Media coverage of sexually transmitted infections:
A comparison of popular men and women's magazines
Sexually Transmitted infections (STI) have been increasing steadily since
the late 1980s in the United States. This study comparatively examines
coverage of sex and STI's in two men's and two women's magazines. The
results show that, overall, STI information is in short supply. Several
differences between men and women's magazines in covering sex and STI's
emerged. Some of these findings are consistent with the evolutionary
psychology perspective on gender variance in mating behavior.
Media coverage of sexually transmitted infections:
A comparison of popular men and women's magazines
Maria Elizabeth Grabe
School of Journalism
Ernie Pyle Hall
Bloomington, IN 47405
[log in to unmask]
A paper submitted for presentation in the Magazine Division at the annual
meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication, Kansas City, 2003
Media coverage of sexually transmitted infections:
A comparison of popular men and women's magazines
Sexually Transmitted infections (STI) have been increasing steadily since
the late 1980s in the United States. Although sex is a prominent topic in
mass media content, the industry has been criticized for not adequately
presenting risks of sex, such as infection or unwanted pregnancy. Magazines
present one, but an important, avenue for young adults to learn responsible
sexual behavior. Yet, there is virtually no research on the coverage of sex
in men's magazines. This study comparatively examines coverage of sex in
two men's and two women's magazines. The results show that men's magazines
had fewer articles about sex than women's magazines, and only 6% of those
articles contained information about STI's. Less than half of articles
about sex in women's magazines contained information about STI's. Several
other differences between men and women's magazines, consistent with
evolutionary psychology, emerged form the analysis.
The late 1980s and early 1990s are marked by an increase in the incidence
of several sexually transmitted infections (STI) among Americans. The
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are
currently 65 million cases of STI's in the United States, with 3 million
new cases reported every year. Women between the ages of 18 and 25 seem to
be at a disproportionate risk for contracting STI's (CDC, 1999). Because
women have a larger portion of their genitalia exposed during sex compared
with men, they are more likely to contract an STI during a single act of
sexual intercourse (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1999). The rise in STI
rates suggests widespread practice of unprotected sexual intercourse and a
lack of knowledge about STI's in the U.S. population. A study by the Kaiser
Family Foundation (1996) found that most men and women of reproductive age
(18-44) seriously underestimate how common STI's are. For example, only 34
percent of women and 22 percent of men said they had heard of chlamydia,
currently one of the most commonly reported STI's in the U.S.
The study reported here scrutinized articles about sex in popular men and
women's magazines for information about STI's. The mass media provide one
avenue for public health officials to get messages about the consequences
of unprotected intercourse to sexually active audiences. While some media
have addressed the topics of safer sex and STI risk through news coverage,
public service announcements (PSA's), or as topics in sitcoms or popular
films, most scholars who have examined this issue have found that the
seriousness of those issues are underplayed and reduced to individual
problems with simple solutions (Wallack, 1990). Most media messages about
sex fail to acknowledge the risks and consequences of unprotected sex
(Huston, Wartella, & Donnerstein, 1998). A study by Lowry and Towles (1989)
found that although there were increases in the amount of sexual behavior
shown during prime-time television between the mid-seventies and 1987,
there were very few references to contraception and safe sex. Studies by
Huston et al. (1998), the Kaiser Family Foundation (2000) Strausburger
(1995), Brown and Keller (2000) and Buerkel-Rothfuss, Strouse, Pettey, and
Shatzer (1997) have all demonstrated that sexuality is present in
television, magazines, and films and conclude that while sexuality is
rampant, most do not contain contraception or STI protection
information. The most recent study conducted by the Kaiser Family
Foundation (2003) found that the number of safe-sex references in
prime-time television has nearly doubled since 1998. Yet, only 25% of
shows featuring sexual material currently contain references to safe sex
The potential for the mass media to play a role in sex education is
evident form considering theories of mass media effects. In cultivation
analysis circles it has been argued that the media play an important role
in the decisions people make about sex and sexual behavior (Signorielli,
1993). Although cultivation theory mainly addresses the influence of
televised violence on perceptions of reality, a number of studies have
tested the cultivation effect in terms of other media content including
cultivation of concerns about the environment (Shanahan, Morgan, &
Stenbjerre, 1997); perceptions of race and affirmative action (Gandy &
Baron, 1998); consumerism (Allen, 1992), and the impact of natural
disasters (Newhagen & Lewenstein, 1992). Together these studies suggest
that, when heavily exposed to television, audience members tend to absorb a
homogenous set of meanings contained in messages. If television and film
viewing can shape attitudes and influence perceptions of reality, it is
reasonable to argue that men and women's magazines might have similar
effects. When young men and women read magazines such as Glamour and
Cosmopolitan, or GQ and Men's Health monthly, during the height of their
sexually active years, the information about sex could serve to influence
attitudes about sexual behavior, including perceptions of risk.
