Standing in line at the grocery store almost anywhere in America, the hapless shopper is bombarded with insistent exhortatory headlines: blow his mind; sexual bliss secrets; get his sexual attention instantly; what he's thinking about you ... naked. Perhaps she stands in front of them to prevent her mother or her kid from reading them aloud. Or she skims the copy to see if it might deliver the promised ecstasy. Whether or not she actually buys women's magazines, she can't escape their sexual anxieties, enthusiasms and obsessions.
Our shopper might have been all ears at a New York City fall cocktail-hour panel of women's magazine editors, hosted by Mediabistro.com, a media networking organization, and held at Obeca Li, a trendy nouvelle Asian restaurant in lower Manhattan. Audience members, mostly senior-level editors and writers for women's magazines, joined the panelists in voicing many familiar complaints about the industry: too many skinny models, even more emaciated feature stories, and too much advertiser influence on editorial content. Laurie Abraham, executive editor of Elle magazine, however, had something else on her mind. The worst thing about women's magazines, she asserted during the panel discussion, is how much we lie about sex.
nder normal circumstances, a roomful of experienced journalists might rise up in outrage at being called liars. But Abraham's statement was met with nods of guilty agreement and mildly embarrassed "tell me something I don't know" shrugs. No one denied the charge.
This is not Watergate, of course, or even Monica-gate. Yet these ubiquitous stories about sex are presented as journalism, chock full of analysis and quotes, and they are surely believed by many of their readers. They are a formidable cultural force, shaping and reinforcing our attitudes about men and women, orgasms and relationships. Women's magazines run scrupulously reported and fact-checked articles on such subjects as breast cancer and women under the Taliban. Do they have a problem with sex?
Well, yes, it turns out, they do. Many writers, editors and fact-checkers involved with these sex articles (most of whom asked that their identities be protected with the top-secrecy accorded CIA sources) agreed that the editorial standards for them are abysmal.
Fashion and beauty magazines like Vogue or Allure seem to avoid sex, perhaps because it demands so many aesthetic compromises -- inevitably messing up eyeliner or hair. It is the life-style magazines like Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire and others that often run the most features dedicated to sex and relationship conundrums. Within these service-oriented magazines, the worst abuses seem to occur in a specific genre -- the relationship/advice story (opposites attract, the seven-year itch), which is usually illustrated by ebullient quotes from supposedly real women ("Marisa, a 26-year-old executive secretary"). Just about everyone interviewed for this story said that these stories were embellished.
"These stories were so 'tweaked,'" says a former fact-checker at Mademoiselle, which folded last fall, "that checking them was not a priority." A woman who works for Glamour acknowledges that quotes are routinely rewritten. "They get people to interview people -- or purport to interview people," but quotes are then rephrased to sound as silly and perky as the magazine's copy. "No one talks like that," she says. Former Glamour fact-checker Amy Feitelberg is even blunter: "Quotes were totally changeable."
The former Mademoiselle checker says of the sex articles, "When I first got there, I would try to check those first-time-I-had-sex quotes. You know, 'It was Christmas Eve, we made a fire ... .' And I would get blank looks [from editors.] They'd say, 'Um, you want to call these people?'"
A former Cosmopolitan editor, interviewed by cell phone during a manicure/pedicure, says that Cosmo nearly always changed the ages of people quoted, to hit the magazine's mid-20-something target readership. Writers and editors often interview their friends, and "we didn't know anyone of the correct age. Such a nuisance!"
One Marie Claire writer says that very often, after interviewing couples in intimate detail about their sex life, her editors will ask her to go back to her sources and ask them to change their answers. "It's totally unethical," she says, "and puts me as a writer in an uncomfortable, awkward position." Still, she admits, she complies.
Even more oddly, many of the people discussed in these stories simply do not exist. The former Cosmo editor says that when the qualifier "Names have been changed" appeared, the characters in the story were composites. But a fact-checker at another top-circulation women's magazine says, "'Composite' gives it too much credit. It's much more invented than that. 'Names have been changed' can mean anything, including 'Totally made up.'"
"I don't think I ever made anything up wholesale," the ex-Cosmo editor says. "But in a tight spot, we'd brainstorm." The anecdotes, she says, "were always things that could have happened."
The stability of the universe
In women's magazines as in life, motives for lying about sex vary greatly. Many attribute the fibs to deadline pressure, and the need to produce continuously diverting copy. "It has to get out the door and it has to sell," says one editor. Another editor, however, blames her colleagues' "giggly, girlish attitude toward sex," adding: "It's not a bad thing to be playful about it. But what dismayed me was how unseriously they took journalism, and that was much more likely to happen in articles about sex."
