Sex and the Modern Magazine Editor

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Women's magazines have come under fire this year for covering a topic groups with names like Morality in Media believe should be kept out of supermarket checkout aisles. But how out of step are women's magazines with the world at large? Are the monthlies simply reflecting a larger cultural shift in discussing sex or do they push the limits of public decency? Advertising Age's New York Bureau Chief Ann Marie Kerwin gathered a group of leading women's magazine editors to talk about one of their favorite subjects. Guess which one?

Ad Age: We're in the year 2000. Women have very complicated lives. There's plenty to write about. So who are your readers and why do they all want to know so much about sex?

Lesley Jane Seymour: Let's face it, we all came from a generation of divorce, and one of the big issues with our families and our lives was no sex life, and the guy went elsewhere or they lived in these horrible marriages that simmered with anger and all kinds of frustration underneath. And I think women of this age said, "I'm going to take a chance on marriage, or a relationship of some sort, but I'm going to make sure I don't end up divorced." And as much as we don't want to admit it, one of the glues that holds the marriage together is sex. My readers happen to be mostly married. Is it OK to talk about sex after we're married? And I find it frustrating that there are people on the outside who wish women would not talk or read about this. What's even more frustrating is that most of those people are men. We have to say, "This is what readers want."

Myrna Blyth: Women's magazines have written about sex certainly since the '50s and the '60s and . . .it was all in women's magazines. In fact, at one time, they were called the "pious pornographers." One of the great differences is, then, sex often in women's magazines was seen as a problem. In Ladies Home Journal and More, which is for baby boomer women in their 40s and 50s, sex now is seen more as celebratory, one of the pleasures of life. And it isn't a chore and it isn't a problem. Women today are kind of optimistic about their lives, are kind of positive. And that's part of the reason we talk about sex. We are still very informative. At the moment, there's great new research about sex being done in terms of whether there are pharmaceutical answers to problems in sex, such as Viagra for men. There's a whole new area of discovery. And when you are giving news about health, part of the news you are giving to women is news about ways to have better sexual health and sexual happiness.

AA: Ten or so years ago, sex articles tended to go in the middle of the magazine, away from all advertising, no pictures. Now sex is very much on the cover, it's the top cover line. Do you think that's part of the problem?

Ms. Seymour: Everybody thinks I invented the sex cover line on Redbook. I'm really flattered that people think I would be absolutely such a visionary, but it's been on there for the last 10, 12 years. It's been there and it's been racier. When I went back and looked at what [former Redbook editor, now Good Housekeeping editor] Ellen Levine was doing 15 years ago. It was "His hottest erotic secrets at work," and "The No.1 secret to making it hard." And I'm thinking `God!' So it's been there. But for some reason everybody's now saying, "Oh my God, you're putting this on the cover."

Ms. Pratt: I feel sort of lucky the Jane reader doesn't really come to Jane for sex coverage. It's part of what we do, but it's not our reason for being. I tested some covers where I did a big sex line right up on top and the newsstand sales were good. But they're also good when I put "Dress rich for $20 and up" there. Because there is so much sex coverage in magazines that are geared towards a similar reader, which is predominately single, median age 27, they can go so many places for it. But that's not what they're coming to Jane for necessarily.

Cynthia Leive: Sex is definitely not what moves Self on the newsstand. And even though we write about it, the way in which sex sells for us is very different than the way it sells for other magazines. Our core areas are: health, fitness, nutrition, happiness. And sex fits into that really in two ways. First, in terms of sexual health. . .doctors are sort of notoriously recalcitrant with gynecological information. And there are a slew of studies showing that women get their information primarily from the media and from magazines so we know that they look to our health coverage for a sexual content. And also, when you're talking about fitness which is one of our key issues, one of the main reasons women want to work out is to feel better in their bodies and more sexually competent. So, we write about it in that sense too. You mentioned the newsstand has gotten hotter and sexier and juicier. If you look inside the magazines, in some ways, it's actually gotten less explicit than it was 15 years ago. When I look back at Self from the early 80s, there were beautiful portraits of nude women to illustrate a story on confidence -- a nude women diving into a lake. We could never do that now. We'd be pulled from the newsstand. And that I think is unsettling.

