Sandra, 16, looks coyly up from the magazine, wearing a black choker and nothing else. Boyfriend Elias, 18, grins from the opposite page...
BERLIN — Sandra, 16, looks coyly up from the magazine, wearing a black choker and nothing else. Boyfriend Elias, 18, grins from the opposite page, also pictured fully in his natural state.
“Tell me, why do you love each other?” reads the headline. And the young couple tells why — and, explicitly, how.
Sell this in America, and risk a long sentence for child pornography.
But this is nothing illicit.
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It’s Bravo, the most popular teenage magazine in Germany and one of the most widely read general-interest youth publications in Europe. Target reader age: 10 and older.
Sandra’s parents gave permission for her to pose nude. Her spread comes in the same issue as a free sheet of fake tattoos, a feature about Harry Potter and an exclusive report on the German boy band currently making girls swoon.
Bravo’s editors say the full-frontal pictures are intended not to be lewd, but to be instructive and reassuring to teenagers just learning about the birds and the bees.
This is the work of “Dr. Sommer,” a pseudonymous column in Bravo that has become an institution, guiding generations of German teenagers through the everyday angst of young life, love, piercings, broken friendships and yes, sex.
Nudity is common on European newsstands. But in a teenage magazine?
“We take this very seriously,” said Bravo’s deputy editor-in-chief, Alex Gernandt. “It is not pornography. It deals with naked people, but in a very sensitive way. We try to portray young people to tell readers, ‘You are not too fat, not too thin. You are OK the way you are.’ “
The column highlights a basic cultural divide between much of Europe and the United States when it comes to sex.
And Gernandt points to Germany’s lower teenage pregnancy rate as proof of which approach is better.
About 85 of 1,000 U.S. young people ages 15 to 19 become pregnant, compared with 16 out of every 1,000 in Germany.
“We are more liberated,” he says. “We try to deal with [sex] as something normal.”
The column started in 1969, and in the early years, many German parents were known to ban it from the house or glue the Dr. Sommer pages together.
Eveline von Arx, who has been writing the Dr. Sommer column for three years, credits it with helping Germans speak more openly about sex.
When it began, “Dr. Sommer really broke taboos, and it was really spectacular to do something like that,” von Arx said. “It’s not that spectacular anymore. People are used to it. Everybody knows it.
“I am often asked if it’s even necessary. People think our society is very sexualized, and naked bodies and sex are everywhere, and young people should know everything. But they don’t know anything sometimes.”
Each weekly issue of Bravo now features photos of two nude teenagers — male and female, generally between the ages of 16 and 20. The feature is called “That’s Me,” and the pictured teenagers talk about their bodies and their experiences with love and sex.
They are paid a little more than $500 to pose, and many report a self-esteem boost from the experience, von Arx said.
Weekly letters to Dr. Sommer may range from “Everybody’s had sex, only I haven’t” to “My boyfriend is once again interested in his former girlfriend.”
Sample answer: “Nowhere does it say that youth have to have sex by a certain time. … Talk to your boyfriend about it. Tell him what you feel.”
The Dr. Sommer staff also has live chats with worried teenagers on Bravo’s Web site, alongside explicit picture galleries that in the United States would surely inspire an uproar.
Unlike the United States, “there seems to be a consensus in a lot of Europe, including Germany, that older teenagers are going to have sex, it’s part of life, it’s a healthy aspect of growing up and you need to have info about it — the more the better,” said Vanderbilt University sociology professor Laura Carpenter. She was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania when a flight attendant friend working a Frankfurt route began bringing her back copies of Bravo.