Ignorance is Bliss, when you’re Just Seventeen

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 33, Summer 1996.

Earlier this year there was an outbreak of concern about the sexual content of young women’s magazines, which were portrayed as a threat to childhood ‘innocence’. But is the real agenda innocence or is it ignorance? And why is there no concern about boys’ ‘innocence’? Stevi Jackson reads between the lines…

On 6 February 1996 a bill was introduced into the House of Commons to print minimum age recommendations on the covers of teenage girls’ magazines, a move which followed publicly aired concern about their sexually explicit content. A week earlier, BBC2 screened a documentary in its ‘Under the Sun’ series about five year old beauty queens in the Southern USA. The Radio Times carried a feature article on the programme — ‘Made up, dressed up, fed up’ written by Alison Graham. The media was suddenly full of discussion about children and sexuality, or more specifically about girls and sexuality. As usual, public debate missed what feminists might see as the main issues, the perpetuation of compulsory hetero­sexuality and the construction of female sexuality in terms of objectification and pleasing men. Instead the focus was on the threat posed to childhood.

Age of ‘innocence’?

I cannot claim to have caught all the media coverage of either event, but what struck me about what I did read, see and hear was the prominence of the concept of ‘innocence’. For example, on the morning of the 6th February Radio 4’s regular phone-in focused on sex in teenage magazines, framed by the question ‘whatever happened to childhood innocence?’ ‘Innocence’ appears to be taken for granted as a defining feature of childhood, so that anything which threatens it is seen as a danger to childhood itself. Hence a recurrent theme in media discussions of both young women’s magazines and child beauty queens was the idea of lost or stolen childhood. It is not, however, just asexual innocence which is seen as threat­ened, but the supposed golden age of freedom from the pressures of adult life. Thus Alison Graham says of the little beauty queens: ‘childhood is forgotten in a whirl of singing lessons, modelling tutorials, photo sessions and hairdresser’s appointments’ (p.22). Yet asexuality is nonetheless thought of as central to this age of innocence — Graham makes it clear that sexuality is something which such young children should know nothing about.

Where have we heard all this before? One arena where the concept of innocence has been deployed in the media is in coverage of child sexual abuse. In an article entitled ‘Defending innocence: ideologies of childhood’ Jenny Kitzinger argues that feminists should be critical of the way this concept is used to evoke public revulsion against sexual abuse. She points out that ‘innocence’ itself is seen as titillating and is eroticised as a sexual commodity and that the ideal of innocence is used to stigmatise the sexually knowing child, to make her a poten­tially legitimate victim. Moreover, in the name of protecting ‘innocence’, adults deprive children of access to sexual information which might help them avoid sexual abuse and exploitation. Meanwhile, those who have worked to put child sexual abuse on the political agenda are themselves accused destroying the ‘age of innocence’.

We should be equally sceptical about the application of this concept to child beauty queens or the issue of sex in teenage magazines. I argued in Childhood and Sexuality that the idea of ‘innocence’ is a means of depriving children of knowledge and justifying their powerlessness. I still stand by that argument and, like Kitzinger, would suggest that we need to think critically about the power which adults wield over children, the power that makes child abuse possible and which gives individual parents exceptional rights over their children. In so doing, of course, we need to pay attention to intersection between parental power and patriarchal power. Feminists are unlikely to lose sight of patriarchal power but we are, as Christine Delphy pointed out in T&S 24, sometimes guilty of neglecting the power that mothers wield over children.

In the recent public debates on childhood sexuality the wider context of both adult power and the construction of gender have, for the most part, been ignored. In all this discussion of children and sex, it is rarely made explicit that gender is an issue: yet in both the case of the beauty pageants and the magazines the children who are the objects of concern are girls. This makes a difference, since discourses on both childhood and sexuality which underpin these discussions are profoundly gendered. This neglect of gender has meant that the emphasis is on what is deemed extraordinary, the challenge to idealised models of childhood, rather than on what is depressingly and predictably ordinary — the cultural construction of sexualised femininity.

