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Essential information, or childhood sexploitation?

Thirty years ago, the average age of first sexual intercourse was 21. By the year 2000, it was just 16. Thirty years ago, we didn't have magazines like Sugar, J17 and More! but rather the likes of Bunty, The Beano and The Dandy. If teenage magazines are there to "educate, empower and inform" as editor of Cosmo Girl, Celia Duncan suggests, then what's going wrong?

The teenage magazine market has changed drastically. Today the ideology seems freedom-focused - an egalitarian philosophy gone to extremes. Feminism and freedom of speech are now rolled into one and called "girl power", yet this new found "power" isn't power at all. In a world that thrives on instant gratification, there is hardly any mention of careers, or any advice on morality, or how to find your individuality without it being based on how you look, or what boy you've managed to "pull". Magazine editors argue that their publications reflect the economic and cultural climate, but since culture is influenced by the media, just who is influencing who?

In February 1996, Peter Luff, M.P. for Worcestershire, called for a Bill which would have required publishers to display the youngest age for which they consider their publication suitable. This resulted in the formation of the Teenage Magazine Arbitration Panel, which monitors teenage magazines and responds to any concerns. However, despite getting over 250 complaints in the first year, such complaints have virtually dried up along with the acknowledgements that such a service exists. One could easily conclude that there is therefore nothing in the magazines worth complaining about but, as Luff himself says, "they haven't publicized that they've done the right things so that people can actually take advantage of the mechanisms that exist." Indeed, most people would be unaware of where or to whom they should complain about such matters and those who are aware naturally feel that they are fighting a losing battle in today's sexualised society.

Indeed, ignorance is rife. Parents, newsagents, writers' handbooks, and other magazine editors were unaware that the highly explicit More! magazine is targeting children as young as 16. Luff, who was also unaware, says "It should be sold as a top shelf publication together with the men's magazines" and describes it as "quite raunchy stuff". An understatement perhaps, since the magazine is full of sex from front to back, until recently having a regular "position of the fortnight" piece. In a recent issue, an article entitled "Sex and clubbing" talks of the excitement of having sex with strangers, one after the other, and makes no mention of dangers or consequences. In the same issue, readers confess their sexual fantasies including lesbian massage and they are told "don't just think about it... do it". In a recent survey of newsagents, More! was mentioned as being one of the most popular magazines for the age group 12-17, and a couple of newsagents said it was so popular with young teenagers that parents had complained and asked them to stop selling it. A follow up survey of 180 pupils aged 12-13 discovered that 11% of this age group were already reading the magazine on a regular basis. But with a magazine arbitration panel that isn't advertised, parents and newsagents left powerless, and professionals in the dark with regard to the marketing aims of such explicit cross-sector publications, is it any wonder that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe and that sexually- transmitted diseases are rife?

There is also the danger of isolating those who don't conform. Jon Bicknell, once co-founder of support group True Love Waits says, "Sex can be part of the whole fashion thing sometimes. If you haven't got a boyfriend on your arm then you are actually less of a whole person and that image, whether communicated in words or in pictures, is what I have a problem with. It supplies some of the deepest fears of teenagers." Magazine problem pages perpetuate the feelings of isolation among those who aren't ready for intimacy with typical responses such as "It's perfectly normal to want to touch and be touched by a boy you care for" and real life stories with headlines such as "Mike lost his virginity to a girl he hardly knew, but he was glad to get it over with." Problem pages abound with anything from teenagers distraught at not having had a boyfriend for at least a couple of weeks, through to a seemingly omnipotent Being advising on which sexual positions are "best". Even questions in surveys that ask when the reader's first kiss took place are loaded with assumptions. Teenagers with very real and unavoidable problems who need genuine help seem to be cast aside in favour of what sells.

There is hope. Mizz magazine, aimed at children 11-16 years old, is a prime example of how a girls' glossy can be popular without being sexually based. It re-launched aiming for the younger market some years ago, and, in a survey of 34 newsagents and 180 children aged 12-13, it came in the top four most popular magazines. Long time editor Sharon Christal describes the magazine as "a very safe title for teenagers." On the issue of editors claiming sex in magazines is educational she says "I think it's very repetitive, very boring and very sad if they are saying it's educational because it's not...they are out of touch with their readers." With the backing of supportive parents and ABC figures rising, they must be doing something right. Are other magazines, through their constant emphasis on sex in the guise of education, increasingly out of touch with a market that craves something new? Certainly, in a recent survey, sexual issues were not even mentioned by girls as being something they would like to see more of in their magazines today. In fact, it was the third most popular answer to what they want to see less of! Ironically, a massive 90% said they read the magazines for enjoyment rather than to learn, with an overwhelming majority saying they would take their parents advice on sexual matters rather than consider advice from magazines or friends.

Essential information, or childhood sexploitation? We still have a long way to go towards magazine morality. In today's capitalist society, magazines are all about making a profit, as are most businesses. Asked if the sexual content in teenage magazines is simply a marketing ploy, many editors would argue that it's about meeting a demand, but at what cost? These magazines emphasise girl power and awareness, yet the real power is held in the hands of the media and those who are able to influence and eventually change society. Girls don't become more promiscuous overnight, and, whereas editors may claim that magazines of today are more realistic, it doesn't mean that realistic is right, moral, or good. The problem now is that even writers themselves are caught in the trap of having to produce for a market that their predecessors have created. Writing is a commodity, but in this way, it can also be a trap. The only way out now is for those brave enough to stand out from the crowd, to move forward, to be persistent enough to finally be heard, and to care about the welfare of our young enough to dismiss the cries of "prude" and ignore the labels insinuating abnormality. We have a long way to go, but with enough "media vigilantes", we can surely make a difference.

This article is taken from the dissertation ‘The Sexual Content in Teenage Magazines, For Better or Worse?’ by D Pfeiffer, 2000. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.