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Sexuality & Culture (2008) 12:1–20

DOI 10.1007/s12119-007-9013-7


Twenty-one Moves Guaranteed to Make his Thighs go

up in Flames: Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular

A. Dana Ménard Æ Peggy J. Kleinplatz

Published online: 12 October 2007

 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Abstract Previous research on sexual content in magazines has established that

sexual advice is a commonly included feature but no study to date has identified the
specific content of the messages that are being promoted regarding how to achieve
good, better or ‘‘great sex’’. The purpose of this investigation was to determine,
using both qualitative and quantitative methods, the components of ‘‘great sex’’ as
depicted (and promised) in a selection of men’s and women’s magazines. Five
major components of ‘‘great sex’’ emerged from content analysis including tech-
nical/mechanical/physical factors, variety, relationship factors, psychological
factors and pre-sex preparation. Frequency counts showed an overwhelming focus
on technical, mechanical and physical factors and variety as the prescribed means to
achieve ‘‘great sex’’ according to popular magazines. Advice on how to achieve
better or ‘‘great sex’’ tended to be framed in ways that promoted sexual and gender-
role stereotypes, enforced narrow sexual scripts and presented readers with
contradictory and conflicting messages. Similarities and differences between men’s
and women’s magazines are discussed.

Keywords Great sex  Gender differences  Lifestyle magazines 

Sexual advice  Sex scripts  Media studies  Popular media

A. D. Ménard
School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada

A. D. Ménard (&)
706-35 Holland Ave, Ottawa, ON, Canada K1Y 4S2
e-mail: dana.menard@gmail.com

P. J. Kleinplatz
Faculty of Medicine and School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
e-mail: kleinpla@uottawa.ca

2 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

Every month, from grocery store and pharmacy magazine racks, in gyms and
doctor’s offices, magazine headlines promise ‘‘great sex’’. ‘‘Fourteen sex moves
you’ve never heard of: These O-stounding tips will take passion to a whole new
realm’’ (Cosmopolitan, October 2006), ‘‘Make good sex great!’’ (Women’s Health,
November 2006) and ‘‘Sexual chemistry: Get it and keep it’’ (Self, October 2006)
are just a few examples. Lifestyle magazines, defined as those magazines that
contain, ‘‘a wide variety of features on everything from sex and relationships to
vacation ideas, fashion tips, decoration, and recipes’’ (Krassas et al. 2001, p.753),
represent one of few sources of explicit information on the subject of how to
improve one’s sexual experiences and achieve ‘‘great sex’’ within Western society.
Until recently (Kleinplatz and Ménard 2007), within the academic literature, there
has been an empirical void surrounding optimal sexuality. As a result, individuals
have had to turn to media sources in order to get any information at all on how to
improve their sex lives and have ‘‘great sex’’.

Great Sex in Pop Culture

Although sex is a frequent topic on television and radio talk shows, the discussion
tends to centre around sexual dysfunctions and questions of sexual normality rather
than on great sex per se. More recently, the Internet may have become a preferred
source of information about ‘‘great sex’’; however, studies have not yet been
conducted to determine what kind of sexual information individuals seek when they
search the Internet, whether they wish to resolve their own or their partners’ sexual
dysfunctions, to determine whether their sexual behaviours or thoughts are normal
or to learn how to experience ‘‘great sex’’.
Contact with lifestyle magazines is almost unavoidable in everyday life: They are
sold widely in bookstores, supermarkets and gas stations, and are read by many
more, in health professionals’ waiting rooms and at gyms. Magazines may be a
preferred source of information over sex manuals (another source of explicit
prescriptive messages concerning ‘‘great sex’’) as they are cheaper, shorter in length
and more widely available. Although it might be expected that magazines would
become less relevant in an era characterized by the possibility of choice from a wide
variety of media forms, the circulation numbers of these magazines (see Methods
section) indicate that they are still very popular. Indeed, the high circulation
numbers for these magazines suggest that they act as cultural signposts; the high
proportion of sexual content found within them reflects the pervasive hunger for
knowledge about sex in a sex-negative society. Even those consumers who do not
read lifestyle magazines specifically for sex advice but for information on health or
fashion, are still exposed to sexual content.

Portrayals of Sexuality in Magazines

While both men’s and women’s lifestyle magazines have been in existence for
decades at least, until recently, it has not been possible to make a fair, direct

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 3

comparison between the two on the subject of sexual content. In the past, the focus
of women’s magazines (e.g., Cosmopolitan, Glamour) tended to be on home
economics, fiction and grooming/fashion advice; sexual content was not commonly
included until the 1960s or 1970s. On the other hand, many men’s magazines did
include sexual content in the form of centerfolds and pin-ups as early as the 1930s
(e.g., Lilliput). However, the sexual content of men’s magazines tended to be more
‘‘hardcore’’ and pornographic than the sexual content of women’s magazines.
However, with the arrival of the so-called ‘‘lad’’ magazines in the early 1990s
(Loaded premiered in the U.K. in 1994, Maxim was first published in the U.S. in
1997), a new breed of men’s magazine was born that seemed more comparable to
women’s lifestyle magazines in that both contained a breadth of content related to
fashion, grooming, pop culture, relationships and sexuality.
There are three principal sources of sexual information within magazines:
advertisements, photographic layouts and editorial content. More research has been
conducted on advertisements and photographic layouts than on editorial content
(e.g., Baker 2005; Bogaert et al. 1993; Krassas et al. 2001, 2003; Reichert and
Lambiase 2003); yet, as other authors have pointed out (Krassas et al. 2001, 2003),
consumers purchase lifestyle magazines primarily for their editorial content rather
than for the advertisements and photographic layouts that accompany the articles.
The literature on depictions of sexuality within magazine editorial content has been
dominated by research on women’s and adolescent girls’ magazines (Ward 2003).
Existing research on sexuality within men’s magazines has tended to focus on more
‘‘hardcore’’, sexually-oriented publications such as Playboy and Penthouse (e.g.,
Beggan and Allison 2003; Duran and Prusank 1997; Jenefsky and Miller 1998).
Some have argued that such magazines are not equivalent in terms of content to
women’s lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Glamour (L. D. Taylor