There are, however, also theoretical grounds for considering the media as
only one of many sources of sex education with differing degrees of
influence, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of other socializing
agents, such as peers, parents, and schools. Media dependency theory
suggests that people tend to be dependent on media outlets when they offer
direct information. This dependence grows when interpersonal communication
is inadequate in fulfilling information needs. DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach
(1982) suggest that dependency on media increases when people use media to
deepen their understanding and interpretation of non-mediated
experiences. If young adults are not receiving adequate information about
sex at school or from their parents and friends, media become their leading
source of information about sex (Garner et al., 1998). Men and women's
magazines, because they are readily available and relative inexpensiveness
are positioned to fill unfulfilled needs for information about sex.
Men and women's magazines
Most research conducted on media offerings about sex focus on fictional
television content. Media fare with journalistic intentions is most often
excluded from content analyses (see for example the research funded by the
Kaiser Family Foundation). It seems reasonable to expect outlets of
factional information to be held to the same level of scrutiny than media
entertainment channels. In fact, the mission of news reporters to inform
citizens in a way that they could alter basic conditions in society has
been part of the philosophy of journalism for centuries. This goal has
also been less tacitly accepted in journalism circles after the Hutchins
Commission outlined the responsibilities of the press in 1947 and
reinforced by the civic journalism movement since the late
1970s. Particular to the public issue of STI's, the public health model of
reporting subscribes focus on risk factors, causes, and prevention of
disease or social problems that cause harm or death to citizens (Wallack,
Dorfman, Jernigan, & Themba, 1993). Although men and women's magazines
might not be regarded as capstone examples of socially responsible
journalism, these magazines offer factual information to millions of
readers on a monthly basis. There are approximately 25,000 consumer
magazines currently on the market and available to young adults (Magazine
publishers of America, 2002). Monthly readership estimates of some of the
more popular women's magazines, such as Cosmopolitan (14 million) and
Glamour (two million) show wide readership. In fact, young women consider
magazines to be a significant source of information on sexuality and sexual
health (Ferguson, 1983; McCracken, 1993; Peirce, 1993, 1990; Wolf, 1991).
Strausburger (1995) suggests that print media are more likely than
television to discuss birth control and contraception and it has been
established that much of the focus in women's magazines is on sex and
sexual behavior (Durham, 1996; Garner et al., 1998; McCracken, 1993;
Research findings about the treatment of sex in women's magazines indicate
that articles in magazines include information on how to have better sex,
attract and please men, and they provide information on sexual anatomy and
functioning (Garner, Sterk, & Adams, 1998). Considerably fewer studies
have examined the role of magazines popular among young women (e.g.,
Cosmopolitan and Glamour), in shaping sexual attitudes and behaviors. One
study of health topics in women's magazines from the 1970's found that
"established" women's magazines (Ladies Home Journal, Woman's Day and
Cosmopolitan) focused mainly on diet, exercise, nutrition and mental health
issues. The "new" magazines (Ms., Working Woman, and Essence) focused the
majority of their coverage on reproductive health issues (birth control,
child birth practices, infertility, and abortion/miscarriages), followed by
mental health, then diet, exercise and nutrition, with no coverage of STI's
or AIDS (Weston & Ruggiero, 1985; 1986). Even in the late 1980s and early
1990s, when the incidence of STI's increased among women, women's magazines
tended to focus on pregnancy and child-bearing issues and abortion, rather
than the prevention or treatment of STI's (Walsh-Childers, 1997).
