Cultural Studies

“Potency is important for a real man”: Viagra-spam and the circulation of gendered discourse (Part 1)

by Mie Birk Jensen

“Need some love pills? So, why go to your local drugstore? Why waste time and extra money? Why let people know about your intimate life? Evil-wishers are always around to spread rumors. Start a super life now!”

Spam has a bad reputation: It wastes our time, promotes illicit and possibly unsafe products, spread malware, or break with the regulations of advertising. Unsurprisingly, spam is therefore often considered a threat to human health, safety, and productivity – or dismissed as a joke. The label of spam further invokes an image of an indistinguishable and undesired mass of emails, and the people involved are often imbued with negative affect, as ‘suckers, criminals, exploiters, and fools’ (Brunton 2013: 8).

Since spam is imbued with such negative affect, it becomes easy to dismiss its impact. Unless we are concerned with furthering our collective attempts to keep them out of our inboxes, we tend to direct our gaze at more desirable objects of study. However, despite efforts to combat spam, it continues to make up a large part of all emails sent, circulating not only potential harmful products and malware but also gendered discourse.

After all, who hasn’t at one point received such a spam email that promised to make our lives better, or to aid our most intimate problems with just one click?

A pair of man's hands rest on a laptop

Since the release of Viagra, spam has increasingly become synonymous with the sale of sexuopharmaceuticals, and regardless of our desire to ignore such advertising, it nevertheless reaches our inbox often enough for it to become a profitable market. While gender and sexuality scholars have engaged with the official advertisement of such products, as well as the coverage in mainstream news media, little attention has been directed at studying in-depth sexuopharmaceuticals in spam, aside from suggestions that it has contributed to a narrowing of discourse on male sexuality (e.g. Vares and Braun 2006).

In our article, we dived into the world of spam, investigating how the medicalization of men’s sexuality and sexual performances has played out in spam. Using a publicly available archive of spam from 1998 to 2018, which we reduced to 1.35 million emails of relevance, we generated TagSpheres models to map out and visualize the most frequent words used in spam and their co-occurrences (as exemplified below.) The visualizations further generated randomized samples that we subjected to a qualitative reading which, inspired by gender and media studies, as well as affect theory, allowed for a closer investigation of how men, masculinity and sex has been promoted in spam over the years.

Figure 1: Example of TagSphere Model

“CHANGE YOUR LIFE”

The language used in spam is often characterized by its emphasis on grand promises and quick solutions that are too good to be true: Whether it is a way to make money, become a better lover, or play in online casinos, the promises of spam are often focused on providing something that is new and better than what one has, and what was before. In capital letters, one is promised to become ‘BIG’, ‘HARD’, ‘RICH’, and ‘LUCKY’ in ways that are much more ‘CHEAP’, ‘FAST’, and ‘EASY’ than one has been accustomed hitherto. This is also central to the words used in spam promoting sexuopharmaceuticals, but such promises are also bound up with an optimization that is not only centered on the (medicine-induced) erection itself, but what the erection gives access to – and in extension – what risks are ascribed with not purchasing these medicine from spammers.

The benefits associated with sexuopharmaceuticals in spam ranged from mere mentions of such medicine to increase “sexual strength” to grand claims that reached far beyond the chemical properties of the product, such as how such a purchase can “CHANGE YOUR LIFE.” The visualizations of the archive’s content also demonstrated how the procurement of Viagra and other sexuopharmaceuticals becomes connected to a wide range of different affective states, wherein the man who fails to procure sexuopharmaceuticals suffers not only from “ed” (i.e. erectile dysfuncton) and “dysfunction”, but also from ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety,’ since “potency is important for a real man.”

A blue pill placed against a white backdrop
Viagra pill

Regardless of the recipient’s potential reason for being concerned about the quality of their sexual performance, spammers have emphasized their potential grave consequences this may have on one’s mental health and life more generally, urging the potential consumer to consider not the origin of their problem, but rather a quick and easy medical solution: “Instead of begging your penis to work, better swallow the blue pill.”  Thus, as these emails make grand promises of the potency that comes with procuring sexuopharmaceuticals alongside the dangers of going without, the focus is not limited to experiencing the erection itself, but how it affects one’s overall life, emotional well-being – and masculine self.

Spammers have hereby been circulating extreme depictions of the need for pharmaceuticals to envision a future masculine self – all of which is dependent on the ability to get an erection and perform sexually with youthful and confident virility, necessary for any man of any age in order to be a “real man,” but, paradoxically, such realness can only be achieved through sexuopharmaceuticals.

Click here “Potency is important for a real man”: Viagra-spam and the circulation of gendered discourse Part 2″


About the author

Mie Birk Jensen is a postdoc at the Department for the Study of Culture at University of Southern Denmark, and she holds a Ph.D. in social science from Aarhus University. Her research interests are situated in the intersections between gender, sexuality, and drugs, including both the consumption and promotion of medicine and intoxicants. Her recent research topics include the promotion of sexuopharmaceuticals for men in spam and news media, men’s use of social media to navigate illness, as well as young people’s experiences of sex and consent in relation to alcohol use.

The original article is written in collaboration with Stefan Jänicke, associate professor at the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at University of Southern Denmark.

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