Is Pop Culture Replacing Sex Education?

Is Pop Culture Replacing Sex Education?

According to the documentary, “Lets Talk About Sex”, 10,000 teens catch a sexually transmitted disease, 2,400 teen girls get pregnant, and 55 young people are infected with HIV in the US every day.

Meanwhile, despite these alarming statistics, our educational and political culture blurs, obscures, and shrouds discussions of sex with denial, systematically oppressing comprehensive and preventative sex education within institutional settings.

According to a study done in 2002 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comprehensive sex ed is declining in middle and high schools across the majority of the United States. And despite the fact that around 46% of high schoolers were found to be sexually active, many state programs focus primarily on promoting abstinence, rather than providing teens with real answers and options to reduce their risk and engage in safer sex.


Paradoxically, media and popular culture have become increasingly “sex-obsessed” in the 21st century. This highly sexualized media began to target the needs and interests of women, with many publications embracing and promoting female “sexual liberation” and empowerment.

Cosmopolitan,reborn in the 1960s, was one such effort. Author and editor Helen Gurley Brown explained her motivations for revamping the new “shocking” and “revolutionary” publication for women saying: “I wanted my magazine to be … a platform from which I could tell them what I’d learned and talk about all the things that hadn’t been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth.” The very first issue addressed the Pill, a topic which, at the time, remained largely left out of discussion in the mainstream media world. Cosmo tried to sort through the myths and rumors surrounding its controversial use.

Ever since this first issue, Cosmo has put out a similar mix of education and entertainment surrounding these “taboo” topics of female sexuality and sexual practices. Cosmo did not shy away from these controversial conversations, according to Janna Kim, postdoctoral research fellow at San Francisco State University, but rather “put female sexuality right out there on the front page, where everyone could see it at the grocery store.” This overt coverage could be seen as liberating for women because it normalized their questions and concerns about sex, and gave them the answers they wanted, a stark contrast to the hushed discussions coming from many political, educational, and institutional actors.

Cover of the August 1970 cover of Cosmopolitan.
Cover of the August 1970 cover of Cosmopolitan.

Now, Cosmo boasts being the highest selling magazine within the “young women’s market” and engages in active efforts to target and increase their readership among young people. Many young women and girls consider this magazine the ultimate “Sex Bible” and turn to its articles and online forums for information. But what messages, both overt and subliminal, is the magazine really communicating to young girls? Can these messages still be considered “liberating,” or is Cosmo sending out mixed signals and faulty information?[1]

Personally, my own middle school sex education was considered a joke by most of the students, and my friends and I were left unsatisfied by the minimal answers it provided. So naturally, we turned to Cosmo. We would sneak it from our mothers and dissect each issue thoroughly during our sleepovers. My early exposure to such images, statistics, and stories largely shaped how I thought about sexual practices, dating, and femininity throughout my adolescence, and even to this day.

Now, as I look through the magazine with a more educated, mature, and analytical eye, I find many areas of concern and an overwhelming abundance of contradictory, confusing messages. Most notably, the presentation and design of the magazine is excessively frivolous and hyper-feminine. Though there is some accurate sexual health information, it is buried by pop culture garbage and irrelevant coverage of celebrities one might expect to find in a tabloid. These topics represent the publication’s perspective of supposedly feminine interests. Such ridiculous articles featured on their website in March 2014 include: “Rihanna Has a New Boyfriend, and It’s a PERFECT Match” and “The Fifty Shades of Grey Musical is Even NASTIER Than the Books.” These gossipy headlines distract readers from more important and empowering articles including: “Why Anita Hill’s Testimony About Sexual Harassment Still Matters” or “The Truth About the HPV Vaccine.”

Secondly, though many articles work to empower women and encourage them to take on active roles in their own sex lives, others undermine this push for sexual liberation and put forward messages that can be considered outright sexist. For example there is a whole section on “how to please your man,” containing advice and suggestions for sexual experimentation. These articles indirectly reinforce the idea that women must constantly worry about keeping a man’s attention and interest in the bedroom.

Furthermore, the magazine promotes heterosexual identification as the norm and reinforces western, Caucasian ideals of feminine beauty. There are a few exceptions to this, such as an article on empowering quotes from plus-size models or an in-depth piece on a transgender teenager, but these stand out as unusual among the predominately white, thin, and feminine models highlighted in the majority of the magazine’s images. These “outliers” are rarely featured on the magazine’s cover. There are also many articles that promote negative messages about the female body. Under the website’s “health” section lies a whole subsection on dieting, and features articles such as: “The Cosmo Bikini Diet” or “15 Tips to Lose Weight Fast!”

Flipping through this magazine, one has to wonder what effect these mixed messages are having on young girls. One study, published by The Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2012, concluded that Cosmo can have both positive and negative impacts on young women and their ideas about healthy sexual behavior. The study found that while “women who read Cosmo were more supportive of sexual assertiveness and the prioritization of personal pleasure in women … (they) simultaneously seemed less concerned by the risks of sexual behavior.”

Overall, Cosmopolitan Magazine seems to be a kind of cultural overcompensation for the relative lack of discussion, information, and education about sex coming from more formal channels. If young girls in America cannot turn to their families or to their sexual education programs in schools for the answers to their burning questions, they will continue to rely on these pop culture and media outlets. This will result in young women who are left feeling conflicted about the messages they receive and uncertain about real health issues and safe practices. Is this really the only option we want to give them?

Unfortunately, the problematic messages I discuss here are just the tip of the iceberg. Go to the Cosmo website and see for yourself… I guarantee that even you will leave feeling empowered, objectified, self-conscious and overwhelmed, all at the same time.

Further Reading

“Race + Ethnicity // I Heart Sociology.” Race + Ethnicity I Heart Sociology Accessed March 16 2014. [Website gone: http://race.iheartsociology.com/2012/11/cosmo-latina-separate-but-equal/]

Myers, Meghann. “CDC: Sex-ed Programs on the Decline, 46 Percent of US High Schoolers Sexually Active.” The Daily Caller. April 5, 2012.

Cosmopolitan Media Kit.” Cosmopolitan Media Kit. Accessed March 16, 2014.

Kim, Janna L., and Monique L. Ward. “Striving For Sexual Pleasure Without Fear: Short Term Effects of Reading Women’s Magazine on Women’s Sexual Attitudes.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36.3 (September 2012).

Houston, James. “Let’s Talk About Sex: A Call to Action for the Sake of American Teens’ Health.” The Huffington Post. March 31, 2011.

Benjamin, Jennifer. “How Cosmo Changed the World.” Cosmopolitan. May 3, 2007.

‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ Documentary and Campaign Take On Sexual Health Crisis.” Advocates for Youth. March 11, 2011.

Featured image caption: Better sex education in schools. (Flickr)

Corinne Yank recently graduated from the University of Oregon, where she majored in International Studies with a focus on Law and Human Rights. Her honors thesis discussed migration and labor trafficking of female domestic workers in Southeast Asia. She is an advocate for female migrants and hopes to practice international human rights law in the future.