Shielding Cosmopolitan Magazine: Protecting Minors or Shaming Female Sexuality?

The June 2014 issue featuring Katy Perry sits on top of a stack of Cosmopolitan magazines. Emka74/Shutterstock.com

When you’re standing in line at a grocery store, it’s hard not to notice Cosmopolitan magazine. Surrounded by the tamer titles focused on family and the home, the face of Cosmo is fierce, famous and always showing a little bit of skin. And as if that wasn’t enough to catch your attention, the bold words shouting “Hot Summer Sex” will surely do the trick.

Since the girl power takeover of Helen Gurley Brown in the 1960s, Cosmopolitan magazine has faced almost constant criticism for its sexual covers and content. Though it has expanded its topics to include politics (and even started endorsing candidates in 2014), the magazine’s covers that frequently feature sex stories continue to attract negative attention from critics. One of the more vocal ones being the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. The organization announced in July its partnership with Rite Aid and Delhaize America to cover up Cosmopolitan magazine with blinders to keep people from seeing the sexual content. The move is a part of the organization’s “Cosmo Harms Minors” campaign, an effort started in April to keep the magazine from being sold to children and to have it hidden in stores, just like porn magazines.

Lisa Thompson, director of education and outreach for NCSE, said the magazine’s “pornified brand” promotes harmful sexual practices that are often witnessed by vulnerable children.

“It’s not good when kids can go and just pick this up,” she says. “Parents have to explain it, and that’s a battle we don’t need to fight at the grocery story. It’s not the time or the place for this conversation. They have a very pornified cover brand that it is consistently promoting harmful sexual practices, glamour and fashion that has a harmful effect on minors.”

The magazine has been on the NCSE’s “Dirty Dozen” list for quite some time, and their fight to cover up the magazine has resulted in over 12,000 Food Lion and Hannaford Stores and more than 4,000 Rite Aids agreeing to put binders on Cosmo. They are also in talks with Walmart, who has agreed to enforce an old policy that would see sexually explicit magazines covered up. In surprise twist, this censoring crusade is being led by Victoria Hearst, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, founder of Cosmo parent company Hearst Corporation.

“We’re not trying to censor Cosmo,” Hearst said at a press conference launching the Cosmo Harms Minors campaign. “We’re not trying to put it out of business. All we’re saying is: You want to print pornography, I can’t stop you. If I was queen of the Hearst Corporation, this magazine would no longer exist.”

Thompson says the main argument she’s heard against the NCSE’s campaign is that the organization is against female sexuality, fashion and empowerment. But she argues that is just not the case.

“None of us are here running around in burlap bags,” she says. “We like to wear nice clothes, but that brand of glamour and fashion could have been scripted by Larry Flynt. Nobody here is against sexuality or women’s sex, but the discourse is so adolescent. I can’t get over the way they talk about sexuality. It’s so casual and recreational sport, very much in pornographic terms. Nobody here is against human expression, but there is a time and place for that—not right in front of us when we’re buying milk and eggs.”

Shira Tarrant, PhD, a nationally recognized expert on sexual politics and gender issues, says the NCSE is missing the point when it comes to children seeing content like the cover of Cosmo magazine.

We could call Cosmo a lot of things, but porn isn’t one of them,” she says. “Calling it porn misses the point. All of us want to protect children, but their method is really misguided. The effect is to add shame to female sexuality or expression, and that kind of effort doesn’t work.”

The best way to protect kids from this kind of material is to simply talk to them about it, Tarrant says. Giving age-appropriate answers that parents are comfortable with is much better than trying to shelter them from things they will eventually see on their own.

“Filtering things doesn’t work,” she says. “We know from research that the better approach is to talk with them when they ask question. Kids are curious. They’re supposed to be; it’s their jobs. Give them tools to make sense of their world. When we say ‘Don’t look there,’ like it’s some shameful taboo, we teach sexuality of the human body like it is a problem. We teach them that they shouldn’t ask questions, and to look away. That’s a problem.”

Thompson says the NSCE used outside research to back up their own claims against Cosmo, and pointed to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2007. The organization looked at a variety of other research regarding the sexualiztion of young girls and concluded that “sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of the possible consequences of sexualization included an inability to focus, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, unhealthy sexuality and depression. 

Sarah Jessica Parker features on the cover of the August 2015 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Sarah Jessica Parker features on the cover of the August 2015 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Thompson says the idea that Cosmo promotes women’s empowerment is “pure farce.” “We believe Cosmo represents an insidious form of oppression that tells young girls and women their self-worth is directly commensurate with their pornified ‘hotness’ factor,” she says.

“The idea that Cosmo is selling some sort of female empowerment is a real myth. They’re selling a form of bondage. They are selling women short.”

Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Minnesota State University Moorhead, Kandace Falcón, Ph.D, says she’s confused about why the NCSE would go after a magazine like Cosmo as opposed to Maxim, a magazine known for its sexual content. She sees the move as an attack on women’s access to their own sexual desires and needs.

“I see Cosmo as a magazine that’s by women for women,” Falcón says. “I recognize a part of the issue is the magazine’s headlines, but it seems like the argument is focused on the image. To me, that begs the question of how do we understand representation of femininity and women, and why do we automatically associate sexuality when we see women’s bodies on the cover of a magazine?”

She says she understands that children should only be exposed to certain content while they are younger, but says the main issues around protecting children int he long run is giving them better access and opportunities to learn about safe sex. Still, she’s more concerned with the bigger trends that can happen when women’s sexuality is covered up, even in an effort to combat sexual violence.

“Not talking about sexuality leads to the perception that only men get to talk to other men about women’s desires,” she says. “Then where do women get to have a say about their desires? It’s admirable that we look to so many different ways to address sexual violence, but it’s a complicated matter. Covering it all up is not, in my opinion, they way we would end it.”

Still, Thompson maintains that the effects of seeing sexualized content are doing more harm than good.

“We’re not against fashion or sexuality, we’re against harmful explicit content that’s in your face,” she says. “Even for adult women, I’m a single adult woman at the grocery store, and I’m like ‘Sheesh, when is this gonna stop?’ I’m constantly assaulted by [this] pornified brand of society. People think we’re running around like ‘Chicken Little’ thinking that the sky is falling, but you’re basically a captive in the checkout line. There’s not a choice of where you can look. We’re asking for a space where people don’t have to see that.”

This article, first published on August 22, has been amended to include the views of Kandace Falcón, P.hD. A number of quotes were also removed after it was found that the source did not have sufficient expertise to be quoted as an authority on the subject.