The analysis of the composition, action processes, roles of actors, and symbolic attributes in the majority of the images of the leaflets and posters aimed at young men present young men as knowing and sexually competent, but do not present women as sexually innocent - women are presented via these structures as sexually compliant. Analysis of the action processes and roles men occupy in several of the images aimed at young men suggests a representation of young men's sexual talk as a facade to maintain control.

The Context for Sex is Reproduction or Disease

The analysis of the types of representations, the action processes, the symbolic attributes (eg. photographs of children, or fruit bowls), and the settings in the images in the leaflets (with the exception of the leaflet for young Gay men) show that they promote heterosexuality and heterosexual norms of sex. The action processes and analytical processes in the images focus on condom use and penetrative vaginal sex - only penetrative vaginal sex is depicted as a sexual possibility outside of the context of infection. In the analytical processes sex is represented in the context of sexual reproduction rather than pleasure and anal sex is taboo - despite the fact that anal sex is a part of sexual activity for some heterosexuals, particularly between young people aged 20 to 24 years (John, 1993). Anal sex is made visually explicit only in relation to sexually transmitted infections. The analysis of the settings in the images reveal that they suggest two alternative outcomes of sexual relations: a monogamous relationship or a sexually transmitted infection.


In general, the images in sexual health leaflets and posters aimed at young people and young men present a stereotyped image of male and female sexuality and are informed by conventional concepts of sexuality and gender. The images reinforce heterosexual norms and values and present heterosexual reproduction or sexual infection as the context in which sex occurs.

The images represent male and female sexuality as opposites with different sexual concerns and control of discrete sexual domains: sexual competence and the physical aspects of sex are represented as male concerns; sexual safety and the emotional aspects of sex are depicted as female concerns. The social construction of male and female sexuality in the images suggests that male sexuality is less complex than female sexuality. Male sexual desire is portrayed in the images as more potent than women's. Men are represented as sexually irresponsible, in contrast, women are represented as the guardians of sexual morality.

Male sexuality is presented as existing on a continuum from gladiator to wimp and the images in the leaflets and posters prescribe a range of gender roles. Most of the images aimed at young people in general cast men and women in traditional gender roles and sexual relationships: the promiscuous gladiator with the female victim; the protector and the rescued; the predatory male with the female guardian of sexual morality. Some images (primarily in the leaflets and posters aimed exclusively at young men) suggest an alternative to these stereotypes: Romantic Man; Gay Man; the sexually knowing and active woman. In general the images in the sample reinforce societal expectations in relation to sexuality and gender roles: that men are sexually knowing, promiscuous, and more emotionally distant than women.

Nonetheless, the images in leaflets and posters targeted at young men challenge some societal norms concerning masculinity and male sexuality. These images present men as sexually responsible and do not cast women as the enforcer of sexual morality to the same extent as the leaflets aimed at young people in general. The images aimed at young men treat male sexuality as a more complex phenomenon and propose that they have a greater sense of sexual control than is suggested by the other leaflets. Some of these images challenge the expectation that men know about sex and that women are sexually innocent by acknowledging young men's anxiety about sexual competence and women's sexual knowledge. The leaflets targeted at young men represent men as more caring and expressive than those aimed at young people in general. These challenges to conventional representations of male sexuality notwithstanding, male sexuality is presented as competitive, and men are displayed as autonomous individuals - although several leaflets also assert the collective experience of being a man. These images also present masculinity as a hierarchy, prescribe constraining masculine and feminine roles and by and large reinforce the rules of hegemonic masculinity.

The representation of young men in the images of sexual health promotion materials for young people in general as sexually irresponsible and in need of a woman's control offers a negative visual message about male sexuality and presents an unrealistic image of female sexuality. The images of sexual health leaflets and posters continue to visualize young women as the decision makers with the power to say 'yes' or 'no' to sex, and also deny the existence of female sexual desire. The traditional reliance of health promotion materials on young women to mediate HIV prevention and sexual health messages to young men assumes a type of relationship and a degree of trust and female power which rarely exists for young people. This approach to sexual health promotion ignores the cultural expectation that women be sexually passive. It also fails to acknowledge that sexual coercion is a common feature of young women's early sexual experiences (Danielson, 1990).

This study suggests that images in sexual health leaflets present male sexuality and masculinity in ways that would be unacceptable in words to young men and sexual health professionals. The analysis demonstrates the need for professionals to consider the visual messages about sexuality in the leaflets that they use with young people. When sexual health leaflets are used to reinforce the information professionals give to young people it is important that the images in the leaflets do not contradict or undermine the verbal or written message. When posters are used to create a welcoming environment for young men this will only be successful if professionals ensure the visual messages do not exclude or ridicule young men. When professionals use leaflets and posters to trigger discussion and challenge young men's views of what it is to be a man, it is necessary to ensure the images do not present a narrow definition of masculinity. In general, the professionals who produce and use sexual health leaflets need to be more aware of the ways in which the appearance of women and men represented in images, the use of props, settings, action, and composition, can be read to produce messages about sexuality to produce and select leaflets with appropriate visual messages. In particular, professionals need to be aware of the ways in which images confer and deny access to specific roles and scripts on the basis of gender and promote narrow and constraining versions of what it is to be a man or a woman. In order for young men to identify with sexual health materials the images in them need to reflect positive images of male sexuality and provide counter-hegemonic representations. These images need to relate to young men's sexual concerns, norms and realities. To achieve this the images in sexual health leaflets need to recognize the sexual constraints on young men and the gap between societal expectations of young men and their lived experiences. In turn, this may enable more positive and realistic images of young women to emerge in sexual health promotion materials.


1 Emotional, psychological, and physical well being in relation to sexual and reproductive behaviour and relationships.

2 The term 'represented participant' is useful as it highlights the relational characteristic 'participant in something' and that there are two participants in every semiotic act - the represented participants and the interactive participants - viewer and producer (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996: p. 46). My use of the term differs from Kress and Van Leeuwen's - they use it to refer to all elements (people, objects, settings) in a picture. However, in order to make the method's terminology easier to understand I use the term 'represented participant' only in relation to people, and use the words element, object, or prop (depending on the context) to refer to the non-human.

3 The types of representation, the settings, the representations of participants, the meaning of composition, the interactive meaning, and the medium.


I would like to thank Nigel Gilbert for his valuable comments and advice on this paper. I would also like to thank the following organizations for their permission to reproduce the images included in this paper: the Health Education Authority (HEA); the Family Planning Association (FPA); Tam Brands; The BTeam; The Cancer Research Campaign; City & East London Health Promotion; Northamptonshire Health Promotion; Imperial Cancer Research; Cambridge Health Promotion; Brook Advisory Centres; Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health; Terrence Higgins Trust (THT).


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