Women’s Magazines

Examinations of sexual editorial content presented in women’s magazines have

revealed the pervasive presence of sexual and gender-role stereotypes (Carpenter
1998; Duran and Prusank 1997; Durham 1996, 1998; McMahon 1990; Ward 2003).
Women tend to be portrayed as sexual objects, whose goals should be to attract and
please a male partner, both sexually and otherwise. There is a strong emphasis on
female readers being sexually active in the service of men (Durham 1996). Female
readers are cautioned not be too, overtly sexual (e.g., take obvious pleasure in sex)
or be excessively sexually active. Women are encouraged to dress and interact with
men in a way that promotes their sexual desirability but are discouraged from
showing desire themselves (Durham 1996, 1998; Garner et al. 1998). Although less
research has been done in this area, men’s sexuality within women’s magazines is
portrayed as aggressive, animalistic, insatiable, urgent and uncontrollable (Firm-
inger 2006; Garner et al. 1998; Ward 2003). Overall, previous research on
portrayals of sexuality in women’s magazines suggests that there is a reification of
the sexual double standard and a focus on the sexual differences between men and

4 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

women (Ward 2003). Indeed, in their analysis of non-fiction articles obtained from a
selection of eight women’s lifestyle magazines (including Cosmopolitan, Glamour
and Redbook), Prusank et al. (1993) found that the predominant message
concerning ‘‘great sex’’ was that it could only be experienced if key physiological
and psychological differences between men and women were acknowledged.
Duran and Prusank identified three distinct themes within the sexual content of
three women’s lifestyle magazines, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Self (1997). Firstly,
‘‘great sex’’, as defined by the authors of the magazine articles, can only occur
within the context of an intimate, caring and long-term heterosexual relationship.
Secondly, sexual techniques can be taught (e.g., sensual touching, stage manage-
ment, new positions, forbidden games), which will enhance the experience of sexual
and erotic intimacy between partners. Thirdly, ‘‘great sex’’ contains chemical or
magical elements inherent to it which are beyond the individual’s control. Although
some of their findings relate to ‘‘great sex’’, Duran and Prusank were primarily
concerned with relational themes and advice. Their study focused on more general
sexual content rather than on ‘‘great sex’’ specifically or on advice related to the
attainment of ‘‘great sex’’.

Men’s Magazines

There has been very little research examining the editorial content of men’s
magazines, although some researchers have addressed the content of photographic
layouts (e.g., Bogaert et al. 1993; Krassas et al. 2003). Duran and Prusank (1997)
studied the editorial content of Playboy, Penthouse and GQ and determined the
presence of two major themes based on qualitative analyses. The first theme
identified was that of attacks against or manipulation of men by women, the law and
society. The second theme identified was men’s natural virility and appetite, a
theme the researchers also found in women’s magazines. The authors noted that
there was little sexual advice in men’s magazines and what little there was tended to
be sarcastic in tone. The authors did not examine in depth the specific messages
pertaining to ‘‘great sex’’ within the magazines they studied.
L. D. Taylor (2005) examined the editorial content within Maxim, FHM and Stuff;
results showed that improving one’s sex life was the third most popular article topic.
The most popular topics were what women like and unorthodox sexual behaviours or
positions (second most popular). He also found that improving one’s sex life was the
most common secondary topic within articles on other sexual topics (e.g., what
women like, unorthodox sexual behaviours or locations). Overall, Taylor found that
depictions of sexuality within men’s magazines tended to be androcentric, emphasize
sexual variety and reinforce stereotypical perceptions of male sexuality.

Purpose of this Research

Existing research on the subject of sexuality within men’s and women’s lifestyle
magazines has established the frequent inclusion of sexual content and determined

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 5

broad themes within this content, including the reinforcement of sexual and gender-
role stereotypes and the presence of sex advice. However, previous researchers in
the area have stopped short of examining the specific messages contained within this
advice: Exactly what readers are advised to do in order to improve their sex lives
has not been investigated empirically. This gap in the literature is lamentable given
that some studies suggest that the sexual beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of both
adults and adolescents are correlated with magazine consumption (Bielay and
Herold 1995; Brown 2002; Kim and Ward 2004; Sutton et al. 2002; Treise and
Gotthoffer 2002).
The purpose of the first, qualitative portion of this investigation was to explore
messages about the components deemed necessary to achieve better or ‘‘great sex’’
according to men’s and women’s magazines. This was determined by performing a
phenomenologically-oriented content analysis on relevant magazine articles. The
second, quantitative portion of this investigation determined the frequency with
which specific messages about ‘‘great sex’’ were presented (which might indicate
the relative importance placed on these themes by magazine editors).


Magazines were selected for inclusion in the present investigation based on the
regular presence of sexual content within editorial articles and blurbs. This was
determined through evaluation of current issues of several men’s and women’s
magazines for presence of sexual content. An equal number of magazines targeted
at each sex was chosen and matched, with the exception of sex, on target readership
demographic variables. The women’s magazines selected for the investigation were
Cosmopolitan (circulation 2,573,096), Glamour (circulation 2,300,000) and Red-
book (circulation 2,407,985); the chosen men’s magazines were Maxim (circulation
2,500,000), Men’s Health (circulation 1,665,038) and Stuff (circulation 1,000,000)
(Ulrich’s International Periodical Directory 2006). Each of these magazines was
targeted at readers between the ages of 18 and 35 who are single, live in urban areas
and work outside the home (Ulrich’s International Periodical Directory 2006).
Redbook was an exception as it is aimed at a slightly older audience (aged 25–44) of
women who are married and probably have children. It proved impossible to find an
equivalent magazine targeted at older, married men (which is an intriguing and
notable finding per se).
Every issue published from January 2005 to December 2005 was selected for
inclusion in this investigation, resulting in a total of 70 issues (Men’s Health
publishes combined January/February and July/August issues). Two issues of
Cosmopolitan could not be located (May and October); therefore, the corresponding
issues from 2004 were substituted. All articles that contained explicit, prescriptive
sexual content (i.e., designed to improve the reader’s sex life and allow him or her to
experience ‘‘great sex’’) were included for analysis. Although sexual messages are
ubiquitous within the pages of lifestyle magazines, some of this content is
embedded with implicit rather than explicit messages. For example, a typical article
about sex in Maxim magazine might be concerned with the pleasures of group sex

