Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff - Lisa Wynn

Contact Details

Position: Associate Professor anthropology-staff-lisawynn
Location: W6A606
Consultation Hours: Email  Dr Wynn for an appointment
Telephone: +61-2-9850-8095
Fax: +61-2-9850-9391
Postal Address: Department of Anthropology
Faculty of Arts
Macquarie University
NSW 2109


See academic profile

Ph.D., Anthropology, Princeton University, 2003.

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In the field: Cairo, Egypt, 2008. At the Opera House cafe, talking to Sameer Fareed about popular culture representations of reproductive health technologies. Photo by Dr Ziad Mouna.

I first became interested in the topic of tourism in Egypt while living in Saudi Arabia and hearing accounts of my Saudi friends' summer vacations. Every summer, my Saudi girlfriends would plan to meet up in Cairo; some even got engaged to Saudi men that they met on vacation in Egypt. Young Saudi men and women hanging out in Egyptian hotels would socialize in a way that they couldn't back in Saudi Arabia, where strict sex segregation is enforced by the state, and this provided one way for the younger generation to avoid arranged marriages. I decided to study the Saudi summer vacation as a window onto generational changes in Saudi culture and investigate the extent to which Saudi tourists upheld or deviated from Saudi cultural norms while they were on vacation in a more liberal Arab country.

But when I arrived in Egypt, I found that Egyptians had completely different ideas about what the Saudis were up to. The Egyptian stereotype held that Gulf Arab tourists came to Egypt to visit prostitutes, drink alcohol, gamble, and generally engage in all the illicit activities that were prohibited in their home countries. This eventually expanded into a research project that compared Western and Arab imaginations of Egypt and vice versa, tracing travelers' fantasies of the exotic to histories of colonialism, the migrant labor economy, and the Hollywoodisation of belly dance, among other things. My first book, "Pyramids and Nightclubs: A Travel-Ethnography of Western and Arab Imaginations of Egypt, from King Tut and Colonies of Atlantis to Sex Orgies, Rumors about a Marauding Prince, and Blond Belly Dancers," was published in December 2007 by University of Texas Press.

During my postdoc at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University, my research project shifted dramatically, as I started to investigate sexual archetypes circulating at the intersection of family planning, medical science, and government regulation of pharmaceuticals. What constitutes "safe sex"? What kind of language do women and men use to describe sexual experiences and reproductive health to medical professionals, and how do the different words used by  laypeople and medical professionals lead to misunderstandings?  I also started investigating the portrayal of unseen biological states in the reproductive cycle in both religious and scientific texts -- particularly that period of time in between when the egg is fertilized by the sperm and the embryo implants into the uterus and pregnancy begins.

Since coming to Macquarie, my research has gone in three main directions: research ethics, reproductive health technologies, and love and desire.

Research ethics: As a Macquarie University Inaugural Learning and Teaching Fellow in 2008, I worked to develop concrete ways to incorporate hands-on student ethnographic research projects into teaching at Macquarie. You can read about some of these projects on the Culture Matters blogs. That project got me thinking more about how different disciplines interact with ethics bureaucracies, so I launched a pilot study investigating the attitudes of ethnographers toward ethics oversight,  which you can read about in a special issue of the Journal of Policy History, edited by Zach Schrag. With Kandy White (Macquarie's Director of Research Ethics) and Colin Thomson (a law professor at the University of Wollongong and former director of the NHM&RC's Health Ethics Committee), I am currently working on a larger project that compares how medical researchers and social scientists think about research ethics and ethics regulatory bodies.

In 2012, I was named a National Teaching Fellow by the Australian Government's Office of Learning and Teaching.  For my fellowship, I will investigate how university ethics committees are assessing undergraduate research in social science disciplines and what barriers teachers and universities face to expanding student research with humans, in particular the barrier of obtaining ethics clearance for human research. This project entails interviewing teachers and administrators across Australia to determine the range of local-level implementation of national policies on ethics review, and to identify whether local procedures for reviewing student research hinder or facilitate a research-led undergraduate curriculum in which students undertake original research.  I will use this survey to distil a best-practice model and communicate policy recommendations to Australian universities and the NHMRC which leads national-level policy on research ethics review.