AA: So the people controlling the newsstand have more of a say in what they believe is appropriate for everyone else?

Ms. Leive: Well I think it's also that magazines and sexual content in them has become a pet cause for many people and that did not exist 15 years ago. Even though the country was more conservative and women in general probably did not talk as candidly about sex as they do now. The freedom that magazines had was greater.

Ms. Blyth: But I also think the freedom of protesters is greater. And so one can understand if a consumer in a supermarket complains to the manager that she finds something objectionable, he may try to satisfy her by removing the magazine. . .And even though people may have in the past in general were more conservative, people now with a point of view are more empowered to try to express it and get action. It's an example of the kind of the empowerment all sorts of attitudes now have in this country.

Ms. Seymour: It's an easy way for a small group to get publicity. And it's a good sexy topic that gets picked up in the news. It's really very small groups. And what's funny about Redbook is that if you look at [the group's protest] ads, they're protesting our "love" cover lines. They're not even talking about sex. They're talking about sex for other magazines. And then they throw us in when we do `Six ways to make your love life hot.' So it really [makes you think] they don't want you to have a relationship, period. Which is ridiculous, it's silly.

Ms. Leive: A truly, scary anecdote. . .We had a coverline last March that read, `Oh yes. Easy, sexy hair. All yours. Page 156."

Atoosa Rubenstein: They didn't like sexy hair?

Ms. Leive: Something like that. A small chain in the Philadelphia area put covers on that because it said "Sexy hair." They targeted a number of magazines that month and many had very explicit sex cover lines, but ours must have popped onto somebody's radar because there was that word, "sex." So now I'm sorry I used that. It makes me feel. . .these decisions are being made and criticisms are being leveled by people who are not using any sort of sense of scale. That there's no difference between a very explicit sex cover line and something that just discusses sex in a way that most women today in 2000 would find pretty mild.

Ms. Pratt: Well I'm glad for that because when I was editing [teen title] Sassy magazine, I was the only one. I was singled out. . .Sassy, when I started that 12 years ago, we were taken off, at one point, 30% of our newsstands. We lost a lot of our advertisers because we were the first teen magazine to really deal with sex.

Ms. Rubenstein: Was it the cover lines or inside content?

Ms. Pratt: Content. Inside content.

Ms. Rubenstein: It's a very confusing time, especially right now for Cosmo Girl readers. Everything around them is sex, sex, sex. And unfortunately, many of them, mentally, aren't really ready for that. But yet they turn on the news, they turn on television, it appears as if everyone's having sex. They think, `Well, why can't I?' So what we try to do in the magazine is really see sex as a health issue and as a mental health issue. Our "Sex ed with Dr. Judy" column always talks about sex's emotional repercussions and mental repercussions, and how you have to be ready. Then we have Dr. Andrea Marks who's an adolescent specialist answering gynecological questions that, again, this reader is way too embarrassed to ask her mother or even ask her friends because then she comes off looking like a novice, which of course, you never want to be when your 16.

AA: Or even too interested in sex. . .

Ms. Rubenstein: Right, exactly. No matter what side you err on, I think when you're 16 years old, it's wrong.

AA: Are magazines just reflecting what's out there or they also helping cross it?

Ms. Seymour: Because we're talking about this topic from an advertising point of view, let me point out that there's a big difference between advertising and editorial. For an ad, I can invent something and try to come up with a way to sell it to you the difference with editorial is you're sensing what people want and you're giving them the information they want. It's a very different kind of thing, so people vote with their pocketbook. If they didn't want the magazines to discuss these topics, they wouldn't buy them. Media gets picked up because it hits a nerve. People buy a magazine because it hits a nerve. We know about that. We can't force an idea. . .It's part of the zeitgeist, it's where we are. We've moved a long way, and we can talk about these things.

