Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Soporific Sex Magazines

I've been meaning to write about an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine which looks at the appearance of sex magazines at elite universities. I had a hard time believing that the subject was timely--such magazines have been notedby the media many times before. Moreover, the author, Alexandra Jacobs, seems to attribute a false ingenuity to the young sex magazine publishers. On the contrary, the magazines emanating from students at top universities like Harvard ("H-Bomb"), Vassar ("Squirm"), Columbia ("Outlet"), and University of Chicago ("Vita Excolatur") are emblematic of the larger cultural cult around being frank about sex. Straightforwardness about sex can be useful in a high school sex education class but becomes a bore when it masks as a source for entertainment or enlightenment, as it does in these pretentious periodicals.

Such magazines follow a larger trend, and in this sense, the college students putting them out are among the last to have boarded the bandwagon. This is why what they're doing is neither revaltory nor original but rather symptomatic of their inculcation from the entertainment media. My generation matriculated in an age where such inane mantras as "sex sells" became media gospel, begetting an ubiquity of sexual images and articles. Surely then, sex magazines at college are not original, as the coverage given to them would suggest, nor often are they very interesting.

In fact, sex columns and magazines are not necessarily interesting at all. While there are some subjects whose surface blandness belies their depth, sex to me seems the exact opposite: it is a subject that is initially salacious but quickly loses steam, probably because, when you get right down to it, there isn't really that much to write about. Think of all of the giggling high school students who greet sex ed with mocking anticipation at the beginning of the semester, only to yawn through human anatomy quizzes and contraception lectures a few weeks later. Some of the most popular subjects taken up by sex writers--sexual positions, sex toys, and porn--are those most lacking in actual breadth and depth. It's no wonder that so many sex columns devolve into cliches, with the predictably spicy writing styles of their authors overtaking the substance of the column, such as this explication of aphrodisiacs in the Northwestern student-published NU Comment.

Why then is the media breathlessly heralding the arrival of these magazines? According to the Boston Globe piece:

The public fascination with H Bomb clearly stems from the sense that there's not much of a place for sex at Harvard.

According to the NY Times Mag piece:

Considering that a smorgasbord of Internet porn is but a mouse click away for most college students, there’s something valiant, even quaint, about the attempt to organize and consider sex in a printed magazine.

That's a stretch. Such obsequious coverage of these magazines is evidence to me that Ivy Leagues truly do function as brand names. If a shoddy sex magazine has the word "Harvard" or "Columbia" on it, it suddenly becomes an inquisitive forum for reflection, even if its articles on the likes of the value of condom use at best serve the function of a sex education class.

I actually found myself agreeing with the National Review about the worthiness of such student endeavors:

Now, it’s one thing to engage in a bit of naughty publishing (on the university dime, at least) but quite another to do so and pretend that it’s something high-brow. You’ve read Ulysses? Maurice? Tropic of Cancer? Well, clearly now it’s time for something with saucy pictures! Pornographic modeling, once thought to be the exclusive realm of would-be actresses, sexual abuse victims, drug addicts, and other exploitable populations has clearly found a new pasture for flesh, with Ivies offering extracurricular careers (and funding!) to anyone interested in getting a head start in the sexual entertainment industry.


Anonymous said...

nothing but sex does seem to get a little thin ~ even Playboy has articles on general subjects ~ hm

Adele said...
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