Normative Regulations of Discourses About Misunderstood Sexual Obsessions: a Netnographic-Supported Corpus Linguistic Study

Lead Research Organisation: Queen Mary, University of London
Department Name: School of Languages Linguistics and Film


By mixing quanti-qualitative corpus linguistic (CL) approaches with critical discourse analysis (CDA), this netnographic-supported interdisciplinary study aims to further our knowledge of the under-researched and misunderstood manifestations of sexual obsessions in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Rooting the current project in Health Communication and Queer Linguistics, it will contribute to theoretical discussions of normativity in sociolinguistics and promote the use of CL in humanities research more broadly that could inform clinical understandings of mental health. The results may improve the clinical assessment of these often-misdiagnosed obsessions. Moreover, it carries an action-oriented goal in the creation of an online forum to support and guide sufferers to appropriate treatment.

Although Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is stereotypically associated with cleanliness, order, symmetry, and perfectionism, it is unknown to the wider (clinical) population that intrusive sexual thoughts are commonly experienced by up to 25% of OCD sufferers (Grant et al. 2006). These can be about any taboo forms of sexuality or about one's valued gender/sexual identity (Gordon 2002), where sufferers pathologically fear becoming homosexual (Williams 2008), heterosexual (Goldberg 1984), or transgender (Safer et al. 2016), depending on one's own personal identification. Since sexual obsessions are under-studied, they are often dramatically misunderstood and misdiagnosed (Glazier et al. 2013). Ignoring that they are - unlike sexual fantasies - unpleasant (Gordon 2002), therapists might wrongly identify them as symptomatic of e.g. pedophilia, or internalized homophobia. Researchers argue that genetics and sociocultural factors may shape the content of obsessions (e.g. Fontenelle et al. 2004; NICE 2006), and that moral judgments surrounding gender/sexuality create sexual obsessions (Gordon 2002). While discourses of gender and sexuality generally reflect normative regulatory forces (Cameron & Kulick 2003), no studies have explored how normativity shapes sexual obsessions precisely. Rooted in Health Communication and Queer Linguistics, the current project aims to fill this gap.

In order to better understand the experiences of people dealing with intrusive sexual thoughts and, more specifically, to scrutinize how normative ideas about gender and sexuality interact with these obsessions, the following research questions will be considered:
RQ1: How does normativity manifest itself when sufferers communicate their sexual obsessions?
RQ2: What are the quantifiable linguistic-discursive strategies or patterns of such processes?
RQ3: What kinds of sexual identities emerge out of such normative processes?

Data will be gathered via netnography, i.e. ethnography applied to online communities (Kozinets 2010), from a self-created, public, Anglophone online forum and analysed in combining CL with CDA (Baker et al. 2008). This framework of analysis will both quantitatively and qualitatively examine how sufferers' discourses of sexual obsessions are shaped by gender/sexual norms. Considering that many sufferers are currently spread across several online support groups for OCD, creating an online forum is not only a cheap way to gain access to ready-to-use CL-applicable data, but will also gather these otherwise hard-to-reach participants. The target audience (ca. 100-200 men & women) will be gathered through advertisement on different online platforms, charities, and personal contacts. While registering in the forum (which entails in providing demographic information such as age, gender/sexual ID, etc.), participants will give informed consent after reading ethical information. It is hoped that the corpus of data will be at least 250'000 words long.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1917443 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2020 Elvis Coimbra Gomes
Description The study is one of the first to triangulate ethnographic approaches with (computerized) corpus-assisted discourse analysis. In other words, it demonstrated how ethnographic insights can inform the interpretation of quantitative and qualitative analysis of language data, and how corpus tools can (dis)confirm certain ethnographic interpretations. Thanks to this triangulation, I was able to identify normative orientations in the discourses of people who suffer from sexual orientation and gender identity obsessive-compulsive disorder (SO-OCD and GI-OCD respectively). Psychologists generally agree that OCD sufferers misinterpret intrusive thoughts as signs of them being somebody they do not want to be. As such, sufferers usually avoid as much as possible such 'feared self' in order to protect their 'actual self'. My analysis revealed that my cis-heterosexual cis-heterosexual and LGBT+ participants oriented to extreme forms of heteronormative understandings of gender and sexuality when avoiding their feared selves. For instance, cis-heterosexual men oriented to the most stereotypical forms of masculine heterosexuality to avoid a gay identity; cis-heterosexual women oriented to the most stereotypical forms of feminine heterosexuality to avoid a lesbian identity; gay men oriented to the most stereotypical forms of the effeminate gay man to avoid a heterosexual identity; lesbian women oriented to the most stereotypical forms of the butch lesbian to avoid a heterosexual identity; and bisexual/queer people oriented to an extreme understanding of bisexuality as being always attracted to both sexes. These orientations thus reveal a tendency to construct an absolute and pure identity that always and only aligns with the norms constituting that identity.

