News & Politics

When Clicking on 'Love' Leads to 'Sex': What Women's Magazine Labels Say About Love and Sex

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If you click on the tab labeled “Love” on women’s magazine Marie Claire’s website, you’ll find yourself on a page titled “Hottest Sex Tips For Women.” Articles in this section include “The Hottest Porn for Women on the Internet,” “The 18 Most Popular Vibrators, Reviewed by Experts,” and “10 Unfiltered Sex Tips for the Best Action You’ve Ever Gotten.” In Shape magazine’s “Sex and Love” section, seven of the first ten articles are about are sex (not love). And Cosmopolitan’s “Love” section is literally just a list of graphically illustrated sexual positions.

It’s not that women’s magazines don’t offer relationship advice — they do, in abundance — but the fact that clicking on “Love” so often directs you to “Sex” does at least seem like something worth noting. The idea that a women’s magazine — or any lifestyle magazine — might have a section about sex isn’t particularly surprising (it’s a topic that interests, well, most people). But why wouldn’t the magazine just label the section correctly? Everyone knows that Cosmopolitan is basically pornography (it was banned from the shelves at Walmart for goodness sake) so why call the section “Love” instead of “Sex”?

While the line between love and lust has always had the potential to get blurry, it’s gotten nearly impossible to discern the difference in the age of modern feminism. When people start using words like “intimacy” to describe a one-night-stand (or even an encounter with a prostitute), and offering “dating advice” that is really just a guide to good sex, one can’t help but wonder what is going on. And the conclusion one comes to, I think, is that modern feminism’s insistence on sexual liberation for women has had a few unfortunate side effects.

Sex therapist Sarah Watson says that sexual pleasure is a woman’s “birthright.” The editors of Marie Claire, or Cosmopolitan, or any number of other women’s magazines would, no doubt, agree. Articles about porn for women, which vibrator to buy, masturbation tips, or how to have multiple orgasms, leave one very important thing out of the equation: a partner. So many of these articles are about “pleasure” completely removed from the shared experience of having sex. And even these articles (sometimes mostly these articles) are listed under “Love.”

Isolating sexual pleasure as a goal in and of itself — one that women must discover at all costs — skews the idea of what sex is and what it’s for. And calling the attainment of sexual pleasure “love” muddies the water even further. Love is an emotion, pleasure is a bodily feeling. They may be related, but they are not the same. And whatever the relationship between love and sex, there at least ought to be another person involved.

Ever since Gloria Steinem popularized the phrase “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” many feminists have been trying to prove that men are literally extraneous. And, while some women’s magazines have tried to shift the “Love” section to be about all kinds of love (parents, friends, animals, etc.), others have simply left the label but relegated the partner to second-class status. But surely this isn’t love. At least, I hope it isn’t.

Ultimately, how women’s magazines choose to organize their content — and what labels they give it — is not the be all and end all of life. But, insofar as women’s magazines can provide social commentary — they’re readership is huge — it’s possible that the content in the “Love” section might tell us something about the state of actual love among readers of these magazines. And, if nothing else, it’s worth knowing what you’re getting into before you click on the innocent-looking “Love” tab and get more than you bargained for. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.