Reproductive health technologies: This research project examines Egyptian interpretations of reproductive health technologies through 3 prisms: medical education, religious jurisprudence, and popular culture. Emerging reproductive health technologies are key sites where societies debate sexual morals, gender roles, the relationship between religious and medical authorities, and the role of biomedicine (both surgical procedures and pharmaceutical products) in reshaping the body and its desires.  Some of the technologies I am interested in include emergency contraception, medication abortion, hymenoplasty, and erectile dysfunction drugs. This is a collaborative research project in conjunction with two Egyptian colleagues, Dr Hosam Mustafa and Professor Ahmed Ragab at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, and from 2012-2014 this research is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant. In 2012, I co-edited a volume looking at emergency contraception debates and activism around the world, with Professor Angel M. Foster, published by Palgrave Macmillan, entitled Emergency Contraception: The Story of a Global Reproductive Health Technology.  Professor Foster and I are currently at work on another edited volume examining emerging reproductive health technologies in the Middle East.

Love and desire: The third project I am working on is an ethnography that explores how men and women negotiate gender and moral identities in cross-cultural contexts, tentatively titled "Mimesis, Kinship, Gift, and Other Things That Bind Us in Love and Desire."

For more information, see my research profile for more details about ongoing research projects, my online CV for a complete list of publications, or check out Culture Matters, Macquarie's Anthropology Department group blog.

See research profile

aanthropology-staff-lisawynn pic2Transnationalism in the Middle East
Both Western and Arab travels in Egypt are rooted in millennia of travel, trade, pilgrimage, conquest, colonialism, and tourism. This history of transnational encounters has in turn had a lasting impact on Egyptian national identity. Yet ultimately these different views of Egypt also reveal as much about Westerners and Gulf Arabs as they reveal about Egypt. The Western fascination with pharaonic Egypt cannot be understood without appreciating how Egyptology was intertwined with the history of Western imperialism. And the Egyptian stereotype of Gulf Arabs as spending long nights salivating over bellydancers belies a Middle Eastern migrant labor economy marked by cultural difference and vast disparities in wealth.
My dissertation research and first book, Pyramids and Nightclubs, examine several nodes of transnational contact that have shaped modern Egypt. The first half of the book explores the history of Western and Arab fascination with ancient Egypt, starting in the days when Egyptology was less a science than a mad, free-for-all European treasure hunt. It then explores New Age imaginations of ancient Egypt, from the psychic Edgar Cayce's prophecy that the secrets of lost civilizations would be found buried under the paws of the Sphinx to an Arab myth in a magical pharaonic elixir called "red mercury." The second half of the book examines Egyptian and Gulf Arab ideas about each other. One chapter interprets Egyptian urban legends-about the lesbian sex orgies of Gulf tourists in Egyptian hotels and rumors about the exploits of a marauding Saudi prince-as cultural texts that reveal a tense regional political economy and complex negotiations of national identity. Then it takes a look at the actual activities of Saudi youth vacationing in Cairo, to see what lies behind the Egyptian stereotypes.
An examination of Saudi and Egyptian stereotypes about each other shows how moments of cultural contact become opportunities for defining self and other: Egyptians nurture stereotypes whereby Gulf Arabs embody the transgression of social proprieties, while Saudis see Egyptians as obsequious economic mercenaries. Both groups portray the other as sexual predators. Linguistic and cultural differences between the groups get mapped out on a regional economy marked by labor migration and extreme differences of wealth. The tourist economy in Egypt illuminates the creative projects of cultural and identity production that occur through processes at once mimetic and oppositional in encounters with national others.
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New reproductive health technologies

Since 2003, my research has focused on:

  • the politics of contraception and abortion in the US, Canada, and the Arab World;
  • the translation of new medical terms into Arabic and language that people use to talk about sexual and reproductive health;
  • the status of emergency contraception, medication abortion,erectile dysfunction drugs, and hymenoplasty in Islamic jurisprudence, including looking at how the status of these and other new reproductive health technologies are debated online at Islamic "cyberfatwas" web sites; and
  • the relationship between medical and religious experts in determining the availability of new medical technologies in Egypt. 

This research has been funded from 2008-2011 by several Macquare University grants and, from 2012-2014, by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant.