In addition, my project proposes an alternative approach to study sociocultural factors influencing OCD. Instead of relying on quantitative approaches that correlate prevalence rates of OCD sub-types with specific geographical locations and then select which cultural fact explains the prevalence, my thesis proposed an ethnographic/discourse-based approach. The goal is to have a bottom-up approach to examine how sufferers themselves make sense of their symptoms and how they draw on sociocultural understandings of the issues they obsess about.
Exploitation Route The psychological research on SO-OCD and GI-OCD have only focused on cis-heterosexual people. This generated the assumption that homophobia and transphobia were the reasons for the emerge of these OCD sub-types. However, my study is the first to include LGBT+ groups, which automatically challenges this assumption. I argued that the reason why certain OCD sub-types emerge are due to the anxiogenic potential of normative discourses. In other words, norms not only define what is socially valuable by contrasting it to something undesirable, but also establish certain rules that maintain this status quo. As such, the OCD sub-types emerge from a fear of not conforming to social norms, and also from a fear of losing a cherished, and valued identity. Alongside the increasing social visibility and acceptance of LGBT+ identities emerge certain norms that define what it means to be LGBT+. Consequently, due to its valuable status, there is a space that opens up for LGBT+ people to fear of losing their identities if they do not conform to the heteronormative rules that constitute their identities. Finally, psychologists and other OCD advocates can use my study as evidence that SO-OCD and GI-OCD does not exclusively affect cis-heterosexual people, and that the latter are not necessarily homo-/transphobic.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare

Description ESRC
Amount £2,470 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2020 
End 03/2020
Description QMUL Center for Mind in Society award
Amount £1,955 (GBP)
Organisation Queen Mary University of London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 06/2019
Description QMUL Postrgraduate Research Fund
Amount £1,000 (GBP)
Organisation Queen Mary University of London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2019 
End 07/2019
Description QMUL Public Engagement Research Fund
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Queen Mary University of London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2019 
End 06/2019
Description OCD in Society Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The research on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is very often dominated by a preference for quantitative approaches that expand our knowledge about the disorder and the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. Although OCD truly has psychological implications, it also has social ones that are more easily captured with qualitative methods. Therefore, the event "OCD in Society: Making Sense of a Hidden Illness" aimed to bring people who suffer from OCD - incl. OCD advocates, charities, and artists - with social scientists who use qualitative methods to think about the different ways OCD is understood in society. In order to know how to take social action when raising awareness about the disorder, one needs an understanding of how different meanings of the disorder are created, circulated and regulated in society. Therefore, it is imperative to promote research about OCD that is not only done for, but also with and by the OCD community.

Initially more than 130 people signed up on Eventbrite, but the number decreased to 111 people. On the day we had approximately 50% of that number who attended, composed mainly of non-academics. During the first half of the event, we had three psychologists, a linguist, an anthropologist, and a historian presenting their different kinds of qualitative research. I was surprised by the quality and originality of their presentations, as well as, by the sharp questions that were asked from the (non-academic) audience. After a much appreciated free lunch break that was sensitive to attendees' dietary preferences, the second half of the event was dedicated to OCD sufferers. On the one hand, we had a workshop with a psychologist about an alternative approach to the traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy (called inference-based therapy), and on the other hand, we provided a platform to OCD sufferers to discuss certain issues. For instance, a roundtable composed of OCD advocates discussed issues when raising awareness about OCD, their experience in working with journalists, the implications of self-disclosing their disorder to different people and in different contexts, and how their advocacy work impacts their identity. We also had The Secret Illness group which promoted artwork done by OCD sufferers about their condition (e.g. wood-carvings, poems, literary works, dance, plays, music). Before inviting the panelists to a restaurant, the event wrapped up with a drawing lot where attendees had the opportunity to win one of two copies of Rose Cartwright's memoire Pure, where she tells her experience of living with a misunderstood form of OCD. This provided me a pretext to get some feedback from the audience:

I liked the variety of talks that made the whole day interesting (mixture of academics, workshop, visual arts, and open discussions). It's difficult to suggest anything that needs improvement as I think it was a really great conference. Better than expected! I learnt so much! Thank you!

Thanks it was live streamed. I was able to watch from home. It was so good that I drove over from South London so I could watch the talk that wasn't streamed. Please put everything on Youtube in order to reach a wider audience for people who couldn't/had difficulties attending.

I have absolutely no knowledge of OCD and this conference today really gave me an overview and an insight of how it is to live with OCD. Nothing needs to be improved! Great job!

I really liked to learn that there are studies from different disciplines about OCD. Also I was surprised by the number of researchers who don't mind sharing that they also have OCD.

As implied in their feedback, attendees generally appreciated the variety of instructive talks. They also found that the event created a safe space to share personal stories about their experience with OCD, while contributing to the academic discussions. In addition, they equally appreciated the free lunch and that the event was being live-streamed on Youtube. We had around 250 people on that day watching us, with people from America asking questions to the panelists. I found the live-streaming extremely useful for the event, as this also allowed people who could not be present to watch it from home. For instance, a woman told me that she had planned to attend the event with her daughter who has OCD, but the latter gave up when arriving on campus and went home. It gave me a warm feeling when seeing the relief on the woman's face when I told her that her daughter could watch the event on Youtube. I would definitely recommend QMUL to spend more resources in setting up live-streaming services, as it is a great way to disseminate information around the world.

The event was overall a success. It was reviewed for The Polyphony (, and one of the panelists from the University of Michigan asked me whether he could organize the second edition of the conference, for which I obviously gave the green light.

At this stage, I would like to thank the Centre of Mind in Society for their generous support. It would not have been possible to organize such a successful event without their financial assistance. I hope that this event provides a testimony of the impact that academic institutions can have when working closely with different (vulnerable) communities.

Webpage of the conference:
Youtube recording:
You can find more impressions of the conference on Twitter through the hashtag #OCDinSociety
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019