All for him: articles about sex in American lad magazines

All for him: articles about sex in American lad magazinesIn May of 2003, Wal-Mart elected to cease the sale of three popular magazines--Maxim, Stuff, and FHM: For Him Magazine. In justifying this decision, they cited customer complaints about the magazines' depictions of scantily clad women on their covers (Carr & Hays, 2003). By banning these three titles, they effectively banned an entire genre of magazines, one that is relatively new to the United States--the lad magazine. Targeted at young men, these magazines are known for being "salacious but not pornographic" and for their "bawdy" humor (Carr, 2003). Given the popularity of the magazines in this new genre, as well as their overtly sexual content, it is possible, even likely, that they may play a role in teaching their young male readers about sex. In the present study, content analysis was used to explore what is being taught.

Current theories of sexuality emphasize that sexual behavior is, to a large extent, learned (Conrad & Milburn, 2001; DeBlasio & Benda, 1990; DeLameter, 1987; Levant, 1997). Although certain aspects of sexuality are physiological, the question of what is considered arousing, what behaviors and which partners are appropriate, when and in what contexts sexual behaviors can be carried out, and what are the emotional, social, and psychological meanings of these various factors are must be learned.

The answers to the questions about sex posed above often differ based on one's gender. Numerous scholars have observed these differences, which seem to emphasize different roles and priorities for men and women in sexual encounters. Men are generally expected to be assertive seekers of sex and to value sexual frequency and variety; women, on the other hand, are expected to be sexual gatekeepers, recipients of men's attention, and to value sex only as part of committed romantic relationships, if then (DeLameter, 1987; Fine, 1988; Holland, Ramanzanoglu, Sharpe, & Thomson, 2000; Levant, 1997; Phillips, 2000). Empirical evidence indicates that these expectations are often realized, as differences between men's and women's sexual behaviors, attitudes, and reactions to sexual stimuli, where observed, tend to be consistent with stereotypical expectations (Andersen, Cyranowski, & Espindle, 1999; Aubrey, Harrison, Kramer, & Yellin, 2003; Baumeister, Catanese, & Vohs, 2001; DeLameter, 1987; Schmitt et al., 2003). Men in general seem to hold more permissive attitudes toward sex, to desire a greater variety of sexual partners and behaviors, and to seek sexual sensations more frequently than women do.

In addition to information about gender roles, values, and so forth, there is a wide array of factual information pertaining to sex that can have important consequences; this includes topics such as possible unwanted consequences of sex, the prevention of such consequences, sexual disorders such as erectile dysfunction or vaginitis, the prevention and treatment of such disorders, and so on. That such information is vital is reflected in the facts that over one-third of adult women in the United States have a limited or incorrect understanding of how STDs can be contracted and that one in five adults in the United States have genital herpes (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003).

Young people recognize their need to learn about sex. One national survey of a representative sample of young people ages 15-29 found that sexual health was the primary health topic of concern and interest among that population; 77% of the young people in the sample expressed an interest in receiving more information about sexual health (Kaiser Family Foundation, Hoff, Greene, & Davis, 2003). Further, this and other studies have demonstrated that adolescents and young adults are able to name the sexual topics about which they need to be informed--they want to know more about specific sexual health topics, including symptoms, testing, and treatment of STDs, about how to use condoms correctly, about how sex and personal empowerment and happiness fit together, and about how to communicate with partners about sensitive sexual issues (Kaiser Family Foundation et al., 2003; Treise & Gotthoffer, 2002).


Adolescents and young adults receive information about sex from a number of sources; parents, peers, churches, media sources, and schools all make a contribution. When adolescents or young adults are asked to indicate their first or predominant source of information about sex, many cite peers or friends (Andre, Dietsch, & Cheng, 1991; Andre, Frevert, & Schuchmann, 1989; Ballard & Morris, 1998; Kaiser Family Foundation et al., 2003). Other research, drawn from diverse samples and conducted over many years, suggests that for most topics related to sex, however, independent reading is a more important source of information than parents, peers, or schools (Andre et al., 1991; Andre et al., 1989; Bradner, Ku, & Lindberg, 2000; Spanier, 1977). Further, these same studies suggest that this is true for both men and women, and for the sexually experienced as well as the less experienced.


Though materials used for independent reading certainly vary, magazines are definitely one such source. Researchers who have employed diverse methods have arrived at the conclusion that adolescents and young adults use magazines to gain information about sexual topics including sexual skills and techniques, reproductive issues, sexual health, and alternative sexualities (Bielay & Herold, 1995; Treise & Gotthoffer, 2002), and that they often prefer magazines over other sources of information (Treise & Gotthoffer, 2002). These findings, coupled with those that document independent reading as an important source of information about sex, suggest that magazines may be very important to the development of knowledge about, beliefs about, and attitudes toward sex, especially for young people.

There are theoretical reasons to believe that reading magazines to obtain sexual information may have effects on attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as information-type knowledge. Huesmann's (1997, 1998) information processing model suggests that numerous cognitive structures, including attitudes toward and beliefs about social objects, as well as scripts for behavior, can be incrementally learned, reinforced, or altered through essentially the same processes. Cultivation theory has long held that exposure to a consistent set of media messages can lead to altered beliefs about the nature of the real world (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002).


There is little available research that deals with the issue of what effects, if any, independent reading about sex in general, or reading about sex in magazines in particular, has on readers. What is available is largely correlational in nature. There is an association between receiving more sexual education from independent reading and better performance on a test of knowledge about sex (Andre et al., 1991). There is also some evidence that receiving more information from independent reading as opposed to other sources may be associated with more sexual experience (Andre et al., 1991); given the numerous plausible explanations for such observations, however, it is premature to infer a causal relationship. In addition, in one study, reading sex manuals and reading Playboy were each associated with beliefs about greater frequency of behaviors including sexual intercourse, oral sex, and erotic dreams, and reading Playboy was associated with beliefs that sex without love, the use of stimulants for sex, and the exchange of sex for favors were relatively more common (Buerkel-Rothfuss & Strouse, 1993). Another study found reading women's lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Elle to be associated with greater endorsement of sexual stereotypes (Kim & Ward, 2004). Limited experimental evidence also indicates that viewing nonpornographic sexual images from magazines can lead to greater endorsement of rape-supportive attitudes (Lanis & Covell, 1995; MacKay & Covell, 1997).