Sex always sells, but is the cost too high?
After Dame Joan Bakewell this week attacked teen magazines for their overtly sexual content and its effect on young girls, two writers debate whether the publications really do go too far.
Fionola Meredith argues that teen magazines place too much emphasis on sex , an issue best addressed at home
Magazines for teenage girls have been around for generations and, for just as long, parents have been fretting about the dangerous effect they might have on teenage minds and bodies.
When I was young, ‘Jackie’ magazine was considered pretty hot stuff, full of tips on things like how to french-kiss your boyfriend, and my mum would never let me buy it. But the likes of Jackie look as chaste and innocent as Little House on the Prairie now.
That's why Joan Bakewell was right to speak out against the effects of today's magazines for the female teenager.
Describing them as “coarsening trash on a huge scale”, Miss Bakewell said that young women were being exploited by an industry, which uses sex to sell copies, regardless of the cost to youngsters' self-esteem or their own developing sexuality.
I think that, like me, many parents would be pretty horrified by the content of some of these magazines.
Titles like Bliss, Cosmo Girl and Shout are a pink, glittery wonderland of fashion, sex and celebrities.
There's usually a picture of some Lolita-like chick on the cover, pouting perkily, and inside, they are packed with ideas for how to “get fit under the duvet”, or articles on “476 ways to be irresistible”, “all about orgasms” and “why I had a boob job at 16”.
The problem pages — always the first port-of-call for a teenager in search of salacious detail — are particularly scary, with 12-year-old schoolgirls writing in to ask whether it's okay to have “proper sex”.
Some have defended the magazines' content by saying it's important that young people find out about the facts of life, and that these publications give them the answers they need.
I agree that teenagers should be well-informed about sex and relationships — including contraception, crisis pregnancies, and what to do if you think you're gay.
I don't believe that the “abstinence-centred” sex education, which is what the vast majority of post-primary schools get here in Northern Ireland, is sufficient.
Kids need to be armed with the full facts of sex, not just encouraged to hold off until they're married, because let's face it — it's likely they won't.
But the right place for all this is the home and the school, where sex can be placed in the context of a well-rounded life, just one part of a rich and varied existence. The trouble with these hot-pink teen magazines is that, just like their adult equivalents, they place sex — a very cheap, plastic, one-dimensional view of sex — at the centre of everything.
And the unspoken message that they send out to young girls is that their value, their worth, will be measured in terms of their sexual attractiveness.
They will be judged not on their brains, or their talents, or their interests, but on how hot they are. And that is both terrifying and deeply depressing.
I want my daughter to know that life as a woman is much more than taking sex quizzes, or reading trashy gossip about celebrities, or trying to be irresistible in 476 different ways.
‘I think many parents would be horrified by their content’
Maureen Coleman says it’s better for girls to learn about sex from an informative source than not at all
Sex sells. It's a fact of life. It has permeated every aspect of popular culture, from music videos to magazines. Pick up any glossy women's publication and the headlines scream sex. Yes, yes, yes — it seems we just can't get enough.
Even teen mags are at it, so to speak, much to Dame Joan Bakewell's disapproval.
But that's the point — teenagers are ‘at it' and no amount of tut tutting or slamming the youth mag market is going to change that.
Dame Joan believes that teen magazines are fuelling the premature sexualisation of young girls and pushing the more vulnerable into feeling unhappy about their bodies.
But teenage girls the world over have suffered insecurities and hang-ups about their ever-changing shapes, long before Bliss and Cosmo Girl carried the perfectly-toned Rihanna on the front cover.
There's no doubt that magazines are more sexual than the glossies I read when I was growing up.
Back then, the raunchiest feature in Jackie or Just 17 was a shirtless photograph of David Cassidy or Simon Le Bon. Articles on multiple orgasms or sex toys were totally unheard off.
And maybe it can be argued that too much knowledge can be dangerous in the hands of inexperienced teens, but they're going to hear it somewhere.
Isn't it better to learn about contraception and safe sex from an informative source, than from playground gossip — or not at all?
Undoubtedly, some of today's publications are obsessed with sex. More magazine, though aimed at the late teen and early 20s market, is read by many younger girls.
“Every week we give you more sex, sex, sex,” the cover tells us. “Have you and your man tried the egg?” is one question it poses on the cover — and we're not talking the chocolate variety here.
How they've managed to come up with a different ‘position of the week' for the last few years never ceases to amaze me.
See, we can all learn more from More.
However it's worth noting that in the same magazine, there's a good, old-fashioned problem page, where a male columnist advises a 19-year-old virgin not to be too hasty to sleep with someone “just for the sake of it” and tells her to be “proud” of her status rather than embarrassed.
Hardly encouraging ‘premature sexualisation'!
Back in the day when I was a young teen, my mag of choice was Smash Hits. But I did read Jackie as well, mainly for the Cathy and Claire problem page.
Indeed, it was the most popular item in the magazine, receiving around 400 letters a week. Most of these letters related to sex, though few of them were published.
Instead, the magazine's staff created a series of leaflets which it sent to letter writers.
For those teenagers, that magazine was their only source of information. And for many, it's still the case today.
As research for this article, I bought an armful of teen mags and spent a few hours perusing them.
Apart from More and its ‘sex, sex, sex', most of the magazines were of an innocent nature, carrying interviews with teen pin-ups such as Taylor Lautner and JLS, tips on how to flirt and how to achieve kissable lips. I saw very little that would shock or offend me or my teenage self.
And, on the plus side, I now have a perfect pout and enough free lip gloss to set up my own beauty counter.
‘I saw very little that would shock or offend me’