Expert Commentary

Equal opportunity objectification? The sexualization of men and women on the cover of Rolling Stone

2011 study by SUNY-Buffalo published in Sexuality and Culture on depictions of women over time in a prominent, trend-setting media space in popular culture.

The images of barely clad men and women that adorn magazine covers, posters, billboards and media of all kinds have been a standard feature of popular culture for decades. Critics often condemn the apparent ever-increasing sexualization of advertisements and mass media. Yet, from a quantitative standpoint, it is not precisely clear how much of an escalation there has been, if any, in the use of sexuality in popular culture and marketing.

A 2011 study from researchers at SUNY-Buffalo published in Sexuality and Culture, “Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone, examined whether or not women and men have been increasingly sexualized by comparing Rolling Stone magazine covers from 1967 to 2009. The researchers, Erin Hatton and Mary Nell Trautner, state that they chose the magazine because of its longevity of publishing, and because “representations of men and women on the cover of Rolling Stone resemble popular cultural images broadly, particularly more so than lifestyle magazines which are often explicitly about sex, relationships or sexuality.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Of the 931 covers included in the data set, 651 featured only men, 205 featured only women, and 75 featured women and men together.
  • The pattern of treatment shows a clear change in the depiction of both men and women: “In the 1960s, 11% of men and 44% of women on the covers of Rolling Stone were sexualized. In the 2000s, 17% of men were sexualized (a 55% increase), and 83% of women were sexualized (an 89% increase).”
  • There are fewer images of women that do not exploit sexuality: “Nonsexualized images of women dropped from 56% in the 1960s to 17% in the 2000s, while nonsexualized images of men dropped only slightly from 89% in the 1960s to 83% in the 2000s.”
  • Over the entire time period, 22% of the images of men displayed no sexualized attributes.
  • Hypersexualized images of women increased from 11% in the 1960s to 61% in 2000s.
  • There were 10 times more hypersexualized images of women than men, compared to 11 times more nonsexualized images of men than women.

In conclusion, the researchers state that while “sexualized representations of both women and men increased,” the “hypersexualized images of women (but not men) skyrocketed.” Furthermore, the study’s authors hypothesize that this increased hypersexualization of women may be limiting “cultural scripts for ways of doing femininity.”