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Censoring Cosmo magazine covers makes sex more taboo than it should be

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I lived abroad, and magazines from back home served as a touchstone of all the U.S. culture I was missing. I read all sorts of things, including the Cosmopolitan magazines that the ladies in the expat groups collected and passed around.

Cosmo has always been controversial, so there was totally a thrill to reading it, even though, especially at that age, I was more likely to side-eye the “how to please your boyfriend” stories and advice than take any of it seriously. The quizzes were great, though, and my friends and I took them over and over just to get the results we wanted.

Now some major U.S. chain stores, like Walmart, Food Lion and RiteAid pharmacy, are responding to claims that Cosmo is nothing but porn. They’re using plastic shields, supplied by Cosmo, to cover up those dirty, dirty words on the cover.

The claim is that Cosmo is as pornographic as Playboy.

I’ll let that sink in for a second. Playboy is a nudie mag (that does actually have great articles) marketed to men looking to, uh, self-pleasure to some fairly tame images in these days of free Internet porn. Cosmo is a women’s magazine concerned primarily with relationship, sex and dating issues (and sometimes fashion). Cosmo’s covers feature celebrities in expensive, high-fashion clothes, a lot of which is cleavage-y by design, sure, but Playboy’s covers feature women in as little as they can get away with, in deliberately provocative poses.

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One of the primary objections seems to be that Cosmo fancies itself kind of a how-to guide for women and sex. And while we all might have laughed at that Cosmo “eat a doughnut off his penis” tip, turns out that was apparently pretty fun.

I can’t help but look at the Cosmo Harms Minors website and remember myself as a young teen, reading Cosmo and giggling over how ridiculous sex seemed. But I also internalized the idea that women had a lot of control during sex because they were equal participants in it. They got to suggest silly things and be demanding about their own sexual pleasure.

And I’m not going to lie: Cosmo made oral sex — both giving and receiving — sound pretty great. (I’ve not been disappointed in it as an adult.)

The real problem, according to Cosmo Harms Minors, is that Cosmo “glamorizes” sex. “Every issue has graphic descriptions about how to perform various sex acts,” they object. There are drawings of people having sex! There are sex toys! They talk about anal! But it seems like everything they protest is sex and sex positivity that seems deviant to them.

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The idea that Cosmo is porn because it gives people sex advice and is a forum for talking about women’s sexual experiences is laughable to me. I have a hard time with the fundamental premise behind Cosmo Harms Minors because I have a hard time thinking that people need protecting from their own sexual agency. Women get to have sex, and they get to have all kinds of sex, even sex that some people might not approve of because it seems risky.

This campaign is run by Victoria Hearst, a born-again Christian (and the granddaughter of newspaper icon William Randolph Hearst, who founded Cosmo‘s publishing company — irony).

There’s a really strong conservative vibe of “but what about the children?” in the protest’s rhetoric.

I’m all for taking care of kids. And part of that, I think, is remembering that teens are interested in sex. And if Cosmo is really where they’re looking for advice, then there’s probably a greater issue at hand.

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Image: H. Jones/Getty Images

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