Future business leaders and sexists?

September 19, 1994|By Donna Kato | Donna Kato,Knight-Ridder News Service

Playboy, Penthouse and the venerable Stanford University School of Business Administration?

When a social psychologist conducted a confidential survey of some of the men enrolled in the school, she found that Playboy and GQ got the most votes as their favorite men's magazine, with Penthouse a very close second.

"We're talking about highly educated men here," says Debbie Then, who works with the Stanford Center for Research and Disease Prevention and at UCLA. "Men who one day will be in a position of hiring and firing women."

Although reading soft-porn magazines might not be considered scandalous, what Ms. Then found disturbing was the answers the men gave to follow-up questions about how some magazines affect the way they view and relate to real women and influence their own physical and sexual expectations.

In their comments, half the men in the study said reading magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse undermines their relationships with women by setting an impossible physical standard -- a standard they realize is unrealistic yet still desirable.

Men were especially critical of overweight women, equating fat with being "lazy," "lacking self-control and respect" and with "low self-esteem."

Some of the men were more philosophical, wondering, for example, if the magazines really did prevent them from treating women as equals.

"It confirms women's worst fears that first and foremost they are judged by appearance and that their intelligence is secondary in importance," explains Ms. Then. "The men who view these magazines say they are more critical of real-life women -- and that's even when they are aware that the pictures they're looking are airbrushed and altered."

But you can't blame the magazine publishers, says Ms. Then.

"The magazines and advertisers are not the ones setting the standards; they're giving readers what they want," she explains. "Unfortunately, it does reinforce gender stereotypes."

Men say they like to read magazines for career and money information, sports, entertainment and sexual gratification. Women, Ms. Then found in an earlier research project, say they read magazines for advice on relationships and fashion, tips on beauty and cosmetics, and information on health, dieting and sexual issues.

In this, her latest study on the effect magazines have on the sexes, Ms. Then surveyed 58 male Stanford MBA candidates between the ages of 25 and 38. They were simply asked to name their favorite men's magazine, leaving it open for each of them to define what that meant.

One might think the likely winner would have been Sports Illustrated -- a weekly publication with a circulation of 3.6 million readers.

Or the sophisticated and witty Esquire might stand a chance, too.

Nope. It was the centerfolds who won out over the athletes and the scintillating writing.

"My sense is that the results are very easy to believe because the bottom line is that boys are all socialized in a similar way," says Gary Brooks, author of "The Centerfold Syndrome" and assistant chief of psychology at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple, Texas. "That doesn't change just because some of those boys grow up to be MBA candidates at a prestigious school. We all become visually addicted when we're bombarded by images of semi-clad women."

Ms. Then presented her findings at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association last month. Although she points out that her study is very specific to one group of men, other experts say her findings are consistent with the mind-set of the general male population.

However, Mr. Brooks, the psychologist, says most men wouldn't be caught dead looking through Playboy in a bookstore -- especially a place with women milling about.

"One of the absolute axioms of my studies is that men will lie to women," he says. "And we are especially guarded when it comes to matters of sex."

Whether or not men -- and women -- agree with Ms. Then's conclusions, the top-rated magazines are quite familiar with their readership.

"[Ms. Then's] findings are consistent with what our research shows," says Lisa Natale, director of research for Playboy, which has a circulation of 3.4 million.

Playboy's demographic profile shows a median age of 35 with a median household income of $46,300. More than 44 percent of the readers are college graduates and 19 percent have post-graduate degrees.

"While we don't feel we compete with Playboy directly, we do appeal to similar demographics," says Ellen Ryder of GQ, which has a circulation of 736,000. Its median-age reader is 28, and 60 percent have graduated from college, with 28 percent having post-graduate degrees. The median household income is $43,900.

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