Walmart recently agreed to hide covers of Cosmopolitan Magazine behind blinders to “protect“ children and other shoppers from being exposed to its supposedly harmful covers. Walmart is actually the third major chain retailer to do this at the behest of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE). It joins Rite-Aid and Delhaize America (which owns Food Lion and Hannaford) in hiding Cosmo on its racks behind pocket shields.
This is slut shaming, misogyny and censorship at their most basic levels and we should be sounding the alarms.
Beginning with my tweenage Cosmo Girl (RIP) subscription, and moving on to the real thing in my teens, I have long been a Como fan. It’s not exactly riveting literature, but for a beach vacay or long train ride it does its job, it’s entertaining and fun.
Recently, Cosmo has actually become kind of forward-thinking on important issues. In 2014 they began endorsing political candidates with exclusively liberal (equal pay, pro-choice, pro-birth control coverage, anti-restrictive voter-ID laws) views and specifically stated the magazine would not endorse any pro-life candidate. They've interviewed trans folks on what dating is like, and took an in-depth look at men dealing with their partners’ miscarriages.
My memories of Cosmo (in addition to the hundreds of often confusing sex tips) include advice on how to advocate for yourself in the workplace and things to talk to your gyno about. These are hugely important topics for modern young women, and while a lot of this kind of material can nowadays also be found online, (heyyy xoJane) Cosmo still serves a purpose and shouldn’t be hidden from customers because of Victorian ideals about what’s appropriate for women.
In an added twist, the NCSE’s "Cosmo Harms Minors" campaign is headed by Victoria Hearst, granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, founder of the Hearst Corporation, which owns Cosmopolitan. Hearst the Younger began her quest in April of 2015, likening Cosmo to pornography, claiming its content can be harmful to children. She says the magazine “promotes promiscuity – with its risks of getting STDs, being raped or murdered, and its promise of emotional and psychological damage, including suicide” and has pledged “to do this until Jesus comes, praise the Lord." She is also the founder and director of Praise Him Ministries, and she won the Pro-Life Recognition Award from Priests for Life and Gospel of Life Ministries in 2012. (Perhaps her objection to Cosmo might have something to do with their conflicting politics over a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body?) Her eventual goal is to see Cosmo either removed from supermarket shelves entirely or only sold to persons over the age of 18 under the Material Harmful To Minors laws.
Among the campaign’s chief complaints is the assertion that "Cosmopolitan Magazine glamorizes things like public, anal, group, or violent sex in nearly all of their issues.” As a sex-positive twenty-something (and Cosmo’s target audience) my first reaction is so what? None of those things (assuming “violent” is actually more like “rough”) strike me as a problem as long as all those involved are consenting individuals.
Really, what this campaign is doing is a story old as time: shaming women for being sexual, enjoying sex and advocating for what they want in bed (or in public). Calling a magazine that promotes women’s sexuality and sexual gratification pornography is not only a gross misunderstanding of the current state of the mainstream porn industry but it reduces a woman’s right to enjoy sex to something supposedly unseemly and explicit.
Women’s sexual gratification is not the same as sexual exploitation. Likening the two at best does nothing to help those who are actually being exploited and at worst, actively harms them. This kind of thinking, shaming women for enjoying or wanting sex, falls right in line with the story young girls often hear about their virginity, that its their greatest asset and they must stay “pure.” Its exactly what Elizabeth Smart says made her feel so ashamed after she’d been kidnapped and raped. These are the problems we should be fighting when it comes to young girls and sex. Not Cosmo and their sex tips.
In fact, by reinforcing the idea that sex is normal and good, Cosmo fights back against the purity myth and empowers women to advocate for themselves. I’m not suggesting that Cosmo can save all women from these destructive ideas about purity, but maybe if more women had been taught that sex is not a bad thing, they might suffer less from the additional pain of “feeling dirty and filthy” after being assaulted. We’re telling these girls that they have already done wrong because their sexualities and their bodies are to blame for what happened to them, when every Cosmo girl knows that that is absolutely false.
As far as advertising to little girls (or any children) goes, well, I’ll take that more seriously when there’s a petition advocating to stop advertising toy guns to little boys (or any children). It’s up to every parent to decide what’s right for their children, but as those children turn into tweens and teens and they gain more autonomy, that power shifts. If they have the $3.99 to buy a Cosmo and that’s what they want to spend their money on, I don’t see what the problem is. It won’t "sexualize" little girls faster than anything else already does (you’re better off avoiding the (probably) hormone-laced milk instead of the magazines at the grocery store if that’s your concern). And, like it did for me, and unlike so many things that are harmful to kids, it will teach them that they can enjoy sex, that they can advocate for what they want and that they, and no one else, is in charge of their bodies and what they do with them.
Cosmo’s Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles isn’t taking this lying down. She’s rightly called the campaign sexist and a double standard since men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ aren’t being treated this way. She points out that the campaign “sends a signal to young women that their sexuality is shameful.”
Demi Lovato, Cosmo’s September cover girl whose sparkly dress will be “shielded,” took to Instagram to express her outrage at being covered up by major retailers. She says the cover made her feel empowered and beautiful and describes the experience as liberating: “I think what’s more important is showing women there’s NOTHING WRONG with embracing their bodies and sexuality.” And she’s absolutely right. I hope Cosmo continues to fight back against the haters. I hope the magazine keeps publishing sex tips with pride, because everyone has the right to 67 sex secrets unearthed from the holy catacombs to make his head explode.