American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Consuming Liberation: Playgirl and the Strategic Rhetoric of Sex Magazines for Women 1972-1985

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Communication

First Advisor

Leigh Ann Wheeler

Second Advisor

Gary Oates (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Vivian Patraka (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Donald McQuarie (Committee Co-Chair)

Fifth Advisor

William Albertini (Committee Member)


This dissertation considers how heterosexual women's sexual pleasure was negotiated in the popular and underground press in the 1970s, focusing particularly on two virtually unexamined parts of U.S. culture: sex magazines for women and woman-authored underground comics. Publications such as Playgirl, Viva, and Foxylady reveal essential differences between sex magazines for men and those for women, particularly how each type of publication addressed its readers through editorial content as well as advertising and marketing. Through the marketing of male centerfolds for women, women were asked to consider their sexual appetites for men's bodies as equivalent to those of heterosexual men for women's bodies. This project argues that sex magazines for women offered an evolving narrative of sexual liberation that was intrinsically wedded to, and in constant conversation with, the women's movement. Playgirl and its competitors strategically embraced some of the tenets and language of the women's movement while generally refusing to support the movement as a whole. This dissertation examines how the visibility and cultural influence of the women's movement encouraged male magazine publishers to employ women editors as spokespersons. These women wrote often of sexual liberation, but they avoided engaging in any systematic critique of male power in society or heterosexual relationships.

The final chapters take a broader view of the publishing industry and women's sexuality in the 1970s. They examine representations of women's sexuality in woman-authored underground comics, publications with titles such as Tits and Clits and Wet Satin, and the impact of these representations on sexual culture in the United States. It argues that woman-authored underground comics exemplify approaches to sexual imagery and women's sexuality that emerged out of feminist consciousness. The authors of these comics negotiated their own brand of feminist sexuality and their work is indicative of what is possible when women's bodies are oriented as the center of women's sexual universe. The concluding chapter examines the ways in which the model of female sexuality proposed by Playgirl continues to engage with and influence discussions of women's sexuality and the place of sexual imagery in U.S. culture.