Valentine's Day. The words evoke romance, tenderness, cards, candy, and flowers.
|Given that the media often turn to the subject of love at this time of year, the Media Research Center's Culture and Media Institute decided to find out what women's magazines are writing about in their February issues.
The answer is, pretty much what you'd expect -- from Playboy. In 11 of the top-selling monthly women's magazines, with a combined circulation of more than 30 million, messages about S-E-X outnumber messages about love and romance more than 2-to-1.
Typical topics: Who's doing what, where and how many times a week? What do you do if you arent getting it? How do you make what you are getting even better? In a few cases, the sex is in the context of marriage, but for the most part it's sex for sex's sake. In some top magazines sex is described so graphically that if it were portrayed visually it would be labeled porn and relegated to shops selling adult entertainment.
The top seller is the mostly decent Good Housekeeping with more than 4.5 million readers. Porn-laced Cosmo regularly warps the minds of more than three million readers a month, while 3.3 million teens get their values influenced by CosmoGirl! and Seventeen.
A Brief History of Valentine's Day
According to tradition, the holiday began as a Roman fertility feast that the church Christianized to honor the martyrdom of St. Valentine. Valentine, a priest, joined couples in defiance of Roman emperor Claudius II's edict prohibiting marriage. The legend claims that Valentine himself sent the first Valentine greeting to a young girl, perhaps his jailor's daughter, signing it "from your Valentine." Valentines for centuries have been written expressions of love, the oldest known surviving example being a poem written by Charles, Duke of Orleans, in 1415 while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Esther Howland is credited with producing the first commercial Valentine cards in the 1840s.
The Culture and Media Institute analyzed the treatment of love, romance, relationships, marriage and intimacy in the February, 2007 issues of Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Woman's Day, O, InStyle, Redbook, Glamour, Shape, CosmoGirl! and Seventeen. CMI found that the covers of every magazine except Woman's Day and Family Circle magazines -- available at grocery checkout lanes nationwide, right at eye level of children who can read -- trumpet teaser headlines about sex or love.
Regarding featured products, the women's magazines do an adequate job of offering romantic Valentine-specific items. Specialty note papers, flowers, jewelry, food products and recipes lead the list. Some magazines, however, plunge into the sexual gratification abyss. Redbook, for instance, features a giveaway of $2,000 worth of sex toys, including a vibrator.
The stories, columns and features, however, are not so romantic. Overwhelmingly, by more than a two to one margin, the predominant themes in these categories are sex ("Good Sex for Life"), physical expressions of affection ("What Makes a Great Kiss") and appearance related to sex ("Look and Feel Your Hottest"). Two magazines, O and Good Housekeeping, present their relationship features under the heading of marriage. The Good Housekeeping feature is titillating without being graphic, but is all about sex, while the feature in O is about improving marriage without talking. The art accompanying that story shows female frontal nudity.
Woman's Day mentions husbands specifically when it deals with romance. Family Circle's relationship article is about lies told in marriage. Another column addresses a single mom who says she can't "expect to live chastely." InStyle's hat tip to Valentine's Day includes a spread on "The Year's Best Celebrity Weddings."
Redbook occasionally mentions husbands when discussing intimacy, and Shape refers to committed couples. Glamour and Cosmopolitan just talk about sex. Glamour also runs a feature article on virginity, entitled "Would You Pledge Your Virginity to Your Father?" but the piece reads like a feminist condemnation of anyone who would dare keep herself or himself pure until marriage.
CosmoGirl! carries a special report titled "I was a Sex Slave," four references to lesbian relationships, and a story titled, "The New Dating Rules, Forget Your Mom's Romance Advice." There is also an explicit column titled "Conquer your Gyno-Phobia" including the following blurb: "Didja Know: Sexual health experts recommend that you have your first gyno visit by the time you're 15 or when you become sexually active, whichever comes first." CosmoGirl! advertises a selection of "Hot Guy Valentine Cards" featuring shirtless male models in jeans with exposed underwear waistbands.
Seventeen includes features on the L-bomb ("Saying I love you is major here's how to do it right"), making your love last, how to give a great massage, "How to Get an Ex Back" based on his horoscope sign, and the dangers of online love.
Without a doubt Cosmopolitan carries the most sexually graphic, salacious and pornographic content of all the magazines studied. In fact, if Cosmo's February relationship and sex-oriented stories were put on video, they would be slapped with a XXX rating. Yet Cosmopolitan remains on or near the top of the list in single copy and subscription sales, and it's sold at every grocery store in America, right next to the bubble gum and candy.
|Women regularly lament that as a group they are objectified by men. Ironically, magazines written for women feed that very fire. A parade of headlines like "Flaunt Your Booty," "Perfect Your Pout," and "What Guys Really Want" constantly reinforce the message that women are mere sexual objects, and that all that matters is looks and sexual aptitude.
Regular consumers of women's magazines will not find all of this particularly surprising. But when issue after issue, title after title bombard women with sexual messages, the question becomes: what are the broader societal implications of this incessant drumbeat for sexual satisfaction?
Women in particular are targeted with the anything goes sexual messages in magazines. Considering that the hand that rocks the cradle shapes the moral and spiritual foundation of future generations, the magazine consumption of today's women and teen-age girls is a very serious concern. In an age where divorce rates hover in the 50 percent range, cohabitation rates are high and even sex among teenagers is not universally condemned any more, the media's continual force-feeding of a laissez-faire sexual ethic has to be considered a contributing factor to the decline in public moral standards.
Any objective look at American culture reveals an increasing sexualization. It's everywhere, and it starts early. Franchises like Club Libby Lu offer dress up parties for little girls with toddlers parading around in tube tops and glitter. Teen television dramas like One Tree Hill regularly feature minors having sex. MTV spews forth a constant geyser of sexually charged music videos. Partial nudity makes its way into PG-13 movies, and television dramas are little more than a constant parade of sexual explicitness. Cable television programs like F/X's Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck are lurching into rape, necrophilia, sado-masochism and other edgy sexual themes.
Cultural corrosion of sexual mores has profound consequences. In a fascinating book called Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, Dr. Miriam Grossman details the real cost of this sex obsession and doctrine of sex without consequences. Depression, suicide, eating disorders and millions of cases of sexually transmitted diseases -- these are the real and unreported prices often associated with early, casual and frequent sexual activity.
Depression and eating disorders don't tease as well on magazine covers as titillating snippets like "The Sex He'll Die For." Neither do stories about the growing purity and chastity movement launched by young conservative women. Would Cosmo or Glamour run profiles on the Anscombe Society, a student group at Princeton University that held a conference this month to discuss, among other things, abstinence until marriage? Not likely.
It confounds the mind that society wholeheartedly embraces educating children about the perils of drug use and smoking but can't agree to teach sexual abstinence. Schools will instruct middle-school students how to put a condom on a cucumber but won't tell them, as Dr. Grossman points out, that their bodies are more vulnerable to disease when they're younger, so delaying sexual activity is sound medical advice regardless of one's moral views.
No, sex is what sells at least in the minds of magazine editors. But is that what women really want? The Feb. 13th issue of Woman's Day includes a reader poll finding that what most women (56 percent) really want is a love letter from their Valentine. If the editors of these women's magazines truly care about what women really want they'd pay attention to that statistic. The drumbeat for sexual satisfaction seems to be less important to women than an expression of real love and tender feelings through something as simple and old-fashioned as a love letter. Which was, after all, the original Valentine.
Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Media Research Centers Culture and Media Institute (www.cultureandmediainstitute.org).