photos standard fare in German teen magazine
Philadelphia Inquirer, PA
By Elisa Ung
"We try to deal with [sex] as something normal," an editor says.
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.
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
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 angsts of young life, love, piercings, broken friendships and yes,
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 out 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
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 400 euros - or 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 "My boyfriend is once again
interested in his former girlfriend" to "Everybody's had sex, only I
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
Carpenter compared virginity-loss stories in Bravo and Seventeen magazines as
part of her 1999 dissertation work at Penn, and later used the work in a book
called Virginity Lost, published last year.
Any attempts to try similar things in the States, she said, would surely be
stymied by advertising boycotts by conservative groups.
Even Bravo's editions in Eastern Europe are published with little or no
But in Germany, teachers and church groups approve. Von Arx has spoken in
schools, and last year was invited as a youth expert to a large evangelical
Tanja Reddig, a 17-year-old Berlin student, said she has read Dr. Sommer
since she was 12.
"It is not bad, that column," Reddig said. "Some teenagers don't want to ask
their parents things, so they could write a letter to Dr. Sommer."