Love & Sex

How Magazines Change the Way You Think About Sex

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Don’t believe everything you read. “Remove the attachment so it’s just a plain hose. While you’re wearing your underwear, have him turn it on low and hold it over your clitoris for a sexy sucking sensation. If the sensation is too much (or your vacuum has serious sucking power), have him hold it an inch above your underwear.” This is a very real tip from Cosmopolitan magazine advising women to bring a vacuum cleaner into the bedroom. And then put that vacuum attachment very near to their sensitive, precious genitals. This isn’t unheard of for a mainstream lifestyle magazine (in fact, Nerve started its Ridiculous Tips column in 2010 to highlight that trend), but magazine fodder just like these sex tips could be less innocuous than you expect.

A new study from Washington State University suggests that our favorite glossy magazines might change the way we think about sex, particularly consent. In a survey of university freshmen, students were asked how often they browse through men’s magazines (Playboy, Hustler, Maxim) and how often they pick up women’s magazines (Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire). They were then given 11 statements about their sexual behavior and rated how much they agreed or disagreed on a seven point scale. The survey asked probing questions like whether the subject felt comfortable turning down someone’s sexual advances or would help in the case of witnessing a sexual assault. The results were sort of surprising: men who read the most lad mags were less likely to seek sexual consent and women who read lady mags felt more empowered to say, “no” if a time came when they didn’t want to have sex and were propositioned.

A part of the reason for this might be because when men and women learn the majority of the their dating and sex “scripts” from magazines, they also miss out on a lot of real life tactics — tactics like pleasing someone, approaching someone, and of course, knowing boundaries. 5 Superb Polo Shirts and Sexy Pregnant Pics are entertaining topics, but they also directly relate to the sex and dating lives of, well, maybe not everyone. According to Stacey J.T. Hust, lead researcher for the study, the results could be explained by the fact that “magazine articles that focus on improving the reader’s sex life often convey messages that create a false impression about sexual consent negotiations.” Not all clits are ready to be rubbed with everyday appliances, not all penises need scrunchies around them, and not all women want to be talked down to. When we think of lifestyle magazines as purely prescriptive, and not actually sources of entertainment (which they are), they begin to take on a larger cultural impact.

But media doesn’t happen in a vacuum (unlike some Cosmo reader’s orgasms). When it comes to big-bad culture’s impact on real life sex, there seems to be an unholy trinity of influences we like to always blame: video games, porn, movies. Adding magazines to that stack seems like a keen move (also, the internet, please), but we also need to address why. Sure, Maxim and Playboy are full of plenty of nude limbs and buoyant breasts, and that definitely impacts how men conceive of the female body, but the “Ultimate Guy’s Guide”s (Maxim‘s tagline, not mine) also contribute to our idea of the heterosexual male and what he should be doing. And, invariably, what he “should” be doing often comes across as getting laid. That’s a big problem.

Previous studies have defined pretty thoroughly how magazines negatively impact women’s body image, but this is the first to examine how sex in magazines effects all of our conceptions of what should and should not go down in the bedroom. So, maybe at the end of the day a Cosmo or a Men’s Health is just a guilty pleasure bathroom read, maybe its a social menace, or it could be the empowering tool for change the study fashions women’s mags to be. For now, we still have those kitchen appliances to rely on.

Image via Flickr.