TEXT: GWEN ROSEN ('15), CONTRIBUTOR.
“Hey mom, just wondering, what’s oral sex?”
I boldly asked my mother this question when I was twelve. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m not even entirely sure that I was as clueless as my frank delivery made me seem.
What I do remember is that the question was prompted by an article about STIs in Seventeen magazine. I’m pretty sure I saw “oral” and thought that maybe I was putting myself at major risk when someone dared me to go to first base at an awkward eighth grade party. So I asked my mom, just in case.
My mother gave me a textbook definition (I feel like the phrase “oral cavity” was used), and I had a moment of relief. But I wasn’t allowed to escape so quickly. She wanted to know what had prompted my question, and what exactly happened at Megan’s birthday party last weekend. I brushed her off, explaining that I had just read it in a magazine and I was curious.
“Oh, well I don’t think I want you reading anything that’s talking about oral sex,” my mom said.
“Oh, uh, ok.”
End of conversation.
Despite this warning from my mother, I continued to read Seventeen. Then I graduated to readingCosmopolitan (and from there to hating Cosmo, and from there to the general sentiment that Joanna Coles is trying her darnedest). After years of reading everything from that first STI article in Seventeen to “How to Give Him a MINDBLOWING Orgasm” in the big sister magazines, I finally started to consider just how large of a role magazines have had in my sexual education, and consequently my sex life.
It seems weirdly fitting that magazines have become entangled in the most intimate parts of my life. I’m a journalism nerd, and I spend most of my days making sure that there is a newspaper with relevant content on campus. But magazines are not newspapers. There is way less concern with reporting facts objectively and way more concern with selling things—in Seventeen’s case, selling the image of the perfect teenage girl.
I’ve thought a lot about how magazines have played a role in my early sexual education. But as I’ve expanded to other outlets for conversations about sex—friends, my FGSS classes, publications with strong feminist goals—I’ve realized that the content in Seventeen was very skewed. An abstinence-only message seemed to conclude every article, even the ones trying to explain how to have safe sex. What gives?
For my senior essay for FGSS, I’m studying how Seventeen magazine has presented sex to its readers over the years. As I’ve flipped through issues from the 70s all the way up to this November’s issue (which sports the tagline “Get a Cute Booty” right across Harry Styles’ chest), I’ve found that the articles about sex are riddled with contradictions.
An article from the March 1971 issue encourages readers to talk to their parents about sex (yay for open and honest communication!), but then suggests that things like “masturbation or specific details of your personal sexual behavior” should be discussed with another trusted adults, such as a minister.
So…masturbation is chill if my minister says so? If I don’t want to talk to my minister about it, or if I’m Jewish, I shouldn’t masturbate?
Skip ahead 20 years to the August 1991 issue featuring a Q&A in the “Sex and Your Body” article. The second to last question asks how to know if you’re ready for sex, and is answered with four paragraphs about the emotional and physical burdens that come with sex. The last reader asks about effective birth control methods, and specifies that she’s already had sex with her boyfriend. Seventeen lists some helpful information on birth control pills and IUDs, but not before reminding her of a bunch of scary statistics and that abstinence is the only truly effective method to prevent pregnancy.
In other words, Seventeen wishes the sexually active reader had read the beginning of the Q&A before having sex. But since it’s too late for her, here’s some info. Good luck, girl.
I’m wondering what would happen if publications like Seventeen adopted sex-positive attitudes. Maybe if I couldn’t have asked for my mother to bravely discuss “genital and oral cavity contact” (I’m still cringing), then Seventeen could have been a safe haven for those conversations and questions. But from what I’ve read, Seventeen has only ever said “no,” which leaves nowhere to turn when you’re trying to figure out how to say “yes.”
I wrote in my research proposal that I’m hoping to produce a radical theory of sexuality through this project. Maybe that will happen. Or maybe I’ll just be forced to revisit all the awkward conversations and bad hairstyle choices from my preteen days. We shall see.