Does the sex advice in men's magazines actually help guys become better in the sack? Does it turn them into annoying sexual know-it-alls? Or does reading all this erotic wisdom just increase many men's performance anxiety, leaving them more stressed out than ever about how to please women?
"Men's magazines" is an elastic publishing category, including everything from Playboy to GQ to Men's Journal to Maxim. Virtually all the major men's publications cater (at least ostensibly) to straight guys, and almost all offer regular sex advice columns of one kind or another. Sometimes, the writing is horrifying: researchers in Britain reported last year that the advice many lad mags gave about women was indistinguishable from the excuses given by convicted rapists.
The most reliable and successful purveyors of sex advice in the genre are Men's Health and Men's Fitness. While the "lad mags" like Maxim may offer tidbits how to "pick up chicks," Men's Health (the best-selling men's magazine globally) and Men's Fitness both run regular, serious columns designed to help guys become the best lovers they can be. Sometimes written (or co-authored) by women, these columns typically focus on topics like "10 Common Sex Mistakes" or "Touch Her Here to Increase Her Pleasure".
The advice, particularly from male writers, is often both sincere and self-consciously geeky: "A woman's brain shuts down for orgasm," Matt Bean writes for Men's Health. "Commence the shutdown sequence by holding her head in your lap and massaging the area above her eyebrows with your thumbs." The focus is often on doing the right things in the right order; the Bean piece suggests moving through ten different parts of a woman's body (neck, forearms, legs, and so forth). There's lots of emphasis on mastering technique, as well as suggestions for mild deception. Bean suggests that during sex, a guy should "take a back-rub break" to delay ejaculation. "Switching to a back rub is like, 'Wow, he's caring and considerate and not just all about sex,'" Bean quotes sex educator Debby Herbenick as saying. "'Little does she know he's also using the technique to last longer.'"
Men's Fitness seems particularly inclined to write pieces designed to warn men that they're probably doing it wrong. In addition to "10 Common Sex Mistakes," one of their most popular recent columns was "5 Sex Moves You Think She Likes, But Doesn't". Judy Cole, the author of the piece, warns men against the very thing that magazines like hers encourage: trying to develop a sense of mastery about sex. Opining against men's professionalized approach to women's bodies, Cole cautions guys: "a little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but so is a lot of knowledge in the wrong hands, tongues or other man bits… A man so goal-oriented that he focuses solely on ‘pleasuring his woman,' can expect to achieve the same result as one who doesn't care whether his partner gets off at all."
That's sound advice. Though it's impossible to tell how many male readers take this sort of direction seriously enough to put it into practice in their sexual relationships with women, it's a fair assumption — given that these magazines continue to sell — that a lot of them are at least trying to do so. While lad mags like Maxim follow in the Playboy tradition of peddling unrealistic fantasies about what men can reasonably expect to achieve, publications like Men's Health and Men's Fitness serve as guides to that most American of masculine pastimes, relentless self-improvement. The focus in both is on helping the average reader become the fittest, savviest, leanest, and most competent man possible. The slogan for Men's Fitness sums it up: "How the Best Man Wins." Judging from the sex tip columns that both magazines run, becoming the best fuck possible is an indispensable component of victory.
Men's Health and Men's Fitness both first hit the newsstands in 1987, right as men's sculpted, nearly nude physiques began to be much more heavily exposed in advertising. (It's often wrongly assumed that the Mark Wahlberg (ne Marky Mark) Calvin Klein underwear ads of the early 1990s started the revolution in the overtly sexual marketing of male bodies. The trend actually began several years earlier; just do a Google image search for "Jeff Aquilon". You're welcome.) The cartoonishly enlarged frames of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger — so popular in the 1970s — symbolized competition with other men. The new ideal of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s acknowledged for the first time that women look — and lust. From their inception, Men's Health and Men's Fitness have been as much as anything else about equipping guys with the tools to respond to the public awareness of just how visual straight women often are.
There's considerable evidence that both clinically diagnosed eating disorders and more generalized body dissatisfaction are on the rise among men. The images of lean chiseled perfection that are de rigueur on the covers of magazines like Men's Health and Men's Fitness may not be the sole cause of that young men's body image anxiety, but they're almost certainly a contributing factor.
As women know all too well, perfectionism doesn't just manifest in an obsession with appearance. Perfectionism is about achieving excellence in virtually every area of life. The message is unmistakable: guys ought to be focused not only on looking great but on being great in bed. Young men are keenly aware that women do look, and by reading Men's Fitness and Men's Health (or contemporary lady mags) they're also far more aware than their fathers' generation of just how libidinous women can be. As a consequence, a young man's worry about his own sexual performance may have grown in tandem with his increased anxiety about his appearance.
Both fears are fueled by the images and the advice columns in these men's magazines. When I asked a group of guys (aged 22-45) who at least occasionally read the advice in these magazines, many mentioned that they appreciated the tips they got from the sex columns. But most also mentioned how frustrated they were by the emphasis on technique. "They turn what should be about intimacy and connection into this one-sided thing based on performance," said Tim, 29; "I know I've learned some things that may have made me a better lover," said Graham, 31, "but reading (the sex advice columns) has definitely made me more self-conscious and more likely to second-guess myself." I heard similar things from an admittedly small focus group of about two-dozen other men.
The positive spin on the sex advice in these bestselling magazines is that many of the tips are pretty good, focusing as they generally do on helping guys understand what women actually want. (It's a plus that so many of the pieces are either written by women or cite female sex educators.) Anecdotally, magazines like this may be helping younger men become better in bed. As one of my single female peers in her mid-40s put it to me, "magazines like this are why I prefer dating younger guys; they're both more eager to please and more likely to listen to what I'm asking for rather than assuming that they already know everything."
That willingness to be an attentive lover is surely a good thing. But when these popular tips and techniques for being a great fuck are accompanied by images of a nearly unattainable masculine ideal, it's not hard to conclude that for a lot of men, that increased eagerness to please is tinged with a considerable amount of anxiety. In a very real way, these columns are reminders that perfectionism really isn't just for women anymore.