While only a handful of studies have examined the coverage of Sexually
Transmitted Infections in women's magazines, even fewer have studied the
coverage of STI's in men's magazines. In her analysis of sexual health
coverage, Walsh-Childers (1997) found slightly more coverage of STI's in
men than women's magazines between the years of 1986 and 1996. Three
percent of all articles coded in men compared with 2% in women's magazines
featured STI information, with prevention (rather than risk, treatment,
consequences and symptoms) being the focus of the information. Men's
magazines covered a broader range of STI types than women's magazines.
HIV/AIDS was given the most attention, followed by herpes, gonorrohea,
syphilis, and chlamydia, the most commonly reported STI according to the
CDC (1999). The messages young men receive about sex is worth examining;
men in their 20's are considered to be at high risk for STI's and HIV
(Bradner, Ku, & Lindberg, 2000). This group of men is also hardest to reach
with prevention information and education, simply because they are no
longer associated with institutions that traditionally provide prevention
education (Bradner et al., 2000).
Coverage of sexually transmitted infections in magazines targeted to
young, single men and women has not been the exclusive focus of any
existing research. A study by Walsh-Childers' (1997) examined the coverage
of sexuality, contraception, STI's, and reproductive behavior in several
popular magazines. While this study was instrumental in describing the
content of sexual health issues across many genres of magazines, it did not
focus solely on the magazines that could provide important information to
the group most likely to be affected by STI's, which are young adults.
Therefore, it is still somewhat unclear if, and to what extent, magazines
targeted at young adults are providing information about the prevention,
testing, symptoms, risks, health consequences, and treatment of STI's.
Sexually Transmitted Infections and Evolution
Evolutionary theory about human sexuality suggests that males and females
follow different mating strategies to maximize reproductive success
(Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987). Women invest more time, energy, and
risk in reproduction, and have a greater parental investment than men do.
As Symons (1979) suggests, men maximize their chances of procreation
through a large number of short-term sexual partnerships. For example, men
could have sex with 100 women in one year and produce 100 children, whereas
a woman could have sex with 100 men and only bear one child in one year
(Buss, 1998). Beyond the time commitment in carrying an unborn child to
birth, women also produce considerably fewer eggs and for a shorter period
of their lifetime than men produce sperm. The female strategy for
successful reproduction is therefore markedly different from men. Women
generally mate more selectively than men and pursue sexual partners who
show promise of commitment and availability of resources. In this way
women often secure life-supporting resources for themselves and their
offspring (Buss, 1998; Symons, 1979). Women also show preference for
healthy and attractive men, but these characteristics are not as important
to them as they are to men. In fact, men tend to base their mating
decisions on a woman's physical appearance because it provides the best cue
to fertility and therefore reproductive success (DeLamater & Hude,
1998). Research suggests that men prefer women who are young, have clear
skin, bright eyes, lustrous hair and prominent variance in their hip to
waist ratio (Buss, 1998). Yet, when men enter into long-term coupling,
they place a greater premium on fidelity, than women. The greatest threat
to the continuation of a male's genes is cuckolding. When a man commits to
a monogamous relationship and focuses his time and resources in support of
a woman and offspring, sexual fidelity of the woman is the only assurance
he has that he is not advancing another man's genetic immortality.
STI's may serve a functional role, especially for men, in selecting a
long-term mate. First, if a woman has an STI, it can be assumed, rightfully
or not, that she has the potential to behave in a promiscuous way. This
signals the potential risk of cuckolding—the greatest threat to the
longevity of male genes. Second, research suggests that STI's have been
present among humans since pre-historic times (Immerman & Mackey, 1999) and
have had a negative impact on mating and reproducing in particularly
women. In fact, STI's are far more likely to pose a threat to a woman's
than man's competitive edge in the gene pool. Women are more likely than
men to contract an STI after a single sexual exposure, the symptoms of some
STI's are subtle and often undetected in women, and medical evidence shows
that STI's have a more disastrous effect on the fertility of women. STI's
are therefore more likely to lower the value of women as potential mates
than men. For example, if a woman has an STI, there is increased chance of
miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, or passing infection on to an
unborn child. Thus, a woman's ability to produce a viable offspring is
compromised by the infection, which makes her an undesirable mate. As
evolutionary theory proposes, the most effective way for a man to assure
his genetic future is to mate with women who are fertile, physically fit to
carry a fetus to term, and able to deliver a healthy offspring (Buss,
1998). STI's could therefore been seen as a cue, more important for men
than women in selecting long term mating partners.