Of Barbie dolls and beauty queens

Like most women I know who watched the BBC documentary on child beauty queens, I was both fascinated and appalled. And yes, part of what appalled me was what was being done to these children, their whole lives governed by their parents’ desire for their success in competition. Clearly the children did not have much choice in the matter. The documentary followed two rivals preparing for a major competition, concentrating on the one who finally won. She was certainly not happy — most of the time she seemed bored, fretful and sulky — only on stage did she come alive.

The issue for me, though, was not that the discipline and sexualisation enforced on these children was robbing of them of their childhoods — rather it seemed an extreme manifestation of the ways in which children in general and girls in particular are treated. Children are defined as dependants subject to parental authority and, within limits, parents have the power to rear them as they choose. Childhood is also remark­able for the degree of control exercised over the body by others. Children’s appearance, deport­ment, posture and movement are regulated; they are touched, kissed and fussed over and more likely to be subject to physical punishment than any other category of person. This control of the body is more rigorously imposed on little girls, one facet of the intersection of gender with the more general powerlessness of children.

The five year old beauty queens are young enough and small enough to be physically coerced. They are inexperienced enough not to know that any other mode of life is possible, since they live their lives competing on a relatively small circuit against the same opponents. Like all children, they are con­strained to live their lives according to their parents’ choices — they are forced to go along with what parents think best for them, whatever it is. What their parents think is best for these children is to win the contests, be the prettiest girl in town, or in the whole of the South.

A degree of ‘femininity’ is being imposed on these children which might well seem excessive even by non-feminist standards. Just when little girls are beginning to escape from the confines of frilly frocks and restrictive injunctions to be ‘feminine’, this programme came as a reminder that there are still sections of the population imposing very rigid and traditional ideals of femininity on their daughters. This is carried to extremes for the contestants in beauty pageants. These girls are being taught very deliberately, rigorously and systematically that the only thing about them of value is their prettiness and their ability to carry off a carefully managed perfor­mance of stereotypical femininity. This form of feminine attractiveness is culturally specific: blonde is beautiful, white is beautiful. In one section of the contest the girls are dressed as ‘Southern Belles’. Not surprisingly there is not a black child in sight — the racist standards of beauty noted in adult contests are also evident in those for children.

This commodification of a specific form of feminine attractiveness merges with the reduction of children to objects owned by their parents. With little girls this has often lead to them being treated as dolls to be dressed up and displayed. During the documentary on children’s beauty contests, one doting mother said of her daughter that, when dressed up and made up in her stage costume, she ‘looks just like Barbie’. Like many girls her age, this one owned a collection of Barbie dolls. These dolls are hugely popular with little girls, a means of playing at a form of adult femininity; Barbie magazine is read by 14% of girls aged 7-10 in the UK. The little beauty queens have the oppor­tunity (or misfortune) to act out the fantasy.

What impressed me was not how grown up these little girls looked in their adult clothes, hair-dos and make-up — but how infantilised is the form of adult femininity they are emulating. I’ve always thought that extreme ‘femininity’ is a form of childishness — a sexualised gloss on the vulnerability and powerlessness of children. This was underlined by the performance of these children, already able to be feminine in these terms. Yet in the way that the girls were talked about in both the programme and the RT article, these superficial signs of adult ‘maturity’ were taken as some sort of real difference between little girls and adult women. In the RT there is a photo of one of them captioned ‘Look, no make up… Brooke as she really is.’ The authentic child is one without make-up — no-one says this of adult women. Imagine it said, say, of a supermodel. For adult women, make-up and all other aids to ‘femininity’ are advertised as ‘bringing out’ the ‘real woman’ within. The dividing line between authentic childhood and authentic womanhood in this discourse, it seems, is a thin veneer of ‘sophistication’ symbolised by the presence or absence of make-up.

