My friend M and I were reminiscing about the ‘Just-17’ magazine era of our lives recently. I say ‘reminiscing’, but ‘looking back with discomfort and some introspection’ might be more apt. We had just attended a volunteer training day with the lovely people at Sexplain – an organisation that provides inclusive sex education. As part of this, we had been asked to reflect on messages we had picked up about sex when we were younger. M and I went to school together in the 90s. This was when the likes of Bliss, Sugar and Cosmo-Girl were the height of sophistication for an adolescent girl. Contained within their pages were a mixture of fashion, make-up tips, celebrity gossip and relationship advice – with the edgier ones including advice on ACTUAL SEX. They often came with free lip gloss.
Ostensibly, sounds great – a place to get informal and confidential information on sex. However sometimes the tone and implicit assumptions of these magazines were what I would now describe as ‘problematic’. There was very much a dominant, heteronormative view of relationships. There was an implicit assumption – within advice pieces on how to give a good blow-job, for example – that being anything other than straight just wasn’t an option. Advice on how to deal with your boyfriend came in many guises, but never what to do if you might want a girlfriend, or something else. Sex was defined very narrowly as penis-in-vagina penetrative sex. In addition, the endless parade of smiling, white, stick-thin celebrities and models did nothing good for my self-esteem. All of that said, before the unfettered internet access of today, this was one of the few places that talked about sex. Every week. With an opportunity to write in and ask anonymous questions.
I used to buy the magazine during my trips accompanying my Mum to the supermarket on a Saturday. I was interested in them from the ages of about 11 – 14 years (i.e. a fair while before I was going to have sex). There was a real gap of sources of information for curious teenagers wanting to know more about sex and relationships. Even if they didn’t do it as deftly as you might hope, they did fill a niche in a way other sources didn’t. Sex Ed classes at school were too staid and delivered by a deeply out of reach authority figure. My parents were well meaning, but I think honestly relieved to just get over ‘the talk’. My friends generally knew as little as I did.
As I’ve said, I was reading the likes of Just-17, Bliss, Sugar, and Cosmo-girl well before I was actually having sex. By thta time the internet had come along and I could rely on a dubious combination of the world wide web and rumours spread amongst my (now slightly more experienced) peers. The magazines I remember are now defunct, having died along with much of print media. Teen Vogue, established in 2003, seems to be the contemporary thing anything like the mags of my youth. Thankfully, it is somewhat different in content as well as form (online only since 2017). It contains a ‘news and politics’ section. It is queer friendly and controversial with it – it first came to my attention during the furore over their publication of an anal sex guide. I thought a guide to bra fittings was pretty revolutionary in my adolescence – this puts it in to a whole different perspective. And in an age of sexting, online grooming and internet pornography ‘desensitising’, I see this as a hugely welcome step. Technology it seems has opened the flood gates on some pretty scary things, but also allowed in a new perspective on sex and relationships. And I never really liked the lip balm anyway…