Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

The "Cosmo Harms Minors" campaign, which started this spring, has now succeeded in convincing several major American retail chains, including Rite-Aid (over 4,500 stores in 31 states) and Food Lion (1,100 in 10 states) to place Cosmopolitan magazine behind pocket shields. The goal, presumably, is to guard innocent eyes from allegedly inappropriate content and covers, which is why it's now shelved alongside "other" pornographic magazines such as Playboy. The stores will also prohibit the sale of the magazine to minors.

This crusade is lead chiefly by heiress Victoria Hearst, a born-again Christian and grand-daughter of Cosmopolitan's publishing company's founder, William Randolph Hearst. Along with an advocacy group called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), she contends that the "erotic tabloid" (their words) "glamorizes things like public, anal, group, or violent sex in nearly all of their issues."

By some coincidence, the NCSE (which was known until this year as Morality in Media) was founded in 1962, the same year Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and The Single Girl. The scandalous anecdotal memoir and advice book urged unmarried women to be in control of their financial and sex lives, and became a bestseller and cultural phenomenon.

Story continues below advertisement

And it was 50 years ago that Gurley Brown took over Hearst Publishing's Cosmopolitan, revamped it and vamped it up. Which is why, when the news of the innocence-maintaining blinders broke, I'd already been reading copies of Cosmo past and present, considering the pioneering editor's legacy both at the magazine she ran for more than three decades, and more generally on the newsstand. Cosmo isn't a fashion magazine, billing itself as the women's magazine for fashion, sex advice, dating and career advice. But as Gurley Brown herself quipped in a 1995 interview with Women's Wear Daily, "I used to have sex all to myself; now I have to share with the Ladies' Home Journal."

Often contradictory in its message – with stories on "how to drive him wild" and intense body-image pressures layered in among useful career advice and long-form reporting – Cosmo has always been contentious. Feminists have long disagreed whether the mag was a beacon of sexual liberation and career emancipation, or part of the problem. It can be both.

Cosmopolitan won its first National Magazine Award last year for a 2013 piece on birth control, an accolade which came with a flurry of discussion about how it was time to start taking the mag seriously. Contrast that with the September issue cover, on which Demi Lovato wears a plunging sequined mini-dress that shows side– and under-boob. But that's her sternum prerogative, and part of the magazine's brand persona (among Gurley Brown's many signatures were pouty, titillating Francesco Scavullo covers).

Although Gurley Brown crafted Cosmo for young women starting their careers, the older I get, the more seriously I take it: Not only for the investigative pieces (August's story on the rise of anti-choice pregnancy centres in the U.S. is chilling), but for the very brazen sexual content. What Cosmo has long offered as commonplace is now widely emulated by other magazines, and is as important now as in Gurley Brown's heyday.

Until I visited the NCSE website, it was unclear just why Victoria Hearst and the NCSE objected to the magazine: Whether it was because of the explicit cover lines, or because of how the models were dressed. What they're actually arguing is that the magazine is verbally pornographic, and the content desensitizes and fuels sexual violence.

You don't have to look very far back to find other instances when discussions of female sexuality were considered obscene. In Mary Dore's new documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry, a chronicle of the American women's rights movement from 1966 to 1971, we meet the Boston women of the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective. The first issue of their classic health manual sold 240,000 copies, but its unstinting diagrams of women's bodies and frank discussions of issues such as sexual assault led evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell to label it "filthy trash." The movie also reminds us of J. Edgar Hoover's directive to have a certain "new and dangerous" group investigated as a national security threat: The Women's Liberation Movement.

Cosmo's quizzes and over-the-top sex tips may elicit an eye roll, but they were subversive at a very crucial moment of mid-1960s agitation, and they're still necessary. Gurley Brown's bestseller (which her biography reveals originally contained sections on birth control and abortion that were removed by male editors) and magazine got women talking: About how to dress in the latest fashions for the office or a date, and about enjoying their sex lives and controlling their reproductive rights.

Story continues below advertisement

Yet here we are defending that talk, and that magazine, again. As another of the activists in Dore's documentary observes: "You're not allowed to retire from women's issues. You still have to pay attention because somebody's going to try to yank the rug out from under you, and that's what's happening now." (At a retail aisle near you.)

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies