From girls into women: scripts for sexuality and romance in Seventeen magazine, 1974-1994

From girls into women: scripts for sexuality and romance in Seventeen magazine, 1974-1994In this article, I examine how young women's sexual subjectivity has been depicted and shaped over two decades in Seventeen, a mass-circulation magazine for teen-age female readers. Drawing on the scripting approach to sexual behavior, I use content analysis methods to evaluate the cultural-level scripts about sexuality and romance featured in 244 articles from Seventeen. Cultural-level scripts have been shown to guide real-life sexual behavior and to perpetuate gender inequality. In addition, many cultural-level scripts and expectations about what is appropriate sexually are learned during adolescence (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994; Simon & Gagnon, 1987). Therefore, representations of sexual behavior in media for teens may have effects that last throughout individuals' lifetimes. Analyzing the cultural-level sexual scripts in Seventeen constitutes a crucial first step toward understanding the relationships among popular media, sexual norms, and sexual behavior.


Developed in reaction to biological and psychoanalytical theories of sexual behavior, the sexual scripting approach argues that sociocultural processes are fundamental in determining what is perceived as sexual and how individuals behave sexually. Analyzing sexual behavior as scripted permits the consideration of both individual experience and broader sociohistorical processes as they come together in interpersonal interaction (Simon & Gagnon, 1984). Therefore, the sexual scripting approach is amenable to studying change over time and to considering both agency and social constraints.

The sexual scripting approach identifies three levels of sexual scripts--cultural scenarios, interpersonal scripts, and intrapsychic scripts--corresponding to the collective, small-group interaction, and individual dimensions of society. Cultural scenarios, the level with which I am primarily concerned, are like guidelines that tell individuals with whom, when, where, how, and why to do sexual things (Laumann et al., 1994). Cultural scenarios are created and maintained by many diverse components of group life, including schools and educators, religious doctrine and leaders, folklore, sex researchers, and mass media. By themselves, however, cultural scenarios offer at best a limited picture of sexual experience. As people interact with each other in concrete social situations (i.e., the interpersonal script level), they draw on both cultural scenarios and their own personal desires, fantasies, and intentions (i.e., intrapsychic scripts). During these interactions, individuals must develop strategies for fulfilling their own sexual wishes and plans, while taking account of others' responses, both anticipated and actual (Simon & Gagnon,1987).

The three script levels may be similar in content in relatively homogeneous societies. In heterogeneous societies such as the contemporary United States, however, script levels may differ, and a variety of cultural scenarios may be available to most individuals at any given time. These different scenarios may conflict with and even contradict one another. For instance, Seventeen offers not only traditional sexual scenarios urging that young women refrain from sexual intercourse but also recreational scenarios recommending the opposite. Discrepancies are also common between scripts at different levels, as when a woman exposed predominantly to heterosexual cultural scenarios experiences sexual desire for another woman at the level of interpersonal interaction. Because of this diversity, most individuals must negotiate among the various levels of scripts, making compromises that may vary from interaction to interaction (Simon & Gagnon, 1984).

Negotiations among script levels enable change over time. Most changes occur through individual improvisations or innovations on already -existing scenarios (Laumann et al., 1994). These improvisations and innovations are often necessary on the interpersonal level, when potential sexual partners bring different cultural and intrapsychic resources into interactions and must compromise with each other. People who have been exposed to a variety of disparate cultural scenarios may also find it necessary to reconcile them in their own minds (Simon & Gagnon, 1987). Cultural scenarios may also be changed more directly by the creators of sex education curricula, deliverers of sermons on sexual morality, writers of teen magazines' advice columns, and so forth (Laumann et al., 1994). In the case of Seventeen, as I will demonstrate, new scenarios may provide readers with fuel for challenging dominant norms and even for creating and disseminating new ones. At the same time, however, the manner in which new scripts are presented may work to forestall such challenges and changes.


Societal perceptions of and prescriptions for adolescent sexuality--embodied in sexual scripts--differ depending on the gender of the teens in question (Irvine, 1994).(1) Some of the dangers associated with teen sexuality are linked to female physiology, especially pregnancy and the side effects of some contraceptives. Many other sexual hazards associated with being female are social in origin. A number of these fall under the rubric of the sexual double standard. Since the 1960s, sexual values and behaviors have become more permissive for male and especially female adolescents (King, Balswick, & Robinson, 1977; Sherwin & Corbett, 1985). Yet, despite some real gains, several studies suggest that a subtle sexual double standard has persisted (Ferrell, Tolone, & Walsh, 1977). For instance, Goodchilds and Zellman (1984) found not only that adolescent men saw the world in more sexual terms than did young women, but also that both men and women accepted male sexual aggressiveness as inevitable, often to a surprising extent. Other scholars have shown that sources such as sex education and peers teach girls that exhibiting sexual desire will lead to censure and punishment, but simultaneously encourage boys to explore their sexuality and to be sexually aggressive (e.g., Fine, 1988; Horowitz, 1983; Lees, 1986; Tolman, 1994).(2)

Contemporary sexual scripts also posit different degrees of sexual agency for women and men. According to Fine (1988), social ambivalence about women and their sexuality perpetuates (and is perpetuated by) the tendency not to depict or address young women as sexual agents. In her study tracking discourse on teen sexuality through public schools, Fine found that sex education curricula typically address young men as sexual actors, but depict young women solely as the objects of male sexuality. These curricula also suppress discourse on women's sexual desire, promote a view of women as sexual victims, and explicitly privilege monogamous marital heterosexuality over other sexual practices. Moreover, by failing to recognize young women's own experiences of desire/agency and danger/victimization as simultaneous, these curricula oversimplified their experiences of sexuality.

Like Fine, Tolman (1994) found that young women typically spoke of sexual desire as a complicated phenomenon, potentially leading to both danger and pleasure. Told only that girls must reject boys' sexual advances, many of the young women Tolman spoke to claimed that they did not know what to do when they felt desire or pleasure. Many feared the consequences of bringing desire into relationships, especially pregnancy and being perceived as sexually out of control. Tolman concluded that adolescent girls are, in a sense, trapped in a contradiction between the reality of their sexual feelings and the absence of those feelings in cultural-level sexual scripts for young women.

Young women's experiences with sexuality are often complicated further by concern with romance and relationships. Feminist developmental psychologists report gender differences in the value placed on relational factors in sexual interactions. Whereas boys tend to see sex as a decision made between consenting people guided by personal beliefs, girls generally make sexual decisions based on the quality of intimacy and engagement in the relationship (Bollerud, Christopherson, & Frank, 1990). Arguing that either stance alone may be problematic, Thompson (1995) recommended balancing sexuality and romance with other aspects of life (e.g., work, friendship). According to Thompson, young women who too closely equate romance and sexuality are less likely to practice safer sex and are more likely to experience reduced confidence and life chances. However, although young women who completely separate sexuality and romance may practice safer sex, they may also risk using others and postponing the developmental process of learning to integrate love and sex with other life concerns such as work and friendship (see also Thompson, 1984).