Study: How Reading Cosmo Affects Perceptions of Sex

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Does "advice on packing in pleasure when doing the deed full speed" actually influence our overall perspective?

cosmomain.jpgHearst

PROBLEM: As we evaluate and re-evaluate the sexual liberation and empowerment of young women, the effects of media on shaping sexual culture and the women who participate in it (often in conflicting ways) warrants close attention. The authors of this study used priming theory, a measure of the short-term psychological effects of exposure to particular ideas and attitudes, to posit that reading sex-positive magazine content might lead women to respond more favorably to such assertions. These messages, they suggest, could perhaps temporarily override women's innate or culturally-determined personal beliefs.

METHODOLOGY: The experimental groups in the study read articles like "How to Make Fast Sex Fab" and "10 Sizzling Secrets of Women Who Love Sex" in Cosmopolitan, while the control groups were given sexually neutral content from Entertainment Weekly. With the exception of a few women who identified as bisexual, nearly all of the 160 female undergrads who took part in the experiment were straight, and 60 percent were sexually experienced. In order to create situations that mimic real-life media exposure while still ensuring that the women were exposed to the sexual content, the women were first asked to read through the magazines as they would if they were in a waiting room or at a friend's house, and were then given photocopies of four articles to read in their entirety. Immediately following this, the participants filled out surveys meant to evaluate gender ideology and sexual attitudes, along with their general media use and sexual experiences.

RESULTS: The women's post-Cosmo attitudes, along with the relationship between their attitudes, their previous sexual experience, and the frequency with which they normally read women's magazines, were evaluated along the lines of three common themes covered by the magazine and others like it:

  • Is sex risky or recreational? The short-term exposure to sexually-explicit magazine articles did not affect women's attitudes about sex being recreational, but it did make them significantly less likely to believe that sex leads to negative consequences. Researchers also noted that women with greater sexual experience who read Cosmo and other magazines of its ilk tended to be more supportive of the idea that sex is recreational. Frequent readers were less likely to believe that premarital sex is a particularly risky activity, while non-white women were more likely to say that sex is risky.

  • Should women be submissive and alluring to men? Reading articles that promoted women using their appearance to passively attract men affected the subject's attitudes in a different way than expected. Those who read women's magazines more frequently were actually less likely to endorse a submissive/alluring female sexual role immediately after reading the Cosmo articles, while the opposite occurred after women who were less familiar with such content were exposed to it.
  • Should women assert themselves and pursue their own pleasure during sex? Here, women who read Cosmo right before taking the survey were, in fact, more likely to believe that women should be sexually assertive for the sake of their own pleasure, but there was no effect on the belief that being sexually assertive is a way of satisfying male partners. Women of color were, in general, less supportive of this attitude, while more frequent readers endorsed it more heartily.

CONCLUSION: The messages propagated by magazines like Cosmo can "potentially have both empowering and problematic effects on women's developing sexual identities," conclude the authors. This mixed-bag of positive and negative outcomes can be seen most clearly in the way that women who read Cosmo were more supportive of sexual assertiveness and the prioritization of personal pleasure in women, but simultaneously seemed less concerned by the risks of sexual behavior. While the short-terms effects of reading this material were not as salient as the authors expected, they did find that those who reported reading women's magazines more frequently were generally more accepting of the attitudes commonly endorsed by the media. Despite this, the women's social position and personal experiences were not negligible, and in fact played a strong role in how the magazine's messages were absorbed by the subjects.

IMPLICATIONS: The authors suggest that these results are best received with "cautious optimism": it's great that the media may be helping women believe that they are entitled to sexual satisfaction, but not so great that they may be encouraged to pursue pleasure at the expense of taking reasonable precautions against the risks associated with promiscuity. There will probably be some disagreement over whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that messages focused on pleasuring one's male partner in order to keep from losing him don't seem to be getting through.

This study mainly measured short-term changes in attitude and as such cannot speak to the extent that these beliefs may become entrenched in female consumers, nor was it able to determine whether the subjects were capable of putting their stated sex-positive attitudes into practice. But it demonstrated a direct and causal link between young women's attitudes about sex and their exposure to the magazines that promote them -- exposure that, today, is near-constant and arguably unavoidable.

The full study, "Striving for Pleasure Without Fear: Short-Term Effects of Reading a Women's Magazine on Women's Sexual Attitudes," was published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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