Sexualised girlhood

Yet the sexualisation of childhood is not new. Little girls have long been taught to cultivate prettiness and coquettishness, to get what they want by sexualising themselves — and they know they are failures if they don’t match up. Beauty pageants can be seen as just a logical extension of this. For generations little girls have aspired to be ‘May queens’ or local carnival queens. The beauty contest is just a more commercialised and professionalised version. Even this is not a recent invention: beautiful baby contests are something I remem­ber from my childhood. I also recall that Pears soap sponsored a ‘Miss Pears’ competition, the winner of which then featured in advertisem­ents. It might be said that these represented properly innocent, asexual child­hood. If so then these images illustrate Jenny Kitzinger’s point that innocence itself is often sexualised. In The Sexual Exploitation of Children, Judith Ennew suggests that such representations have distinct parallels with pornography. One example is a painting by Munier called ‘Playmates’, used by Pears Soap advertisements in 1903 (pre-dating Miss Pears) which features a scantily clad child in a distinctly sexual pose. She also places the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe with her skirts blowing up around her next to a Oxo advertisement featuring a similar depiction of a small girl, suggesting that both represent the same fantasy (see pp 132-3).

What separates the beauty queens from past generations’ Miss Pears or hundreds of ‘cute’ little girls featured in advertisements? How do we tell the Barbie dolls from the baby dolls? Partly the difference is produced by the super­ficial effects of make-up and more adult clothes and hairstyles. It also, however, derives from something called ‘sexuality’, something antithetical to authentic childhood which is signified by dressing up for this ‘adult’ per­formance. ‘Sexuality’ is further indicated by gestures, movements, a particular turn of the head, a knowing look or wink — all of which the competitors in the beauty pageants were being explicitly taught. They were being deliberately schooled in the performance of a sexualised femininity. The result, according to Alison Graham is a little girl who ‘imitates a sexuality she should know nothing about’. This phrase presupposes that sexuality is in itself improper for children and, more importantly, it hinges on the idea that female sexuality is reducible to how one looks, to a performance of sexual desirability and availability. Women’s ‘sexuality’ is talked about in these terms too — even by some feminists (for example in Ros Coward’s Female Desire). It is not an auto­nomous female sexuality which is meant here, but the process of self objectification.

The little girl who ‘imitates a sexuality she should know nothing about’ is just acting out a more stylised version of the usual little girl performance — and in one sense she knows nothing about sexuality while in another she knows a great deal. She is probably ignorant of the mechanics of heterosexual sex, yet she knows that being attractive, flirtatious and cute wins a positive response from adults — and little girls know this even if they don’t enter beauty contests. Again, this is not a new phenomenon: Simone de Beauvoir noted it nearly 50 years ago. In The Second Sex she argues that the little girl ‘soon learns that in order to be pleasing she must be “pretty as a picture”; she tries to make herself look like a picture, she puts on fancy clothes, she studies herself in the mirror, she compares herself with princesses and fairies’. Through engaging in ‘childish coquetry’ she will seek to be the centre of attention (p.306). This is not so far away from the five year old contestant in a beauty contest who announces to approval from all around her ‘I’m a queen every day’.

This knowing but not knowing — being encouraged to sexualise themselves as objects without understanding the implications — is a dangerous game for girls. Paradoxically the same parents who encourage their daughters to behave like this would, I’m sure, think it terrible for them to know about the realities of sex. It is this anxiety which underlies recent concern about teenage magazines. On the one hand these publications encourage aspects of femininity which are socially approved — interest in fashion, make-up and being attractive — while in another they appear to pose a threat of a more knowing and active female sexuality. It is the issue of sexual knowledge and how much of it should be available to young women which is the central issue at stake in the attempt to regulate teenage girls’ reading.

Sex and the teenage girl

The Periodical (Protection of Children) Bill is a private member’s bill introduced under the ten minute rule and, as such, is unlikely to become law. Even if there were a law requiring the printing of minimum reading ages on the covers of magazines, I cannot seeing this stopping young women from wanting to read them — though it might enhance parents’ ability to police what their daughters are reading. The most popular magazine among boys aged 11-14 — Viz — does carry on its cover the message ‘not for sale to children’. According to the Central Statistical Office’s publication Social Focus on Children, over a quarter of boys in this age group read it. I find this far more worrying than the magazines girls are reading, but boys’ reading habits have not come under public scrutiny — a point I will return to later.