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Emerging reproductive health technologies in the Middle East

An ongoing interest of mine has been the status of EC and medical abortion in Islamic jurisprudence, and particularly, how the status of these and other new reproductive health technologies are debated online at Islamic "cyberfatwas" websites. Since coming to Macquarie, I've started a new research project, funded by a Macquarie University New Staff Grant, which examines Egyptian interpretations of emergency contraception, medication abortion, erectile dysfunction drugs, gamete donation, surrogacy, embryonic stem cell research, and hymenoplasty. This is a collaborative project with my Egyptian colleague, Dr Hosam Moustafa. Grounded largely in archival research, we are examining three key sites of interpretation and knowledge production about new reproductive health technologies: medical science, Islamic jurisprudence, and popular culture. In coming years I hope to expand this to a broader ethnographic exploration of the social and cultural interpretation and adoption of reproductive health technologies.

Other previous and ongoing research projects under the rubric of reproductive health technologies include:

  • The politics of emergency contraception research
  • Emergency contraception (EC) is classified by medical science as a contraceptive, yet many anti-abortion groups consider it abortifacient because it may prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. There is tremendous pressure on researchers to conduct research that might disprove the post-fertilization method of action theory, and to interpret past research in ways that lend support to the ovulation suppression theory. This research project examines the mechanism of action debate amongst scientists and EC advocates, and the debate's implications for medical research.
  • Embryonic personhood
  • This research project explores constructions in medical textbooks of what happens in between the time an egg is fertilized by sperm and the time that it implants in the uterus, and the way these medical constructions are appropriated in debates over when life begins, contraception and abortion.
  • Sexuality and the state
  • The debate over access to emergency contraceptive pills (ECPs) in the US demonstrates how women's bodies are a site of control where the politics of sexuality, discourses on public health, and medical constructions of biological processes intersect. An article for Medical Anthropology Quarterly examined the FDA hearings over nonprescription availability of the ECP Plan B, and an opinion piece for Obstetrics and Gynecology explored the archetypes of American sexuality and contraceptive use in debates over access to ECPs.
  • Reproductive health and language

With collaborators at Ibis Reproductive Health, I helped produce an Arabic-language version of the emergency contraception website ( and a multilingual website on medical abortion in English, Arabic, French and Spanish (

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Another project on language and medicine examined the language writers use to communicate about their bodies, their health, and their sexual encounters. With Angel Foster and James Trusell, I examined 1,200 e-mail questions sent to an emergency contraception website over the course of one year. One surprising finding was that many writers referred to sex with a hormonal contraceptive but not a barrier contraceptive as "unprotected sex," even in the context of concern over pregnancy risk. In other words, women repeatedly reported having "unprotected sex" while taking the Pill, meaning that they did not use a condom, but then, perplexingly, they would ask if they needed to use EC to prevent pregnancy. This suggests that the language of AIDS-prevention campaigns has changed how women think about contraception. This project was published in Culture, Health & Sexuality

In collaboration with two medical doctors at the University of Rochester, Justine Wu and Teresa Gipson, another language study focused on oral narratives of women communicating their sexual experiences when requesting EC prescriptions. The theme of "good sex" versus "bad sex" dominates women's narratives. Women experience moral tension as they attempt to reconcile societal expectations of appropriate sexual behavior (being "prepared," "safe," and "smart") and the realities of everyday sexual encounters (often "unprepared and spontaneous," "not safe" and "not smart").This project was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Research in Teaching

In 2008 I was funded by a Macquarie University Learning and Teaching Fellowship to develop concrete ways for Macquarie staff to incorporate hands-on student ethnographic research projects into their teaching.

Chemistry and biology students get this kind of hands-on research experience in the lab as a matter of course. Yet in the social sciences, where the lab is all around us and consists less of physical equipment than highly developed conceptual tools, paradoxically it is not very common for students to get "out in the field" to do their own ethnographic research. This is because our lab involves humans, and research on human beings requires ethics oversight. But obtaining ethics approval for research projects is a bureaucratic procedure, and like all bureaucratic procedures, it takes time. Yet time is in short supply when you are working within the timeframe of a semester-long class. So this project aimed to find ways to make the ethics oversight process for course-based student research go faster and more smoothly.

This was a two-step process. First, I worked with Macquarie University's Human Research Ethics Committee to find solutions and develop a template for academic staff to use in applying for course-wide ethics approval for student research. I developed a set of ethics applications for student research projects to use in teaching. These are Creative Commons licensed for free use and adaptation.  I also worked with Paul Mason and Kristina Everett to develop a web-based module for teaching field-based research ethics to social science students. This is available at ethics training website and again it is Creative Commons licensed for free nonprofit use and adaptation, so teachers can assign it to their students or use it to create their own lecture slides on research ethics.  In 2009 I received Macquarie University's Vice Chancellor's Award for Teaching Excellence in recognition of this work.

