Feminists used to reject magazines like Cosmo, now we’re told to celebrate them as empowering

On Tuesday, Walmart announced that it would be removing Cosmopolitan magazine from its checkout lines (though it will still be available on magazine racks). While the reasoning behind this decision is a little too “protect families” for my taste, and was accomplished by an organization that, while anti-pornography, is also headed by a man who is pro-life, I’m not going to cry for Cosmo.

Apparently, I’m in a minority.

In response to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s (NCOSE) claim that “Cosmo targets young girls by placing former Disney stars on its covers, despite the enclosed sexually erotic articles which describe risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex in detail,” liberals leapt to the defense of the longstanding women’s magazine.

Numerous women online insisted that Cosmo “empowers women to talk about sex in a healthy and positive way,” that “sexuality ≠ exploitation,” and that #MeToo and objectification of women in the media should absolutely not be correlated. Michelle Ruiz at Vogue magazine went so far as to compare the move to a step towards a real-life Handmaid’s Tale, writing, “ICYMI: #MeToo is about unwanted sex and sexual attention, sexual assault, and harassment… it is all about consensual adult sex.”

In Salon, Nicole Karlis wrote:

“Cosmo isn’t a porn magazine. It’s a women’s magazine that empowers women to embrace their sexuality and frequently encourages women to enjoy sex because it’s pleasurable and because women are deserving of that pleasure — sending the message that sex is not merely an act done to please men.”

It’s unfortunate that, for American liberals, the only possible way to maintain “freedom” is, apparently, to embrace any and all portrayals of sex, sexuality, and women’s bodies. The false binary perpetuated by liberal feminism that demands opposition to the right by embracing everything it opposes, whether or not those things are in fact useful things to embrace, oversimplifies too many issues and has made a mess of feminist analysis.

While I don’t necessarily trust the motives of an organization with connections the religious right, I also believe feminists should respond on their own terms, rather than in knee-jerk defenses that mark every challenge to porn culture as “prudish,” while claiming everything that could possibly be construed as sex or related to the sexualized female body as “empowering.”

Part of the problem here is a modern desperation to play “cool girl,” thanks in large part to a youth-centric third wave that failed to challenge (and indeed supports) accusations of prudishness and “sex-negativity” launched at any woman who dares challenge male-centered sex and objectification. There is also the fact that Christianity dominates in the United States, and many of the young women who embraced liberal feminism came from homes that said any and all sex outside of heterosexual marriage is “bad,” so these women are still stuck in a kind of teenage rebellion wherein they think “sex” is inherently liberatory. But another factor is that, as a culture, we really don’t understand the difference between “attraction” or “desire” and objectification. We have conflated these ideas to such an extent that it is near impossible for many people to understand that porn does not equal sex, and that challenging men’s objectification of women (or women’s internalized self-objectification, for that matter) does not mean that men’s attraction to women is inherently bad or off-limits.

In truth, attraction should be the opposite of objectification. What objectification does is to cut people (namely, women) up into parts — it is a dehumanizing way to look at human beings, that separates bodies from minds, feelings, politics, interests, and desires. When I am attracted to a man, for example, is it never disconnected from his personality, body language, behaviour, sense of humour, etc. (This is unfortunately not to say I am only attracted to men with amazing personalities and behaviours, so this truth exists for better or for worse.) I choose my friends, not for their appearances, but because we enjoy one another’s company. The notion that relationships that include sex should somehow exclude personality from that equation is inhumane and the idea that “attraction” should separate mind from body is as ridiculous as it is dangerous. This concept has translated, under patriarchy, to say that women are only bodies — that their minds, interests, and desires are irrelevant in this world, as their primary purpose is for men’s titillation, enjoyment, pleasure, and use. Connected to capitalism, we have extended objectification into commodification, and women’s bodies and body parts are bought and sold, or used to sell other products.

And objectification is not just an abstract idea, developed by feminist film theorists. It has real life consequences.

Two recent studies found that sexual objectification increases men’s aggression towards women. One study showed that when a woman was sexualized, it increased men’s sense of entitlement towards her body, and that, as a result of this sense of entitlement, men responded with aggression when rejected. The other explains that “sexual objectification is the perception of an individual solely as an object useful for fulfilling sexual desires, rather than as a person in their own right, with moral rights and a complex mind.” In essence, when we view a person as only body parts, rather than as a full, complex human being (this idea can be applied toward non-human animals, as well) it allows us to consider that person with less care and empathy — indeed, it becomes easier to harm or abuse that person. “Sexually objectified women are viewed as lacking human nature, as cold, incompetent, and immoral, and as possessing relatively impoverished mental lives,” the researchers explain.