We might want to consider why a magazine called Just Seventeen is the most popular purchase among 11 to 14 year olds in the first place, or why 19 is read by girls in their mid-teens. Part of the appeal of these magazines is that they speak to those who are still classed as children, still lacking the rights of adulthood but who aspire to the maturity and status that young womanhood seems to offer them. Girls of this age often want to be older, want to be treated as adults, want what they are debarred from on the grounds of age. Wanting the forbidden does not necessarily mean that they all want to rush out and have sex, but they do want the right to know about it.

More sensible commentators, such as Claire Rayner writing in The Guardian, have pointed out that teenage interest in sexuality is nothing new. I entered my teens in the early 1960s when teenage magazines had lots of romance and no explicit sexual content (it was Mirabelle and the like in those days, even Jackie had yet to be launched). In the stories a kiss was the culmi­nation of every romantic encounter. I and my peers were desperate to know more but starved of likely sources. At the age of 11 or 12 we were reduced to reading out ‘the dirty bits’ from James Bond novels (it was that bad!). I recall great excitement when someone got hold of a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At fourteen, continuing this communal reading practice, three friends and I were nearly expelled from school having been caught with The Perfumed Garden. Following this incident my father forbade me even to talk to boys — assuming, rather like some of those pontificating about teenage magazines today, that if I was reading such things I must be about to put it all into practice.

At least the magazines girls are reading today circulate in a public domain, where their content can be discussed and perhaps chal­lenged, rather than furtively exchanged and whispered over in classrooms and playgrounds. Moreover, we cannot assume a direct link between the magazine’s representations of sexuality and young women’s sexual activities. The tendency to treat women as ‘cultural dupes’ brainwashed by whatever they are reading or seeing on television has been much criticised by feminist cultural theorists. Early feminist critiques of romance, for example, have been questioned, with much more emphasis being placed on women and girls as active readers who are not necessarily conned by the ideologies peddled by magazines or romantic fiction. For example Elizabeth Frazer’s study, ‘Teenage girls reading Jackie’ demonstrated that girls reflect upon what they are reading and are often critical of it.

Teenage girls are being depicted as cultural dupes by those seeking to restrict their access to magazines, and are even more likely than adult women to be seen in this way. The assumption is that, as children, they are peculiarly vulner­able to brainwashing, they do not know their own minds and therefore they are in danger of being corrupted. We need to credit young women with some ability to think for them­selves. On the other hand, the new emphasis on women and girls as active readers can go too far in denying that particular texts have any effectivity at all. We can see this by means of analogy with the pornography debate: it is far too simplistic to argue that pornography directly causes sexual violence, but at the same time those of us opposed to pornography would want to argue that it contributes to the construction of a form of masculinity which makes sexual violence possible. Arguing this case on the pornography issue, Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer make the point that we cannot ignore the ways in which humans construct meaning and represent their actions to them­selves and others.

… we need to move beyond causal accounts of human actions, and look instead at the resources humans bring to their interpretations and representations, the meanings which shape their desires and constrain the stories they can imagine for themselves. For we are clearly not free to imagine just anything; we work both with and against the grain of the cultural meanings we inherit.

What young people read about sexuality will not make them act in particular ways, but it is likely to inform the meanings they construct around their own sexuality. Girls read maga­zines, in part, for information on how to manage sexual relationships. They do not read uncriti­cally, for the contents of the magazines are discussed among them and mulled over indivi­dually. Nonetheless, what they read does feed into the competencies or lack of them that girls bring to relationships, their understanding of and expectations about sexuality. This is not grounds for barring them from reading about sex, but is grounds for being concerned about what sort of sex they are reading about.

The debate around the bill is framed in terms of whether access to explicit sexual information is a good or a bad thing — rarely is the quality of information discussed, other than in moral terms, and what counts as ‘sex’ is almost never questioned. Moreover the ‘shock horror’ tone of the discussion emphasises what is new and different rather than considering their content in the light of wider, longer-term trends. The increased sexualisation of the magazines’ content is seen in isolation, rather than as an aspect of the increased sexualisation of femininity in general. Changes in teenage girls’ magazines parallel those in adult women’s magazines and, in many respects, the boundaries between the two are blurring. There is now far more explicit sexual content in women’s magazines in general and far less desexualised romance. Heterosexual love is itself becoming more sexualised, a trend discernible in Western culture as a whole since the early 20th Century and visible in girls’ magazines since the 1950s. Earlier magazines featured romance and male pin-ups (with their clothes on), now they feature sex and pin-ups (often with most of their clothes off).

