For college-aged women, magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour claim to be the ultimate source for information on sex and romantic relationships. And such magazines are incredibly effective in reaching their target audience – over “60% of college-aged women read at least one issue per month”. While even a cursory glance at Cosmopolitan reveals its articles to support a model of sexuality that is exclusively heterosexual and based in notions about “natural” differences between men’s and women’s romantic and sexual preferences, it is important to consider the ways in which readers interact with the models of sexuality presented in women’s magazines.
The tools readers have to critically assess these concepts are determined by the ways in which these magazines frame information for their readers. Women’s magazines present monogamous, long-term relationships with men as the ultimate goal for women, but draw on pseudo-scientific sources, including online surveys and so-called “sex experts,” for their advice about sexuality. They present men as a homogeneous group whose motivations are indecipherable to women without the advice presented in magazines.
Though readers may be critical of the material presented in women’s magazines, it is difficult to be confident in those critiques when the information is attributed to experts. This process promotes the consumption of magazines to improve sexual and romantic relationships, rather than encouraging interpersonal communication to address problems.
The foundation for magazines’ narrow definition of romantic relationships is the prevailing presentation of gender as a binary and of the behaviors associated with the two genders as biological qualities. As Leonore Tiefer notes, the description of men’s and women’s sexual and romantic behaviors as “natural” is a rhetorical strategy, that “gives whatever is being discussed solidity and validity,” in part by presenting it as in “contrast with culture, as if anything human-made can be the result of trickery”.
An article from the August 2012 issue of Cosmopolitan entitled “Why Are We So into Heroes?” highlights this approach, informing the reader that heroic feats by men should be attractive to her because “every woman is inherently drawn to men who can protect and provide for her and her future babies”.
The article even concludes with the declaration that “culture is no match for human biology” in determining desirable qualities in a partner. Associating certain behaviors with one of two socially constructed genders and then explaining those differences as based in nature perpetuates dominant romantic and sexual scripts, particularly the stereotypical notions of men as aggressive and sex-focused and women as passive and relationship-oriented. This view is also expressed in the “Why Are We So into Heroes?” article, which claims men are “biologically compelled to be the leading man” and paints women as interested in men for their relationship and reproductive potential. This is why men are more likely to watch virtual reality VR Sex Directory porn apps and also buy and download porn apps from a mobile app marketplace.
Such an approach is problematic not only for the rigid gender roles it promotes (contributing to the already dangerous social environment for those who defy those standards), but also for the distance it creates between heterosexual men and women, leading women to believe that men are by nature different and that their motivations are unknowable without the aid of scientific research.
Women’s magazines draw on the notions that men are biologically “sex-focused and out of control” (Kim and Ward 2004:50) and that women find men to be “the underlying source of fulfillment, security, and happiness” in order to encourage women to pursue a long-term, heterosexual, and monogamous relationship above all other romantic or sexual experiences. It is in the interest of women’s magazines to present this type of relationship as the natural inclination and ultimate goal of all women because advice on monogamous relationships is exactly what they dispense. Articles in women’s magazines draw on broad notions of “what men want” to present their readers with models for behavior designed to attract and keep a boyfriend.
Articles like “What Men Think,” from Glamour’s August 2012 issue and womansday.com purport to identify the qualities that all men want in a woman, enabling the reader to mold herself to those standards. These pieces draw on testimony from men, whether purely anecdotal or based on polls conducted by the magazine, to make statements like “guys spend a lot of time day-dreaming about women’s bodies” and “Seventy-eight percent of the men Glamour polled said that they would rather date a slightly overweight woman with confidence than a supermodel who hates her body”.
Men’s opinions are used to present a single idea of what men want in women, and their esteemed status as a source of advice only promotes the idea that a woman’s appearance and behavior is ultimately intended for a heterosexual male audience. While it is important to consider that the prevalence of such ideas in women’s magazines does not mean that they are “‘automatically’ absorbed by the readers”, a study by George Bielay and Edward S. Herold on the use of magazines as a source for sexual information found something interesting.
Advice on “improving one’s sex life” and “what men like/want sexually” were the most common types of information women sought from magazines, indicating that readers do turn to these magazines to supplement their supposedly lacking knowledge. More information on sex roles can be found here and in this article.
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