Magazine images of women and girls have changed over recent decades, perhaps reflecting the changes in women's status. It's not all good news, though. In the 1970s and 1980s, magazine advertisements stereotyped women by showing them smaller and taking up less space than men, being controlled by or dependent on men, and in less prestigious occupations. Now, women are more often shown as independent and professional.

But they are also shown wearing a lot less. They now more often appear staring vacantly or seeming disoriented, being psychologically removed from their situation. There are many more sexualised images of women – that is, images which focus on a woman's sexual features or capacity, rather than any other aspect of herself such as her work personality.

Christine Whelan has studied the advice given in US Cosmopolitan. She
concluded that in 1965, 87.5 per cent of Cosmo's relationship advice
focused on marriage and how to make it work. By 2000, she says, the
vast majority of relationship articles were about sex, short-term
commitment and instant gratification.

Sex sells

Because advertising money is crucial for the financial survival of most magazines, it is possible that the philosophies of commerce and advertising might also strongly influence magazine content. Editors need to ensure that enough companies see their magazine pages as profitable advertising space. This is how Girlfriend magazine sells itself to advertisers:

The interactive and commercial approach by editorial also means that editorial can assist in delivering teenage specific solutions to all advertising needs. Editorial will, through specific subject matter and suggestion, inspire action from all those who come into contact with the brand. Girlfriend magazine also gives advertisers opportunities that will leave no stone unturned in their quest to be in touch with the latest teen trends and to provide both entertaining and reliable information to the magazine's audience. Girlfriend girls are more than twice as likely to agree that they were "born to shop" and that they "wear clothes to get noticed" compared with the average woman.

Editors need to create "harmony" between advertisements and the actual content of the magazine. For example, the Vietnamese women's magazine Gioi Phu Nu was recently given an overhaul – gone is its original focus on women's cooperatives and social activism. Now content focuses on sex and lifestyle, and sex as empowerment. The editor said that these themes made young people think the magazine was fun, which in turn attracted advertisers. She said that advertisers didn't like the images of women working in fields. As a result, Vietnamese women's reality was no longer portrayed.

Christine Whelan has studied the advice given in US Cosmopolitan. She concluded that in 1965, 87.5 per cent of Cosmo's relationship advice focused on marriage and how to make it work. By 2000, she says, the vast majority of relationship articles were about sex, short-term commitment and instant gratification.

Whelan reports that US Cosmopolitan editor Kate White described the magazine as something "you get in bed with, or into the bathtub. Our reader sees the magazine as delicious, not necessarily good for her. The information is helpful, certainly, but it's not like eating oatmeal. It's more like a margarita."

If the world's most popular magazine does indeed promote sex, short-term commitment and instant gratification, perhaps it reflects the way this approach to relationships has been normalised in popular culture. Has "relationship" become synonymous with "sex"? Do editors take their own magazines' content seriously? Is the promotion of instant sexual gratification just harmless entertainment? And most importantly, how does it affect readers' beliefs and behaviour?

It's only normal

What we believe to be "normal" can influence our actions – even against our better judgment. Even in their relationships, people may act according to what they think is normal, rather than according to their own convictions.

A technical term for this is "pluralistic ignorance". It happens when every person in a group thinks that his/her beliefs or attitudes are different from what is normal, because the others in the group act a particular way. They want to be seen as a desirable member of the group, so each will act that way in public, despite holding a different belief in private. Each person believes that he or she is the only one who has a conflict between private belief and public behaviour.

Researchers tested this theory in a group of college students, 136 female and 128 male. Their topic of interest was "hooking up", or commitment-free casual sexual encounters. They found that most people believed everyone was more comfortable with the amount of hooking up than they personally were.

Men believed women were more comfortable with hooking up than they actually were. Likewise, women believed men were more comfortable with hooking up than they actually were. While both men and women overestimated each other's comfort levels with casual sex, overall men were more comfortable with it than women were.

The authors were concerned about this phenomenon. They thought that, in accordance with earlier research, it shows an "illusion of universality" that casual, non-committed sex is normal. As a result, they wrote: "Some men may pressure women to engage in intimate sexual behaviours, and some women may engage in these behaviours or resist them only weakly because they believe they are unique in feeling discomfort about engaging in them. In this context it is possible for a woman to experience sexual assault but not interpret the behaviour as such, believing it to be normative behaviour with which her peers are comfortable."

This could help explain how reading magazines may encourage more women to have sex with more men than they would have otherwise. Magazines may not say straight out "go and find lots of men to have casual sex with". But if Whelan's research is accurate, short-term flings are a dominant theme in women's mags and this makes casual sex seem normal: "everybody's doing it". To normalise an activity gives it power. Sex becomes normal in even a casual acquaintance where people hardly know each other at all.

Don't be a prude

You'd have to be a prude to not to want something "sexy" or to not to want sex, according to pop culture. Young women now have to give reasons why they don't want to have sex with guys they hardly know, or even their boyfriends. Some girls even pretend they have their period to get out of it because it's not enough just to say "I'm not ready" or "I don't want to".

In her book, A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit writes:

To the extent she has no social support in her decision to say no, when a girl for whatever reason wants to say no to sex, today she is always making a personal comment on her date: that he is ugly or in some other way unappealing. This is very hard to do. We know from Carol Gilligan that…girls are pretty eager to please, and put great stock in their relationships with others. The social support for modesty was a counterweight, balancing out this desire to please and enabling young women to test men's character, in order to choose a suitable partner. Without this support, a woman who doesn't want to sleep with a man is insulting him.

So a teenager or a young woman who doesn't want to have sex might be seen by others, by her boyfriend, or even by herself, as abnormal.
These women are almost invisible in the media – their decision is unlikely to be celebrated. Again quoting Shalit, "if in a different age a young woman had to be ashamed of sexual experience, today she is ashamed of her sexual inexperience". She believes we have lost the words to describe the real meaning of our sexuality, because sex has been made into a mechanical, empty and compulsory behaviour.

Famous feminist Germaine Greer was not lost for words to describe teenage girls' magazines — she called them "sinister muck", definitely not empowering for girls. In her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, American writer Ariel Levy poured caustic criticism on the idea that the "raunch culture" that encourages girls to behave like porn stars is a sign of their liberation. On the contrary, she said, it showed women turning against themselves by making themselves and other women sexual objects.

If these women writers, who can in no way be consigned to the "prude" category, are so angry with the exploitation of female sexuality found in today's popular culture, it is time to take notice.

Selena Ewing is a Research Officer at Southern Cross Bioethics Institute, Adelaide, and the author of Faking It: The Female Image in Young Women's Magazines, published by Women's Forum Australia. For more information go the WFA website. The above article is an edited excerpt from Faking It.

Selena Ewing is a freelance researcher and writer with 20 years of experience in researching, writing and speaking about public health, bioethics, and women’s health. She blogs maybe once a year at www.selenaewing.com.