One feminist interpretation of this trend is that it is indicative of the increased eroticisation of women’s subordination. Other feminists take a more optimistic view. Angela McRobbie, for example, sees signs of progress in the newer magazines, a postmodern celebration of plurality. She argues that they represent a potential for less uniform, monolithic modes of femininity, for a more knowing and assertive female sexuality, for the exploration of alterna­tives to heterosexuality. In some ways the new magazines are an advance on earlier ones, but in many other ways I find it difficult to share McRobbie’s optimism — indeed I wonder whether we have been reading the same magazines. We have certainly been reading them differently.

So what’s in these magazines?

The content of these magazines offers a predictable diet of fashion, beauty, articles on sex, romance, and how to manage relationships (including ‘true life’ stories) and pin-ups of male pop stars, sport stars and models. Other contents include the occult and more serious items on such issues as drugs and bereavement. There are also, of course, horoscopes, ‘self knowledge’ quizzes and problem pages. The main focus is on boys — how to attract, please them and get on with them — or what might be called ‘compulsive heterosexuality’. This is a term one of my students accidentally substituted for ‘compulsory heterosexuality’, but which seems an apt depiction of what is going on in girls’ magazines.

While writing this article I bought a selection of these magazines over a period of about three weeks and asked friends and colleagues with teenage daughters what they read. The most popular ones are either music focused — although their real interest seems to be male stars as objects of female lust — or the fashion and relationships variety. It is the latter which have the most explicitly sexual content and it is these I have looked at most closely — although it was TV Hits which sparked off the controversy by printing a problem page inquiry about oral sex.

These magazines have certainly changed from those around in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the earlier magazines, of which Jackie is the best remembered, did include fashion, beauty tips, pin-ups, features on relationships and so on, their stock-in-trade was the comic strip romance. This has disappeared and the magazines now look much more like adult women’s magazines of the Cosmopolitan or Marie Claire variety.

Even magazines for pre-teens now have a more grown-up look and share some content with teenage magazines. Bunty, for example, which I remember as being a comic book featuring stories about boarding schools, gymkhanas and ballet classes now has a more adult look. It still has some of the old favourites — nearly forty years on, the Four Marys remain trapped in the third form at St Elmos — but these sit alongside articles with lead-ins like: ‘Which holiday hunk is the one for you?’ Glossy pictures of fluffy dogs vie for space on the bedroom wall with pin-ups of Boyzone. And this is where you can still find comic-strip romance including a tale about a girl who gives up drooling over posters of a TV star when a real boy rescues her dog and then asks her out.

Once past this stage, the next step up is to magazines like Just Seventeen, the most popular of this genre among 11-14 year olds — read by 52% of them (CSO 1995). There’s also the fortnightly Mizz and somewhat glossier month­lies such as Sugar and Bliss (the latter carrying the message ‘a girl’s gotta have it’ under the title). The monthlies may be intended for slightly older girls, but I know of twelve year olds who read them regularly. All, in any case, are aimed at girls still at school — a good indication of this is provided by the problem pages and the quizzes: for example, ‘At a school disco, you spot your boyfriend chatting to a girl you don’t know, do you… etc.’ (Sugar quiz entitled ‘Are you a cling-on?’)

The barkers on the front of these magazines give an indication of what the fuss is about: ‘Sex: should you tell mum or keep schtum’; ‘I slept around, but I’m still a virgin’; ‘Make him want you bad’; ‘He slept with me for a bet’; ‘Does sex change your life?’; ‘I got pregnant on purpose’; ‘Dribble over the sexiest footballer alive’ and so on. There are also more serious sexual themes: ‘Shock report: why 12 year olds are turning to prostitution’; ‘Could I have AIDS: one girl’s scary story’.