With consideration of gender differences in mate selection, as posed by
evolutionary psychologists, and guided by existing research on coverage of
STI's in the media the following research questions were posed:
RQ1: What is the prevalence and prominence of articles about sex in men
and women's magazines?
RQ 2: How prevalent is information about STI's in articles about sex for
men and women's magazines?
RQ3: What is the dominant frame of sex articles in men and women's magazines?
RQ 4: Which STI's enjoy the most coverage in men and women's magazines?
A census of two popular women's magazines (Cosmopolitan and Glamour) and
two popular men's magazines (GQ and Men's Health) between the years of 1998
and 2001 were analyzed for their coverage of sex and STI's. The time period
was selected for the analysis for two reasons. First, it continues where
Walsh-Childers (1997) study of the sexual content in popular magazines
leaves off. Therefore, this study provides continuity in accumulating
insight into magazine coverage of sex. Second, the data from the CDC (2000)
suggest a sharp increase in some STI's (HPV, Herpes simplex, gonorrhea)
occurred between the years of 1997 and 2000, highlighting this period for
an investigation of media coverage of STI's.
The two women's magazines were chosen because of the demography of their
target audiences and popularity among readers. Cosmopolitan magazine's
website cites a monthly circulation of approximately 14 million young women
(cosmopolitan.com, 2001). This magazine is targeted to women of
reproductive age between 18 and 34. The editors describe Cosmopolitan as
"the biggest-selling young women's magazine in the world, famous for its
upbeat style, focus on the career woman, and candid discussion of
contemporary male/female relationships." Glamour is also aimed at young
women and has a total readership of over 2 million each month. The
editorial content is focused on fashion, beauty, careers, love
relationships, travel and entertainment. Both magazines are among the
highest-selling young women's magazines.
The two men's magazines were selected because of their comparability to the
two women's magazines under investigation in terms of editorial goals,
readership size and demography. Men's Health features information on
health, fitness, style, nutrition, and relationships to its readers,
averaging over 1.6 million a month (Featherstone, 1998). The magazine is
targeted to men between 18 and 34, but claims to have a high readership of
men in the mid-to-upper 30s. About half of Men's Health readers are single,
and most are college educated. GQ is an established men's magazine that
covers "fashion, sports, women, journalism, and fitness" and is targeted to
the "modern man." GQ's readership is estimated at about 690,000 each month
(Featherstone, 1998). The magazine also offers its readers "the newest
trends, the hottest travel spots, and the best health, fitness and sex
advice anywhere" (CondeNast Publications, GQ website: www.gq.com).
The Coding Instrument
For purposes of this study, articles were selected for analysis if they
centrally dealt with the physical act of sexual intercourse (and oral sex),
and/or the sexual health of men and women. Articles about masturbation,
dating habits, relationships, and personal grooming were not included.
Moreover, reader write-ins and reader "confessions" were not included.
Articles written by a magazine staff member or other experts (in the case
of advice columns) were analyzed. This decision was made because the goal
of the study was to make an assessment of journalistic intent to inform the
public, and not to examine audience feedback. In total, 64 magazines were
analyzed, producing 138 sex-themed articles. Most issues contained more
than one article about sex and/or sexual health. Six GQ issues (March 1998,
June 1998, June 1999, August 1999, August 2000, and October 2001) did not
contain any articles about sex or sexual health, and therefore did not
produce any content for the study.