Ms. Blyth: In many ways, men and women today, the lives they lead, certainly young men and young women's lives, are closer in experience than they've ever been before. They both work, they both have career ambitions, they're both busy, they almost dress alike. They both shop in Banana Republic and The Gap. And it's almost as if their lives are more androgynous, quite honestly, than ever before. And that this is what drives both the "lad" magazines for men and some young women's magazines. They almost make it seem as if men and women are more different than they've ever been before. And that's almost as a form of entertainment. It's not a real reflection at all. For a young women -- working, ambitious -- she doesn't jump up every day and say, "How am I going to be a sex bomb today?" She says, "How am I going to get that raise or do better?" And he gets up and says, "I've got to work and there's that woman trying to get that same job as me." [We're] at a time where men and women are closer, where they can really understand the details of each other's lives in a clearer way than ever before. It's not reality at all.

Ms. Pratt: I can really see that too. One impetus to start Jane was hearing young women say, "Why do I have to go to a men's magazine to read about music?" Or good entertainment coverage, or cars, or technology, or whatever. We do the same things. We're interested in the same things. . .I read a lot of young women's magazines and I feel like, "Who are they talking to?" Just some of the language. I saw the other day, "Let him take a gander at your gams." And I was like, "What?!?! What era are we in?"

AA: Do you think that if it's true that men and women have more in common than the media probably reflects, the magazines are edited as a nod to advertisers and their needs, because we're in an age of such extreme targeting in marketing that media products continue to create a somewhat false reflection?

Ms. Leive: It depends what subjects you cover. Certainly, when you're talking about health and fitness, you can talk a completely different way to women than you have to men. If you're talking to a man about health, most magazines assume you have to be very jocular, you have to do it in a Men's Health style. A female reader doesn't require that. You can give her straight information. She's not embarrassed about wanting it. The same with grooming and beauty advice. You have to be a lot jokier with men than with women. So it creates completely different voices in the magazines. And that's a real difference, not an ad created difference.

AA: So is it still not really possible to create a dual audience product covering these subjects?

Ms. Blyth: Maybe at some point, but the way things are now, people are working in the confines they have established. These are the choices they make. The men's magazines like Maxim, the way they relate to women is so unlike what's going on. It's almost a relief [for that audience.] We can get back and talk like this because, God knows, we can't be like this in the offices anymore.

Ms. Seymour: For us, oddly enough, for young, married couples, it doesn't really seem to be entertainment. If there's an entertainment aspect to its in terms of can you give me some other way to approach this? We get a lot of letters about how this thing really helped my sex life and my husband and I didn't know what to do, and this really was some good advice.

Ms. Blyth: Real information about health, women and sexual health -- women are very interested in that. In a world where the medical world is changing, where people do not have doctors they really can confide in anymore because of the changes in the medical system, to ask questions that are of an intimate nature to a doctor you may not know, or is the one the HMO has assigned you, is almost impossible. So to offer this kind of information to a busy woman who may not even have time, who rarely sees a doctor that she knows, doesn't even have time to talk to her girlfriends because she's busy, this is a wonderful opportunity to give people information they really do want. I know in the Journal, there's sexual health information that's totally accepted by all readers because it is giving them something they need.

Ms. Leive: I've also noticed that it's very accepted by advertisers as well. When I talk to advertisers about what Self's role is, they understand that we're a health advocate; they understand that we're giving women this information that they need. And I haven't fielded any objections about our sexual health coverage of which there is a tremendous amount.

Ms. Seymour: But I think we have moved beyond that. . .Yes, we want to get the health information. We want to get all that. But I feel bad that we all have to feel tethered to that What is wrong with talking about sex beyond sexual health? People have marriages and can be in relationships together and what's wrong with making yourself happy so you're not miserable, so you're children aren't growing up miserable. And so there's less trouble in a marriage, or a relationship. No, we don't have to be crazy, racy, all that stuff, but let's admit that we can go beyond sexual health.

AA: It seems though for the men's magazines its assumed that boys will be boys attitude is socially acceptable.

Ms. Seymour: Why is nobody protesting them?

AA: But are we still at the point where girls can't be girls?

Ms. Leive: They object to women's magazines because we usually have more prominent supermarket placement than men's titles do. Men's titles tend to be in the aisle, while women's tend to be at the checkout.