The sexual message is more explicit still in the magazines for older teenagers such as 19 and More!, the latter being (in)famous for its regular ‘position of the fortnight’ (with line drawings, full instructions and a 1 to 5 difficulty rating). The May edition of More! and June edition of 19 both feature orgasms: ‘Talking about the Big ‘O’: Orgasm stories to get you going and coming’; ‘Blissed Out: Treat Yourself to the O to Mmm of Orgasm’. More! is the most adult of these magazines in other senses, in that it addresses its readers as young women with jobs living independently of their parents. The biggest clue to its target audience is that it is alone among these magazines in assuming that the objects of its readers’ lust are men rather than boys. It is a tackier, more downmarket version of Cosmo­politan, with cheaper clothes in its fashion features and more of a tabloid journalism style. According to Angela McRobbie its 415,000 readers are aged on average between 15 and 17.

Mixed messages

Once past the lurid headlines, the contents of these magazines are mixed and often contra­dictory. Problem page reassurance that all bodies are normal is contradicted by injunctions to improve, disguise or conceal bodily imper­fections. Advice on saying no to sex and not rushing into it sits side by side with articles and quizzes which give the impression that the only important thing in life is to attract, keep and please your man. An article in Bliss about the joys of being without a boyfriend, which looks at first sight like a positive move, lists among the ‘good things about being single’ such items as being free to do what you want, to spend time with your mates, but also ‘you can eye up any guy you want without feeling guilty’.

It is true that the tone of all this talk of boys, sex and looking good is, as Angela McRobbie says, often ironic and self mocking. Boys are not treated with any great reverence and often they are the butt of jokes. I’m not sure, however, how far this undermines the fairly conventional range of femininities represented in these magazines, although it does suggest a certain distancing from and self-consciousness about the con­straints of femininity. Certainly the way readers are addressed implies a more knowing and active sexuality: girls are no longer expected to passively wait until Mr Right makes a move, they are expected to make it happen. This does speak to girls’ desires for more equal sexual relationships, in which girls can take the initiative, in which they usurp what was once a male prerogative: objectifying those one desires. But is this progress? Equality seems to be understood within the discourse of these magazines as behaving like men: girls can look at male bodies just as men have traditionally looked at female bodies. Even some of the language is the same as that used by men, for example: ‘8 poster prints — top totty for your wall’ (Bliss). At the same time there is an acknowledgement of persistent difference as in ‘11 things you should NEVER say to boys’ (Sugar); ‘Dazed and confused: just 17 girly things lads will never understand’ (Just Seventeen).

Moreover, the old idea that girls’ sexuality is being attractive and alluring has by no means vanished. The boundaries of what is acceptable in this respect have shifted and behaviour once thought of as that of a ‘slag’ or ‘tart’ is now playfully endorsed. Here is the response to those who score highly on a sexiness quiz in Mizz:

Grrrrr! You little tiger! You have the secret of sex appeal all right, right down to wearing slinky black numbers to take the dog for a walk, and flirting with your Headmaster to get out of detention. Stop that wiggle when you walk — you’ll do yourself an injury!

Yet alongside this sexualisation of tradi­tional femininity are more serious articles about both sexuality and other aspects of life. The same issue of Mizz carries articles on teenage prostituion and on a girl coping with her mother’s death. The more considered discus­sions of sexuality in both articles and problem pages are often constructive and informative. The readers of these magazines certainly know far more about coercive sex, sexual exploitation, rape and incest than previous generations and are better informed about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Girls also know more about their own bodies and how to derive pleasure from them. This is all to the good. So too, in my view, is the demystification of romantic notions that good sex is something which magically happens once you fall in love. However, this has its downside, in that the idea that sex has to be ‘worked at’ produces its own anxieties and is itself a form of social regu­lation.

The advice given on heterosexual sex in the problem pages is often sensible and, in this respect at least, magazines read by younger teenagers cannot be accused of promoting early sexual experimentation. Generally the message is not to rush into early sex and to resist being pressured into it either by friends or boyfriends. Some carry regular explicit warnings on their problem pages on the illegality of under age sex: ‘Be sure, be safe and remember sex under 16 is illegal’ (Just Seventeen); ‘It’s cool to wait, sex under 16 is illegal’ (Bliss). Some of the advice on sex is helpful and positive, the sorts of things young heterosexual women need to know but may not find out from other sources: for example, that a condom is ineffective if the guy doesn’t withdraw before losing his erection. Sex, however, is still defined in terms of the penetrative norm — ‘having sex’ means heterosexual coition — even though there are items on problem pages and elsewhere explain­ing clitoral orgasms and masturbation.

