For the uninitiated, I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane on media coverage of young people and sexuality, “featuring Cosmo, Cleo, Zoo, the papers, Ask Sam and … er, Jezebel, just because I like them!”
Normally, I would post the paper (or a summary of it) here, but in this case I’ve chosen not to. Mostly because I don’t actually think it was very good. Or at least, not the kind of “good” I’d like to put out into the ether.
Here’s what’s easy to say. That the media sells us this idea of an amazing, exciting sex life filled with endless opportunity, excess and pleasure. And that other elements of us tell us that these things are bad and that we’re sluts/dupes/causing the downfall of Western civilisation (or at least, traditional gender roles and courtship patterns) if we engage with them. But that’s not particularly interesting, and nothing that you’re probably not already aware of if you’ve read a feminist blog in the last 5 years.
Nor is it entirely accurate. If you actually look closely at these publications, you’ll see that not only is there a variety of things being said across them (CLEO, for example, tends to run more pop sociology stories on women’s independence and changing relationship/courtship patterns, as opposed to Cosmo’s tendency to publish stories on how to handle different sexual situations - they may look the same from an outsider’s perspective, but they are by no means the same publication), but nor are most of the publications I looked at ideologically consistent.
It would be false to say that Cosmo was entirely a celebration of self-focused hedonism, for example, or that the opinion pages of the papers were all middle-class conservative whining about “raunch culture” and “the sexualisation of children” (both terms I try to unpack in my paper).
One thing I believe quite strongly is that critiques of what is presented as the dominent sexual culture (the Cosmo/Ask Sam stereotype of self-focused hedonism), rely on the same beliefs and assumptions as the culture they are bemoaning. And thereby reinforce it as “normal” or “what everyone else is doing”, even though ample evidence suggests it is not.
The question I am yet to answer is how exactly this dynamic plays out when what’s being said is so varied and inconsistent? And why, despite these inconsistencies, do most people walk away from it seeing somewhere much more cohesive? And what role do outlets or writers who position themselves as questioning these two core ways of looking at sex - such as, say, Jezebel - play in all of this?