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“The” Sex Issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine

I had to laugh when I saw the most recent cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, sitting on the stand of my local Barnes & Noble, which had the words “The Sex Issue” stamped on its glossy cover.

The sex issue? It’s a running joke, even among Cosmo‘s most loyal readers, that every issue of the magazine is the sex issue. If you look at the past examples of Cosmo covers, you’ll see that the word “sex” is always the biggest, boldest word on the page, and that the articles about sex, from issue to issue, are so similar that the editors’ efforts to make one sound more unique and outrageous than the other results in hilarious and absurd headlines (“THE SEX ARTICLE WE CAN’T DESCRIBE HERE!”). Usually, the articles are variations on two themes: (1) “The Fifty Greatest SEX Tips of ALL TIME” and (2) “SEX Moves That Will Drive Your Man Wild.”

If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the more recent Cosmo covers:

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Ironically, Cosmo was founded as a family magazine in 1886. It later became a literary magazine, featuring contributions from Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Upton Sinclair, George Bernard Shaw, and Sinclair Lewis.

But, by the late 1960s, riding the tide of the Sexual Revolution–and contributing to it–it transformed into a women’s magazine under the editorship of Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote the 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl. She believed that women could have it all, ”love, sex, and money,” a point of view that reverberated through the articles she commissioned for Cosmopolitan and still does today. By the time Brown left the magazine in 1997, the magazine ranked sixth at the U.S. newsstands and number one at college book stores. Even back then, in the late Nineties, I remember the articles being as sexually explicit–and repetitively so–as they are today.

It’s obviously a formula that works. The magazine’s circulation is over 3 million in the United States alone. By way of comparison, Newsweek‘s circulation is 1.5 million and its audience is much broader than Cosmo‘s narrow base of young female readers. The question that puzzles me is why does that formula work? I understand that sex sells, but don’t women get tired of reading the same article over and over again? When I tried to look into this question–by Googling “Why are all issues of Cosmo about sex?”–the first hit that came up was, of course, an article from the very magazine in question on the topic of “75 Crazy-Hot Sex Moves.” Go figure.

Another irony here is that articles like “75 Crazy Hot Sex Moves” and the other sex pieces that perennially appear on Cosmo‘s covers are always about how you, the young female reader, can better pleasure your man with hot new sex moves. Brown wanted to empower her readers, but these pieces do little more than cast women as sex objects that should please men–the same way that, on an interpersonal level, college women are cast as sex objects by frat brothers and the most predatory of men in the hook-up culture, which I witnessed in college and have written about. Women willingly participate in that culture, complain about it later, and loyally continue reading the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. Go figure.

  1. Madcap

    I’m always vaguely embarrassed when I see Cosmo in the grocery store. Buying it would make me want to melt into the floor.

    Yes, I AM a right wing stereotype.

  2. tabula rasa

    Maybe they should do a “Non-Sex Issue.”  The articles would be about foreign policy, federal budgeting, national security, and other such hard-core subjects.  Perhaps a picture of Janet Napolitano on the cover in sensible dark female business attire (no cleavage allowed).

    Also, I don’t mean to change the subject, but what is the deal with the Kardashians? Other than being the step-daughters of Bruce (no-nose) Jenner, have they ever actually done anything?

  3. Peter Meza

    Cosmopolitan-1918-02.jpg

    Cosmo from 1918 – pretty racy even back then.

  4. Misthiocracy

    I’d like to see statistics on the number of Cosmo’s customers who subscribe or buy it repeatedly, vs the number who buy it once or very rarely.  I imagine they make most of their money off of impulse buyers in the grocery line, and not from subscribers.  If they publish the same information every month, it’s hard to imagine that repeat buyers would be a big proportion of their customer base.

  5. CandE

    I’m simply amazed by the discipline the editors must have.  Based on just those magazine covers alone they dispense 50 items of advice in every magazine!  Over 600 a year!  For them to continuously discover and disseminate so much new wisdom with such regularity is really impressive.

    -E

  6. MBF
    tabula rasa: Maybe they should do a “Non-Sex Issue.”  

    I had the same thought as soon as I saw the Lady Gaga cover in Emily’s original post.