The coding instrument was based on some categories used by Walsh-Childers
(1997) in her examination of sex in magazines. The categories of "specific
mention of an STI" and "focus of STI information" were based on
Walsh-Childers' study. The column inches (length and width) of each article
were measured. In this way the general prevalence of stories about sex
could be determined and comparisons about the space devoted to sex coverage
could be drawn across men and women's magazines. The prominence of sex
stories was determined by categorizing them by type. Three different types
of articles, varying in journalistic "weight," were documented: feature
stories, news mentions, and advice columns. Features are in-depth
investigative articles written by magazine staff members, unique to a
specific issue. This type of story is the longest and journalistically the
most prestigious because authors are credited through a byline. Thus when
sex is the subject of a feature story, the editorial emphasis on this topic
is signaled. A news mention contains brief information in a section or
regular column and does not credit a specific author (e.g., "Cosmo Gyno").
Advice columns are often written by experts and appear in every issue. A
reader writes a question to an "expert" (generally a
psychiatrist/psychologist or other medical professional) regarding a
specific topic or problem and the expert answers (e.g., Cosmopolitan's
The prominence of articles was also assessed through the presence of
visuals (photos, graphs, or tables) that often accompany sex articles.
Existing research not only has demonstrated the importance of visuals in
facilitating information recall (Thorson, 1995) but also that readers are
more likely to read articles that are accompanied by a visual. Five visual
categories were developed: photos of clothed adults, photos of scantily
clad (lingerie or underwear) or nude adults, photos of men and women
together in sexual positions (such as lying on a bed, hugging, touching,
showering, etc.), computer-generated pictures or graphics, and information
tables that present information in a summarized form.
To assess the focus or frame of sex articles, the main theme was
documented using three options. The first is sex for pleasure, where the
focus of the article was on improving sex, sexual techniques, orgasms, or
the physical act of sexual intercourse for enjoyment or recreation. The
second main theme was defined as sex for procreation. In other words, the
focus of the article was on the physical act of sexual intercourse for the
purpose of improving odds for conception. Articles about preventing
pregnancy, or "contraception" were not included. The third main theme was
sexual health that includes articles with central focus on STI's or other
genital-related problems (e.g., Urinary Tract Infections, yeast
infections). In addition to documenting the main topic of sex-themed
stories, each article was scrutinized for featuring any information about
sex for pleasure, sex for procreation, and STI's. Coders indicated the
presence of information about each of these issues using simple "yes" and
"no" options. All articles were also investigated for including information
about STI's (see Table 4), regardless of the main theme of the article.
Two coders were trained for this study. The primary coder is a graduate
student in mass communications. The other coder is a person with no formal
training in mass communication or social science research and acted as the
reliability check on the primary coder. A brief orientation session was
held prior to the coding to train and familiarize coders with categories.
The articles from 10% of the sample (in this case, articles from 7
magazines out of the sample of 64 magazines) were used to determine
inter-coder reliability. A reliability test showed an acceptable level of
agreement between the two coders; Krippendorff's alpha was 0.82.
Articles from 64 magazines were analyzed. Four issues (March, June,
August, and October) of Cosmopolitan, Glamour, GQ, and Men's Health over
four years (1997, 1998, 1999, and 2000) yielded 138 articles.
The prevalence and prominence of sex and STI information:
In order to answer the first two research questions of this study the
prevalence and prominence of the articles about sex and STI's in magazines
were assessed using column inches (length and width), article form
(feature, advice column, news mention), and presence of visuals (photos,
tables and graphics) as indicators. The average length of the sex-themed
articles was 28.25 inches, while the average width of the articles was
12.35 inches. The majority of sex articles (62%) in both gender magazines
were feature articles, which are generally the longest form of article in a
magazine. Nineteen percent of the articles were advice columns and 20% were
short news mentions. Most articles about sex were accompanied by visuals.
Photos were the most common, and they were found in about half the
articles. Few articles contained graphic depictions (only 4%) while 16% of
the articles included tables in which information was summarized. The
content of photos showed propensity for titillation. Photos most often
featured adults in sexual positions (47% of sex articles), i.e. in the
shower, embracing, or lying in bed. Moreover, 46% of sex articles had
photos of nude or scantily clad adults while (34%) featured photos of
adults fully clothed.
