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Female sexuality defined in male terms

Female sexuality defined in male terms

Women’s magazines portray male needs and desires as more important than what women want, according to a Masters student at The University of Auckland.

Pani Moghaddam looked at male representations of sexuality in women’s magazines as part of a study funded by the Faculty of Science Summer Scholarship Fund.

Over the last three decades, a considerable amount of feminist research has been conducted using women’s magazines, says Pani.

“There is a strong body of knowledge on what women are led to believe about themselves by reading such magazines. What I was interested in finding out was what women learn about male sexuality and what this means for female sexual subjectivity, sexual practices and identities.”

The psychology student looked at six issues of “Cosmopolitan” and “Cleo” magazines to identify how male sexuality was constructed and represented.

“Women’s magazines such as these claim to promote the idea of a sexually-liberated independent woman, but you could question this,” says the 23-year-old.

Women are portrayed as dependent on men and their relationship with men, whereas men are portrayed as being independent. The concept of a “Mr Right” is common in the magazines and Pani says women are positioned as being in constant pursuit of their “Mr Right”.

“Happiness seems to come to those who have found ‘Mr Right’.”

While the magazines are apparently about women’s sexuality, Pani’s findings show that the magazines prioritised male sexuality.

“Male definitions of what is desirable and exciting sexual behaviour were abundant and women were continually encouraged to cater to a man’s sexual needs and desires. For example, women were encouraged to embody ‘his sexual fantasy’, whether or not this was congruent with their fantasy.”

The idea of a ‘male ego’ was common in the findings and its existence was not questioned.

“The male ego was commonly drawn on to shed light on male sexual behaviour and to represent men as quite fragile and insecure about the quality of their sexual performance. Women were encouraged to sooth the male ego by reassuring men of their sexual adequacy and competence.”

Pani says one possible effect of this could be that women may fake pleasure in order to satisfy their partner’s feelings of sexual competency.

“Men are supposedly cheaters and women are told to keep men happy or risk losing them. Far less attention is paid to female desires and satisfaction.”

Pani says the findings confirm that popular culture and mass media contribute to women’s oppression in society.

“The magazines portray a gendered understanding of what women and men desire. Because women’s happiness is still seen as dependent on having relationships with men, they are being told first how to attract men and then how to ‘keep’ them.

“Men are seen as inherently independent, not needing women in the same manner, and so have their own identity, but women’s identity is very much linked to their dependence on men, and this is problematic. Women aren’t seen as successful if they don’t have a man in their lives. According to these magazines, women are emotionally dependent on men for fulfilment.”

Pani’s advice to the thousands of women who buy such magazines is to be critical of what they read.

“I think women would get a sense of empowerment if they didn’t need a man for their happiness and contentment. The time and energy spent in trying to find a man and keep him, based on the advice provided by these magazines, could be channelled elsewhere in pursuits which truly satisfy women.”

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