Friday, April 25, 2008

Sexposé Exposé

As evident in my video montage, a recurrent constituent of many popular women’s magazines is the sexual advice and bedroom “how-to’s” provided for target female readers. Although some of this material offers suggestions for how a woman can make sex more enjoyable for herself and therefore seems to encourage female sexuality, the majority of these “Sexposés” actually explain methods of increasing the experience of the man during sex and therefore despite the female sexual liberation facade, this prevalent discourse still ultimately depicts women as responsible for fulfilling the sexual desires of men. The sexually instructive articles in women’s magazines may at first appear to be empowering for women because of the supposed reign over men a “sex-goddess” can experience. However, after further examination, such power is exposed as short-lived, achieved only by performing sexual acts, and contingent upon male approval. Furthermore, these popular magazines dare women to be adventurous and assertive in the bedroom however such audacity is limited to male desire and any instruction must be done in such a way as not to bruise the male ego. My video montage showed only the covers of certain women’s magazines yet the ideas mentioned previously still manifest themselves within the titles of such articles. I argue that although these types of articles in women’s magazines openly discuss female sexuality and may consequently seem to be liberating and working to break the sexual double-standard, female sexuality in this context is still defined in terms of male sexual desire and therefore this form of media works more towards reinforcing traditional gender roles pertaining to sex instead of breaking them.

The amount of sexual content in women’s magazines has significantly increased from 30.2% in 1974 to 52.6% in 1994 (Carpenter 158). Even with the increase in sexual content, these magazines still focus primarily on male sexual needs. As Farvid and Braun state in their discussion of women’s magazines, “[they] could be described as being ‘obsessed’ with male sexuality…So although these magazines are ostensibly ‘women-centered,’ male sexuality is prioritized” (300). Even amidst the focus on male sexuality, it may seem as if a woman could gain power over men through her own sexuality. Eye-catching headlines on the covers, such as those seen in the video montage, vest this power in women by positioning them as the subjects and making men the recipients of the action: “Turn Him On,” “Blow His Mind,” “Heat Him up,” “Thrill His Body,” “Give Him,” “Make Him, “Keep Him,” “Send Him to the Moon!” In these examples, it appears as if women are in control however, upon further examination it is evident that their agency is tied to their sexuality and their ability to seduce men (Machin and Thornborrow 463). One must then question how much value power derived from sexual acts can really have. As Machin and Thornborrow state, “it hardly requires an act of perseverance or creative tenacity for a woman to have sex with a man” (465). Additionally, although women are now able to express themselves sexually, they are encouraged to do so only when such expression will align with men’s sexual wishes as shown in the titles of the articles. Consequently, this liberation through sexual expression is limited. Feminists such as Ariel Levy who are skeptical of female sexual expression being a part of the new feminism may therefore have a valid point in these instances because despite proclaimed women’s liberation, patriarchy still seems to be at work in maintaining traditional gender roles by reinforcing the idea that women are sexual objects for men and must work to sexually satisfy them. I argue that although this type of female sexual expression may seem to grant women power over men, women must rely on the reaction of men for this power which in turn keeps men in control and therefore these messages presented in women’s magazines do not actually empower women.

Ideally, sexually instructive articles in magazines that are catered to women such as Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and Glamour would primarily concentrate on methods of increasing female pleasure during sex but as seen in my video montage which featured a random selection of women’s magazine covers, such articles seem to appear much less frequently than those emphasizing male preferences during sex and those that do discuss female sexual needs almost always incorporate male desire as well. This is due to the fact that women’s sexual satisfaction is always justified and connected to male satisfaction (Machin and Thornborrow 464). This connection is evident in article titles such as “The Blended Orgasm” (Cosmopolitan, September 2005) and “Climax Together” (Cosmopolitan, May 2007) seen in my video montage. From these examples, it is more obvious that female sexuality exists only in relation to male sexuality (Farvid and Braun 300). Third-wave feminism ideas of women’s liberation through sexual expression are limited in these instances because although methods for achieving women’s sexual pleasure are featured, the idea of women’s pleasure can not stand alone and must always be connected to male pleasure.

Some of the articles containing sex advice in women’s magazines dare women to take control in the bedroom and be sexually adventurous and they therefore seem to be in line with third wave feminist ideas of promoting new sexual bravado as discussed by Deborah Siegel in “Sisterhood Interrupted.” These articles seem to have the potential to tear down the oppressive double-bind by instructing women to express their sexual desires. When glancing at one of these covers, on the right month of course because the majority of the time the articles are focused on men, it appears as if women can use men for sex without facing judgment in the same way men use women for sex. However, this is not the case because although women are often encouraged in these types of articles to express their sexual desires to man, they are instructed to do so in a very subtle manner so as not to “bruise his manhood” (Farvid and Braun 306). “Women who desire a change in a man’s sexual technique are typically encouraged to communicate it with caution” (Farvid and Braun 306). Caution must be taken because making too many sexual requests would undermine a man’s expertise and the notion of being in control of the sexual situation (Farvid and Braun 305). Consequently, women cannot experience liberation through sexual expression in these instances because their expression is limited by the confines of men’s comfort levels. Therefore, despite the permission from these texts for women to be more demanding when it comes to their sexual desires, they still depict the male as the dominate partner in heterosexual sex and therefore ultimately continue to promote the idea of traditional feminine sexual passivity and male dominance.

In conclusion, much of the content of women’s magazines is primarily concerned with satisfying male sexual desire and although these articles may appear to empower women by granting them power over men in the bedroom, these articles do not encourage any type of sexual expression that does not take in to account men’s sexual needs. Consequently, instead of empowering women, they work to reinforce the traditional gender roles that position women as sexual objects for men. Furthermore, I believe that if women wish to use sexual expression as a means to liberate themselves and work to break down the sexual double-standard, they should ensure that the primary goal of their actions is not to please men and receive male approval. Sexual expression can ultimately lead to liberation for women as long as the main focus is on the woman and such expression is not limited by the desires and comfort levels of men. However, at this time, women’s magazines are failing to encourage appropriate ideas of liberation through sexual expression because of their focus on male sexual desire which results in an inability to take away the objectiveness of sex and therefore the sexual messages presented in these magazines do not align with ideas of sex-positive feminism.

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