Sex, Lies, and Women's Magazines

Audience members, mostly senior-level editors and writers for women’s magazines, joined the panelists in voicing many familiar complaints about the industry: too many skinny models, even more emaciated feature stories, and too much advertiser influence on editorial content. Laurie Abraham, executive editor of Elle magazine, however, had something else on her mind. The worst thing about women’s magazines, she asserted during the panel discussion, is how much “we lie about sex.”

Under normal circumstances, a roomful of experienced journalists might rise up in outrage at being called liars. But Abraham’s statement was met with nods of guilty agreement and mildly embarrassed “tell me something I don’t know” shrugs. No one denied the charge.

This is not Watergate, of course, or even Monica-gate. Yet these ubiquitous stories about sex are presented as journalism, chock full of analysis and quotes, and they are surely believed by many of their readers. They are a formidable cultural force, shaping and reinforcing our attitudes about men and women, orgasms and relationships. Women’s magazines run scrupulously reported and fact-checked articles on such subjects as breast cancer and women under the Taliban. Do they have a problem with sex?

Well, yes, it turns out, they do. Many writers, editors, and fact-checkers involved with these sex articles (most of whom asked that their identities be protected with the top-secrecy accorded Seymour Hersh’s CIA sources) agreed that the editorial standards for them are abysmal. —Liza FeatherstoneSex, Lies, and Women’s Magazines (Columbia Journalism Review)

I’ve blogged this before, but the CJR reorganized its archives, breaking the link. So here it is again.