Pick up any typical women’s magazine, and you’ll find in it one of the usual phrases—“Touch Him There,” “How to Play Dirty (and Like It!),” and, of course, “5,367 new sex positions.” These features can provide some amusing Friday night material over which to giggle with your girlfriends or embarrass your boy/guy friends. But they also serve as a reminder of what our culture still apparently believes is a woman’s place, if not in society, then at least in the bedroom—on the bottom.
Our literature on sex does not reflect any of the striving for gender equality so prevalent in today’s world. In fact, the sexual inequalities it endorses may reflect how deep-seated gender inequality still is. If we’re not even equal in bed, how are we to be equal at school or work?
The disparities are on most obvious display in gendered magazines like Cosmopolitan and Redbook. Look at those magazine headlines again. All those titillating taglines are about making the man feel good: “Find His Sensitive Spots,” “10 Moves He’s Secretly Begging For,” “The Foreplay He Craves.”
Of course, these articles have their undeniable uses. But there are practically no symmetrical “what-she-wants” articles in men’s magazines, or even complementary “what-you-could-want” articles in women’s magazines. A cursory glance at any standard men’s publication such as GQ or Esquire, not to mention Maxim, makes this clear. Anybody expecting to find actual women in the section labeled “Women” will be sorely disappointed; instead, there are usually pictures of bikinis with breasts in them and accompanying articles about how to meet those breasts. And any sections labeled “Sex” will almost always be about how the man can tell the woman how to make him feel good. The ultimate message sent to women is that their desires are at best secondary to their man’s and at worst essentially nonexistent—or at least not important.
Any girl with experience knows these issues matter. Only 29 percent of women report reaching orgasm “every time,” as compared to 75 percent of men. As Hannah Seligson, a current girl-power guru, observes, “The male psychology on women’s orgasms is comparable to their psychology on housework: Men don’t pull their weight on either front because no one makes them.”
Why don’t women make them? There are several possible reasons: One, they’re too afraid. Two, they don’t care. Three, that they don’t know what they want themselves. Women do seem to be at an impasse: We’ve gotten as far as figuring out that we like sex but haven’t yet figured out how to make it fulfilling for ourselves. How could we, when all we read is how to “Give to Him the Orgasm He’s Always Wanted”?
There are those who would have women replacing this steamy bedside material outright with Newsweek or the Economist. One is certainly entitled to one’s own opinion on the issue. Personally, after a long day of dealing with papers, personal drama, and general stress, I feel a strong urge to flop down and read something light and fluffy, like Cosmo’s “Red Hot Reads.” And we all need a few new pointers now and then—just not for his body and desires alone.
If women’s magazines wish to fully cater to their audiences, there needs to be a push not to eliminate the types of articles currently being published, but to include comparable ones for women of the same type, intensity, and depth. To their great credit, a few men’s publications, such as Men’s Health, have just begun to publish some features in this mold. But this is a novelty—and still an unfortunate rarity. Despite the sexual and feminist revolutions, we are still a long way from understanding women’s sexuality with the level of detail in which we understand men’s. And one of the most efficient and effective ways to change this and help bridge our gender gaps would be through our pop literature. It will be a great day when I can walk by a magazine stand and see a Details cover proclaim, “Give Her What She Wants!”
Maya E. Shwayder ’10-’11, a Crimson editorial comper, is a psychology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.