6 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

(i.e., threesomes). The author of the article and the editor might believe that such
acts represent adventurous or transgressive sexual behaviour but not necessarily
‘‘great sex’’. Only articles containing specific prescriptions as to how readers could
achieve good or great sex (e.g., try this sexual position) were chosen for the present
investigation. Although most editorial content in magazines is prescriptive in some
way and much of the sexual content in magazines may be in the form of implicit
messages, such content was not the focus of this study. While implicit messages
about great sex contained within lifestyle magazines may be as telling as the more
explicit advice, given that this study is the first to investigate magazine content
related to ‘‘great sex’’ rather than more general sexual content, it seemed logical to
first establish the nature of the more explicit, ‘‘surface’’ messages.
This criterion for article inclusion resulted in a total of 61 articles of which 48
were drawn from women’s magazines and 13 were drawn from men’s magazines.
The breakdown of articles per magazine was as follows: Cosmopolitan, n = 29;
Glamour, n = 7; Redbook, n = 12; Maxim, n = 1; Men’s Health, n = 12. Stuff
magazine did not contain any articles featuring explicit, prescriptive sexual content
for the year 2005; therefore, this magazine was dropped from subsequent analyses.
Although sexual content was endemic within each of the men’s magazines chosen
for this investigation, the vast majority of the messages about sex in general was in
the form of implicit messages.
The components of ‘‘great sex’’ were determined by submitting relevant articles
to content analysis, performed from a phenomenological perspective (Moustakas
1994; Polkinghorne 1989, 1994). Phenomenological research methods are an ideal
choice for this investigation because the goal of a phenomenological study is to
identify and understand the essential constituents of the experience under
investigation (Moustakas 1994; Polkinghorne 1989, 1994). This methodology is
also the ideal choice for an investigation about a phenomenon that is not well-
described (Polit et al. 2001). Researchers conducting phenomenological studies are
expected to limit the extent to which they impose their own preconceived biases,
assumptions or theories related to the phenomenon in question (Polkinghorne 1989,
1994). Therefore, rather than using a pre-determined checklist, themes were allowed
to emerge from repeated readings of articles. Articles were first read several times to
develop preliminary impressions of emergent themes related to the nature of ‘‘great
sex’’ or how to achieve better sex. An extensive process of gradual refinement
followed, which involved repeated review of magazine articles, bracketing of
assumptions and returning to the articles. At least one descriptive example (i.e., a
quotation) was recorded for each appearance of a theme. Categories were developed
by grouping together themes that had a similar central idea or that were connected
within magazine articles (Moustakas 1994; Polkinghorne 1989, 1994). These
categories represent the components of ‘‘great sex’’ depictions/prescriptions.
The categories identified during the content analysis were then used to determine
the frequency with which items from each qualitative category appeared. Using the
category system developed during the qualitative analysis, two investigators coded a
selection of articles from each magazine under investigation. For this process, the
unit of analysis consisted of one item or ‘‘tip’’ on how to have ‘‘great sex’’ within an
article or blurb; (usually the entire content of the blurb was devoted to one idea).

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 7

Percentage agreement, a measure of interrater reliability, was found to be .73;

therefore, the category system was deemed sufficiently reliable. All of the items
within the articles selected for analysis were then classified according to the
aforementioned category system; the number of items for the year within each
qualitative category was summed and then divided by the total number of items
contained in the magazine to determine the percentage of items for 2005 that
reflected a particular category.


Overview of the Categories

Five major components of ‘‘great sex’’ emerged from the content analysis of the two
men’s and three women’s magazines. Specifically, most advice on how to achieve
‘‘great sex’’ fell into the following five categories: Technical/mechanical/physical
factors, variety, relationship factors, personal factors and pre-sex preparation.
The first and most prominent category consisted of three major themes related to
technical/mechanical/physical factors. Magazine readers were advised that better
sex could be achieved by improving familiar sexual techniques and/or positions or
by learning new ones, by improving their physical health through diet or exercise or
by having sex for the appropriate length of time. The second major category of
themes within magazine sex advice related to the introduction of variety. Readers
were told to experiment sexually, try ‘‘mild kink’’, watch steamy movies or porn or
engage in ‘‘rough’’, female-initiated sex. The third category consisted of two themes
related to improvements that could be made to the relationship in order to have
better sex. Better sexual communication and a stronger emotional connection with
their partner would lead to ‘‘great sex’’ according to magazine authors. The fourth
major category, psychological factors, was comprised of themes related to personal,
psychological improvements that the reader could make to improve the quality of
his or her sexual encounters. Within this category, four major themes emerged,
concerning relaxation during sex, focus on sexuality both during and outside of sex,
improved female body-image and increased self-knowledge (usually through
masturbation). The fifth and final category that emerged from qualitative analysis
consisted of two themes related to pre-sex preparation, which concerned both
personal (i.e., appearance/grooming) and environmental preparation (i.e., setting the
scene) that would ensure great sexual encounters.

