Monday, June 14, 2010

Gay Teens (Not) In Seventeen

Friday's graph-heavy post on hot guys ended up generating a lot of discussion in the comments about how there appears to be a lack of attention, or even recognition, of LGBT girls in Seventeen. I'll state now, at the outset of this post, that I don't believe that Seventeen is an anti-gay publication. Searching gay on Seventeen.com yields a few basic, yet tolerant, tips and articles about coming out, supporting LGBT friends, and current events about gay rights. These articles exist on the site, though I couldn't find them without running a search. None were linked to from the home page, or the main pages for the heath or dating sections. In my mind, I imagine that every time one of these articles is searched for in the search bar, a snoozing librarian is nudged from her chair and begrudgingly has to go fetch the stack of Gay Articles from some 2' by 2' closet in the back of the Seventeen library.
Anyhow, once I determined that articles existed on Seventeen.com acknowledging the fact that gay teens existed, I was happy to draw the conclusion that the Seventeen editors assume that some LGBT teens do, in fact, read Seventeen. Since Friday's post focused heavily on hard data and statistics, I thought it might be interesting to focus more on feeling and general perception in addressing this issue. Accordingly, to find out what LGBT girls thought of their portrayal and inclusion in mainstream media, I simply chose to ask them.
Through a (mostly open-ended) survey, I asked 40 non-straight young women between the ages of 15 and 19 for their opinions on mainstream media, Seventeen, and how the two outlets address sexual orientation. The format of the survey, which you can view at the above link, asked participants to browse certain sections of the website and then describe their feelings and observations. The word cloud below shows the girls' responses to the prompt, "Describe how you are feeling about yourself after browsing the Dating section of the Seventeen website." Larger words were mentioned more frequently.

It was upsetting to see how many people replied with words like alienated and depressed, but those feelings were far outweighed by the fact that my survey group seemed too smart for Seventeen. By far, the most popular responses were those that took a joke's-on-you stance toward Seventeen's dating advice. Tons of girls were amused, bored, indifferent, and uninterested. Seventeen isn't giving advice to LGBT girls on how to date, but it doesn't see like these girls even would take Seventeen's advice very seriously. In fact, it turns out that they have plenty of other far-better sources for sex and dating advice. Here are their responses to the question, "If you are looking for dating/sex advice, where are you most likely to look?"
Magazines actually made a pretty good showing in this area. Luckily, only 22% of survey participants indicated that they read Seventeen in their spare time; most prefer magazines geared more toward specific interests or adults. Friends were by far the most mentioned source of information. Here are some direct quotes about where they get their sex advice:
  • "The internet! The internet has bazillions of informations, so its easier to find the feminist stuff."
  • "Feministing.com. It's discreet, fair, and honest. They don't loop groups together and say, 'This is how ALL of you must feel!'"
  • "I know enough people of different ages, orientations, and experiences to feel understood and supported from different perspectives when it comes to a dating/sex situation I might want advice about."
  • "Progressive sex sites like Scarleteen, Betty Dodson, etc. are my best bet because they are feminist, reality-based, and their duty is to educate people.
Overall, I think that the straight community (i.e. the rest of the world) could learn a lot from this mindset. Because gay teens don't have relevant media being thrown at them by mainstream sources, it seems that they have been far more successful than straight teens in finding good alternatives. Most of the advice mentioned by my survey group is applicable to teens regardless of sexual orientation. I'm willing to bet that a sex-positive website or chat with an older friend would be more helpful in most situation of query than Seventeen.
To close the survey, I asked the interview group about their qualms with how media portrays the LGBT community, and their suggestions on how to fix these issues. Sadly, but not surprisingly, only one girl out of the 40 surveyed found that mainstream media portrayed homosexuals fairly and accurately. To sum, here are the top directives provided by the survey group for improving media portrayal of LGBT teenagers, and LGBT people in general:
  • Stop treating bisexual people like sluts who are willing to sleep with anything, or dumb confused people
  • Stop simplifying gay problems/gay lifestyles
  • Stop using gay and bi people as caricatures/tokens/props
  • Consider that not everyone is cisgender
  • Gay is not part of a plot line; its just another aspect of what makes up a person
A bunch of people also responded to the survey with information about asexuality. To be honest, I don't know enough about asexuality to write about the topic. This faction of my survey group seemed to express that their biggest concern was with people like me, who lacked even a basic premise of what their sexuality entailed. Anyone who is asexual, or has some reliable information about being asexual, please feel free to discuss in the comments. I'd love some recommended reading on the subject!

