On January 1, the Washington Post published a report titled "Women’s magazines are dying. Will we miss them when they’re gone?" In the lengthy feature, Lavanya Ramanathan details the history of women's magazines that began in the 1960s, noting their rise to prominence at a time when women's ideas in society were less likely to be taken seriously. Sexism was much more rampant than it is today, and feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were pursuing avenues to spread their messages of equality and empowerment among women and in the culture at large. The concept of sexual liberation was an important piece of that feminist message, and outlets like Cosmopolitan embraced it, as they do now.
In the Post report, Ramanathan explores how magazines that were once staples in waiting rooms, beauty parlors, and even libraries are now a dying breed. She discusses how the unique role that these publications once played is less desired, and the content wanting. Among the factors that contributed to the decline in interest, Ramanathan mentioned that today’s magazines have not kept up with women’s perceptions on beauty, as they by and large continue to churn out photoshopped and unrealistic images that make readers feel inadequate. But I think there’s something else women’s magazines unrealistically depict—women’s desires when it comes to love and relationships. And this blind spot could also speak to the fall in women’s readership.
A lot has changed in our culture since the ‘60s, with movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp raising concerns about the dysfunction of sexual expectations between the sexes, and most women’s magazines have turned a blind eye to the connection between the mess we’re in and the sexual revolution they champion. In that respect, I think women's magazines that began in the 1960s have not stayed current to what women are really experiencing, especially when it comes to their content on relationships and love.
Where Inauthentic Meets Irrelevant
Recently, I was perusing the Cosmopolitan website’s “Love” section. I will admit that I didn’t have high expectations. What I didn’t anticipate is that the only content available would be articles about sex positions. I scrolled through, assuming that eventually there would be a break in the sex content, and they would throw in an article about relationships that extended beyond sex, but I was wrong. This section wasn’t really about love at all, it was about sex.
Cosmo is part of the larger genre of women’s magazines. As its sisters Glamour and Seventeen abandon print in favor of online exclusive material, however, Cosmo has found a way to expand. But it’s a grim picture. If the content in Cosmo is any indicator of who they think women are nowadays, our biggest concerns revolve around celebrity gossip or pleasing our partner sexually.
I don’t think of myself as uptight or easily scandalized by the topic of sex, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was insulting to suggest that sex positions are all women think about when considering love. Sure, romantic love often involves sex; but the reality is that modern sex doesn’t always involve love. So, to me, this equation of love and sex is not just false advertising, it contributes to the confusion that many experience about the hookup culture, sexuality, and love.
Sure, sexual liberation has taken place, and outlets like Cosmo want to embrace that. But I think it’s mistaken to assume that women want to distance themselves from the concept of deep love and want only the physical part of it. I would go so far as to say such an outlook is unfeminist. Because the view that all sex as liberating is false.
In the Washington Post article, Cosmo is discussed briefly, not for falling out of favor but for their large monthly online traffic (though we don’t know what sections garner the bulk of that traffic). If it’s “Love” section contributes to this great traffic, it could be that Cosmo is reaping the traffic benefits that porn enjoys, since the illustrated sex positions are quite graphic. Whatever the case is, we know that Cosmo is not the only one treating sex and love as identical. For many women’s outlets and much of media today, sex is portrayed as little more than a workout routine with no deeper consequences or feelings. Since the report offered very little commentary or explanation about the treatment of sex, relationships, and love in women’s magazine, I propose to offer my own.
How Sex Became Another Descriptor for Love
To understand why sex and love have become seemingly synonymous, it helps to look back to the 1960s; the sexual revolution served as a cultural rejection of the past norms surrounding sex and relationships by questioning standard behaviors and attitudes. Primarily led by the second-wave feminist movement, this revolution encouraged a more liberal stance on sex and encouraged women to embrace their sexuality. The concept of “free love,” much touted at that time, paved the way for our modern hookup culture, in which people attempt to enjoy sex without emotional attachment, feelings, fidelity, or even relationships. The freedom implied is that you can walk away when you are done. I think these concepts have, with time, led to our cultural muddling of love and sex.
From a young age, we are told to tie our identities to our sexuality, which makes Cosmo’s love section, entirely devoted to sex, all the more disturbing to me—it promotes the ideas that the love we experience is only as good or as active as our sex lives, and our sex lives are the only way to experience love.
Despite the cultural slant toward hookup culture and the abandonment of meaningful relationships, more and more social psychologists and authors are exploring the idea that many people aren’t finding love or fulfillment in the hookup culture. Many young people are opting out of hookup sex, even though it seems like our media sends constant subliminal messages that hooking up is the norm. The pressure many people experience, to be sexually available to multiple partners, can be intense, and, in this sense, sex no longer remains as liberating. As Professor Donna Freitas discussed with the Atlantic in an interview about her book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy, “it's not empowerment and freedom—it's coercion and conformity and despair. That's not what feminism is about.”
As social beings, we are meant to have fulfilling relationships, whether with a romantic partner or just through a meaningful friendship. Freitas argues that our understanding that independence means a rejection of meaningful relationships is false: “To put those things on opposing sides is problematic. What we need to do is figure out how our society can better accommodate relationships for both women and men.”
For me, when it comes to love, I'd like more than a guide to sex. I’d like to know that I am not the only one who wants more than what is on the surface. I don’t need help with sex positions; I want more articles about remaining close to your partner when the going gets tough, or how to grow in emotional intimacy. I know I’m not alone in this: according to research from Harvard University, 85 percent of young people prefer something other than hooking up (like spending time with a friend) and 70 percent of 18-25-year-old respondents wish they had received more information from their parents about the emotional aspect of relationships.
Further, I want content that assumes my wants and desires go beyond my sexuality, and that part of being a woman and a feminist is that I am multifaceted, not just a bunch of body parts. I don’t want to be a part of a movement where sex alone is equated with the highest good of love. It’s frankly depressing. And, as it is with the hookup mentality about sex, the appeal is gone as quickly as the next morning.
Which is why I’m not surprised to see the future look dim for ‘60s-era women’s magazines that share this narrow view. For me and many of my girlfriends, they don’t speak to our real experiences. One hopes the sunset of Glamour and Seventeen will signal the dawning of a more relatable, and more elevated, women’s media.