Endorsing heterosexuality

These magazines are relentlessly heterosexual. This is one of the points on which my reading of these magazines differs markedly from Angela McRobbie’s. She says that:

Gay and lesbian identities now move more freely across the field of popular women’s and girls’ magazines. These exist as sexual possibilities where in the past they were permitted only a shadowy stigmatized existence. (p 183)

This may be more true of magazines for older readers, or it may be that my sample (two copies each of Bliss and More!, one each of Sugar, Mizz, Just Seventeen and 19) is unrepre­sentative. In any case, I did not find evidence of ‘gay and lesbian sexualities [being] frequently invoked’ in the pages of these magazines (p188) or any great sign of a postmodern plurality of sexualities. It may true that, as McRobbie says, ‘teenybopper stars now come out as gay’ in teenage magazines, but even on the gossip pages, which she sees as a source of represen­tations of alternative sexualities, I found only the odd oblique reference to (male) gay iden­tities. While there is undoubtedly greater openness about lesbian and gay sexualities, in the magazines I read these issues remain marginalised.

I only found four explicit discussions of lesbianism and homosexuality — all, signifi­cantly, on problem pages. The line taken is, on the whole, a liberal one which seeks to present a fairly positive view of homosexuality and lesbianism but without challenging the normal­ity of heterosexuality. For example, a girl writing to 19 who had just discovered that her father was gay, is angry that he has not told her before and worried about friends ostracising both her father and herself. She is encouraged to be understanding, told that she might end up being proud of his courage in coming out and that if her friends can’t deal with it ‘that’s their problem’. A young woman writing to More! saying that she is attracted to women but afraid of her parents’ reaction is encouraged to ring Lesbian Line and is given some contact num­bers. However, where young people are less certain about their sexuality, the reaction seems to be to reassure them that they are ‘normal’ — i.e. heterosexual. A girl concerned that ‘her friend’ might be a lesbian because she was fourteen and had never had a boyfriend was advised not to worry, there was still time, it didn’t mean that she was a lesbian — then, as an afterthought, that if she was a lesbian she shouldn’t feel bad about it (TV Hits). A boy worried that his friends were calling him gay because he had kissed another boy while drunk wasn’t told that it was OK to be gay — just that his friends would stop teasing him eventually (Just Seventeen). In this last case an opportunity to challenge heterosexism was completely missed.

The problem pages reveal that some boys, at least, read girls’ magazines — assuming, that is, that the letters are genuine. It is now common for magazines to have ‘agony uncles’ as well as ‘agony aunts’, both to advise on boys’ problems and to offer a male point of view on girls’ dilemmas. Given that these magazines assume a community of young, heterosexual and primarily female readers and that they focus on hetero­sexual relationships, one obvious question is: what are the boys these girls relate to reading?

What are boys reading?

In all the public discussion of girls’ magazines, there has been a silence around what boys are reading. In part this reflects the lack of maga­zines aimed at a young male market. Since there are still only a few adult ‘men’s magazines’, aside from pornographic ones, it is not surpris­ing that no-one has yet launched a publication aimed at teenage boys — particularly since boys seem to read less than girls. Viz, the most popular magazine among young teenage boys, is intended for adult men of a puerile disposition. Its appeal may be that it is a fairly easy progres­sion from The Beano (which remains among the top five magazines for boys in the early teens). A large proportion of Viz is devoted to cartoons and its entire tone — as well as being overtly misogynist — can best be summed up as lavatory wall humour. (I had already decided on this phrase when I caught sight of the cover of an issue of the magazine in my local newsagent, proudly advertising ‘a golden shower of piss-poor cartoons and lavatory humour’).

