Selling Out

Walmart Can Ban Cosmopolitan From Its Checkouts, but Cosmo Still Wins

Anti-porn activists scored a victory when Walmart banned the magazine from its checkout aisles. But it’s a hollow victory: Cosmo’s cultural power is way bigger.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Walmart’s decision on Tuesday to remove Cosmopolitan from its checkout aisles in response to a petition from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation isn’t just a “perversion” of the #MeToo movement, as some commentators are now labeling it.

It’s also the latest battle in a longstanding culture war that stretches back decades before the #MeToo hashtag—all the way to the so-called “feminist porn wars” of the seventies and eighties.

Anti-pornography feminists and sex-positive feminists have long found themselves on opposite ends of a cultural divide, arguing about whether practices like BDSM are degrading or empowering—and often, about whether sex work and pornography should even be legal.

It’s no coincidence that the NCOSE decried the fact that Cosmo features content on “pornography, sexting, BDSM, group sex, [and] anal sex.” With the exception of sexting, of course, these are the same flash points that have been at the center of this debate for a half century.

Those hot topics might be flaring up in a new context, thanks to what Walmart has since claimed is a “business decision” to eject the magazine from the checkout lane —but the basic contours of this debate haven’t really changed.

On one side of the feminist porn wars, you had feminists like Catharine MacKinnon, who helped craft our current legal framework around sexual harassment—but who also co-wrote anti-pornography ordinances in the early 1980s that would be seen as overreaching today.

On the other side, you had feminists like anthropologist Gayle Rubin who were wary of the ways in which MacKinnon’s more moralistic brand of feminism could be used to sort consensual sexual behavior into “good” and “bad” categories—into what Rubin in 1984 called a “charmed circle” of straight, vanilla, missionary-position sex and the “outer limits” of intercourse that’s less straight and more, shall we say, adventurous, perhaps involving sex toys or multiple partners.

Rubin’s fear, as it turns out, was a prescient one. Although the success of women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan is proof that sex-positive women largely won the “feminist porn wars” on a cultural level, traditional morality groups with institutional power like the NCOSE have been able to align themselves with—or at least wield the talking points of—anti-pornography feminism for their own self-interested ends.

The #MeToo moment is just the latest convenient excuse to go after women for exploring sex outside of the “charmed circle.”

Walmart seemingly bowing to the pressure from the NCOSE is proof that cultural conservatives are as well-positioned as ever to cravenly take advantage of crucial conversations about sexual assault in order to shut down discussion of consensual sexual activity.

Indeed, while there are certainly criticisms that can be lobbied at Cosmopolitan, there’s no denying that the long-running women’s magazine has been broadening its horizons of late.

Whether publishing lesbian sex tips, a beginners’ guide to anal sex, or in-depth interviews with women who enjoy BDSM, the Cosmopolitan of today unapologetically belongs to a new world where LGBT people aren’t erased—and where we’re largely finished pretending that wearing a silk blindfold is the kinkiest thing most of us have ever done in a bedroom.

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If Cosmo is publishing articles on anal sex, maybe that’s because over a third of women have had it—and because as psychologist Dr. Justin Lehmiller notes, surveys show that number rising.

The same principle holds true in the case of threesomes and BDSM: Cosmo isn’t publishing articles about these phenomena to “promote” them, as the NCOSE accused the magazine of doing, but because readers are participating in those practices—and because it’s perfectly healthy and often enjoyable to explore them, with the consent of all parties involved.

Bondage doesn’t need to be “promoted”; its appeal, as anyone could tell from a quick glance at Fifty Shades sales numbers, is self-evident. And anal sex, as one Cosmo writer discovered, is its own best advocate.

Not liking these things is fine, but plenty of women do, and there shouldn’t be any shame in Cosmo catering to them—yes, even in a checkout aisle where it’s convenient for readers to grab a copy to throw in with some groceries.

Sexually active women already live in Rubin’s “outer limits,” having unmarried, and often casual sex. Walmart’s decision at NCOSE’s urging seems more about punishing those women than it does about protecting families.

Yet the NCOSE—a longstanding anti-pornogaphy nonprofit previously known as Morality in Media with a lengthy history of advocating against Cosmo—praised Walmart for “making their checkout aisles family-friendly” after the Tuesday announcement.

This is precisely the same card that cultural conservatives often play to shut down the workarounds women have developed around our country’s terrible sex education: Make a vague allusion to being “family-friendly” or to promoting “family values.” Often, these excuses are just code words for attempts to protect what Rubin called the “charmed circle”—a sphere of polite, sanitized, heterosexual intercourse that’s seen as being at constant risk of contamination from the “outer limits.”

They are just retreads of the old cliché of The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy pleading “Won’t somebody please think of the children?”—as if our kids wouldn’t know about anal sex if it weren’t for that Cosmo headline they saw at Walmart.

Indeed, why would we expect the checkout aisle to be some kind of sacred family space when the magazine rack elsewhere in the store would be just as easy for a determined minor to access?

Trying to stop young people from sleeping with each other is a futile enterprise, with nearly 70 percent of American young people having had sex by age 19, according to Guttmacher Institute statistics.

If a young woman feels the need to seek out an issue of Cosmo to learn something new about sex, perhaps it’s because her sexual education class still seems to exists in an alternate reality where most people are waiting for marriage—or because women’s magazines are some of the only places these days where she could find affirming, accurate information about women’s sexual health in an accessible format.

Ultimately, the NCOSE’s attack on Cosmo isn’t about protecting “families” or ending “sexual exploitation.” This is conservative sexual moralism, plain and simple.

There’s a reason why the anti-LGBT Family Research Council —designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center—has “allied” with the NCOSE before.

There’s also a reason why the NCOSE spokesperson who told USA Today that Walmart’s decision would “make a difference, especially in this #MeToo culture”—interned at the FRC.

Anti-pornography groups and anti-LGBT groups have all-too-predictable crossover. To people who pretend that life exists entirely inside in the “charmed circle,” the “outer limits” are an inherent threat, whether they come in the form of queer people or Cosmo sex tips.

The strange confluence of anti-pornography feminism and conservative prudishness will take its victories where it can find them—and getting Cosmo moved to less visible shelf space is indeed no small feat.

But the Cosmo removal isn’t just a “perversion” of “#MeToo,” it’s an attack on consensual forms of sexual perversion, writ large. It’s an attempt to pretend like none of us have desires outside of the mainstream when we so clearly do.

Cosmo isn’t perverting us; rather, its success is proof that we’re all more perverted than our puritanical culture can acknowledge. Walmart can move the magazine, but Cosmo has already won.