This article contains mildly explicit content.
This week, Walmart announced its stores would no longer feature Cosmopolitan magazine in checkout lines, instead relegating its 40 gazillion ways to please your man and cutesy writeups of masturbation gear to more discreet locations. “While this was primarily a business decision,” the company said in a statement, it also considered complaints from anti-porn groups and moms everywhere.
Cosmopolitan “places women’s value primarily on their ability to sexually satisfy a man and therefore plays into the same culture where men view and treat women as inanimate sex objects,” responded the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an advocacy group that has pushed stores to stop selling the magazine. “Further, Cosmo targets young girls by placing former Disney stars on its covers, despite the enclosed sexually erotic articles which describe risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex in detail. Customers should not be forced to be exposed to this content when they are trying to check-out at the store.”
But Liz Wolfe, writing in the Washington Examiner, isn’t having it. (Neither is Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason, natch.) Wolfe writes: “Instead of indulging in fainting couch feminism where women are seen as fragile and in need of protection, what if we stopped seeing sexuality as taboo?…attempting to eradicate porn will create a more sexually repressed society with fewer options for people looking for sexual gratification.”
Per usual, there are lots of tangled lines in Wolfe’s argument. On the one hand, she says Walmart can do whatever it wants as a private company. After that little nod to libertarianism, however, she says Walmart should not do what its leadership very obviously wants (since they did it). Instead, Walmart should do what she wants: “let people do what they want.” Okay, then. Either all people should do whatever the heck they want, to include deciding where to place magazines in their own stores, or they shouldn’t do whatever they want, in which case their choices are up for public evaluation and discussion.
Yes, I get the distinction between “can” and “should,” but I often see libertine types hide their moral and social preferences under the guise of freedom when they really are using that stance as window-dressing to attract people to agree with them. It’s a rhetorical bait and switch: Walmart and advocacy groups can totally do what they want, but what they want is stupid and I’m going to complain about it and attempt to socially undermine their choices by arguing against them.
Just come out and make the straight argument: Putting sexually explicit words and images at kids’ eye level while they’re tethered to the spot waiting in line with their moms to check out is A-okay. See, when you put it that way, it’s not such an effective argument.
Let’s consider a few things my six- and seven-year-old kids, who read fluently, might be questioning me about after a look at just Cosmopolitan’s covers in the checkout aisle. “Mom, what’s a ‘boobgasm’?” “Where are ‘lady parts’?” “Does a ‘tight butt’ hurt?” “What’s an ‘orgasm’?” “How would a baby be a bad donkey?” (They know the word -ss from plenty of delightful picture books — before you call CPS on me, I mean like “The Bremen Town Musicians.”) “Do grownups ‘love to be naked’?” “What’s an ‘erectoral college’?” “Do ‘boobs talk’?” “What is a ‘sext’?” “Can I have a sex toy?”
I hope this makes my point. And unless you are a real weirdo, I imagine even libertarians think there is some point in childhood short of which it’s best not to introduce ideas like the above, as Nolan Brown puts it in snark but I mean in earnest, “for the [sake of the] children.” If I have to put it in terms of consent, I will: children of six and seven shouldn’t be led, essentially compelled, to consider ideas that decent human beings can agree at the very, very least are not appropriate or even of interest, really, until puberty. They don’t have the bodies, they don’t have the judgment, they don’t have the ability to consent to activities that seriously affect a person’s life.
That’s because sex is not trivial. It’s not just “playtime.” It’s not a child activity, and not only because children don’t have adult bodies, capabilities, or drives. Post-sexual-revolution decades of treating it as such, which both feminists and libertarians tend to do, has created such massive hurt among women that their real and imagined grievances have driven news cycles for six months now. Women have finally become able to tell at least part of the truth now: sex isn’t trivial, and mere consent is a lousy gateway to it.
Wolfe’s riposte to this deep undercurrent of pain is painfully inadequate: “#MeToo certainly brought about some positive change, but support for the movement shouldn’t be bastardized into regressive, Puritanical views on sexuality.” Proportionality, for heaven’s sake. Saying “We won’t make kids look at magazine covers featuring nearly naked women’s breasts and talking about sex acts” is nowhere near regressive. Neither is making a public argument that trivializing and commercializing sex can harm women and children (and men), or pointing out that a magazine that regularly features naked butts and breasts in suggestive poses is soft porn.
What’s regressive, in fact, is treating sex like it’s not special. The #MeToo conversation is a public acknowledgement that the sexual-free-for-all third-wave feminists advocated is a major failure. What there was of their intellectual movement has proven bankrupt in practice. As this reckoning shakes out they’re grasping at tyranny to get them out of their loose-ethics quicksand. In an attempt to make sense of these feelings of betrayal and regret, some women who followed the free-love script are now falling off the other side of the horse with sex contracts (formerly called “marriage”) and campus rape tribunals with unknowable rules and frightening outcomes.
Women are making it very clear that they’re no longer buying what Cosmo is selling, either culturally or as a tangible artifact. Nolan Brown points out the magazine “saw single-copy sales fall 67 percent from the end of 2014 to the end of 2016.” Good riddance.