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Sexual Messages in Black and White: A case study of Essence and Cosmo
Unformatted Document Text:  Central concern Essence Cosmo Second wave tenets of sexual rights & expression (i.e., please herself or him)? Came closer to fulfilling the feminist tenet of women defining their own sexual pleasure. Missed the feminist tenet, places more emphasis on pleasing the man. Encouragement to transgress from norms Placed only minor emphasis on encouraging transgression. Encouraged transgression through innovative sexual behavior more often. Encouragement to engage in “go-getting” behavior Encouraged women to pursue what they wanted; said women should address men’s problematic behavior. Encouraged to pursue what they wanted; ambivalent about whether women should address problematic behavior in men. Encouragement for fidelity/infidelity Said if a man is unfaithful, leave him. Ambivalent about how women should deal with infidelity. Taken together, findings suggest that the sexual discourse in advice columns in Essence follows the tenets of second wave feminism more closely than the sexual discourse found in Cosmo advice columns. Second wave feminists believed women were entitled to define their sexuality, means of seeking pleasure and to give priority to their pleasure. They also advocated the right to say no to sex. Essence readers in the magazines examined are more likely to be encouraged to define their sexual pleasure, but set limits on it as they wish – completely in line with the second wave thinking. Cosmo readers are more likely to be told that they pursue their sexual needs but to put the man’s pleasure first. Both magazines encouraged readers to “go-get” the men they wanted, making the first move, shaping the relationship, etc. They differed in what women should do, however, if men’s behavior began to bother them. Essence was more definitive in saying she should challenge behavior she didn’t like in him; Cosmo columns were more likely to give him leeway, not push him. Essence was also more definitive regarding fidelity in a man – leave him! Cosmo columns were more ambivalent, some advocating giving him another chance. 16

Authors: Byerly, Carolyn. and Reviere, Rebecca.
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Central concern
Second wave tenets of sexual 
rights & expression (i.e., please 
herself or him)?
Came closer to fulfilling the 
feminist tenet of women 
defining their own sexual 
Missed the feminist tenet, 
places more emphasis on 
pleasing the man.
Encouragement to transgress from 
Placed only minor emphasis 
on encouraging 
Encouraged transgression 
through innovative sexual 
behavior more often.
Encouragement to engage in “go-
getting” behavior
Encouraged women to 
pursue what they wanted; 
said women should address 
men’s problematic behavior.
Encouraged to pursue 
what they wanted; 
ambivalent about whether 
women should address 
problematic behavior in 
Encouragement for 
Said if a man is unfaithful, 
leave him.
Ambivalent about how 
women should deal with 
Taken together, findings suggest that the sexual discourse in advice columns in Essence follows 
the tenets of second wave feminism more closely than the sexual discourse found in Cosmo 
advice columns.  Second wave feminists believed women were entitled to define their sexuality, 
means of seeking pleasure and to give priority to their pleasure.  They also advocated the right to 
say no to sex.  Essence readers in the magazines examined are more likely to be encouraged to 
define their sexual pleasure, but set limits on it as they wish – completely in line with the second 
wave thinking.  Cosmo readers are more likely to be told that they pursue their sexual needs but 
to put the man’s pleasure first.  Both magazines encouraged readers to “go-get” the men they 
wanted, making the first move, shaping the relationship, etc.  They differed in what women 
should do, however, if men’s behavior began to bother them.  Essence was more definitive in 
saying she should challenge behavior she didn’t like in him; Cosmo columns were more likely to 
give him leeway, not push him.  Essence was also more definitive regarding fidelity in a man – 
leave him!  Cosmo columns were more ambivalent, some advocating giving him another chance.

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