MORE ABOUT MORE!: THE SEXUAL LANGUAGE OF YOUNG WOMEN'S MAGAZINES

On this page (by David Gauntlett) we consider whether the sexual freedom and assertiveness encouraged by magazines like More (and its sisters, like Cosmopolitan and Glamour) is a good thing for young women - basically, I argue that it is - and then we see what some actual teenagers think about this, via the results of some brand new qualitative research conducted over the internet.

More is a British magazine aimed at older teenagers and twentysomething women, although it is also enjoyed by younger teenagers eager to read a more 'grown up' magazine. International viewers might think of an even more youthful and zesty version of Cosmopolitan, with even more emphasis on sex and enthusiastic discussion of how you can make men submit to your sexual will.

The content of More is a clear-cut positive rejection of the stuffy old conservatism about sexual matters that was around 10 or 20 years ago. It is emphatically post-traditonal - or, indeed, anti-traditional (in terms of its exuberant celebration of female desire). Like other 'girl power' texts, it emphasises that women should be able to get what they want from men, when they want it; that men should not dictate the terms of a relationship; that a woman has the right to look and dress however she likes, for her own pleasure; and that a woman has the right to demand satisfaction in sex, in work, and in every other area of life.

Of course, there are some problems with this recipe. It is emphatically heterosexual (in a way that is not really undermined by the occasional feature on the joys of lesbianism). Some people complain that the magazines reduce women to sex-obsessed predators, and objectify men as 'eye candy' - but this is a blatant reversal of the traditional 'male gaze', and remains powerful politically. Also, like all women's magazines (and to a lesser extent, men's magazines) they may promote an ideal of attractiveness which readers may be unable or unwilling to attain.

Angela McRobbie has argued that feminists should not dismiss magazines such as More out of hand. She admits that such magazines may not exactly reflect feminist ideals, but points out that, as far as many young women are concerned, academic feminism is part of the world of middle-aged authority figures - and we cannot really expect young people to simply 'do what they are told' by the establishment. Nevertheless, McRobbie says that 'feminism exists as a productive tension' in the magazines. More and Cosmo do promote the kinds of confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness that feminism was always calling for: woman are encouraged to know their own bodies and their needs, to articulate what they want, and to make well-informed decisions based on their own interests and desires, and not what other people want them to do. As I say in Media, Gender and Identity (2002):

In the magazines for older teenagers and young women, the encouragement of women to be sexual actors - even predators - rather than sexual objects or victims, reflects a 'feminist' turning of the tables. Feminists never really suggested that having sex with lots of men was a goal in itself, but the rejection of passive femininity, and the freedom to openly desire others, is feminist progress.

So that's one view, but really we need to check it out by talking to actual teenagers. To that end, I spent a lot of time on internet message boards for teenagers, such as Teenfront.co.uk, sending messages and emails to young people from the UK and further afield. (Being a 30 year old man hanging out on teen websites for research purposes raises ethical concerns, of course - I was always careful to say who I was, what I was doing, and reminding teenagers not to disclose their address or other personal details to anyone on the net).

Most of the young women liked More's openness about sexual matters:

I get every issue of More magazine and I think it is good that they talk about sex in the way that they do. I think that More is aimed at people in their late teens (e.g. 15/16 to early twenties or older) so the majority of these people are probably sexually active and the information they give you is good for these types of people. I am 16 and have been getting More for about a year now, before that I got Bliss magazine but I felt that I was growing out of it a bit. I still buy other mags too though like Bliss and J17. I personally think that if someone is reading More magazine and their parents are not happy with the content, they should not let them buy More magazine. But I think that More has a lot of information to offer about sex, and young people need educating about the facts, the more information you have the more you are going to know. Magazines are another source of information. My mum said she did disapprove at first of me reading More magazine because of the men on the centre pages and the sex position of the fortnight etc, but she was just finding it hard to believe that I was growing up - she still let me read it though. I don't think my mum has any problem with me reading it now though. So basically I think that More is good for the right age group.

(Sarah, age 16, UK)

I think they should have a bit about sex in them, because some people don't know properly about sex and stuff, but are too embarrassed to ask at home about it, but if they see it in a mag it might help them a bit... But if there's too much it does get boring.

(Angie, 16, UK)

I think it's good that magazines discuss sex... I'm 17, and I think it would be unrealistic to expect a magazine aimed at my age group not to discuss sex, as it's already 'part of our lives' if you know what I mean. Personally, I think that sex being discussed in magazines makes me feel more confident, as the stuff you read in magazines is probably more reliable that the stuff people tell you, and so, if you know facts about getting pregnant or whatever, you are more likely to make 'informed choices' about sex etc.