Quantitative Analysis

For the quantitative analysis, the categories identified during the qualitative analyses
were used to categorize each item or ‘‘tip’’ related to ‘‘great sex’’ presented within the
magazines. Table 1 indicates how many sex tips were included in this portion of the
analysis and from which magazines they originated. A total of 443 tips were identified
from the five magazines (Maxim, Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and

8 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

Table 1 Source and number of

Magazine Number of tips Percentage of total
magazine tips analyzed during
quantitative investigation
Cosmopolitan 187 42.21
Glamour 48 10.84
Redbook 90 20.32
Sub-total 325 73.36
Maxim 31 7.00
Men’s Health 87 19.64
Sub-total 118 26.64
Total 443 100

Redbook) and submitted to analysis. The bulk of the tips were found in Cosmopolitan
magazine, which featured twice as many sex tips (187 or an average of 15.6/issue) over
the period of analysis as the next-closest magazines (Redbook and Men’s Health). The
443 tips identified from the magazines were then classified into one of the five
categories (e.g., technical/mechanical/physical factors, variety, psychological factors,
relationship factors, pre-sex preparation) identified during the qualitative analyses
(Table 2). A ‘‘miscellaneous’’ category was created to include those tips that could not
be classified easily into one of the other qualitative categories.
It was immediately obvious that there was a heavy focus on advice related to the
technical/mechanical/physical factors that would enable the experience of ‘‘great
sex’’. Between a quarter (26.67% of the items in Redbook) to almost half (40.23% of
the items in Men’s Health) of the sex advice presented in magazines was focused on
how to improve physical factors in order to achieve better sex. There was also a
strong focus on sexual variety; between 16.13% (Maxim) and 41.18% (Cosmopol-
itan) of the sex tips analyzed fit into this category. Together, items related to
technical/mechanical/physical factors and variety accounted for the majority of the
sex tips in the magazines studied; they accounted for between 48.39% (Maxim) and
80.75% (Cosmopolitan) of the sex advice found in the chosen magazines for the
year 2005. The number of items concerning relationship factors showed wide
variation between magazines, ranging from 2.67% of the items in Cosmopolitan to
29.03% of the items in Maxim. The psychological factors and pre-sex preparation
categories showed less variation and were typically the least-popular items.

Qualitative Analyses

In the following section, the themes that comprised each of the components
identified during the qualitative analysis will be discussed in greater detail; also, any
differences that emerged in how these themes were portrayed in men’s versus
women’s magazines will be addressed.

Technical/Mechanical/Physical Factors

The most predominant theme, in terms of sheer volume, within the larger category
of technical/mechanical/physical factors concerned sexual techniques. There was a

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 9

Table 2 Percentage of tips for 2005 devoted to each component of ‘‘great sex’’
Cosmopolitan Glamour Redbook Maxim Men’s Health

Technical/ mechanical/physical factors 39.57 33.33 26.67 32.26 40.23

Variety 41.18 31.25 24.44 16.13 24.14
Relationship factors 2.67 12.5 10 29.03 13.79
Psychological factors 3.74 4.17 15.55 3.22 10.34
Pre-sex preparation 10.70 0 13.33 3.22 2.30
Miscellaneous 2.14 18.75 10 16.13 9.20

plethora of information available in almost every issue of every magazine on new

and exciting sexual techniques or on improvements that could be made to old
familiar techniques in order to experience better or ‘‘great sex’’. The suggestions in
both men’s and women’s magazines related to technical/mechanical/physical
factors were extremely similar. Readers were presented with advice on how to kiss,
touch, perform oral sex and perform manual sex as well as on the best, usually
orgasm-inducing, sexual intercourse positions. Olivia St. Claire, a sexologist cited
in Redbook, advised readers to ‘‘Try the Spiral of Nines, a thrusting sequence that
men have used to thrill their women for centuries’’ (as cited in Dutton 2005, p. 161).
In general, the ultimate purpose of a sexual technique or trick was to increase
arousal; however, the manner in which the advice was presented put the focus on the
trick rather than its goal. The importance of orgasm and suggestions for how to
improve the experience of orgasm (i.e., making them stronger or longer, having
multiple orgasms) were also frequent topics within this category. Both men’s and
women’s magazines emphasized the importance of female orgasm; many sugges-
tions for techniques were designed to maximize the likelihood of the woman
experiencing orgasm. Neither men’s nor women’s magazines devoted much space
to male orgasms or pleasure.
The second theme within the category of technical/mechanical/physical was
comprised of items related to the appropriate duration of sex in order for it to be
‘‘great’’. In men’s magazines, these items typically focused on the necessary,
minimum duration of foreplay. In one instance, Ava Cadell, a sexologist, advised
Men’s Health readers ‘‘the minimum duration of sex—including seduction,
foreplay, and intercourse—should be about 30 min’’ (as cited in Spiker 2005a,
p. 127). On the other hand, the authors of articles in women’s magazines frequently
advocated that readers try ‘‘quickies’’ as a way to experience ‘‘great sex’’.
The third theme related to technical/mechanical/physical factors concerned items
related to physical health; specifically, magazine writers offered diet and exercise
advice that could be used to improve readers’ sex lives. Dietary advice, including
suggestions to consume foods said to affect sex hormone levels, was found
primarily in women’s magazines. ‘‘Sip a cup of warm tea with honey before you
bonk’’ (J. Taylor 2005b, p. 178). In this case, Redbook readers were informed that
the honey enhances blood levels of testosterone while the caffeine boosts energy
levels. Both men’s and women’s magazines promoted exercise as a means to
improve the quality of sexual experiences. Suggestions included strength training

10 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

moves designed to target the muscles involved in sex (e.g., pubococcygeal muscles,
inner thighs) and cardiovascular exercise which would improve circulation.