Selected Publications:

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L.L. Wynn. Pyramids and Nightclubs: A Travel Ethnography of Arab and Western Imaginations of Egypt, from King Tut and a Colony of Atlantis to Rumors of Sex Orgies, a Marauding Prince, and Blonde Belly Dancers. Austin: University of Texas Press (November 2007).

preview the chapters:

Pyramids and Nightclubs has been translated into Arabic as "Siyahat
el-Layl wa Siyahat el-Nahar" and published by Dar Cadmus (Beirut, Damascus).See p.44 of Dar Cadmus's catalogue

ANTH-LISA-WYNN-PIC-BOOK2 Angel M. Foster and L.L. Wynn, eds. (2012) Emergency Contraception: 
The Story of a Global Reproductive Health Technology. New York:
Palgrave Macmillan.

Selected articles:

L.L. Wynn, 2012. "United States: A story of activism, sexual archetypes, and the politicization of science."  In Emergency Contraception: The Story of a Global Reproductive Health
, Angel M. Foster and L.L. Wynn, eds.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

L.L. Wynn and Angel M. Foster, 2012. "The birth of a global reproductive health technology: An introduction to the journey of emergency contraception."  In Emergency Contraception: The Story of a Global Reproductive Health Technology, Angel M. Foster and 
L.L. Wynn, eds.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

L.L. Wynn, 2011. "Ethnographers' Experiences of Institutional Ethics Oversight: Results from a Quantitative and Qualitative Survey." Journal of Policy History 23(1): 94-114.

L.L. Wynn, Angel M. Foster, and James Trussell, 2010. "'Would You Say You Had Sex If...?' Sexual Health Language in E-mails to a Reproductive Health Website." Culture, Health and Sexuality 12(5): 499-514.

L.L. Wynn, Angel M. Foster, and James Trussell, 2009. "Misconceptions and Ignorance About Sexual and Reproductive Health." The Female Patient 34(11): 29-32.

L.L. Wynn, 2009.  "Siyahat al-leil wa siyahat al-nahar: `an madha yabhath al-khalijiyoun wal-aurobiyoun fi masr?" [translation: "Tourism by day and tourism by night: What do Gulf Arab and European tourists
seek in Egypt?"]. Sakhr el-Hajj Hussein and Ziad Mouna, translators Wejhat Nadhar120: 24-33.

L.L. Wynn, Angel M. Foster, and James Trussell, 2009. "'Can I Get Pregnant From Oral Sex?' Sexual Health Misconceptions in E-mails to a Reproductive Health Website." Contraception 79(2): 91-97.

L.L. Wynn, 2008. "Marriage Contracts and Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia: Mahr, Shurut, and Knowledge Distribution." The Islamic Marriage Contract, Asifa Quraishi and Frank Vogel, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

L.L. Wynn, 2008. "Shape Shifting Lizard-People, Israelite Slaves, and Other Theories of Pyramid-Building: Notes on Labor, Nationalism, and Archaeology in Egypt." Journal of Social Archaeology 8(2):272-295.

L.L. Wynn, Joanna Erdman, Angel Foster, and James Trussell, 2007. "An Ethics of Accountability in Debates over Access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills in the US and Canada." Studies in Family Planning 38(4):253-267.

L.L. Wynn and James Trussell, 2006. "Images of American Sexuality in Debates over Nonprescription Access to Emergency Contraceptive Pills." Obstetrics and Gynecology 108(5):1272-1276.

L.L. Wynn and James Trussell, 2006. "The Social Life of Emergency Contraception in the United States: Disciplining Pharmaceutical Use, Disciplining Women's Sexuality, and Constructing Zygotic Bodies." Medical Anthropology Quarterly20(3):297-320.

Lisa Wynn and James Trussell, 2005. "The Morning After on the Internet."Contraception 72(1):5-13.

Lisa Wynn, Angel Foster, Aida Rouhana, and James Trussell, 2005. "The Politics of Emergency Contraception in the Arab World: Reflections on Western Assumptions and the Potential Influence of Religious and Social Factors." Harvard Health Policy Review6(1):38-47.

Lisa Wynn. "The Romance of Tahliyya Street: Youth Culture, Commodities and the Use of Public Space in Jiddah." Middle East Report no.204 (Winter 1997), pp.30-31.

[ for a complete list of publications, see Dr Wynn's CV online]

See CV