Women’s magazines are a popular site for analysis of socio-cultural messages about gender, sex, and sexuality. We analyzed six consecutive issues of Cosmopolitan and Cleo to identify the ways in which they construct and represent male and female sexuality. Overall, male sexuality was prioritised, ‘real’ heterosex was depicted as penetrative, and orgasm was given precedence. Two main accounts of male and female sexuality were identified. Men’s need for (great) sex positioned men as easily aroused and sexually satisfied, but women as needing to develop ‘great’ sexual skills to keep their men from ‘straying.’ Accounts of pleasure, performance, and the male ego represented men as concerned about women’s pleasure, about their own sexual performance and as sensitive about suggested sexual ‘inadequacies.’ We discuss the implications of these constructions for women’s gendered (sexual) subjectivity, sexual practices, and identities.
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The focus of this article is women’s magazines, but it is important to note that analyses of a particular genre of adolescent girls’ magazines (such as Teen, Seventeen), which have also been studied for over three decades (e.g., Carpenter, 1998; Duke & Kreshel, 1998; Frazer, 1987; Kehily, 1999; McRobbie, 1978; Schlenker, Caron, & Halteman, 1998; Willemsen, 1998), have yielded similar findings, such as a relentless focus on boys, fashion, and beauty (Duke & Kreshel, 1998; Willemsen, 1998). One difference is that these magazines tend to promote an ‘emphasised femininity’ (Kaplan & Cole, 2003) and to focus on attracting boys’ attention (often through one’s looks) and how to get a boyfriend (Wray & Steele, 2002). Women’s magazines, in contrast, tend to be more explicitly about sex (McMahon, 1990), albeit often framed within the context of a (monogamous) relationship. It would seem that adolescents’ magazines teach girls how to become heterosexually ‘feminine,’ and women’s magazines advise on how femininity should be moulded, sexualised, and practiced as one gets older. So women’s and adolescent girls’ magazines are somewhat distinct in prioritising different aspects of heterosexuality, which are related to the target age groups of the magazines’ consumers but operate within a similar ideological framework.
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We thank members of the psychology department’s Gender and Critical Psychology Group and two anonymous reviewers for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper.
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Farvid, P., Braun, V. ‘Most of Us Guys are Raring to Go Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’: Male and Female Sexuality in Cleo and Cosmo . Sex Roles 55, 295–310 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9084-1