    “Slightly more feminine than Ziggy Stardust” is not a good look for anyone.

  7. Mel Foil

    Car and Driver — the Car Comparison Issue:

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  8. Misthiocracy

    Yabbut, at least the cars change from year to year.

  9. Guruforhire

    I recommend an article in the atlantic called hardcore.  Its a year or 2 old at this point.

    Why does this sell?  God knows.  Its not like guys are an enigma.

  10. EJHill

    Don’t make me break out the yellow muscle shirt whipping stick…

  11. Paul-FB

    This is likely to get me hot water but, I’ve often thought, and have noticed, that women who emphasize their sexuality by wearing provactive clothing, ala your Cosmo covers, often are the ones to complain when men treat them as sex objects, rather than as another human being.   I remember well, from my youth, 1950′s, how that wasn’t the case then.  Female dress was much different then!

  12. Gödel
    Emily Esfahani Smith: I had to laugh when I saw the most recent cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, sitting on the stand of my local Barnes & Noble, which had the words “The Sex Issue” stamped on its glossy cover… If you look at the past examples of Cosmo covers, you’ll see that the word “sex” is always the biggest, boldest word on the page, and that the articles about sex, from issue to issue, are so similar that the editors’ efforts to make one sound more unique and outrageous than the other results in hilarious and absurd headlines (“THE SEX ARTICLE WE CAN’T DESCRIBE HERE!”).

    Well, to be fair, the “Sex Article We Can’t Describe Here” was in the Lady Gaga issue. Seems completely understandable to me.

  13. Gödel
    tabula rasa: Also, I don’t mean to change the subject, but what is the deal with the Kardashians? Other than being the step-daughters of Bruce (no-nose) Jenner, have they ever actually done anything?

    I see you’re unfamiliar with “being famous for being famous.” Moving to LA will remedy that quite rapidly.

  14. Adam Freedman
    C

    Apparently “the sex issue” sold more than “the post-structuralist literary theory issue.”

  15. Crow

    I’m just wanted to offer my most heartfelt thanks to a magazine that really gets to the heart of the burning issues of the day: and those are, of course, 8 Ways to Get Over a Bad Day.

    I was disappointed, however, to note the conspicuous absence of Laphroaig Quarter Cask from that entire list.

  16. Severely Ltd.

    Who says conservatives aren’t nuanced. My super-sensitive cultural antennae have picked up a subtle Cosmo marketing commandment:

    The word SEX must be featured on the left hand side of the top third of the cover on every single solitary issue. This does not, of course, preclude its use elsewhere as well. So let it be written, so let it be done.

    That position must be the location, location, location of headline real estate.

  17. Casey
    tabula rasa: Maybe they should do a “Non-Sex Issue.”  The articles would be about foreign policy, federal budgeting, national security, and other such hard-core subjects.  Perhaps a picture of Janet Napolitano on the cover in sensible dark female business attire (no cleavage allowed).

    Next Month:

    75 Crazy Hot Budget Cuts

    Foreign Policy Initiatives Your Man Craves!

    8 WAYS TO MAKE YOUR NATION SECURE

    Plus a Tell-All Interview with Bill Clinton

  18. Karen

    The sex tips are less about pleasing men, than using sex to get what you want from them. Feminism showed women that not only were they allowed and encouraged to enjoy sex, but they could use sex to their advantage. Cosmo could put “50 ways to get your man to take out the garbage, do the dishes and share his feelings” on the cover, but we don’t want the men to know what we’re up to. 

  19. David Williamson

    I would buy it to find out which nine foods burn fat, so that I can feel great, naked.

    Btw, who is Khloe Kardashian? – wasn’t she a character in Star Trek?

  20. Leslie Watkins

    Actress Lisa Kudrow once said on Politically Incorrect (the first go-round), shaking her head in response to something someone said about women going through hoops to be attractive to men (I paraphrase): “Oh no. That’s not right. Women don’t dress for men. They dress for other women.” Lots of women I’ve asked about this have told me it’s true. That is, in trying to be to attractive men, women look to other women to show them how. In the case of Cosmo, they seem to be looking to young women to show them how also to be sexy, suggesting to me that there’s a great deal of free-floating anxiety about this.