NEW YORK – They feature sexy male centerfolds, flirty innuendos and relationship advice. Women’s magazines? No. They’re magazines for teens.
In the most recent issue of CosmoGIRL (search), for instance, there are tips on meeting guys, as well as a sexy pin-up of 29-year-old actor Paul Walker and an interview with him: “We got him to strip down and bare everything … about himself, naughty girl!”
According to a pair of studies released last month, 70 percent of American teens get information about sex from the media — and 20 percent have had sex before age 15.
So are mags aimed at adolescents (search) too sexed-up — or is their approach to issues facing today's youngsters realistic?
“We know they’re being bombarded with images of sex and sexuality as well as information about sexual health,” said Julia Davis, senior program officer for the Kaiser Family Foundation (search), which sponsored one study. “Some of these images are problematic — absolutely.”
A recent Seventeen was peppered with explicit sexual references, including an advice column titled, “Can I get birth control without telling my parents?” and a quiz asking, “When it comes to communicating about s-e-x, how comfortable do you really feel?”
Elayne Bennett, president of the adolescent girls abstinence program Best Friends Foundation (search), said parents and teachers are frustrated at the alluring images teen magazines market to their kids.
"Magazines are marketing sex in a big way," Bennett said. "There are a lot of assumptions that teen girls are having sex. It's very much of concern to those of us who work with adolescent girls."
But Atoosa Rubenstein, editor-in-chief of CosmoGIRL, said her magazine tries to encourage confidence among teens and create a forum for discussion about the issues they face.
“We’re not a bunch of heathens trying to corrupt girls,” she said. “We want to make girls powerful. We are that big sister on their team, encouraging them.”
In addition to the hot-guy posters and beauty tips, CosmoGIRL features profiles of successful women and articles about reaching goals.
“At the end of the day, we do have centerfolds — they’re fun and teenagers are always looking for a giggle,” Rubenstein said. “But despite the jokes and pictures of guys, there’s a message there. That’s the message that keeps our readers coming back. They feel better about themselves after they read us.”
Not everyone agrees. An editor from Teen Voices, an alternative adolescent magazine, said mainstream glossies make some girls feel self-conscious.
“A lot of girls feel like the magazines make them feel bad,” said Teen Voices senior editor Celina De Leon. “They’re expected to talk about how they look or what boy they have on their arm.”
Teen Voices’ approach is to discuss sex without putting forth the notion that being sexually active is the norm, she said.
“We say, ‘if you are having sex, if you are in a relationship.’ We always say ‘if,’” said De Leon. “These girls are budding into puberty and sexuality. It’s an awkward time.”
Though the stats on adolescent sex sound alarming, the number of sexually active high schoolers has declined in the last decade. In 2001, 46 percent of ninth- to twelfth-graders reported having had sexual intercourse, an 8 percent drop from 1991, according to Davis.
“Our first statement is always that the only truly safe sex is no sex," said CosmoGIRL's Rubenstein. "More teens than ever before are virgins. Teenage sex is definitely happening, but there’s also good news that sometimes gets forgotten.”
But magazines' mixed messages are what Bennett's group finds most problematic.
"These magazines do not take a stand," she said. "They aren't saying sex is not really for you at this time in your life. That's where parents and teachers think they've fallen short."
Davis believes adolescent magazines actually do help them navigate their teenage years.
“The goal is to provide information. Many teen magazines are doing a good job of that,” she said.
Instead of indicating a desire among teens to stop the flow of media, the Kaiser study found that teens want more information — but need guidance in figuring it out.
"That means having a bit more context for what they see in magazines and on television — what is advertising versus what is information that can help them make decisions,” Davis said.