Research question two asks about the prevalence and prominence of STI
information in sex articles. Simple frequency analysis revealed that less
than half (31%) of sex-themed articles in the four magazines contained
information about Sexually Transmitted Infections. Articles that contained
STI information were slightly more likely to be accompanied by a photo
(83.7 versus 71.6%), graphic depictions (4.7 versus 3.2%), and summary
tables (25.6% versus 11.6%) than articles without STI information. Yet it
seems that articles with STI information enjoyed less journalistic weight
in the news magazines. More feature stories did not contain (70.6%) STI
information than did (29.4%). The same pattern emerged for news brief
columns: 80.8% did not contain STI information. Yet, 48.2% of advice
columns about sex contained STI information. A t-test was performed to
assess if there was a statistically significant difference in the size
(column length and width) of articles with and without STI
information. The results were not significant, indicating that articles
with STI information enjoyed about the same prominence than articles
without this type of information.
Type of STI's in coverage:
Research question three probed coverage of specific STI's. HIV/AIDS was
the most-covered STI, and was found in 42% of the articles with STI
information. Other STI's received coverage in the following order of
prominence: information about the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) was found in
38% of articles, followed by chlamydia and herpes (each found in 35% of the
articles), gonorrhea (19%), trichomonaisis (12%), hepatitis B (7%), and
finally, both syphilis and pelvic inflammatory disease were found in 5% of
the articles with STI information. This coverage is not consistent with the
information provided by the CDC about the prominence and incidence of STI's
in America. According to the CDC, HIV is one of the least-reported STI's
among heterosexuals but received the most coverage in the magazines, which
are targeted primarily at a heterosexual audience. The CDC (1999) shows
that chlamydia and HPV are the most commonly reported STI's, yet
information about these infections was found in less than half of the
articles that contained information about STI's.
The fourth research question asked about the dominant frames that
underscore sex articles. This study examined the main topic or dominant
frame in each article, which could be one of three: sex for pleasure, sex
for procreation, and sexual health. Simple frequency analysis of the data
showed that the most common main topic was sex for pleasure (65%), with
sexual health (32%) and sex for procreation (3%) with much less prominence.
In addition to being the most prominent main topic in articles about sex,
information about sex for pleasure was also featured in 70% of articles
that had sex for procreation or sexual health as the main topic.
The articles with information about sex for pleasure were longer than
articles that did not contain any sex for pleasure information (articles
with the main topics of sex for procreation or sexual health were grouped
together). The mean length for articles with sex for pleasure information
was 31.59 inches and the mean width was 13.26 inches. The mean length for
articles without any information about sex for procreation was 20.60
inches, and the mean width was 10.28 inches. A t-test was performed to
analyze the difference in the mean length and width of articles that
included and did not include sex for pleasure information, and significant
differences emerged for length: T(136)= 2.475, p< .015, and approaching
significance for width: T(136)=1.858, p< .065, (see Table 1).
Table 1 about here
Using cross-tabulation and chi-square analysis, a significant difference
(p< .001) was found between the main topics and the article form.
Sixty-nine percent of the articles with sex for pleasure as the main topic
were feature articles, 23% were advice columns, and 8% were news mentions.
Only one article with sex for procreation as the main topic was a feature
story; the remaining three were news mentions. By contrast, 50% of the
articles with sexual health as their main topic were feature articles, 11%
were found in advice columns, and 40% were news mentions. There were some
significant differences found when examining the presence of visuals with
the article's dominant frame. The results are summarized in Table 2. Most
articles with the sex for pleasure and sexual health frames were
accompanied by visuals. Articles with the sex for procreation frame never
featured visuals. It also appears that photographs are more likely to be
associated with articles featuring the sex for pleasure frame whereas
informational graphics and tables are more often used with articles that
centrally featured the sexual health frame. This shows a tendency to
attract attention to articles about sex for pleasure with titillating
photographic images and underplaying sexual health articles. This pattern
in the data suggests that information about sexual health is not packaged
to be associated with sensuality as often as sex for pleasure is. At the
same time sex for pleasure is less likely to be associated with information
graphically depicted or summarized.
