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Cosmopolitan's Seductive Message

Katherine Kersten wrote the following commentary on Cosmopolitan Magazine. Katherine is Chairman of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Her commentary was published in the STAR TRIBUNE, June 11, 1997 under the title:

Cosmopolitan's Philosophy of Unfettered Freedom

By now, magazines like this don't shock us. On the cover, a buxom woman in an itty-bitty bikini, fingers in the bottom as if she's about to slip it off. Inside, articles and advice: "What I did for Lust," "You can throw a kick--- bash." In one piece, men describe "trouser trouble" (the inability to control their private parts), and celebrities revealed what they do when the problem strikes. There are spicy details about sexual threesomes, and "polls" in which "2,000 sexually active men" rate erotic "turn-ons," including practices so degrading they're best left unmentioned.

"Playboy"? "Penthouse"? Or another one of those men's magazines that so shamelessly exploit and objectify women's bodies? No, this is "Cosmopolitan," the top-selling women's magazine in the world.

It's a real head-scratcher. When "Sports Illustrated" features pictures of semi-nude women in its "swimsuit" issue, "women's" groups express outrage. Merely to speak the words on "Cosmo"'s cover within earshot of a female co-worker could land a man in court, assessed $100,000 for violating her civil rights and creating a "hostile and intimidating environment."

So why do women buy this magazine? Do they actually enjoy gazing at scantily clad "babes"? Are they really intent on exploring the pros and cons of group sex?

I don't think so. My guess is that the appeal of "Cosmo"s pictures and articles lies not so much in their content, as in the philosophy of life they convey. Their real function is to signal to readers -- on every page -- that happiness comes from breaking rules and rejecting limits, including traditional social constraints on dress, speech, and behavior. Away with the "Thou shalt nots" that have repressed us for millennia! "Cosmo" trumpets unfettered freedom as women's birthright -- "Thou shalt do as thou damn well please."

This is a seductive philosophy, but it has a catch. For if "freedom" is women's birthright, it is also men's. And as the last inhibition bites the dust, women are finding they don't much like some of the things men do when released from social constraints and expectations. The result? A new breed of "Thou shalt nots" -- from sexual harassment policies in the workplace ("No compliments on hair or dress, if you know what's good for you"), to the mandatory "date rape" seminars that greet unsuspecting college freshmen.

American women flock to buy "Cosmo," but they want that "swimsuit" calendar off the wall. "Freedom's great for me," they seem to say, "but not for you." Many, it appears, would like to maximize women's scope of action, while regulating male conduct in a tighter and tighter noose.

There's a schizophrenic tendency here, which should alert us to something we really already know. In the delicate arena of male-female relations -- as in so many other areas of life -- we cannot do without limits and constraints. These used to be supplied, in part, by a general regard for modesty -- decency in dress, speech and behavior, so as not to suggest ready sexual availability. When my grandmother urged my siblings and me to "act like ladies and gentlemen," modesty was one thing she meant to encourage.

To speak of the virtues of modesty today is to invite hoots of derision. But for generations, modesty has been understood as central to social health and well-being. Of course, its earlier manifestations often appear ridiculous -- we laugh at the grainy pictures of men and women whose bathing suits reach below their knees. But with the passing of modesty have come pressing problems, from an epidemic of herpes and chlamydia, to an out-of-wedlock birthrate topping 30 percent.

Why is modesty important? Because it channels sexual desire -- potentially one of the most selfish of human passions -- into the selfless and productive context of marriage and family. Modesty rejects instant gratification. Instead, it promises gratification in harmony with society's central priorities -- the procreation and rearing of children, and the successful transmission of culture to the next generation.

Philosopher Allan Bloom has put it succinctly: "Modesty impede[s] sexual intercourse, [but] its result [is] to make gratification central to a serious life….. Suppression of modesty makes attaining the end of desire easier, but it also dismantles the structure of involvement and attachment, reducing sex to the thing-in-itself."

But modesty is about something more -- simple fairness. We women demand respect from men, insisting that they value us not for our looks, but for "who we are." It is hypocritical to do this, and then dress and act immodestly -- intentionally provoking sexual desire, and signaling our easy openness to it. To act this way is to undermine our own dignity, to treat ourselves as "sex objects." Moreover, it is patently unfair, for it means that we are holding men to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.

"Cosmo"'s sophisticated readers probably believe they are old enough to take care of themselves -- at least until that swimsuit calendar goes up. Undoubtedly, the most poignant victims of modesty's passing are the young and vulnerable.

Several years ago, I saw a perfectly-coifed woman at an upscale department store with her shy, self-conscious 8th-grade daughter. They were looking for a dress for an upcoming school dance, with the help of a deferential saleswoman. When the mother asked to see several slinky and revealing styles, the saleswoman protested in spite of herself, "Surely those aren't appropriate, are they?" "Oh, I know it's terrible," the mother replied airily. "But that's what all the girls we know are wearing this year."

It's time we recognize "Cosmo"'s siren song for what it is, and urge young women to seek a more promising path to happiness.

Katherine Kersten may be reached at:

Center of the American Experiment
1024 Plymouth Building
12 South 6th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55402
612-338-3605, Fax 612-338-3621
Web site:

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