Ms. Blyth: Or covered by paper wrapper. . .The men's titles aren't giving advice, it's not "Make her happier" particularly. They're saying, "Make yourself happier and just read our magazine." It's the instructive nature of the coverline. It's both the cover line and how it's giving you instruction. That may be behind some of the issues.

Ms. Pratt: The only thing I ever find offensive is the advice in women's magazines, the sex advice, where it is about how to please him, how to get him back if he strays or whatever. It's like, "Huh?" That straightforward advice about pleasing yourself, I have no problem with that; you know, making yourself happier.

Ms. Rubenstein: That's what they want to know.

Ms. Seymour: You go to a focus group and everybody says, "Oh no! I want to hear about me." Then you go back and you write your little article all about you, and the research comes back at the end of the day and it says, "Whoa! No one cares." Then you do the article about him. And the response goes through the roof.

Ms. Pratt: But I don't care. I'm not going to tell them that.

Ms. Rubenstein: One thing we certainly notice with Cosmo Girl is this generation is different. They don't want to be dictated to. They really feel good about themselves. They're really optimistic. And so they are more interested in their inner life. When we first came out, one thing I noticed in all the teen magazines was that there was a guy section, an entertainment section, a beauty and fashion, which is all great. Of course, girls are interested in all that. But there was no section about her and that relationship she's building, which really is the most important relationship of her life. It had never been paid attention to in the teen magazines when we were growing up, and our generations have such low self-esteemand was always trying to please him, instead of pleasing her. So it's so refreshing to see these girls are different. And they do want to please themselves.

AA: Let's talk about the `F' word: Feminism. There's this generational divide about identifying yourself as a feminist. Younger women, just assume all of the rights that older women have won, but they don't want to say, `I'm a feminist.'

Ms. Blyth: Well, women in general don't like the term feminist. But that does not mean they don't believe in many of the things that the feminist revolution brought forth. So many, many things that were revolutionary 30 years ago are now totally accepted. The word feminist or feminism makes women uncomfortable. They associate that with still the worst sort of cliches. . .Certainly baby-boomer women who read More which is interesting because they are the women who sort of created it all, [are] still positive and associate the experience more positively than other women. In Ladies Home Journal in general, the word feminist does not appeal to them, but all the fruits of what feminism created, certainly, they believe in and certainly, want for themselves and certainly, absolutely for their daughters.

Ms. Pratt: For my readers, there's no question Jane is a feminist magazine, but I've never used that word in the magazine. But not because they dislike it which is what I think you're saying Myrna, but really just because it's not their word. They don't feel one way or the other about it. I'd more likely use "riot girl" than I'd use feminist. It's just not something they relate to, it's sort of seems like history to them, feminism.

Ms. Seymour: We did this poll asking women to talk about all the things they do. And when you look at the bottom line of the poll, you realize because of feminism, they have taken on not only all the old things, all the mothering, all the home-making, and all that feminism brought, which is working and independence. And so, you look at this whole thing statistically and say, of course you're tired, of course, you're overwhelmed because you never gave up anything. So this was the reward. Now you're spending this whole time trying to figure out how to balance all this. And that's the good thing. But that's also the tough thing. We would never talk about it as feminism, but one of the things we're trying to tell our reader is you don't have to do it all. And you've got to start being a feminist in enough parts of your life, making him a "heminist" or whatever he is to get him to do some of it. Because I really firmly believe the next revolution is coming, and it's coming through my group of readers, is the male revolution. Because women, at least in my group, have said, "I'm at the wall. I can't do it anymore." You're going to have to. It's not a matter of I want. It's you're going to have to help out. You're going to have to be more of a partner than the guy who because his father did zero, does 20% and wants 30 gold stars. I'm doing 120%.

AA: Do you think guys in their 30s are sort of still catching up to this idea? But guys in their 20s are more ready to step into that kind of role?

