On Thursday June 7 Suchi Joshi defended her dissertation entitled: Adolescent sexual socialization and teen magazines: A cross-national study between the United States and the Netherlands.
What CosmoGirl says about sex
Interview with Suchi Joshi
by CcaM – Nienke Beintema
US teenagers think about and approach sex and relationships differently than their Dutch peers. Do these differences also appear in the most popular teen magazines of both countries? This is what US communication scientist Suchi Pradyumn Joshi sought to answer during her PhD research at CCAM. Her defense is on June 7 2012.
What is the background of your research?
"During my Master's education in the US, I came across an interesting fact: the United States has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) in the western world, whereas the Netherlands has one of the world's lowest rates. I wondered, ‘How can that be? Where do these differences come from? Would the way sex education is approached in both countries play a role?’ In the US, the main message that young people receive is that they should abstain from having sex. You often hear: "Sex is not for teenagers," or "You must wait until you're married." The reality, of course, is that teenagers are actually having sex, and are therefore at risk for pregnancy and/or STDs. The Dutch approach, on the other hand, is very pragmatic: Young people are given a lot of information about sexual health and their bodies at home and at school. Sex education starts from a young age, albeit age-appropriate, and is built on as children get older. I found this difference interesting so I wanted to do further research. What exactly are the differences between the US and the Netherlands in terms of sex education and cultural approaches to sex? "
Why did you specifically study teen magazines?
"I chose to analyze the content of teen magazines because they are currently an understudied medium, but are important in the sexual socialization of young people. Millions of young people around the world read teen magazines: In fact, six out of ten young people read them regularly. Teen magazines cover topics related to sex, and many teenagers use them as a "sounding board" when it comes to sex. Moreover, the sex-related topics covered in teen magazines are directly relevant to young people, and they are often discussed in greater detail in teen magazines than in other media. Teen magazines are also easily accessible: People can find them in supermarkets, bookstores, and public libraries, or can subscribe to them and have these magazines sent directly to their home. "
What did you investigate in the magazine articles?
"I examined how sex and relationships between young people are described in terms of sexual desire, the dangers associated with sex, virginity loss, and pregnancy. I also looked at the importance of love within romantic relations, the coverage of specific sexual activities, whether sex is discussed as casual encounters or within a committed relationship, and if contraception comes into the picture as something positive or something negative. "
And what did you find?
"In the Dutch teen magazines, the potential negative consequences of sex were not as prominent as in the US teen magazines. Rather, in the Dutch coverage, sex emerges as a normal part of life, and not as something that is taboo. The positive aspects of sex are openly discussed, and while the risks and consequences are discussed, they are not marketed as a reason not to have sex. Dutch teenagers are encouraged to have safe sex if they choose to have sex, and to do so within a committed relationship. In the US magazines, the pleasures of sex were mainly approached from a male perspective: For instance, how a girl can please her boyfriend. Dutch magazines, however, also focused on the pleasure that girls can experience during sex. "
Have you spoken to young people during your research?
"I surveyed 490 US and Dutch young people about their magazine reading and attitudes about sex. One of the most interesting findings had to do with fear of sex. Reading teen magazines was associated with fear of sex for the US readers but not for the Dutch readers.” What can you advise parents and teachers?
"My main recommendation is to be open and honest with teenagers about the risks and the positive aspects of sex. Talk about it. If a teenager is curious, they are usually keen to experiment – whether you tell them to abstain or not. So I think it’s better to approach the topic pragmatically with young people. US parents are often afraid that by talking about sex, they are encouraging their teens to have sex – but there is a difference between encouragement and information."
Why did you come to CCAM?
"During my Master’s degree in the US, I became interested in the cultural norms surrounding sex and wanted to research the topic further. Through a Fulbright scholarship I was able to do one year of independent research in Amsterdam at ASCOR. That was a fantastic opportunity. After that year, I had some more ideas of how to approach the topic further. There was a PhD vacancy about young people in a sexualized media environment at CCAM. I thought this topic was perfect for me and my research interests, so I applied."
And did you like it?
"Yes, I enjoyed my stay here. It’s good to immerse yourself in another culture for an extended period of time, and to work together with researchers of different nationalities. You learn a lot about other cultures and people, and also about yourself. I feel I have worked well with my supervisors and colleagues at CCAM. And of course, Amsterdam is a fantastic city."
You go back to the U.S.?
"Yes, my whole family lives there, so it's time to go back. At first I will work at a health consulting firm. I think it will definitely help that I received my PhD from ASCoR and CCAM. This group has a very good international reputation for doing unique and important research. And I think that I’ve added an interesting and new aspect with my research, especially with it being a comparison between two cultures."
Date of defense was: June 7, 2012
Title of dissertation: Adolescent sexual socialization and teen magazines: A cross-national study between the United States and the Netherlands
Promoters: Prof. Dr. Patti Valkenburg and Prof. Dr. Jochen Peter