Photographed By Lauren Perlstein.
We know our perceptions of sexual behavior are shaped from an early age, and we tend to credit/blame the obvious influencers: Porn, video games, and TV shows such as Sex and the City and Girls all provide explicit, yet carefully constructed, images of sex and sexuality. But, a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research suggests that print magazines also play a significant role in how young people think about sexual behavior and consent.
The study involved an ethnically diverse sample of 313 college freshmen at a large university. The students participated in an online survey about how often they read women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, as well as men's magazines like Playboy, Men's Health, and Maxim. Participants were given 11 statements on sexual behavior and rated how much they agreed or disagreed with each on a seven-point scale. For example, one statement gauged whether respondents "would feel confident refusing someone’s sexual advances," while another asked whether subjects "would stop and ask if everything is okay" if their partner(s) didn't respond to their sexual advances.
The results found that the magazines played key roles in the students' thoughts on sexual behavior. In particular, the authors note that "exposure to the dominant heterosexual scripts in men’s magazines is negatively associated with consent negotiation intentions." Put simply, reading men's magazines made male students more likely to have a shaky relationship with the concept of consent. Those students were more likely to disagree with statements like "I would always stop the first time my date says ‘no’ to sexual activity." For women, perhaps unsurprisingly, the effect was reversed. Those who regularly consumed women's magazines were more likely to agree with statements like "I would not give in to pressure — either verbal or physical — to have sex," suggesting a higher level of empowerment to refuse unwanted sexual contact.
Of course, there's a lot to unpack here, and many questions that need answering. For example, what exactly in men's mags contributes to a greater disregard for the concept of "No means no"? While many of the publications cited in the study contain at least some sexually explicit imagery, the study's authors point to a general construction of heterosexual masculinity that makes men feel pressured to have sex, regardless of the consequences. There's no mention in the study of how Internet media feeds these results, but one quick stroll through Reddit suggests the magazines' effects (both positive and negative) are easily magnified online due to the sheer number of voices. But, that's a problem for another study. For now, rest assured: That Cosmo on your coffee table may be more empowering than you think.