SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, is a recognized leader in the field of sexuality education. Its Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education is a trusted resource for educators, and it delineates the behaviors indicative of a sexually healthy adult. One of these behaviors is “Seek new information to enhance one’s sexuality.”[i] Once out of school though, where do young adults find the information to enhance their sexuality? The Internet immediately comes to mind as well as the self-help section of bookstores and libraries. Another source - too often overlooked – is magazines, the primary source of sexual enhancement information for millions of people.
The magazines I’m referring to are not pornographic and hardcore periodicals but rather the ubiquitous titles for women (e.g., Cosmopolitan; Self; and Glamour) and men (e.g., Maxim and Men’s Health) found in grocery checkouts, above the candy display, on magazine racks in aisle five of the pharmacy and in the waiting rooms of health professionals. Some recent covers promise “superhuman sex,” “incredible climaxes,” and tips for “hot summer sex.” Research throughout the past decade has found that it is a rare issue of such magazines that doesn’t offer some type of “sex tip,” either explicitly or implicitly. How meaningful though are these tips for improved sex?
A 2003 analysis of the content of magazines targeting men found several common – and dubious – themes regarding improving their sex life, including:
- “The more sex and sexual partners a man has, the better. A good portion of the advice was aimed at helping men get more sex.
- Please your partner. Men were given lots of advice on how to please their partners so that the women would then give them more sex.
- Intoxication makes sexual conquest better.
- Relationships are unnecessary. There were numerous articles or poll reports that labeled men who are married or in monogamous relationships as pitiful.
- Kinky or unusual sex is better than conventional sex. A common topic in articles concerned unusual sexual positions or locations.
- The appearance of sincerity is more important than actual sincerity. Advice about picking up women commonly included instructions on how to pretend to be sincere.
- Vulnerable women are easier targets. Men who have trouble getting regular sex were advised to find either single women with children (who are portrayed as desperate) or women who have just ended relationships.
- Strip clubs, pornography, and other sexual entertainment are important cultural phenomena in which to participate.”[ii]
A 2005 study of magazines for men carefully pointed out that discussions of responsible sex were absent. “[T]here were no articles focused on alternative sexualities (gay men, lesbians) whatsoever. There was also an absence of any articles focused on risks associated with pregnancy (pregnancy, abortion, STDs, HIV/AIDS) or the prevention of those risks (safe sex, vasectomy, condoms). The sole article focused on sexual health consisted entirely of trivia that pertained to sexual functioning and health, such as the effect of zinc on sperm motility and reasons used to justify circumcision.”[iii]
An even more recent analysis found five common themes, the most predominate being improving “technique” by either adding new sexual techniques or modifying familiar sexual techniques. The researchers concluded these periodicals “promoted sexual and gender-role stereotypes, enforced narrow sexual scripts and presented contradictory messages to readers.” [iv]
A decade of research has found that periodicals promising sex tips and “guaranteed ways to improve sex” offer a strikingly similar litany of suggestions of questionable value. The articles might make enjoyable reading, but their advice isn’t necessarily trustworthy. As one study of magazines targeting males concluded, “Clearly, a few topics overwhelmingly dominate articles about sex in American lad magazines. If young men are using these magazines as sources of sex education, they are learning about a very limited range of topics.”[v]
[i] Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education (New York: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 2004): 17.
[ii] Nicole R. Krassas, Joan M. Blauwkamp & Peggy Wesselink, ““Master Your Johnson”: Sexual Rhetoric in Maxim and Stuff Magazines,” Sexuality & Culture 7, no. 3 (2003): 114.
[iii] Laramie D. Taylor, "“All for Him”: Articles About Sex in American Lad Magazines,” Sex Roles 52, nos. 3/4 (February 2005): 159.
[iv] A. Dana Me´nard & Peggy J. Kleinplatz, “Twenty-one Moves Guaranteed to Make his Thighs Go Up in Flames: Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines,” Sexuality and Culture 12, no. 1 (2008): 16.
[v] Taylor, All for Him: 159.