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Why Complete Men Don’t Read Cosmo

Cosmopolitan Magazine-branded outdoor bar
photo courtesy The Brandery

Guys, I hate to break it to you, but if you read Cosmopolitan magazine you are less than a complete man.

That’s not just me talking. That’s straight from Cosmo’s publisher, the venerable Hearst Corporation. Readers per copy, a magazine’s readership divided by its circulation, is a common measure of a given magazine’s reach. Hearst claims, not without some self-interest, that Cosmopolitan’s average readers per copy is 5.81 people, of whom 4.91 are women. That leaves just nine-tenths of full personhood for the rest of us.

Or the rest of you, anyway. I don’t read Cosmo. I am not dismissing the news value of how a couple might have used a real alligator in a baby gender reveal, or the British queen’s reported sentiments about royal wedding arrangements. But most of the magazine’s contents do not pertain to me – by design. I am definitely not the target audience.

The target audience is women. In particular, women between the ages of 18 and 49, who may or may not have children, and who may or may not be employed outside the home. Ideally, those women have some disposable income at their disposal, because that is what attracts the advertisers who pay for all the content about celebrities and fashion and makeup and health and, of course, sex. We can’t leave out the sex, because no newsstand cover of Cosmo ever leaves out the sex. None that I have ever seen, anyway, in passing while I was paying for my bananas or toothpaste at the checkout counter.

I won’t be seeing any more Cosmo covers at the checkout at my local Walmart, though. The retailer recently announced that it will no longer sell the magazine there, instead moving it to the magazine aisle. Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove told Bloomberg that “While this was primarily a business decision, the concerns raised were heard.”

Those concerns were raised by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit organization that got its start in the 1960s fighting pornography. Today, according to the organization’s website, “NCOSE embraces a mission to defend human dignity and to oppose sexual exploitation,” specifically if not exclusively including “the public health crisis of pornography.”

Walmart’s decision to push Cosmo away from the checkout counter may indeed be commercial. The company certainly won’t admit to giving in to pressure from censorious, self-appointed bluenoses. But unless every other celebrity or horoscope magazine also disappears from the checkout line, I am going to disbelieve any denials and assume that of course it was about the sex.

NCOSE, for its part, is quick to take credit despite Walmart’s equivocation. The group said it had been working behind the scenes for months in the lead-up to this change and portrayed its crusade against the magazine in question as a component of the #MeToo movement. “Cosmo sends the same messages about female sexuality as Playboy,” asserted Dawn Hawkins, the organization’s executive director.

Walmart has not been the group’s only target; they have also pushed for stores including Rite Aid and Food Lion to sell the magazine in displays that do not show the entirety of covers that Hawkins has publicly described as pornographic.

Apparently, talking to and writing for women about sex – in sometimes graphic detail, without judgment or condescension, with the understanding that women have a perfect right to engage in or refrain from sex in the time, place and manner of their choosing – is equivalent to the exploitation and degradation of those very same women. Even when women are writing about women, for an audience of women (and that nine-tenths of a man), the process somehow demeans and harms…women. The self-appointed censors tell us so. They insist that pornography, that modern scourge, is inevitably harmful, and that Cosmopolitan’s frank treatment of sex amounts to pornography. Which is, again, inevitably harmful.

Even if you do believe that pornography is dangerous, describing Cosmo as porn is far-fetched. As Mehak Anwar wrote in an opinion piece for Bustle, women – including young women – are exposed to advertising, TV shows, music videos and films that overtly sexualize women all the time. Choosing to focus on a magazine that views women as its primary audience rather than, for example, as content designed to attract male readers ignores the wider context in which a magazine like Cosmopolitan exists.

Just for the record, pornography long predates our own era and own culture. I have seen images that clearly would have been considered pornography in their time painted on the walls in the ruins of Pompeii. I cannot tell you, however, whether any such images were dispensed at the checkout counters of Pompeii’s groceries in the years prior 79 A.D., when Mount Vesuvius destroyed the town. We can only speculate.

Of course Walmart has never sold pornography at the checkout counter. Not unless you consider Cosmo to be pornography, as some of its critics do.

I don’t think a complete man should ever demean or degrade or disrespect women. I would not even approve of such conduct by nine-tenths of a man. I just fail to see how you can refrain from demeaning women on the one hand, and on the other hand simultaneously tell them that they do not know enough to recognize magazine content that is harmful to them.

This is always the leap in bluenose logic: It proceeds from the assumption that the bluenose knows what’s best for you when you don’t. Because the bluenose says so.

Managers at Walmart have every right to decide what to place at their checkout counters. If they suddenly concluded that Cosmo’s covers are inappropriate to display in front of the children who pass through those aisles, that is their business, and I can’t say they have no good reason to feel some concern. But it strikes me as strange to think that moving Cosmo to the vast inner recesses of a big-box store is somehow a gesture of respect toward the 4.91 women who will want to read each copy, assuming they can find it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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