Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

MA in Women's History


Women’s History Graduate Program


This thesis explores the treatment of female sexual pleasure throughout the second half of the twentieth century, specifically through an analysis of women’s lifestyle magazines. I begin my discussion with an overview of important historical moments from the 1950s through the 1980s, highlighting their relationship to social constructs of sex and pleasure. Then, I examine the role of psychoanalysis, consumerism, and the culture of self-help. These influences created a cultural dependency on self-improvement, which lifestyle magazines relied on to maintain reader dependency. Not only did the magazines proliferate cultural sexual norms, but they had the power to determine them as well. To further support this argument, I refer to the importance of sex and marriage manuals from the 1950s to the 1970s. Ultimately, I discuss popular lifestyle magazines in the 1980s, including Cosmopolitan, Essence, and Playgirl. I analyze specific articles and determine how their conversations on sex and pleasure appropriated liberal tones of the previous decades as a way to strategically reprioritize restrictive and conservative sexual practices. I examine the treatment of race, gender, and sexual orientation within the magazines. The conversations in these magazines emphasized monogamy and heteronormativity, while also prioritizing male sexual pleasure.