I'd also like to thank all the girls who participated in this survey, including Charlotte, Cornelia, Nyxelestia, Jill, Vida, Lauren, Catherine, Michelle, and my friend Laura Ansill. Check out their blogs!

41 comments:

  1. It would have been interesting, and statistically more relevant, if you had also allowed for the polling of heterosexual people. You would have a comparison between the impressions of the articles by the two groups. It would have shown whether all readers were bored and amused or just the homosexuals. Maybe the heterosexuals would have been more offended by the articles?

    Statistically, it's always nice to have a whole population to compare your select group to.

    Regardless, it was fascinating. Thanks for putting the effort into analyzing this stuff!

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  2. awesome entry. but my link is broken. hahah

    if anyone cares, just delete the www.blogger.com before the rest of the url.

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  3. Here's a really good website and forum on asexuality. Browsing the forum really helped me figure it out for myself
    http://www.asexuality.org/home/

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  4. Yeah I was going for more of a holistic "gist" sort of thing than a definitive survey with control groups and all. my goal was more to establish the situation, not to establish its significance or size, if you get what i'm saying. control groups are interesting though just for the sake of comparison. i'm a stat nerd haha

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  5. Thanks, Jamie. :-)

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  6. I just came across this blog and I love it! Thanks for doing this!

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  7. Michelle BlanchardJune 14, 2010 at 11:52 PM

    I like what you did with this. I'm pretty sure where you live is not the most diverse area, so the fact that you got info straight from the hourses mouth is great.

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  8. Yes! Thank you! This is great. Glad that the term cisgender was mentioned (the T is usually tacked on to LGBT without giving trans people much thought). I'm a genderqueer person so Seventeen hardly applies to me at all, so I'm glad I was somewhat acknowledged in this post. Yay. *claps for Jamie*

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  9. i wouldn't have commented at all except that you specifically asked about asexuality. when i was a teenager and i said i was asexual nobody believed me. it's so very under recognized that it's hard to convince people you're serious. no really, i'm not closeted, i am completely disinterested in sex. people may be biased against gays (and they have all my sympathy), but nobody even believes in asexuals. as if, when somebody asks me who i date, i say "i don't date, i'm a unicorn."

    also mad props for ASKING PEOPLE WHAT THEY THINK! that's my biggest gripe with mass media in general. it seems like they keep telling people what they think instead of asking.

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  10. Another asexual here. I had no idea what my orientation was until my mid-twenties and just thought I was slow to develop and was frustrated by the constant hammering away at the YOU HAVE TO DATE attitude in mass media. I wasn't interested and tried to force myself to be interested. Just didn't work and I stopped worrying about it and just was myself my way.

    I second the link to the asexuality web site.

    Huge props for this entire project. There's a lot of insights here.

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  11. In October of last year, Seventeen did a piece called
    "My boyfriend turned out to be a girl!" in which they disrespected the trans community and missed a huge opportunity to educate their readers about trans issues. They later met with GLAAD to apologize (http://glaadblog.org/2009/11/05/seventeen-meets-with-glaad-to-address-transphobic-article-in-november-issue/) but it still stings for me, at least.

    Additionally, your blog rocks. Keep up the good work!

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  12. In fairness, I want to point out that Seventeen once did a story on a transman named Jacoby, told from his perspective and, unless my cis privilege is blinding me to some flaw, pretty sensitive. It's listed under the Health+Sex+Fitness heading ("I Never Felt Normal") in this link http://www.seventeen.com/magazine/in-this-issue/march-2008?click=main_sr, but I can't find the actual article.

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  13. No specific comment on this post, but just wanted to applaud your venture here! Just read through the entire blog, and I'm really impressed with your writing and insights! Look forward to reading more.

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  14. I am so sick of people thinking I'm a slut because I'm bi, or that I'm just "bored" and "experimenting". I stopped reading 17 at about 13 years old, which is also when I came out to myself.

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  15. I'm very impressed with all this. As a 30-year-old woman, I wish I'd had your insight and critical thinking skills when I was your age. Keep this up; you're gonna go places. :)

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  16. This is definitely an interesting issue to look into further. Although some red flags hit me at the end of the article.

    Good work on the survey and connecting relevant issues but do keep in mind the constraints you face from your pool. I understand how difficult it is to get an accurate representation of non-heterosexual women, but your methodology had many biases.

    Maybe include in future 'studies' your constraints and how that can skew your results?

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  17. Two thoughts :

    1) It doesnt really surprise me that 17 isnt geared more towards the LBGT Community (or any other then then heterosexual community). Its far to main stream for that. Which shouldnt really surprise anybody and which i dont necesarily see as something bad. Its just something you have to know and/or accept.