(Clare, 17, UK)

Some responses made direct and indirect reference to changing gender roles and historical taboos:

I agree that with magazines discussing sex help us teens realise not only that we have to be careful, but I think it has made me more confident. With girl power and all, it has changed the roles a lot - not long ago the men were the bread winners and the women stayed at home looking after the children. Now it has all changed, a lot of women are the main money bringers, which would have seemed odd, back then.

(Charlie, 16, UK)

It's good that magazines write about sex and boys. You learn so much, and it's pretty interesting too. Boys are still ahead of us girls with lust and stuff. If a girl has sex with some guys, people call her a slut, and if a boy does the same thing people consider him cool. It's not totally equal, yet. But I hope it will be some day. In relationships it's more equal, I guess. I think it's great that magazines brings the 'girl power-message'. It makes you feel more confident, and it helps you 2 stand up for your rights as a girl!

(Camilla, 13, Sweden)

I reckon its great about equality, that something I feel strongly about everyone should be equal. however, I do think that sex is still a bit of a taboo subject hence all the teenage pregnancies. I think nowadays it is more open but not completely. in relationships girls are being the more dominant role and I reckon thats great we should all have a chance, but I think it tends to be the boys with the more dominant role.

(Kate, 16, UK)

This woman was supportive of sex coverage in general, so that readers would be well informed, but raised concerns about the tone of the writing:

I think it's good that sex can be discussed in magazines as other types of media are a lot less willing to do it. However, More is slightly worrying as it focuses on the sex itself rather than the emotion, like younger mags (e.g. J17), and it only carries a small thing at the bottom of the page about contraception. If we've got one of the highest pregnancy rates then why aren't mags constantly promoting 'safe' rather than 'fun' sex? Kids need to be clued up and with the prudish society we live in, mags are sometimes the easiest way to get it. As long as the content is aimed at the audience and is informative, I see no problem whatsoever. In my opinion, if parents aren't willing to talk openly to their children about sex then they're in no position to criticise mags that give them the information they need.

(Jane, 17, UK)

Others were less certain that a lot of material about sex was a good idea:

I think that you should have not too much about sex, but you should have some of it but just the right amount, as if there's too much it gets really boring.

(Holly, 15, UK)

And some found the repetitive emphasis on sex rather oppressive:

I'm a virgin and don't really understand what the point in underage sex is to be honest! I think I'd want to have sex when I'm settled with someone I love, not just to lose my virginity. ... I think mags inform people about safe sex and I agree that all these 'Sleeping with my best mate's boyfriend' stories are quite funny.

(Claire, 14, UK)

More! is not really a 'teenage' magazine of the same category as stuff like Bliss, Sugar, J17 etc. I'm 17, and so technically still a teenager, and it's one of the ones we most read now. Some of my friends actually keep the 'position of the fortnight' bits, either for current use with their boyfriends, or for future ideas! I think it aims to make women feel more powerful about sex, like they're in control etc, which is a good thing. As a 17 year old who is still a virgin, however, I do sometimes get a bit depressed by it. I find the 'younger' mags I've mentioned before too immature for me, but reading about all these people and their various romps does sometimes make me think 'what's wrong with me, why aren't I doing this?' The paradox is that I tell myself I'm happy being a virgin, that in the end it'll be worth it, and anyway, it's not like there's been any great opportunity for me to lose it. But sometimes it seems to be implying that what goes on in their stories etc is 'normal' and a positive thing to be encouraging, and that those of us who aren't doing it are missing out. The publishers will probably argue that it isn't aimed at our age group, it's meant for a bit older, but everyone reads it, and so is influenced by it.

(Helenia, 17, UK)

I'm 14 and even though I don't often read magazines like that, when I do I find it annoying. It seems to put pressure on teens to have sex, which I think is stupid.

(Louise, 14, UK)

Overall, then, teenagers were well able to think critically about the magazines. Although some young and not-quite-so-young readers found the repeated sex themes to be rather claustrophobic, most readers recognised that they were useful in information terms, and also somewhat empowering, particularly when considered in contrast with gender roles and attitudes of the past.

Of course, it could be argued that teenagers themselves are not best qualified to say what they should and should not be reading - shouldn't that be left to psychologists, teachers, politicians, social scientists? Well, maybe these authority figures can make a contribution, but we have seen (here and elsewhere) that young people are relatively cautious and sensible about their media choices - even surprisingly conservative at times.

The self-assured 'girl power' messages of magazines like More give young women a language of empowerment and self-fulfillment which is a vibrant element to stir into the mix of influences that teenagers face every day. This only makes sense within certain limits, of course - sexual power is not the same as power in other arenas, such as the workplace, and an emphasis on sexuality is often (though not necessarily) linked to certain notions of glamour and beauty. Nevertheless, the positive, confident message of magazines like More is surely a refreshing change from the subservient feminine lifestyle models of the past.


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