Linguistic, Emotional and Content Analyses of Sexually Explicit Scenes in Popular Fiction

Article excerpt

Key words: Dictionary of Affect in Language Sex differences Sexually explicit material Popular fiction Textual analysis

Exports of category fiction published by companies such as Harlequin, and its associate Worldwide, have accounted for a significant portion -- 90%! -- of Canada's balance of trade with respect to books (Audley, 1983). This fact suggests rather forcefully that the reading of popular fiction is a frequent, and therefore ecologically valid, human behaviour. This is particularly true for women's popular fiction, as the yearly traffic involves millions of purchases and encompasses 40% of the total American book market (Williamson, 1992). Men's popular fiction has a smaller market of serialized adventure stories. Category or genre fiction published for both the male and the female market includes many explicit sexual scenes. This article examines explicit sexuality in popular fiction published for a female audience (e.g., Harlequin romances) and in popular fiction published for a male audience (e.g., the Executioner series, spy novels, westerns) at the level of linguistic, emotional, and content analysis.


The reading of popular fiction may be considered in the light of two current models of sex differences in emotion that overlap in many of their assumptions and conclusions. The first model, that of Mosher and colleagues, is based on Tomkins' theory of emotion (Mosher & MacIan, 1994; Mosher & Tomkins, 1988) and maintains that social processes, such as the reinforcement of approved scripts and the punishment of non-approved ones, lead to a magnification of different emotions in men and women. Mosher and Tomkins' model begins with evolutionary principles, but it emphasizes the importance of affect socialization in emotional sex differences: in this model, joy, distress, fear, and shame are emotions that are magnified for women, while anger, excitement, readiness to cause surprise, and disgust are magnified for men.

The second model is based on Plutchik's psychoevolutionary theory of emotion (Whissell, 1996a, 1996b; Plutchik, 1994). In this model, Whissell proposes that relatively small evolved adaptive differences in emotionality between the sexes are magnified by social processes, and that socially created differences are generally in the same direction as evolutionary ones and are not, therefore, an entirely arbitrary social construction. Whissell's theory emerged from the results of several textual analysis experiments employing the Dictionary of Affect in Language, a listing of close to 5,000 words previously assigned volunteer-assessed emotional ratings (scale 1-7) along the dimensions of "pleasantness" and "activation". When the Dictionary was used to score texts of many different kinds (advertisements, novels, personality descriptions), male-oriented and female-oriented materials were found to differ in terms of both dimensions, though considerable overlap was still present. Whissell (1996b) argued that the two-dimensional affective space defined by the Dictionary-assessed dimensions of pleasantness and activation was equivalent to the two-dimensional affective space used by Plutchik (1994) to describe emotions. This same affective space could also represent the emotions discussed by Mosher and colleagues (Mosher & MacIan, 1994). Fear and anger, for example, are both active unpleasant emotions, while joy is an active pleasant one and sadness an inactive unpleasant one. In the same system, comfort and friendliness would both be pleasant but inactive emotions, while excitement would be an active emotion of average pleasantness.

According to Whissell (1996a, 1996b), Plutchik's basic emotions of surprise, fear, and friendliness are found to a greater degree in women than in men, while boldness, aggression, and rejection (or disgust) are found to a greater degree in men than in women. In this model, both men and women experience both joy and sadness, but they do so in different ways. …