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NMSU sociologist studies sexuality using popular TV shows

  • By Tonya Suther
  • (575) 646-6233
  • suther@nmsu.edu
  • Apr 08, 2013
NMSU Spring Blooms on Campus.

If television is a reflection of society, then a study of two programs on cable TV by a New Mexico State University researcher may help to expand how women's sexuality is viewed in the United States. Kassia Wosick, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently shared her findings at the Pacific Sociological Association annual conference in Reno, Nev.

At the heart of Wosick's research are two television series that depict women who pay for sex. Wosick, along with one graduate student and two undergraduates, are using content analysis and focus groups to study HBO's "Hung," a scripted production, and ShowTime's "Gigolos," a reality-based series.

"People have a tendency to dismiss sex research," Wosick said. "They have a tendency to relegate it to biological or physiological, and the sociologist has so much to say about sexuality in general. And partly why my research is so timely and important is that it really brings together traditional discourses with more contemporary discourses in terms of sexuality, the body, pleasure and desire."

Wosick's research involves investigating women's sexual consumerism using the two TV shows. She is looking at how women consume sex-related materials and services in an industry that is traditionally targeted toward men. Wosick is gathering data about women as consumers of pornography, erotic materials, sexual experiences, and also male-focused services such as strip clubs.

"I wanted to do research like this as opposed to just going out and asking women about their experiences to see the way the media constructs this, because media is essentially supposed to be a reflection of our everyday lives," Wosick said.

In Wosick's focus groups, female viewers share thoughts and perceptions through a series of questions after viewing one episode of each show. Wosick said she usually asks questions about the women's willingness to pay for companionship, and if so, which type of man would they prefer to meet.

"That kind of gives us insight into what's appealing to the female viewers," Wosick said. "And assesses whether what they are seeing is an accurate reflection of what they are doing in their own lives."

Using the content analysis data, the team studies each series, season, episode and scene. Among the things they examine are the differences between male and female sexual interaction, and what the shows have to say about gender and sexuality in our culture and society. Although the HBO production has been cancelled, the group already has collected three seasons for the study.

Wosick first became interested in this research several years ago. She said she initially wanted to discover what it would be like for women to go into a strip club in order to have a man's typical experience. She found that women were treated differently in those establishments even though they went as legitimate customers.

"We are treated differently because we consume differently," Wosick said. "We're less likely to pay a dancer or sex worker for regular business. We're more likely to have it be a one-time, fun and entertaining sort of comical experience like the women at a male review."

Wosick also said women are accommodated differently at the clubs because they act differently in that setting. She cautioned that except for in certain parts of Nevada, it is illegal for both men and women to pay for sex.

In studying the cable shows, Wosick said she was surprised to find that female viewers focused mainly on what the men in the shows were doing rather than the female characters.

"That might actually be a good thing, because if women are paying attention to the men, they are having this connection with the male characters," Wosick said. "That's sort of encouraging them to reflect on what they want and who they are as sexual beings."

Wosick, who teaches courses on sexualities, social inequalities, social psychology and intimate relationships, plans to publish several journal articles about the research. She also hopes to include the research in her upcoming book, "'Pinking' the Sex Industry: Women, Sex Toys and the Home Party Plan Economy," which discusses women's consumption practices in the sex industry.

"My goal is to eventually be able to talk with women who have paid for sexual experiences and also to people who sell sex to women, whether they be men or women," Wosick said. "Women participating as sexual consumers challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality, which I argue is key in equalizing gendered power dynamics within society."