Table 2 about here
STI information was found in 9% of articles that had sex for pleasure as
the main topic, while more than 90% of the STI information was found in
sexual health articles. This suggests that information about STI's and
information about sex for pleasure were treated as separate entities, as
the two topics were infrequently featured in the same article. No STI
information was found in sex for procreation articles.
One of the main goals of this study was to compare coverage of sex and STI
information in men and women's magazines. Frequency analysis,
cross-tabulation and t-tests show several statistically significant
differences between magazines aimed at the two genders. Men's magazines had
fewer articles (47 ) about sex and sexual health than women's magazines
(91) and consequently fewer articles about STI's.
There were also differences in the coverage of sex for pleasure. In
women's magazines, 58% of the articles contained information about sex for
pleasure, whereas in the men's magazines, 79% of the articles had
information about sex for pleasure. Cross-tabulation and chi-square
analysis showed that this result was approaching significance (1)= 2.824,
Women's magazines, while having more information about STI's, had only 5
articles with some information about sex for procreation. In men's
magazines 8% of articles about sex contained information about sex for
procreation. Sexual Health was the main topic in women's magazines in 42%
of the articles, and in men's magazines, it was the main topic in 13% of
the articles. Note that the main topic of "sexual health" does not
necessarily mean information about Sexually Transmitted Infections was
included in the article. The main topic of "sexual health" also included
information about pap smears, genital cancers, urinary tract infections, etc.
Statistically significant differences were also found in some of the
specific Sexually Transmitted Infections covered in men's magazines and
women's magazines. Significant or approaching significant differences were
found in the coverage of chlamydia, chi-square (1)= 5.622 (p< .018);
HIV/AIDS, chi-square (1)= 4.853 (p< .028); HPV (1)= 6.232 (p< .013); and
herpes, chi-square (1)= 3.219 (p< .073). There were three statistically
significant differences in the type of STI information found in the
articles in men's magazines and in women's magazines, and those were
prevention of STI's: chi-square (1)= 6.164 (p< .01), symptoms of STI's:
chi-square (1)= 7.488 (p< .006), and transmission of STI's: chi-square (1)=
5.026 (p< .025). Although STI's pose more devastating reproductive
consequences to women, men's magazines were more likely to emphasize
prevention, risk, treatment, and health consequences than women's
magazines. In fact, in articles with STI information, prevention
references was found in 55% of the women's magazine articles compared to
100% of the articles in men's magazines. Treatment information was
provided in 66.7% of men and 27.5% of women's magazine articles. Risk
information was featured in 100% of men's magazine articles and in 35% of
women's magazine articles. Symptoms information was found in 43% of
articles in women's magazines and in 33% of men's magazine articles, while
health consequence information was found in 20% of women's magazine
articles and in 33% of the men's magazine articles.
Table 2 about here
The media often advance the basic premises of evolution and reproductive
theory by cultivating human mating behavior. They take advantage of the
ancestral desire for humans to mate with attractive partners by showing
images of beautiful people and including messages with sexual themes to
sell products or attract an audience. However, while sex and sexuality are
pervasive topics in media fare, messages about safe sex and the dangers of
intercourse are much less popular.
The subject of Sexually Transmitted Infections was infrequently covered in
articles about sex or sexual health in the four magazines investigated in
this study. The majority of the articles about sexual intercourse, in both
men and women's magazines, centrally focused on sex for pleasure. Such
articles provide advice and information on how to improve sexual
intercourse as a pleasurable recreational act. Sex for pleasure articles
were also more prominently featured in the magazines. Those stories tended
to be longer and visually titillating because photos of nude or semi-nude
adults and people in sexual positions were more likely to accompany them.
As previously discussed, research has shown that photos lengthen the
likelihood that a reader will read a story and also enhances recall of the
information in the story. If articles about sex for pleasure have more
visuals, it can be assumed that readers will be more likely to read and
process the information in those stories than articles without photos.
In western civilization, traditionally women only had sex within marriage
for procreational purposes. Now that it is generally accepted that women
have sex for recreational purposes, magazines with articles about sex for
pleasure play an educational role. Intercourse with multiple partners has
been more closely associated with men across all cultures. Several studies
reviewed earlier found a shift in this gender behavior: magazines encourage
women to be sexually active and to please men, yet they were not often
encouraged to think about or use proper protective measures when having
sex. This study adds support to existing findings that women have access to
information about enjoying sex with little emphasis on how to protect
themselves from contracting STI's.
