The Impact of Cosmo Magazine on Women’s Sexual Attitudes

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The impact of mass media such as Cosmo Magazine on women's sexual attitudes is mixed - empowering and problematic effects were found.

Cosmo Magazine

Photo: sassattack on Flikr

Cosmo Magazine is known for its sexually explicit content. For better or worse.

When I teach human sexuality to university students, my students tend to know fairly quickly how I feel about Cosmopolitan Magazine’s sex and relationship tips. I tend to make it clear that I don’t like the magazine and its seemingly constant focus on “pleasing your man” and “changing your body”. I find myself frequently left wondering why it isn’t focused on “pleasing yourself” and “enjoying your body for what it can do”. I sort of thought of it as the anti-feminist magazine, which is oddly the opposite of what the revamp of the magazine intended in 1965 when Helen Gurley Brown took over.

So when I saw this publication in Psychology of Women Quarterly titled “Striving for Pleasure Without Fear: Short-Term Effects of Reading a Women’s Magazine on Women’s Sexual Attitudes“, I was hoping that this was a scientific assessment of Cosmo’s impact (albeit short-term) on women. Sure enough, it was! Finally, my opinions were tested and the scientific findings were published.

Authors of the article, Janna Kim of California State University – Fullerton and L. Monique Ward of University of Michigan used an experimental design where women were randomly assigned to one of two groups: experimental and control. The experimental group was assigned to read articles depicting scripts about sexual relationships in Cosmo. The control group was assigned to read articles containing no scripts about sexual relationships in the general entertainment magazine, Entertainment Weekly.

Although I’m biased due to my preconceived opinions about Cosmo, there are some good reasons this was the magazine of choice for the experimental condition. Cosmo is the top-selling magazine for young women, it has a reputation of being sexually explicit, and it has been studied before, which allows for better comparisons and more accurate content knowledge.

The goal of this study was to see if short-term exposure affected young women’s (160 undergrads with an average age of 20) endorsement of sexual scripts such as “sex is risky” or “women’s sexual assertiveness serves men’s sexual fantasies” or “women’s sexual assertiveness serves women’s own sexual desires”. The specific hypotheses were that women exposed to common sexual scripts in Cosmo would:

  1. more strongly believe intercourse is recreational and less strongly believe intercourse is risky than those in the control group.
  2. more strongly believe women should use their bodies and appearance to attract male partners than those in the control group.
  3. more strongly believe female sexuality is geared toward a woman’s own pleasure and desire in addition to toward the pleasure of a male partner than those in the control group.

Priming theory, which is the unconscious activation or priming effect of existing knowledge after exposure to a particular stimulus, was used to explain how a brief exposure could elicit a change in attitudes. This was also used as a backdrop to another question the researchers had regarding the amount of regular reading of these magazines. The researchers thought that perhaps more frequent readers (women who actually read magazines like this) would be differentially affected than less frequent readers (women who don’t typically read magazines like this).

In testing the first three hypotheses, the researchers statistically controlled for age, ethnicity, and level of sexual experience (which means that these results held true after holding each of those three variables at a constant):

  • More frequent magazine readers more strongly endorsed a recreational view of sexual activity compared to less frequent readers, but there was no significant difference between those exposed to Cosmo vs. control.
  • More frequent readers were less likely to believe premarital intercourse is risky compared to less frequent readers.
  • Participants who were in the experimental condition (short-term exposure to Cosmo) were less likely to believe intercourse leads to negative consequences.
  • More frequent readers were more likely to believe women should use their appearance and femininity to attract male partners compared to less frequent readers.
  • More frequent readers who were in the experimental condition (exposed short-term to Cosmo) were less likely to endorse a submissive/alluring female sexual role than more frequent readers in the control condition.
  • Less frequent readers who were in the experimental condition (exposed short-term to Cosmo) were more likely to endorse a submissive/alluring female sexual role than less frequent readers in the control condition.
  • Participants in the experimental condition (briefly exposed to Cosmo) more strongly endorsed a view that female sexual assertiveness is for a woman’s own pleasure compared to those in the control condition, but this wasn’t true regarding male sexual pleasure.

Overall, the researchers found that women who were exposed short-term to Cosmo articles were less likely than control women to believe that sexual intercourse is a risky activity and more likely than control women to believe that women should be assertive in prioritizing their sexual desire for their own sake, but not for a male partner’s.

So yes, my opinions were tested (at least for brief exposure)! But my opinions actually weren’t entirely accurate (gasp!!), and perhaps Cosmo isn’t so horrible after all. These findings suggest that women’s magazines such as Cosmo have potentially mixed effects. The impact is potentially problematic when women, after brief exposure, are less likely than those exposed to the control to believe premarital sexual intercourse is risky (though it doesn’t have to be risky – use condoms, practice negotiation, communicate with your partner, and make sure its consensual). But the short-term impact of Cosmo can also be empowering for women when, after brief exposure, they are more likely than those exposed to the control to believe that women should be assertive in prioritizing their sexual desire for their own sake, but not for a male partner’s.

This study wasn’t designed to assess the long-term impact of Cosmo on women’s attitudes. And I’d be interested to see a study similar to this examine constructs such as body image and sexual satisfaction, because a lot of my opinions around Cosmo are rooted in the long-term impact reading this magazine has on those constructs specifically.

It is good to see that there might be something left of Helen Gurley Brown’s impact of attempting to sexually liberate women through the magazine. With one of her quotes, “How could any woman not be a feminist? The girl I’m editing for wants to be known for herself. If that’s not a feminist message, I don’t know what is.”

I don’t want to close this post leaving you thinking I’m entirely transformed and will go buy the next issue of Cosmo. That’s not the case at all. But it is encouraging to see that, according to this one study, the impact isn’t all bad. As I previously mentioned, it would be great to see a long-term effects study conducted and a body image and sexual satisfaction component included.

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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