Sexual experimentation was promoted in both men’s and women’s magazines as a

means to experience ‘‘great sex’’; in both cases, the introduction of novelty was an
important theme. Readers were frequently advised to experiment with their
sexuality by having sex using different props. A few articles were accompanied by
lists of ‘‘good’’ sexual props (e.g., lipstick, Polaroid’s, wigs) and ‘‘bad’’ sexual props
(e.g., chocolate syrup, scented candles, high heels, dental floss) (Dutton 2005,
p. 161; Spiker 2005b, p. 148). In one case, Cosmopolitan readers were advised to
‘‘Place a glazed doughnut around your man’s member, then gently nibble the pastry
and lick the icing…as well as his manhood’’ (Cosmopolitan 2005, p. 118). Writers
and experts cited in women’s magazines were far more likely to suggest the use of
props during sexual activity; however, the use of vibrators was advocated in both
men’s and women’s magazines (although in both cases, there was a presumption
that the male partner might feel threatened by the device). Readers were also
advised to try having sex in different places or at different times of day. One writer
suggested that consumers of Men’s Health broaden their range of lovemaking
locales: ‘‘…most of us have stopped viewing any place but the bedroom as a viable
hookup location, but those little nooks are still there, waiting to be used for all sorts
of naughty purposes’’ (Beland 2005, p. 138).
The second theme within the category of advice promoting sexual variety
concerned activities designated by magazine editors as ‘‘kinky’’, including light
bondage, role-play, light anal play, mild exhibitionism/voyeurism and dirty talk.
These items were almost always accompanied in both men’s and women’s
magazines by words such as ‘‘light’’ or ‘‘mild’’ as well as by numerous caveats
concerning the partner’s potential reaction. One writer tried to reassure Redbook
readers, ‘‘Just saying the letters ‘S’ and ‘M’ conjures up images of leather and
whips. But light S&M can up the fun factor without upping the fear factor’’ (italics
in the original) (J. Taylor 2005a, p. 169).
Suggestions to watch ‘‘steamy’’ movies or porn formed the third major theme
within the variety category. As one writer in Redbook put it, ‘‘Tonight, DVD stands
for Daring Vixen Device’’ (J. Taylor 2005a, p. 168). There were no differences in
the frequency of inclusion of these items in men’s or women’s magazines and they
were presented in a similar manner. These items were not classified along with the
advice related to sexual experimentation or kinky behaviours because they were
depicted as more ‘‘typical’’ couple activities.
The fourth theme related to sexual variety was comprised of suggestions that
readers partake in ‘‘rough’’, female-initiated sex. This theme appeared with similar
frequency in both men’s and women’s magazines; also, in both cases, the idea of
female-initiated sex was invariably conflated with ‘‘rough’’, aggressive sex. Female
readers were advised to initiate sexual activity and to scream, moan, or thrust back
at her male partner in order to demonstrate a loss of sexual inhibitions.

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 11

Cosmopolitan readers were told, ‘‘What men are secretly jonesin’ for is an
occasional wild, animalistic boot-knocking session’’ (Benjamin 2005, p. 86).
Readers of men’s magazines were told to encourage their female partners to initiate
sexual encounters.

Relationship Factors

Communication about sex, whether verbal or non-verbal, was considered

essential to the experience of ‘‘great sex’’: Glamour readers were advised to
‘‘Tell him what works for you, for your sake and his’’ (italics in the original)
(Harris 2005, p. 365). However, suggestions concerning communication outside
of sexual encounters were fraught with warnings about appropriate timing (e.g.,
not immediately before or after sex) and the partner’s potential reaction. An
article in Men’s Health included the following suggestion: ‘‘As for trying to find
out what she likes, you should be able to tell by her responses. If you’re not
sure, say something like, ‘Just FYI, I take requests.’ Add a wink, and an icky
conversation is successfully avoided’’ (Miller 2005, p. 118). Items about sexual
communication in both men’s and women’s magazines were often presented in
the form of suggestions that partners share sexual fantasies prior to a sexual
encounter: a Cosmopolitan writer advocated ‘‘[taking] advantage of the travel
time to discuss all the naughty deeds you might want to try on your trip’’ (Litke
2005, p. 122).
The second theme related to relationship factors that would improve the quality
of sexual interactions was comprised of items designed to ameliorate the couple’s
emotional connection. Readers were advised to engage in mutual demonstrations of
affection with their partners (women’s magazines) or to add some romance to the
relationship (men’s magazines). Redbook consumers received the following
suggestion: ‘‘Remind yourself to reach out and touch him—every day. Once you
start reaching out more, you and your hubby will feel more loved and connected,
and, trust us, sparks will fly’’ (italics in the original) (Bender 2005, p. 137). Other
items within this theme related to activities that could be performed during sexual
encounters to heighten the feeling of emotional connection, such as looking into the
partner’s eyes.

Psychological Factors

The first theme concerning psychological factors that the reader could improve to
experience greater sex concerned relaxation during sex. Readers were advised to
relax during sex and not to be distracted by household or job concerns. This
particular theme was found almost exclusively in women’s magazines rather than
men’s magazines; it was also framed solely from the reader’s perspective (i.e., the
woman herself was urged to relax but no consideration of her partner’s state of mind
was made). One writer suggested that Redbook readers ‘‘Write tomorrow’s to-do list

12 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

before you slip under the sheet, so ‘I have to pick up the dry cleaning’ doesn’t pop
into your head and derail your O’’ (italics in the original) (J. Taylor 2005b, p. 179).
The second theme within this category pertained to the ability to focus on
sexuality both during and outside of sexual encounters. Readers were told to focus
on sensations during sexual encounters and to add sensuality to their lives outside of
sexual experiences: ‘‘Stop compartmentalizing and try thinking about sex more
often’’ one writer suggested in Redbook (Bender 2005, p. 137). Again, this theme
was predominantly found in women’s magazines rather than men’s.
Good body-image as a prerequisite to the experience of ‘‘great sex’’ formed the
third theme within the larger category of psychological factors and was approached
with a focus on female bodies exclusively within both men’s and women’s
magazines. A woman’s increased comfort with her body was considered an
important contributing factor to the experience of ‘‘great sex’’. Readers of Men’s
Health were told, ‘‘The way a woman feels about her body correlates with how
inhibited she feels in bed…praising her most guarded body parts—butt, thighs,
waist—may be more important to your sexual satisfaction’’ (Spiker 2005a, p.127).
Male body-image was never indirectly or directly addressed in either men’s or
women’s magazines.
The fourth psychological factor that could be improved related to self-
knowledge: Readers were advised to gain a greater awareness of their own personal
arousal patterns. Women reading Redbook were advised, ‘‘The number one key to
greater pleasure is knowing what turns you on’’ (Zoldbrod as cited in Bender 2005,
p. 135). Masturbation was often prescribed as a means to this end. As with other
themes within the larger category of psychological factors, increased self-
knowledge more commonly appeared in women’s magazines. In all cases, this
advice was framed exclusively in terms of the female reader and was not applied in
any way to her male partner.