    2) It would be interesting what "magazines" the people in your survey mean. 17 is by defenition also a magazin ... so where is the difference ... are those other magazines written with a clear LGBT background or do they just give more space to LGBT problems/causes/live/and so on ?

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  18. As someone who is FTM (and identifies as bisexual) I really enjoyed this entry and was very glad to see the term "cisgendered".

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  19. I love this post! Good job!

    Stop treating bisexual people like sluts who are willing to sleep with anything, or dumb confused people This is one of my biggest pet peeves. However, it's not just the general media that perpetuates this stereotype. A lot of times you'll find the LGBT community/media buying into this and ostracizing bisexuals. Which is why students at my university ended up created a separate club/support group for the bisexuals on campus.

    Growing up I generally turned to the internet (which was in its infancy) and friends for information on sex and dating, but I really wish mainstream magazines would have been more LGBT friendly. I still would have turned to the internet and friends for serious discussions, but I think it would have helped a lot to see these things normalized and treated equally. I don't mind turning to a specialized magazine for more in-depth articles, but I really should be able to buy the same magazine as my peers and find a modicum of coverage. The LGBT community isn't some niche group like model airplane enthusiasts; it's the rest of humanity that isn't hetero-normative. Would it really kill them to throw a girl or two in their "hottie" lists?

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  20. I was linked over here from another website and was happy to see this topic discussed. I know that I had trouble as a teen finding any information or even points of reference about how a bi male should act. It's sad to see that 15 years after I came out, even with the huge new resources of the internet, that bisexuals (is this case women) are still facing the same problems.

    Highlighting these problems, especially in such an eloquent way as you have just done, is much appreciated and another step on the road towards a society where LGBT people feel comfortable to be whoever they feel that they truly are inside.

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  21. actually an old issue of seventeen had real life love stories and one was but a gay girl.

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  22. I remember about a year ago Seventeen published a feautre on "hot summer hookups." One of the girls interviewed happened to be an LGBTQ teen, and her story was about meeting another girl in a club. As a lesbian I was thrilled, despite my generally negative thoughts on hooking up in a club. :)

    The positive response online, and in letters to the editor in the next issue, was overwhelming. So many lesbian, queer, biseuxal and allied readers wrote in thanking Seventeen for including the story as part of a larger feature.

    My question is why does this have to be so rare and eventful? Would it kill Seventeen do something like this in every issue or even every other issue? Is their audience so heteronormative that there is no possible way to include one or two LGBTQ snippets among thousands of heterosexual feautres in each issue? Really, Seventeen? Really?

    And in response to Christoph...There is no magazine for gay teens, mainstream or otherwise, especially gay women who still enjoy features on fashion and celebrirites. If there were, I would not have read Seventeen as a teen. Ergo, mainstream magazines are all we have.

    Chelsea

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  23. I see you're not approving all comments... or at least ones that are a little more critical. Interesting.

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  24. cosmogirl used to mention lesbians every so often in its dating articles

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  25. Another commenter here! I am a pansexual female-bodied girlboy in a relationship with an asexual trans woman. Representation of us, or people like us, usually involves using trans women as punchlines or episodes with slutty female bisexuals. In short, very very limited. Webcomics like http://www.khaoskomix.com have better representation, but are hardly mainstream.

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  26. Great blog. I'm a 55 year old woman and cisgendered is a new vocabulary word for me. When I was a subscriber in the mid '60's Seventeen still had the same topics you mention but dating advice was all about manners and the right mascara. I don't remember sex ever being a topic.

    Later as a college student, I heard that their readership was younger than age 17 and that most girls had moved on before they reached 17. In many ways 17 was the first step for girls of my generation to become aspirational consumers. The entire purpose of the magazine was to convince us that the right outfit would get us the best boyfriend.

    If you can find an archive of back issues, it would be interesting to do a timeline of emerging editorial themes and advertising trends throughout their history. Advertising based media only exhists to deliver an audience for the advertisers and that dictates the topics covered in the articles.

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  27. I was recently (pleasantly) shocked that a local, usually vapid rag "The B free daily magazine" which is produced by the Baltimore Sun did several pages about asexuality and an asexual support group. I tried to search their archives but had trouble relocating it.

