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What Happens To Women When They Read About Sex?

Mommy, what’s an orgasm?” I have no actual proof that this question has ever been asked in the supermarket checkout line, but I find it hard to believe that some literate child has not been educated by a certain women’s magazine (you know, the one that promises you a guide to your most mind-blowing climaxes along with a guide to this season’s shoe trends)

Inappropriate eyes aside, racy content in mainstream magazines is a primary source of sexual info for its intended adult audience. So when researchers set out to explore the effects of reading sexually explicit magazine content on women’s sexual attitudes, they knew just where to turn. Since its takeover by the recently departed Helen Gurley Brown in 1969, Cosmopolitan has defined itself as a vehicle for female  sexual empowerment.

So, is it working?

That depends on what you consider empowering.

The study, conducted at a Midwestern university, compared women who read Cosmo with women reading a magazine with similar audience appeal but no explicitly sexual content (Entertainment Weekly was used for the control group).  They found that the women who read Cosmopolitan were more likely to prioritize their own sexual pleasure, as well as their partners. They were also less likely to consider premarital sex risky behavior.

The study’s authors suggested that this might be a negative factor in the women’s health and safety. There were a lot of questions about whether the women were internalizing the magazine’s narratives, which tend to focus on the glamour rather than the less-fun realities of what sex can bring. But there was nothing in the study indicating they asked questions about the specifics of the sexual behavior, ie protected vs. unprotected sex. Maybe these women, who are more educated about and interested in sex are also more educated about birth and STD control. Maybe they viewed sex as a less risky behavior because they were comfortable with the steps they need to take to protect themselves. Does sex need to be viewed as risky in order for a woman to know to take precautions against disease and/or unwanted pregnancy?

There was also no assessment of whether these attitudes correlated to actual behaviors. In other words, these women might be thinking more about their own pleasure, but it doesn’t mean they were actually doing anything about it.

Sex clearly comes with risks, but I have real problems with the idea that risk is what sex is about. If you’re lucky enough to even have sex ed as a part of your education, the chances are that you’ll be learning more about how not to let sex ruin your life than how sex can be a more enjoyable part of it.  The women reading Cosmo are probably emerging from girlhood without any clue about what’s in it for them.

So it’s not really surprising that when they finally get access to something that actually tells them that sex is fun, it changes their attitudes. I’d love to know whether it also changes their behaviors, both in terms of prioritizing their pleasure, and protecting themselves.

On another note: In a culture where marriage seems to be decreasingly the default, Why are we still calling it “premarital” sex?

photo: Daniel Oines/flickr

 

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