Pre-sex Preparation

The first theme in the category of items related to pre-sex preparation concerned
personal appearance and grooming; items reflecting this theme were found almost
exclusively in women’s magazines. Readers were advised what clothes were ‘‘sexy’’
and how to take them off. Items related to personal grooming typically revolved
around pubic hair removal. Cosmopolitan readers were advised that pre-sex
grooming could be a shared activity. ‘‘While shaving your legs and pits may be a
turn-off for him, trimming your below-the-belt do is a serious turn-on. So, this
evening, give him an opportunity to shape your south-of-the-border strands’’ (Le
Poer Trench 2004, p. 133). Again, the euphemisms in the context of an article about
sex are telling and ironic.
The second theme within this category was comprised of items related to the
preparation of the locale in which the sexual encounter would take place. Readers
were advised to tidy and clean their bedrooms and set the mood with candles or
other romantic accoutrements. Again, this theme appeared solely within the pages of
women’s magazines.

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 13

The Medium is the Message

The messages in men’s and women’s lifestyle magazines were found not only in the
explicit prescriptions of how to have better or ‘‘great sex’’ but also in the manner in
which this advice was delivered. In both men’s and women’s magazines, advice on
how to achieve ‘‘great sex’’ was presented in ways that reified both sexual and
gender-role stereotypes, promoted narrow sexual scripts and presented readers with
contradictory and conflicting messages.

Stereotype Promotion

Within magazine advice on how to experience better or ‘‘great sex’’, a number of

sexual and gender-role stereotypes were reinforced. Writers on the topic of ‘‘great
sex’’ frequently made generalizations concerning the sexual preferences, desires and
fantasies of ‘‘most men’’ or ‘‘most women’’: ‘‘Most women want to be ravaged by
the men they love’’, stated Ava Cadell in Men’s Health (Calechman and Dweck
2005, p. 171). In both men’s and women’s magazines, men were depicted as
universally turned-on by fellatio and threesomes.
The portrayal of male sexuality in women’s magazines often conformed to
traditional gender stereotypes. Men were depicted as wild, aggressive and
animalistic in their sexuality; however, they were also defenceless against particular
sex tricks. ‘‘When you don’t think he can be restrained another second, let him at
you’’ advised Le Poer Trench in Cosmopolitan (2005, p. 107).
Although women’s magazines were full of sex tips, women were not supposed to
show that they actually enjoyed sex. Within women’s magazines, tips on how to
introduce sexual variety were framed in ways that showcased their appeal to the
male partner (e.g., ‘‘He’ll love it when you…’’) but did not state explicitly why or
how these tips would appeal to the woman performing them. Sexual experimen-
tation or mild kink was undertaken strictly for the pleasure of the male partner,
reinforcing the idea that women should not be interested in sex for it’s own sake.
Advice suggesting that women initiate sex was framed in a manner designed to
appeal to men. Women were advised to ‘‘accidentally’’ display nudity, for instance,
by letting her partner catch sight of her coming out of the shower; presumably, a
purposeful display of nudity would be too forward. This stereotyping of women and
female sexuality was featured within both men’s and women’s magazines. Men’s
Health readers were advised, ‘‘…women want you to hit on them; it’s why we wear
tank tops and lipstick’’ (Miller 2005, p. 116). Assumptions were made that all
women desire the traditional trappings of romance; male readers were advised to
orchestra elaborate dates, write love letters and discuss the future. As a writer in
Men’s Health explained, ‘‘Women want love, closeness and someone who’ll be a
good father to their babies’’ (italics in the original) (Amen 2005, p. 152).
Advice on how to achieve ‘‘great sex’’ in men’s and women’s magazines also
reinforced stereotypes concerning sexual differences presumed to exist between
men and women. Men were believed to prefer ‘‘quickies’’ and so these were
promoted in women’s magazines; on the other hand, men’s magazines suggested

14 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

that women prefer long, drawn-out sex and framed advice on sexual timing
accordingly. The quantitative analyses performed in this investigation showed a far
greater focus on variety within women’s magazines and a greater focus on
relationship factors within men’s magazines. These findings are most likely related:
Men’s sexuality is stereotypically depicted as variety-driven whereas women are
believed to have a greater interest in romance and affection. Thus, magazine writers
were offering advice designed to appeal to the presumed (and stereotyped)
preferences of the reader’s partner.

Narrow Sexual Scripts

The sexual activities prescribed by men’s and women’s magazines tended to be very
narrow in scope and to follow traditional Western sex scripts. In all cases, sex tricks
and techniques were portrayed as universally effective, demonstrated by the use of
terms such as ‘‘guaranteed’’. Readers were told explicitly how to kiss and caress their
partner, how to perform oral sex and manual sex and which intercourse positions
would guarantee ‘‘great sex’’. Readers were told to devote a specific amount of time
to sexual acts (e.g., ‘‘kiss for 12 s’’) and were given suggested sequences of
behaviours. ‘‘Let her push and grind against your flat, still tongue…then spring back
with a series of fast vertical and diagonal tongue strokes…then return to the flat, still
tongue’’ advised Ian Kerner in Maxim (as cited in Spencer 2005).
Within the variety category, many caveats accompanied the suggested tips,
further emphasizing the narrowness of the sexual scripts within advice on how to
have ‘‘great sex’’. Readers were told that anal play should never involve actual
penetration and that bondage should involve ties or scarves and not actual bondage
paraphernalia. Any ‘‘kink’’ should be ‘‘mild’’ because, as many magazines implied
or stated explicitly, full-on kink is just plain scary. There was an emphasis on rules,
the ‘‘dos’’ and ‘‘don’ts’’ of sexuality, in both men’s and women’s magazines as
shown by first-person testimonials of presumably horrifying sexual encounters and
admonitions not to include certain props or activities.
There were also strict prescriptions within men’s and women’s magazines
regarding acceptable partners for ‘‘great sex’’. The idea of experiencing ‘‘great sex’’
while masturbating was virtually never presented (with the exception of one article
in Cosmopolitan). To experience optimal sexuality, a partner of the other sex was
required who must also be a regular partner. There was an assumption that readers
were experiencing (or trying to experience) ‘‘great sex’’ with a girlfriend, boyfriend
or common-law partner (and occasionally with a husband, e.g., Redbook). The
possibility of having ‘‘great sex’’ with a casual partner, one-night stand or play
partner was not addressed. Furthermore, readers were promised that the use of these
amazing sex tricks would result in a marriage proposal from the reader’s male
partner (women’s magazines) or that the female partner would never leave the male
reader (men’s magazines). These guarantees further perpetuated the narrowness of
the relationship scripts promoted by magazine writers that all readers want a
monogamous, long-term relationship with the partner with whom they have great