Now, you might be wondering how this connects to Cosmo. For decades, the magazine has sold copies through the use of sexualized women on its covers. It might seem odd to talk about objectification in the context of women’s magazines, because in general we understand sexual objectification as something that appeals to the male gaze. But what is insidious about all this is that it isn’t only men who objectify women. Indeed, we, as women, learn to self-objectify — to see ourselves through a male lens. We learn to want to be sexualized, and we learn that our value lies in our ability to accomplish this. That pornographic lens that says women’s body parts exist to turn men on or to be fucked becomes a turn on for many women, as, offered no other options, they connect objectification to sex.

And it’s not only Cosmo’s covers that reinforce this message. The magazine’s content has long focused on teaching women how to please men in and out of the bedroom, and to put a man’s pleasure above our own.

Countless articles over the years have explained “What Men Really Want in the Bedroom” (Shocker: “34 percent of guys say they wish a girl would surprise them with oral when they walk in the door!”), how to “Meet a New Guy by Summer,” and taught women to wonder “What He Thinks When He Walks Through Your Door,” sending the message that finding a boyfriend or husband should be the central goal in women’s lives and focusing on what men think about us is a valuable use of our mental energy.

Before a date, we are advised to work out; exfoliate our entire bodies; use numerous lotions to hide everything from “discolouration” on our skin to cellulite; create bedroom lighting that will disguise our flaws; avoid facing men head on when naked (it makes us look square!), but rather “turn so you’re at a 3/4 angle;” prop ourselves up in awkward ways in bed so as to ensure we appear as “sexy” as possible (this is called “being bed-able”); and to wear uncomfortable, physically damaging stilettos.

Beyond drilling in the message that women must spend countless hours and dollars turning ourselves into fuckable objects, we are also taught to master the art of pleasing men. Of late, this has meant using the sex industry as a guide. Cosmo suggests literally making ourselves objects of the voyeuristic gaze because it’s “hot” to watch a man watch you — in other words, what is sexy is to turn yourself into live pornography. In recent years, the magazine has begun publishing sex tips written by women working in porn and prostitution, simultaneously promoting the industries as empowering, harmless options for women, and presenting “sex” as something women do for men, rather than for their own pleasure.

If Cosmo was truly interested in women’s liberation and empowerment, it would be telling us that our bodies are real human bodies with cellulite and hair and all sorts of other supposedly unsexy things and that if a man doesn’t want to be around you because you have a human body, he is not worth a moment of your time and energy. It wouldn’t be focused on selling women thousands of dollars worth of products, clothing, and cosmetics aimed at “fixing” invented flaws and “wrong” bodies. And it certainly wouldn’t be sending the message that finding a boyfriend or husband, then twisting ourselves into knots (literally and figuratively) trying to guess at his thoughts and perform pornographic fantasies for him in the bedroom is a worthy goal.

In a press release, Dawn Hawkins, Executive Director at NCOSE, said:

“This is what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture, and NCOSE is proud to work with a major corporation like Walmart to combat sexually exploitative influences in our society. Women, men, and children are bombarded daily with sexually objectifying and explicit materials, not only online, but in the checkout line at the store.”

While I can’t presume to know the motives of NCOSE in connecting #MeToo to this action, the liberal push back against their doing so is misguided (but predictable). Liberal feminism has consistently worked to compartmentalize sexual violence, pornography, prostitution, and objectification. But refusing to connect the #MeToo movement to the sex industry and to the sexual objectification of women, more broadly, ensures feminism’s failure. Sexual assault, harassment, and male violence against women is directly connected to objectification. Indeed, the sex industry is a place where these things are not only condoned, but eroticized.

In the past, the women’s movement threw copies of Cosmo into the “Freedom Trash Can.” Today, so-called feminists are not only refusing to criticize the magazine, but are defending what is in many ways a manual towards female subordination as a valuable ally in this political movement.

The fact that we cannot differentiate between objectification and sexuality or desire is telling — porn culture has shaped society in a massive way. Feminism’s job should be to fight this — to say, “We can create a different world.” It is our responsibility as radicals to imagine something else is possible — beyond what the left, liberals, and the right have determined are our options.

If women don’t want the religious right doing this work, they should do it themselves.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.