Pure Sex, Pure Love

WARNING: Quizzes in Women's Magazines May Be Harmful to Your Relationship

Do you enjoy having houseplants, but your boyfriend thinks they should be kept outside? Does she prefer subtitles at foreign films, but you prefer dubbed voice? And do you like a living room with wall-to-wall carpeting, but he prefers wood floors? According to a personal compatibility quiz in the fall issue of Tango, a new magazine about relationships, if you and your significant other disagree on a few of these trivial items, the verdict isn’t good: “Sorry, you two just don’t seem to be compatible,” the magazine reports.

But next to it on the newsstands you will also find a recent issue of Redbook offering a quiz to “find out if you’ve really found Mr. Right.” This one gives the opposite advice. It values your opinions on “the nuts and bolts of life, e.g., money, values, kids,” and if you agree on those things, the magazine offers a happier answer: “You’ve scored a man worth standing by.”

Who are these experts?

Each month the popular women’s magazines tout their expert advice and relationship quizzes, and each month tens of millions of American women buy and read these often-conflicting articles on what pleases men, and what women should do to make themselves happier, sexier and healthier. Who writes the quizzes? Who are these experts? And does this advice apply to your life?

I’ve studied the advice in men’s and women’s magazines for more than six years. For my master’s thesis I tracked how dating and marriage advice in Cosmopolitan changed between the 1960s and 2000. For decades women’s magazines have offered advice on femininity, sexuality and relationships-and women consistently voted their approval by flocking to the newsstands. Five of the top 10 magazines by circulation in the U.S. are women’s publications, with a combined circulation of well over 26 million. So while these magazines may seem frivolous, they can’t be ignored.

Here’s a newsflash you’re probably not going to get from any other relationship advice columnist: I’m not an expert on your relationship…my job is mostly to ask the questions and make you think things through for yourself.

According to my research, in 1965, 87.5% of Cosmo’s relationship advice focused on marriage-and how to make it work. In 2000, only 5% of the articles were about marriage (that’s 6 out of 119 for the year). It’s all about sex, short-term commitment and instant gratification. Recent article titles include: “Six Fantasies That Could Ruin Your Relationship,” “The Morning After: How to Squash His Post-Nooky Paranoia” and “Ways Women Got Men Back Who Dumped Them.”

In the latest online issue of Cosmopolitan, you can learn if you “are a great guy reader” by answering the following simple questions: “The guy you’re talking to at a bar is sitting on a stool with his toes pointed inward. It means: a) He’s hiding something or b) You’re making him nervous.” Ready for the next one? “You ask your new beau how he’d feel about taking a weekend B&B getaway. He’s secretly uncomfortable with the idea if: a) He chirps, ‘Okay, yeah, sounds good!’ in a slightly high-pitched voice or b) He says, ‘Ummm…’ and plays with his food before answering yes.” What’s the right answer? Who knows. I scored high on the guy-reader scale (thank goodness) but I have no idea whether my answers (a and b, if you’re interested) were right or wrong, because the quiz just gave me a general reading on my acumen, not specific answers to scenarios.

Sure, these magazines are entertaining, and we shouldn’t take them too seriously, but Eric, 26, says he hates it when his girlfriend gets into the advice and quizzes of the latest trendy rag. “I can always tell if she’s bringing up something she just read in a trashy magazine,” he complains. “These questions come out of the blue. And it always leads to a fight about whether I really mean what I’m saying, or if I’m secretly angry with her about something.”

Smart enough to know better

When women take these quizzes, and read the advice-we can’t help but compare ourselves. Certainly most of us don’t look like those models, but we also aren’t so fixated on post-nooky paranoia…should we be? This isn’t about intelligence. We’re all smart enough to know that these magazines shouldn’t be taken seriously, yet they hit on a deeper nerve, and all of a sudden, a little voice in our head begins to wonder.

The advice in women’s magazines is a particularly sore subject with my friend Courtney. She’s been married for four years, and has a wonderful relationship with her husband. But he’s not the kind of guy that the Cosmopolitan editors have in mind when they write the quizzes: “These editors don’t know me, and they don’t know my husband,” she says. “And it’s so frustrating because every time I see one of these quizzes, there’s a part of me that thinks that I should listen that they might have something useful to say. When really, it just makes me more insecure.”

These quizzes aren’t scientific in any way. The vast majority are written by the editors at women’s magazines who have no background in psychology, no background in how to formulate non-leading questions and no knowledge of your relationship. Like so many self-help writers, they aren’t experts. We just want to think they are.

Portrait of the columnist as a young woman

At summer-school camp when I was 16, I started a mini magazine for our program. (Dorky, I know). I wrote articles about what people were up to in arts and crafts, I had a crossword puzzle, and I thought it would be fun to have a horoscopes section. What was happening in Virgo’s love life this month? Would Sagittarius triumph over his opponents in the upcoming football game? With no access to real horoscopes, I did what any resourceful magazine editor does: I made the whole thing up. (Yes, I lied.) When the magazine came out, several kids came up to me to say that the horoscopes were so true. How did I know?

This Week’s Pure Sex, Pure Love Quiz

Take this quiz: CLICK HERE

Have you been romantically in love? (Y/N)

Would you marry someone who you didn’t think you were in love with, but who you thought would be a good life partner? (Y/N)

What are the indications you are looking for that the love you feel is the “real thing”? (short answer)

What are the different types of love you feel in your life, and how are they different? (short answer)

A dozen years later, it’s with particular amusement that I read the women’s magazine star-signs pages. In this month’s Glamour, there’s a section on your “AstroMatch”-whether you and your significant other have complementary Zodiac signs. I plugged in all the necessary information: I’m a Cancer, he’s a Capricorn and phew, we’re a “fertile combination.” I wonder what older, but similarly bored, version of me put that silliness together!

Here’s a newsflash you’re probably not going to get from any other relationship advice columnist: I’m not an expert on your relationship. I’ve studied a lot of the history and changing social trends in dating and marriage in the United States, and I’ve probably read more advice books than you have, but my job is mostly to ask the questions and make you think things through for yourself. There aren’t 5 easy steps to fix whatever problem you have. And there certainly isn’t a quiz to tell you if your relationship is on track. Your friends, your family, your church groups and your own private thoughts will guide you.

Cosmopolitan editor Kate White describes her magazine as something “you get in bed with, or into the bathtub. Our reader sees the magazine as delicious, not necessarily good for her. The information is helpful, certainly, but it’s not like eating oatmeal. It’s more like a margarita.” This is all fine to say, but the magazines should come with a stronger warning than a single margarita on a Friday night. WARNING: MAY INDUCE PARANOIA AND CAUSE YOU TO PANIC ABOUT AN OTHERWISE WONDERFUL RELATIONSHIP. And watch out for the hangover.

For the next column, I’m going to take a closer look at love. What is love? How do you know if you’re in love–and if it’s the “real thing”? There are many types of love — and love changes over time. I’d like to hear your thoughts on these hard-to-describe emotions, so take a moment to fill out the Pure Sex, Pure Love questionnaire above.

And if you haven’t done so already, please share your thoughts on interfaith dating and marriage. I’m going to hold off on that column for a little while to tackle some more fundamental questions, but I’m very interested in your responses–so keep them coming!