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 15

Ironically, the magazines chosen for this investigation occasionally featured

content designed to challenge the ‘‘old’’ sex rules: ‘‘Times change, and the rules we
play by in the bedroom change right along with them’’ explained one writer in
Redbook (Glass 2005, p. 128). In one case, female readers of Redbook were advised
to try initiating sex (rather than letting their male partner do it every time), to share
fantasies with their partners and to keep exploring as their ‘‘hot spots and desires
will evolve over the years’’ (Glass 2005, p. 131). However, at the same time,
magazine writers in Redbook and other publications regularly reified other
potentially damaging sex myths in almost every other article on sex (e.g., men
are sex-obsessed, sexual satisfaction depends on technical skills, erections/
intercourse are necessary).

Contradictory Messages

Both men’s and women’s magazines regularly offered readers contradictory advice
or addressed them from contradictory perspectives. Activities deemed inappropriate
in one issue of a magazine might be suggested in another issue as a pathway to
achieving ‘‘great sex’’ (e.g., watching porn). Proper anatomical terms (e.g., clitoris,
penis, pubic hair) were sometimes used in reference to sexuality and anatomy; coy
euphemisms were also frequently used (e.g., hot button, trouser monkey, down-
there hair). Writers for women’s magazines suggested that readers work on their
body-image and feel better about themselves in order to let loose and have ‘‘great
sex’’. However, items regarding pre-sex preparation suggested that women need to
be perfectly attired and groomed prior to engaging in sex. Occasionally, both men’s
and women’s magazines would remind readers that being too goal-oriented and
focused on orgasms could interfere with sexual pleasure. On the other hand, most
magazines regularly featured articles devoted to ‘‘Pleasure Maxing Positions’’
designed to facilitate and maximize readers’ orgasms. A writer for Men’s Health
advised readers, ‘‘If you pride yourself on one skill, such as oral sex, remember that
not every woman loves it. You could be overselling yourself’’ (Hobday 2005,
p. 100). However this publication, like the others included in this investigation,
regularly used words like ‘‘guaranteed’’ and assured both male and female readers
that the featured sex tips would be universally arousing to members of the opposite
sex. The content of both men’s and women’s magazines suggested that writers made
contradictory assessments of their readers’ sexual capabilities. In many cases, it was
assumed that readers have never employed any of the tricks being suggested.
Previous sexual experience of readers was assumed to be limited. ‘‘You’ve heard
about her nipples and vagina? Good. Now spend some time on the back of her
neck,’’ Men’s Health readers were told in one article (Calechman and Dweck 2005,
p. 168). On the other hand, it was also frequently assumed that readers had tried
many of the tricks. Articles were presented in the form of ‘‘updates’’ on old
favourites (i.e., sexual tricks and intercourse positions).
Readers of both men’s and women’s magazines also received exceedingly
contradictory messages with regard to sexual communication. Magazine consumers
were advised that sexual communication was important and might improve the

16 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

quality of their sexual experiences. However, sexual communication was also

treated as an emotional minefield, which needed to be handled with great caution to
avoid hurting one’s partner. Readers were advised not to broach sexual topics
before, during or after sex but during some ‘‘neutral’’ time, such as over dinner.
Within women’s magazines in particular, writers took great pains to avoid confusing
sexual communication with ‘‘dirty talk’’, which was often depicted as too kinky. An
except from Redbook stated ‘‘…let him know what rocks your boat—you don’t have
to ‘talk dirty’’’ (Nersesian and Graham 2005, p. 108). In fact, readers were advised
that it might be preferable to avoid sexual communication in favour of non-verbal
communication and response. Men’s Health readers were reassured, ‘‘You don’t
even have to ask what she wants if you just read her body the right way’’ (Lloyd
2005, p. 80).


Five major categories of themes related to ‘‘great sex’’ were identified through
content analysis: technical/mechanical/physical factors, variety, relationship factors,
psychological factors and pre-sex preparation. This advice on how to experience
better or ‘‘great sex’’ tended to be framed in ways that promoted sexual and gender-
role stereotypes, enforced narrow sexual scripts and presented contradictory
messages to readers. The presence of gender-role stereotypes in the sex advice from
both men’s and women’s magazines confirmed findings from previous investigators,
who found such stereotypes to be present in more general sexual content (e.g.,
Carpenter 1998; Duran and Prusank 1997; Durham 1996, 1998; McMahon 1990;
Prusank et al. 1993; Ward 2003).
The results of quantitative analyses showed that the focus was predominantly on
items from the technical/mechanical/physical factors and variety categories. In four
out of the five magazines selected for the analyses, more than 50% of the items
related to improving sexual experiences were suggestions as to how to improve
technical/mechanical/physical factors or to increase variety. Items related to sexual
techniques and sexual variety appeared in every issue of every magazine and in the
majority of the articles on the subject of ‘‘great sex’’. A focus on technique and sex
tricks was also observed by Duran and Prusank (1997) in the sexual content of the
women’s magazines that they studied.