Yet some factual stretches are aimed at making the sex stories "more realistic," explains the former Cosmo editor. The staff would sometimes balk at an anecdote if they thought that "no one would really do that." Of course, people's ideas about what others "really" do in bed can be rather narrow. On the Mediabistro panel, Laurie Abraham recalled writing a story for Glamour on "reviving your sex life":
"I quoted my best friend all through school who's from Cleveland, Ohio, like I am. And she told me that she and her husband -- they had been married, like, eight years -- had sex five times a week. And so it was edited out and it was actually changed to three times a week!" Why? "Because the editor couldn't believe that a couple, married for eight years, was having sex five times a week."
Once, discussing a prospective personal essay with a Marie Claire editor, a writer was asked to change a reference to a female lover -- turning her into a man. "Women's magazines have a very specific idea of what's 'normal,'" says a Glamour writer. "Anything that deviates threatens the stability of the universe. They think it will freak out the reader."
Cosmo has historically taken a different route, exaggerating to make copy racier. But the former Cosmo editor, now a freelance writer, has been chagrined to encounter new ways of lying. "I just wrote a story for another women's magazine, and the fact-checker called and I didn't recognize any of my anecdotes," she reports indignantly. "They made them much tamer!"
While the worst abuses occur in the anecdotal stories, pieces on sexual health often have exaggeration problems of their own. Some women's magazines, so intent on selling their readers on having sex, make dubious claims about its health benefits. Their persistence here is a bit puzzling (after all, who are these people who need to be coaxed with the promise of better vitamin B-levels?) but the "science" it leads to can be wacky indeed. Sessions with your "very personal trainer," for example, are often said to burn calories and improve your complexion (why sex makes you prettier).
The sex-health claims, a fact-checker points out, "always, interestingly, equate sex and orgasm. But you often have one without the other, sadly." And claims about the calorie-burning powers of sex, she says, are always based on the premise that for a full hour, "you are seriously f***ing, f***ing, f***ing -- which nobody does for more than a few minutes." None of these claims "can be proved false," the fact-checker sighs. "But just think of all those poor women lying there ... thinking they're going to get skinny!"
Can this genre be saved?
Does any of this matter? Editors' opinions vary. "Hey, it ain't The New York Times," the Cosmo loyalist says in her former employer's defense. "We should not be in the business of misinforming people, but we are publishing an entertaining, popular magazine that people want to read."
Not everyone shares her blithe attitude.
A top Glamour editor, Cindi Leive, recently revamped the magazine to include more nonsexual content -- "Our readers are whole people," she says. "Not just pelvic areas." But she denied that sex stories were held to a lower standard at her magazine or that Glamour quotes were made up or even embellished. "I can't speak to the standards at all magazines, but most editors would be horrified to think that went on," she says. "It's sad that you would even ask."
Leive was more incensed by the former Cosmo editor's implication that these stories should be dismissed as entertainment. "That is a slap in the face to the millions of readers who take your magazine seriously," she fumed. "And our reader takes all parts of our magazine seriously." Chief editors at Cosmo and Marie Claire, the two other magazines named here, declined to "participate" in this article, according to Lili Root, spokeswoman for the Hearst Corporation, the media conglomerate that owns them.
Could mainstream sex writing be playful and entertaining, but also honest about people's lives? At the Mediabistro gathering, another former Cosmo editor, Chandra Czape, wasn't sure. "Frankly, I think the really good journalists get frustrated writing for women's magazines," she said. "Why should they spend their life writing Seven Tips for Greater Sex? It may be something you do sometimes to pay the bills. But I mean, come on, this cannot be the height of someone's journalistic career."
Yet, considering how important sex is to nearly everyone, isn't this attitude a bit too cynical? Perhaps the lies in women's magazines are part of a deeper social disease. Despite the omnipresence of sex (and its proven ability to sell magazines, as well as perfume, cigars, and just about anything else), we still try to deny its importance. The coverlines on these magazines may offer a clue to the problem: just count the number of times the word "secret" appears, as if the subject so loudly advertised is still shameful -- and perhaps a bit silly.
"Women's magazines sometimes seem like they feel afraid to tell the entire truth," Debbie Stoller, founder of Bust, an alternative women's magazine, said at the Mediabistro event. She started her magazine (which folded in October but will return under a new publisher this spring) in response to that lack of reality -- not only the specific lies but the absence of real women, with all their perversions, cellulite and intelligence -- in mainstream women's magazines. Her one editorial absolute? She will not publish "anything that's not completely authentic."
We can hope that Stoller's spirit is rubbing off on the mainstream. One recent Marie Claire headline stood out from the newsstand's usual breathlessness: the truth about women and sex. A bit ambitious, perhaps, but emphatically worth a try.
This article first appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.