In Kara Jesella and Marissa Meltzer’s memoir, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, an article by Maureen Callahan and Kim France in the 1997 “Girl Issue” of Spin magazine is quoted: “When the best teen magazine ever, Sassy, was sold to the owners of Teen magazine in 1994 . . . readers went into revolt. Teen magazine exemplified everything that was wrong with America's youth, and Sassy was its antithesis.” Within historical literatures and zine cultures of the feminist third wave, Sassy occupies an unprecedented and unparalleled position. Created with the primary purpose of providing honest sex education to America’s teen girls, the magazine was staffed with women not long out of their own adolescence. Its first editor, Jane Pratt, was 24, and her and her staff’s personalities were omnipresent in the writing: in an early editorial, she gives writers Catherine, Karen, and Christina the nicknames “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll” after their respective areas of expertise. The Sassy reader was also presumed to be set apart from that of other popular teen titles; she was sexually curious, politically aware, and loved Sonic Youth.
Unfortunately, the Sassy team was continually kept from their goal of creating a radically honest space to discuss teenage female sexuality. Angry parents and religious groups alike complained to the writers from its first issue in 1988, but it was ultimately a reader-advertiser boycott pioneered by the small, conservative women’s group Women Aglow (with the help of Jerry Falwell’s publication Focus on the Family) that was successful in gutting Sassy of their major advertisers and, thus, funding. They weren’t able to resecure the advertising accounts without the promise of less material on sex. Devastated by the lack of editorial freedom and the loss of the magazine’s mission, the entire original team abandoned their posts in 1995. Under new directorship and with strict restrictions on what could be published, Sassy ran for only one more year before its sale to the squeaky-clean Teen magazine in January 1997.
The Schlesinger’s collection of Sassy allows for a reading of its demise through its changing representation of sex over the course of its publication. Early issues include feature articles such as “Sex for Absolute Beginners” and “Getting Turned On” and a guide for dealing with sexual feelings toward authority figures titled “Hot for Teacher.” It is also uncharacteristically queer for a teen magazine in this period, with articles featuring young gay couples and numerous responses to readers questioning their sexuality in the advice columns. Immediately after the advertiser boycott in 1989, the magazine’s drastically reduced content makes it clear why staffers referred to it jokingly at the time as "The Sassy Pamphlet." As it regains advertisements over time, articles on sex decrease. By the time Sassy was under its new directorship in 1995, the magazine is unrecognizable, most noticeably in its treatment of teenage sex. One way that this manifests is in the discussion of sex only where it pertains to potentially negative outcomes. One of the final issues, from April 1996, demonstrates how far the publication had drifted from its initial sex positivity. Articles include “I Got HIV after My First Sexual Experience: One Girl’s Tale of Fatal Infatuation” and “Special Report: Teen Moms Tell It Like It Is (If You Don’t Want to Become a Statistic, Read This Now),” the tone of the reportage by now echoing the fear tactics and shaming of the abstinence-driven curricula the founders of the magazine had initially sought to counteract.
What Sassy’s collapse reveals is the near impossibility of frank, accurate, and educational discussions of desire in adolescent women within mainstream popular culture during the 1990s. However, many of the young women that the creators of Sassy were attempting to reach out to were taking matters into their own hands during this period, through the production and distribution of zines. The noncommercial nature of these self-made and self-distributed publications meant that the creators could write and reprint material as explicitly as they saw fit, whether it be through feminist erotica or sexual health advice. Although the Schlesinger holds collections of zines from various periods of American history and across a wide variety of subject areas, I was particularly interested in those produced by self-identified Riot Grrrls, young women whose feminism arose out of the punk/DIY scenes of which they were a part. Denied adequate sex education from schools, libraries, and supermarket magazine shelves, young women with more access to sexual health information (college students, women in their 20s, those in urban settings) disseminated their knowledge to those with less access (high school students, teenagers, those in rural settings). Examples of this at the Schlesinger include the reprinted Canadian sexual health guide “DIY Gynecology” in the 1995 zine Fucktooth by Jen Angel and multiple articles on gender, sexism, and queerness in Amanda Indigo’s zine Outlaw Fusion from 1999.
Between the Schlesinger’s collections of commercial teen magazines from the 1990s and of zines made by young women themselves in the same period, in addition to the vast holdings of secondary publications on Riot Grrrl and on magazine and zine culture (most recently, Kate Eichorn’s The Archival Turn in Feminism and Alana Kumbier’s Ephemeral Material: Queering the Archive), I came to understand both the desire in young American women for adequate sexuality information in the 1990s and the impossibility of such a thing in the mainstream of that culture. Following the moral panic over a perceived rise in child sexual abuse rates in the 1980s, social conservatives were aware of the political salience of accusing a publication of perpetuating this problem. So top-down and unifying was this discourse, it is hard to imagine how progressive or feminist groups could counter this censorship at the same level. Thus, in such a climate, it was only within subcultures that teenagers were able to circumvent restrictions in writing and reading information about sex.
Charlie Jeffries is in the third year of a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge, where she is writing a doctoral thesis on attitudes to teenage female sexuality in America from 1981 to 2008. She holds a master’s degree in women’s studies from the University of Oxford and was a teaching fellow in world history at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. She spent the spring semester researching at Harvard with the support of the Schlesinger Library’s Dissertation Grant. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.