Ms. Blyth: We've done massive research on this. And it's interesting. Women who are older and recognize that men do more than men have ever done before, are appreciative. Younger women, married to men who do far more than men ever did before, especially related to parenting, are still furious. Younger women say, "Oh, he never does anything." So you ask, "Oh, he never does anything important, right? Like cook?" "Oh, he cooks." "He cooks?" "Well, he always cooks fish; I hate fish!" You know? But a woman who at one time knew that her husband had never boiled water and now makes soup is thrilled. So we see that generational divide, but when you talk about the ultimate thing about feminism, we've done a lot of research too and nobody wants to go back to the way it used to be. We see women who are busy, who are sometimes certainly burdened, but nobody wants the world where women do not have options and opportunity. They want it; they have it. There is a difficult period when children are small that they go through, and there is no doubt about that. But most of all, women continually want options and opportunities to fulfill themselves. It's true, the change in women's life over the last 40 years and into this century, it's the great story of today. It really is.

Ms. Leive: I assume on every page of the magazine that my reader is a feminist. Whether she uses that word really means zero to me. I tend to feel that a lot of women, if they don't identify with the word feminist, it's not because they have negative associations with it. It's simply because it sounds a little stiffer than what their version of feminism is. Their lives have this incredible sort of celebratory joy about them. They have this attitude of `I can have everything I want and then some.' And they may or may not associate feminism with that, but to me, that's what it is.

Ms. Rubenstein: If you sit a 16 year old girl down and you say,`Do you know your grandma couldn't do whatever she wanted?' She'd be like, `What?!?!' It doesn't even occur to her. For this next generation, they believe of course they're going to be the president. Like why hasn't there been one yet? This is ridiculous.

Ms. Pratt: Our readers are like the grand-daughters of feminists. They're not even the children of them. So, they should take it for granted; they do take it for granted that they can do whatever they want.

AA: Because lives of women are so complicated today, all of you are covering issues that are equally complicated: abortion, adoption, spousal abuse. But because this serious journalism is in the middle of mascara and thin thighs, there exists this perception that women's magazines aren't as serious as other journalism.

Ms. Rubenstein: It's all important to the reader. It's all part of her life.

Ms. Leive: And as long as that perception doesn't exist on the part of my reader, fundamentally, I really don't care.

Ms. Blyth: Without a doubt, all media has become feminized. What used to only be in women's magazines is now on TV every night in "Dateline," "Primetime Live." In a way, all of TV news now focuses on human interest stories. If anything, the kind of journalism women's magazines created has become the dominant form of journalism. If Vice President Gore's ratings could go up 10% by kissing Tipper; and even more amazing, George Bush's ratings could go up 10% by kissing Oprah, I mean really. They don't want to give us credit, but we deserve it.

Ms. Leive: Well, it's true. Even "The Sopranos," a Mafia show is about relationships. It's about how these families get along. It's about parents and children. That's the stuff of women's magazines.

Ms. Blyth: Media have become feminized. Absolutely.

Ms. Seymour: Every year, The New York Times or somebody gets out their pencil and says, "Women's magazines, it's the same old garbage." Which is just an old song. You know what? They haven't looked at magazines recently. Because we do really amazing, hard-hitting stories. We break news, we break health news, we save people's lives, we change people's lives. Yes, there's other stuff there too. But buy a Sports Illustrated, that's a "real" magazine because it's emotion and team-work and it's pulling ahead; we're the same thing. It's just because we come out of this male-dominated area. Frankly, I consider us "Sports Illustrated for Women." It's the same. Why isn't it in the same playing field essentially? And it really is for our readers.

Ms. Blyth: And the value of the magazines. These are the magazines with millions and millions and millions of readers. And so the formats and formulas we use are clearly very, very successful formulas. As I say, formulas that now are copied by television by a whole bunch of things without us ever giving us credit. But we do know our readers are satisfied by these magazines and that's the great strength.

Ms. Pratt: My readers get a kick out of it too. Sometimes they'll write and say "My boyfriend picked up my copy of the magazine and he was so impressed at this story,' that you did and now he's always taking my copies."But I think they get a little bit of that same kind of flack, my readers do, for reading women's magazine.

