Intended for healthcare professionals

Medicine And The Media

Teen-zine sex is not all it seems

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 17 February 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:451
  1. Alex Mellanby

    Last week British media attention focused on the sexual content of magazines aimed at teenage girls as the Conservative MP for Worcester, Mr Peter Luff, promoted a private member's bill which would require their publishers to state a minimum age on the cover, thus enabling parents to judge whether the magazines are suitable for their teenagers.

    Chatterbox, Sugar, It's Bliss, Catch, Mizz, Just Seventeen, More, and 19 are available from most newsagents, and the front covers of the February editions are more titillating than salacious and are heavily preoccupied with Valentine's day romance. Generally they do not give any clear idea of their intended target readership. Although Just Seventeen or 19 might be taken as titles indicating the target age, they are read by younger teenagers.

    Without prior knowledge, teenagers must make their selection by trial and error, which is presumably the marketing strategy. Cover lines such as “Are you ready for sex? We ask your boy, your buddies … and your mum (gulp!)” (Just Seventeen), “Red Hot! Sizzling male model posters inside” (Mizz), and “Steamy sex test” (More) proclaim that sex is a central selling issue. Some include additional booklets or sections with various titles: “The 19 guide to real sex” (19), “Boys and you” (It's Bliss), “Sex and you” (Sugar). In Sugar and It's Bliss the reader must tear open these special sealed sections to reveal the content—locking the curious reader into purchasing.

    Though I have some concerns, I think that these magazines fulfil a useful informative role for teenagers, who may often have difficulty in obtaining information elsewhere. It is not only in relation to abuse that teenagers need information gained in secret, away from their parents. For example, Mizz's “pull-out-and-hide section” includes wide ranging and accurate information, often supported by medical opinions.

    The material ranges from discreet reference to vaginal discharge as a “whitish stain in the pants” (Chatterbox) through complex anatomical and physiological information about puberty and menstruation (Sugar, Mizz, Bliss) to explicit sexual techniques (19, More). Aside from sexual technique, many of the topics are similar to those covered in sex education lessons at secondary school. A detailed description of male puberty will include wet dreams, masturbation, general bodily changes, and emotional concerns.

    The sealed section in Sugar includes an article titled “Is there really a safe time for sex?” which emphasises the difficulty of predicting ovulation and leads on to a detailed description of contraception. A similarly detailed coverage of contraception is included in It's Bliss in its tear open “sealed sex section.”

    More explicit is More's “position of the fortnight,” which includes a line drawing of the “Valentine's day special” position for sexual intercourse. The position has a difficulty rating of 3 out of 5.

    Exposing young teenagers to all of this information is not likely to gain universal support. However, a parent reading the front cover of a magazine might well be misled since, if anything, the front cover exaggerates the sexual nature of the content. The Just Seventeen article titled “Are you ready for sex?” has Gemma (aged 16) and her boyfriend Darren (17) debating whether they should have intercourse, and concludes with Darren (albeit reluctantly) agreeing to postpone intercourse, because he “loves and respects her.”

    The sealed booklet in Sugar's “sex special” has the tempting introduction: “For the truth about sex that no one else dares tell you, rip these pages open now,” but its content is an extremely informative article on a peer led sex education project, which is supportive of teenagers who don't want to have sex but feel under pressure to do so.

    In other words, many of the magazines seem to be selling responsible information to teenagers under the guise of titillation, though their overwhelming fixation on romance and physical relationships must convey disquiet to teenagers without such relationships.

    Current evidence suggests that factual information alone has little or no influence, neither increasing nor decreasing sexual behaviour. However, what teenagers come to believe is normal and expected will influence their action, and these magazines with their widespread appeal are likely to influence teenagers' expectations. Articles convey a male preoccupation with sexual conquest (for example Bliss's “How was it for him?”) and cite the experience of the artist formerly known as Prince, who had sex with his “very sexually advanced” 17 year old girlfriend at the age of 11.

    Although such articles attempt to maintain some balance, they make it clear what they think girls can expect from their boyfriends (and also tell any boys who are reading the magazine how they are expected to behave). Whether they are in a relationship or not, girls reading about boys' obsession with losing their virginity may continue to consider that sex is “the price of going out with a boy.”—ALEX MELLANBY, sex education research fellow, A PAUSE project, Exeter

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