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:
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.