Ms. Seymour: If you open up any women's magazine today, you will find real hard-hitting journalism in there. Stories that really change people's lives and I think that's the bottom line. I mean, when you see Time magazine with Katie Couric on the cover, and the cover is right out of the women's market. It was incredible. It was all about her personal life. I was like, wait a minute. That's us.

Ms. Blyth: That's true. And you're not alone. Both on television and the newsweeklies are doing stories that are human interest stories now. Whether it's divorce, children, or a health story, they're all basically feature human interest features or their strongest story is about a celebrity because they can't rely on the news. You've already heard the news on CNN and the Internet ten days before you finally pick up your copy.

Ms. Leive: But I do think it's true that most people who criticize women's magazines for being full of drivel and drivel only have not opened women's magazines.

Ms. Rubenstein: But it's true. We change lives. We save lives.

Ms. Blyth: We do.

Ms. Rubenstein: Girls are on the brink of madness, jumping off a building. An article, a word changes it.

Ms. Blyth: I would say that probably no magazines has as an intimate a relationship with their readers and yet at the same time have such strength in the journalism, in the information that they provide.

Ms. Leive: I'm sure all of us have our file folders. I have one in the drawer of my desk with all these places we've beat major news outlets to a story. We beat the New England Journal of Medicine to a story this year. I know we all have that because there's a temptation to be incredibly defensive when attacked like this. But the bottom line is you don't have to be defensive with your reader because she knows it already.

AA: One of the things I find interesting about the morality of the media is that they use letter-writing campaigns as something to rein in the media and make you all behave because that gets advertisers very nervous. They don't want people writing to them. But should advertisers worry about how you're connecting with your audience as long as you are connecting with your audience?

Ms. Pratt: I think so because the environment is important. One of the things I do in Jane is I never use the word "flaws." I never focus on the negative with my readers, it's always empowering. . .I think that would be important to an advertiser. [Advertisers say] it's important to them that when a young woman is reading Jane, she's feeling good basically. She's not focused on the negatives, but more on positive.

Ms. Leive: I stress and I think advertisers can sense from our pages that our reader is coming to this magazine from a position of confidence. She's not coming at it from a point of view of, "Oh, I'm so anxious my husband might leave me. My body looks terrible, and my dog ran away." She feels good about herself and her life and I think advertisers like that. I would if I were an advertiser.

AA: Another criticism that women's magazines get is that you're too cozy in the backseat with advertisers? Where is your edit/advertising line and where do you draw it?

Ms. Blyth: Advertisers want an environment where you really touch the reader and focus on the reader. I don't think any advertiser wants to be in a magazine where there isn't strong editorial. I really believe that. I think they really want an editor, and a product they can respect. And I really don't believe that's true. I really don't. I mean at times when I've run the business side of the Ladies Home Journal as well as the editorial, I remember one of the executives said to me, "I'd be worried if the editor reported to the publisher. I'm not worried if the publisher reports to the editor." And I really do believe that. Advertisers do respect a strong product and an editor's vision. I don't think they really want too cozy a relationship. I don't think they think it's appropriate either. I think the major advertisers are quite sensitive about that.

Ms. Seymour: Yeah, the major ones. You get some people who say how dare you criticize my product or whatever. We always say, write a letter. We run the letter if you didn't like what we said.

Ms. Blyth: If somebody doesn't like it, they don't have to advertise. . .Basically advertisers trust strong editors who are giving a product to readers that readers will like.

Ms. Rubenstein: And when the integrity's not there, readers know. They're not going to want to pay attention to your advertisers.

Ms. Seymour: And I think that's what happened on the Internet, the advertisers learned their lesson. They thought this is really great, and then they find that once the two become blurred, the pull for the reader is much less.

Ms. Pratt: I've actually found, sort of on the flipside that I've gotten letters from readers where it's clear they assume I have tried, personally, every product in the magazine, not only the ones in the editorial. I got a letter that I ran. . .because she wrote in to say that mascara you recommended gave me raccoon eyes and how can you do that, Jane? I ran it with the headline that "They're called ads." But there is this sense that I've put a stamp of approval on all of this.

Ms. Seymour: Sometimes they get confused as to what is an ad and what is editorial which is why you have to keep it as clearly marked as you can.

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