Aside from Viz, and The Beano, the other ‘top five’ publications for boys in their early teens are The Sun and two computer game magazines: Gamesmaster and Sega Power. It would seem from this list that if boys of this age are engaging with issues of sex and relation­ships at all, it is at the level of page 3 and ‘the fat slags’ — hardly promising for young hetero­sexual women in search of either true love or sensational sex. Most research on young people’s access to sexual information suggests that pornography is boys’ main source of ‘knowledge’ on sex.

There is no moral panic about what boys are reading. Sex is not thought of as a threat to boys — they are expected to ‘know’ about it rather than remaining innocent. Yet what they ‘know’ is deeply problematic — especially given that male definitions of what sex is still largely prevail in the negotiation of heterosex. It is male sexuality which constitutes the major problems young women face — whether manifested as sexual harassment and coercion, male reluctance to engage in safer sex or simply men’s inability to understand women’s sexual desires and aspirations. Yet it is young women’s sexuality which is being constructed, once again, as a social problem. The message is still that young women should remain ‘innocent’ — in other words ignorant.

Double standards

In the early 1970s, while I was researching teenage girls’ ideas about sexuality, I worked in a psychiatric unit for teenage boys aged 11-15. The boys all read pornography and the walls of the unit were covered in photographs of naked women — those with fully exposed genitals were strongly favoured. Some of the staff objected, but the psychiatrist in charge saw the consump­tion of pornography as a sign of ‘healthy development’ in the boys and a legitimate part of the therapeutic environment. Meanwhile the youth club in which I was conducting my research, which claimed to have liberal attitudes to sex, threw me out because I mentioned orgasms to the girls and let on that it was possible for girls to masturbate. While more politically correct health and youth workers might no longer endorse quite such gross double standards, I suspect they have by no means vanished and that interest in pornography is still regarded as part of a normal ‘healthy’ develop­ment for boys, that it is not seen as a problem that this is their main means of learning about sex. Finally, I suspect that these double stan­dards are what underpin the concern about explicit sex in teenage magazines.

Whatever reservations I have about the magazines girls are reading, however much I might object to their relentless endorsement of compulsory (or compulsive) heterosexuality I can’t help feeling that girls are better served by these magazines than by those available in the past. The girls I was talking to in the early 1970s all read Jackie, thought of sex in terms of ‘love’ and were woefully ignorant about their own bodies, although many were sexually active. Readers of Bliss, Mizz, Sugar and the like are far better informed about safer sex and their own bodies and are constantly exhorted to assert their own sexual wants and needs — including saying no to sexual practices they don’t want.

This knowledge does not, of course, translate easily into more egalitarian sexual relationships. All the evidence we have suggests that whatever girls may know in theory, in practice the power dynamics of heterosexual relationships still work against them. However, ignorance would only make girls more vulner­able. One of the problems girls have in nego­tiating sex with boys is finding a language in which to discuss sexuality and assert their own sexual desires, At least these magazines begin to provide them with such a language, speak to them in terms which make sense in terms of their everyday experience — even as they simultaneously help construct that experience. The problem is not that girls are exposed to too much sex, or too explicit sex, but the limited, male oriented ways in which sexuality is discussed.


Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex (Penguin 1972)

Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer ‘On the question of pornography and sexual violence: moving beyond cause and effect.’ in C. Itzin Pornography: Women, Violence and Civil Liberties (Oxford University Press 1992)

Rosalind Coward Female Desire (Paladin 1982)

CSO Social Focus on Children (HMSO 1996)

Judith Ennew The Sexual Exploitation of Children (Polity 1986)

Elizabeth Frazer ‘Teenage Girls reading Jackie’ Media, Culture and Society, 9(4): 407-25, 1988.

Alison Graham ‘Made up, dressed up, fed up (and she’s only five)’ Radio Times, 17 January – 2 February 1996, pp 22-24)

Stevi Jackson Childhood and Sexuality (Blackwell 1982)

Jenny Kitzinger ‘Defending innocence: ideologies of childhood’ Feminist Review 28: 77-87 1988

Angela McRobbie ‘More!: New sexualities in girls’ and women’s magazines’ in J. Curran et.al. Cultural Studies and Comunications (Edward Arnold 1996)

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