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  28. http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove/ - Dan Savage has great sex and relationship advice in general and often addresses teen issues

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  29. Another asexual chiming in here, just glad to see it mentioned. I have experienced the same things as other asexual posters here. Very few people believe me when I say I am asexual. Might as well just say--I am only attracted to martians. We live in a world where sex and relationships seem to be pushed as the end all be all of everything. And as these things have been used others to judge my worth as a person (usually not with positive results), asexuality is the largest disconnecting factor between me and my peers (and everyone else). I did not know asexuality existed until I went out looking for a word that described my experience as a human being. Now that I know what to call it, I avoid bringing it up, as most people think I am either a) a maladjusted twirp who is afraid of sex or b) too scared to come out of the closet. No, I just really don't want to have sex. I'm not thrilled about making out with someone either. My friends believe me, but even some of them have told me 'they are sorry that I will probably be alone forever'. To me, love and sex are totally unrelated. My friends keep telling me love cannot exist without it. Luckily though, asexuality comes with very little stigma. For asexuals, the biggest problem is often just being told we don't exist at all, our experience is not valid. Oh, yeah, and the constant offers to be 'hooked up', since it is apparently 'such a turn-off' that I am not interested in these things. (Really now, why do you think I told you I was asexual? Because I was trying to secretly seduce you? "I hate sex and making out, so, y'know, we should totally get it on.")

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  30. Um, I love how someone(s) answered Kathleen Hanna for the dating/sex question...

    Asexual ppl basically just don't want to have sex w/ anyone. Whatevs. It's normal. Sometimes it changes, sometimes not. Read about Morissey.

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  31. I'm asexual as well..there are actually a couple misconceptions about asexuality and what it is even in these comments. The definition of asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone of any gender. Some asexual people have sex drives, some asexuals have sex and like it, some asexuals masturbate. The central point of the orientation is simply that we don't experience sexual attraction. [/rant]

    That said, I third the recommendation to check out asexuality.org, especially the forums. I would also highly suggest the new YouTube channel Hot Pieces of Ace (http://www.youtube.com/hotpiecesoface) for anyone who thinks they might be asexual, knows an asexual, is just curious, whatever. It's good stuff.

    Honestly I was just glad that you mentioned us. Even in the queer/supportive community asexuality is often forgotten or devalued. I appreciate that your survey included answers like "other" and plenty of places to explain anything less-than-straightforward. I do think anyone aromantic would feel rather left out, not just by your survey but by the whole teen magazine industry in general. You could always say, "If a person isn't interested in romantic relationships, why are they reading dating sections?" but I equate that with saying, "Why are lesbians reading a teen magazine written for straight girls?" There are several ways dating sections could acknowledge (and attempt to benefit) aromantic people, including writing about kind ways to let interested people know that it's not them, you're really aromantic...no, really, and advice for aromantics in romantic relationships. A column by an aromantic for aromantics. A column by an asexual for asexuals. Things like that. It's harder to represent the interests of a wildly varied group of readers if the people behind the scenes are homogeneous.

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  32. Being het myself, I'm tired of the fetishization of gays and lesbians among heterosexual people. You know the types, they're the ones writing stories and making art about it yet they know jack about the culture. The hets' fetishization of LBGT sexuality is downright unsettling.

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  33. Two months late, another asexual. It took me ten years to figure that out though - and during that decade I made a lot of decisions about my sex life that I regret because I was constantly being told I was "doing it wrong". I'm also aromantic, but I'm into girls. Confused yet? If not, add genderqueer. That makes it really hard to define myself concisely because to include all of that I have to say that I'm a female-bodied agendered aromantic asexual with an aesthetic preference for women. It would be a hell of a lot easier if I could just say "gay".

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  34. I just came across your blog and I want to say YAY for mentioning asexuality.

    I am a 25 year old female and I have just come to terms with my asexuality within the last year. I have had a lot of sexual abuse in my past, and have also had a lot of voluntary sexual partners, but have never liked it. I never understood media's and my peers' obsession with sex. I was always the "freak" in high school because I never wanted to "do him/her." I thought I was a lesbian for the longest time, but DING DING DING it hit me one day: I just don't have a sex drive! I thought I was ridiculed for being a lesbian -- wow! No one is made fun of more than people who don't have sex.

    I really hope one day asexuality will be included in the LGBTQ community because we are just as much of a minority - if not more so - than anyone in that group.

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  35. YES! Bi does not mean unfaithful! Bi does not necessarily mean polyamorous!

    And asexuality exists, although it's obviously not my orientation ;p

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  36. I bet a lot of straight girls would also feel "disconnected" and "annoyed" at Seventeen mag's dating advice. You don't provide this info though, so it's unfair to say that LGBT girls feel particularly disconnected (although this could very well be the case).

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  41. This was really interesting, thank you! I love "teen girl" type magazines, but it always assumes you're straight. I have to awkwardly wonder if the "How to flirt with HIM!" article would also help with my crush on a girl. (Also, super cool you mentioned trans and asexual people!)

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