Young men who read magazines that objectify women — like Maxim and Men’s Health — are less likely to seek consent or respect their partner’s sexual boundaries. That’s the conclusion of a recent study led by Dr. Stacey J.T. Hust, associate professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
Published in a recent issue of The Journal of Sex Research, the study suggests reading men’s magazines is associated with lower intentions to seek sexual consent and lower intentions to adhere to decisions about sexual consent. Or, as the researchers stated, “young men who read these publications are less likely to respect another’s sexual boundaries.”
The study was based on data from over 300 college students who answered questions about their magazine consumption and personal relationships. The researchers found that “the dominant heterosexual scripts in men’s magazines is negatively associated with consent negotiation intentions.” In other words, men who get their sexual advice from men’s magazines are more likely to make inappropriate advances toward women who aren’t interested, or to push a situation too far even if the woman has clearly asked them to stop.
According to the researchers, this could be because magazine articles giving tips to improve men’s sex lives often create a “false impression” about how to negotiate a consensual sexual encounter.
“If readers internalize and accept the sexual scripts currently present in men’s and women’s magazine content, it could have an impact on their perceptions of consent and how it should be obtained,” the authors write.
The researchers acknowledge that the correlation does not necessarily prove that these magazines are causing predatory behavior among men. It’s possible that men who already have dismissive attitudes toward women are attracted to reading magazines with objectifying content. However, the researchers also point out that the media can have a significant influence on broader cultural attitudes about sexual relationships and sexual boundaries.
“We learn a lot about how to act in a relationship by what we see and read in the media,” said Dr. Hust. “Bad information can lead to bad decisions.”
In the absence of other resources to guide decision-making related to sexual relationships, young men “often rely on sexual scripts conveyed, in part, through mass media to determine appropriate behavior,” the study states.
Sexual scripts can be seen as providing guidelines for appropriate sexual behavior and sexual encounters. Although sexuality is often construed as purely biological, there is actually a great deal of learning and social construction involved in the development of sexuality. That’s why sexual norms, expectations, and attitudes about “normal” sexual behavior change so much over time and why there is so much variation in sexual scripts between different cultures.
In other words, perceptions of appropriate sexual behavior are learned through culture and through our interactions with others. In most Western countries, the media has a significant role in this socialization process. And unfortunately, the content in many men’s magazines in the U.S. doesn’t promote a healthy sexual script for young men.
“Men’s magazines promote men as sexual aggressors, and it appears that readers internalize this message,” the researchers write.
This isn’t the first study that has analyzed the potentially detrimental effects of the media’s portrayal of women. In 2011, a team of British researchers found that the descriptions of women used in men’s magazines are often indistinguishable from the views expressed by convicted rapists.
“There is a fundamental concern that the content of such magazines normalizes the treatment of women as sexual objects,” one of the lead researchers of that 2011 study said at the time.
Another study from 2011 found that the media’s reification of the “heterosexual script,” which represents the dominant script defining what is normal and culturally appropriate sexual behavior in most Western countries, encourages men to aggressively pursue sexual relationships and to treat women as sexual objects. In the media, this script reinforces the notion that sexuality is a defining component of men’s masculinity, with the pervasive message being that “accumulating sexual experience with women is an important, desirable, and even necessary component of masculinity, and men should attain sexual experience by any means possible.”
These scripts are not just harmless messages: research indicates that they have real-life consequences for the men exposed to them, as well as the women harmed by them. For example, in one study, researchers found that college men’s exposure to music videos based on the heterosexual script was associated with support for sexual stereotypes and sexual objectification of women. There is also substantial evidence showing that increased exposure to media objectification is associated with sexual assault perpetration.
The danger of the pervasive cultural attitude that views women as objects of men’s desires cannot be overstated. When men believe they are entitled to sex, they often respond violently when women deny their sexual advances. This was the dynamic we witnessed last week, when Elliot Rodger went on a shooting rampage in an act of revenge designed to punish the “sluts” who wouldn’t have sex with him. And this is not limited to the tragic shooting in California — it actually happens all the time. Indeed, just hours after Rodger killed nine innocent young people, a man shot at three women when they refused to have sex with him.
The issue of violence against women who refuse men’s sexual advances is so pervasive that it inspired an entire movement to bring it to light. After the news of Rodger’s hate-filled killings, activist Deanna Zandt launched the website “When Women Refuse” to document other recent incidents of violence perpetrated against women after they turned down the sexual advances of men.
These disturbing attitudes are so deeply ingrained in our culture that objectification, sexual harassment, and abuse have become the ‘new normal’ among young women, according to a recent study. These types of sexual violence are so ubiquitous that they “appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives,” noted the study’s author, Dr. Heather Hlavka.
These are deeply troubling trends, but the fact that we are having these discussions is a sign of progress. Feminist activists are increasingly bringing these issues to light and making it much harder to ignore what’s going on. Just last week, we got a glimpse into women’s everyday experiences with gender-based harassment, violence, and objectification as women from around the world took to Twitter to share their personal accounts using the #YesAllWomen hashtag. While there are still people who refuse to acknowledge that these issues are real, it’s a lot harder to deny women’s experiences when over a million of them are made public in less than 24 hours.
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