Similarities and Differences in Men’s and Women’s Magazines

The results from both the qualitative and quantitative portions of this study suggest
that there are far more similarities between men’s and women’s magazines than
differences. In both cases, there was a breadth of information available on how to
improve one’s sexual experiences and achieve ‘‘great sex’’ but in practice, most of
the content was devoted to improving technical/mechanical/physical factors, with
an emphasis on sexual techniques, and increasing variety. The overwhelming
similarities present in the sexual advice of both men’s and women’s magazines

Depictions of ‘‘Great Sex’’ in Popular Magazines 17

chosen for this investigation are attributable in part to cross-ownership of titles by

publishing companies (e.g., Hearst, Dennis Publishing). In many cases, the same
writers regularly contributed articles featuring sex advice to several of the
magazines in this sample. It was also immediately evident that a small pool of
magazine-christened ‘‘sexperts’’ were being consulted by both men’s and women’s
Another striking similarity observed between men’s and women’s magazine
articles on the subject of ‘‘great sex’’ was the way in which this editorial content was
framed. In most of these articles, advice on how to experience better or ‘‘great sex’’
was riddled with gender-role stereotypes, presented in ways that reinforced narrow
sexual scripts and confused readers with contradictory messages and ideas. These
findings are telling and ironic: Although magazines editors and writers claim to be
sexually open and liberal, in practice, they are anything but. Both male and female
readers are assailed with a variety of contradictions on the subject of sex and
relationships: Be open to kink but not too kinky; communicate with your partner but
only with great care and in specific contexts; let go of the ‘‘old’’ sex rules but be sure
to follow these new ones. Any kind of radical sexual ideas or change are forestalled
not only by the specific content of the messages concerning ‘‘great sex’’ but also by
the outdated gender-role stereotypes, narrow sex scripts and traditional relationship
structures that characterize the means by which these messages are delivered.
The most obvious difference that emerged between men’s and women’s magazines
was the presence of prescriptive sexual content; specifically, there was an absence of
sexual advice in men’s magazines, a finding that supports the results of other research
(e.g., Duran and Prusank 1997) but contradicts others (e.g., L.D. Taylor 2005). In this
study, Stuff magazine had to be dropped from the analyses because there was no
explicit, prescriptive sexual content for the year 2005; Maxim had only one such
article. Although there was a great deal of sexual content in both of these magazines, it
was not prescriptive in nature. It seems likely that Taylor defined ‘‘sex advice’’ more
openly than it was defined in this investigation; however, given that he did not state
explicitly how this term was defined, it is difficult to make a direct comparison.
The lack of sex advice in men’s magazines likely reflects a prevalent social
stereotype that men are expected to know everything about sex and knock their
(female) partner’s socks off (Zilbergeld 1999). Including advice about ‘‘great sex’’
in a men’s magazine would be to suggest that male readers do not know everything
there is to know about sex and runs counter to the dominant social stereotype. Men’s
Health is an anomaly in that it does contain regular, prescriptive sexual content. It is
possible that this difference is due to the fact that while Stuff and Maxim are
considered lifestyle magazines, Men’s Health is aimed at male readers seeking
health and fitness advice (although it does include a wide variety of content). As
such, the orientation of the entire magazine tends towards the prescriptive and
advice on how to improve one’s sexuality is not so anomalous as it would be in
other men’s magazines.
One final difference observed between men’s and women’s magazines was found
in the editorial photographs accompanying the articles on how to have ‘‘great sex’’.
Those contained within women’s magazines tended to depict a happy, attractive,
heterosexual couple, presumably either pre- or post-coital; the woman’s gaze was

18 A. D. Ménard, P. J. Kleinplatz

towards the camera while her partner’s gaze was fixed on her. The photographs that
accompanied the articles on great sex in men’s magazines tended to show a woman
or parts of a woman (e.g., her buttocks) alone, clad in lingerie. Although this was
not the focus of this investigation, this finding was interesting and perhaps warrants
further investigation.

Strengths, Limitations and Future Research

This study went beyond previous research to investigate the specific messages that
were presented in magazines in relation to ‘‘great sex’’ rather than the messages that
were promoted around sexuality in general. A combination of qualitative and
quantitative analyses allowed the emergence of a comprehensive picture of how
magazines depict ‘‘great sex’’. The results of this study represent an important
contribution to the literature because the results of previous research have suggested
that magazine consumption is related to the formation of gender-role and sexual
stereotypes (e.g., Kim and Ward 2004). In order to combat sexual and gender-role
stereotypes, it is important to know the sources of these stereotypes. In addition, few
studies have examined portrayals of sexuality in men’s lifestyle magazines, let alone
portrayals of ‘‘great sex’’. The comparison of findings across both men’s and
women’s lifestyle magazines represents a considerable strength of this investigation.
An unforeseen limitation of this investigation was presented by the operational
definition of prescriptive sexual content, which excluded the majority of the sexual
content in two of the chosen men’s magazines, Maxim and Stuff. This restrictive
operational definition was retained because it was believed necessary to focus on
explicit, prescriptive content in order to make fair, direct comparisons between the
sex advice contained in men’s and women’s magazines. Given the relative lack of
such content in men’s magazines, more research is required to determine the nature
of the implicit, prescriptive sexual content.
Future investigators in this area might attempt to determine the degree to which
both male and female readers take the sex advice presented in magazines seriously
and are influenced by such content. Although some research suggests a correlation
between the magazine consumption and readers’ beliefs, experimental research is
required to determine the direction of causality. It would also be interesting to
determine to what degree the messages promoted surrounding good or ‘‘great sex’’
in lifestyle magazines aimed at a heterosexual readership are similar to or different
from those presented in magazines targeting a non-heterosexual demographic.

Acknowledgments We would like to thank Meghan Campbell, Psy.D., for her assistance in
strengthening this paper.


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