While sex for procreation articles were overall not plentiful. Yet, the
fact that it was the central focus in a small number of articles in men's
magazines and never the central focus in women's magazines, is an
interesting finding. As evolutionary theory suggests, men are biologically
positioned to have sex with more partners than women. Articles with the
central focus of sex for procreation often explained how to keep sperm
healthy, revealed information about sexual positions that maximize the odds
of sperm reaching an egg, and gave advice about how men should protect
testicles from injury in sports (which could have harmful effects on
sperm). This finding suggests that male fertility takes higher priority in
men's magazines than female fertility in women's magazines. The lack of
sex for procreation articles in women's magazines could also suggest that
women are not reminded of sex for procreation because, for long, it was the
only reason women had sex.
Sexual Health was the second most prevalent main topic in women's magazine
articles. Overall, women's magazines had more articles with the main topic
of sexual health, as well as more information about STI's than men's
magazines. This is not surprising, considering the fact that women are
generally more likely than men to contract an STI from a single encounter
and face more severe health consequences from these infections. STI's such
as chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause a woman to become infertile, but
rarely have the similar result in a man. The lack of information about
STI's in men's magazines could be seen as a reflection on the lower risk of
fertility threats. In line with evolutionary psychology this lack of
emphasis on STI information does not encourage men to be more selective in
sexual engagement. At the same time, more emphasis on STI information in
women's magazines sends a message to women that they carry responsibility
for their reproductive health. Perhaps this message might even cultivate
fear of contracting an infection and serves a function in reproductive
theory by keeping women abstinent or monogamous.
But focusing on the frequency of STI information in men and women's
magazines does not fully reveal gender differences in messages about sexual
health. When STI information is present in articles, there are differences
in the focus across men and women's magazines. Even though men are less
likely to acquire STI's from women than women are from men, the issues of
prevention and risk are more often the focus of STI articles in men than
women's magazines. Men's magazines were also more likely to present
information on health consequences and treatment, which is somewhat
surprising, considering a man's fertility and overall health are impacted
less than a woman's when contracting an STI. This finding might be
interpreted as evidence that, in an evolutionary sense, STI information in
magazines favor the male mating strategy. By providing less education
about the risk, prevention, and treatment of STI's in women than men's
magazines, women are likely to continue to be more vulnerable to
contracting these diseases than men. As discussed earlier in the paper,
Sexually Transmitted Infections serve two important cues to men in making
long-term mating decisions: it signals the potential that a woman might be
promiscuous and reflects negatively on her procreative health. It might be
worthwhile for future studies to probe the media's role in advancing
socially acceptable as well as biologically functional sexual behavior.
This study provides a small glimpse into the consistencies across biology
and social artifacts.
Table 1. Mean lengths and widths in articles with and without sex for
Sex for pleasure information present
Sex for pleasure information absent
STI information present
STI information absent
Length of article
Width of article
*p < .015
Table 2. Differences in visual displays by main topics
Sex For Pleasure
Sex for Procreation
% of articles with photos of clothed adults
% of articles with nude or semi-nude adults
% of articles with photos of adults in sexual positions
% of articles with graphics
% of articles with tables
Table 3. Summary of key differences between men's magazines and women's
STI information present
Main Topic: Sex Pleasure
Main Topic: Sex for Procreation
Main Topic: Sexual Health
Articles with HIV
Articles with chlamydia
Articles with HPV
Articles with herpes
Articles with gonorrhea
Articles with syphilis
Articles with hep. B
Articles with trich
Photos of Clothed Adults
Photos of Nude Adults
Photos of Adults in Sexual Positions
STI Articles: Prevention
STI Articles: Symptoms
STI Articles: Health Cons.
STI Articles: Transmission
STI Articles: Risk
STI Articles: Testing
STI Articles: Treatment
STI Articles: Financial
* p<.05, **p<.001
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