Column: Does Cosmo deserve a plain brown wrapper?

“I know it when I see it.”

That, of course, is how former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography in 1964, ruling in a case involving a Cleveland movie theater manager who’d been prosecuted for screening Louis Malle’s “The Lovers.” (Stewart deemed it not pornographic.)

But what would Stewart have thought of Cosmopolitan magazine, a publication whose famously racy cover lines — “Be a Sex Genius,” “Make Him Ache for You,” “15 Places to Have ‘Fast Love’” — are almost a genre unto themselves? It’s a long way from Louis Malle, but a new campaign is seeking to put Cosmo behind a concealing wrapper and a warning label. The wrapper, called a pocket shield, would keep the magazine’s name and cover model visible but hide those priceless cover lines.

Cosmo: Meghan Daum’s Aug. 6 column said Joanna Coles took over Cosmopolitan magazine in 2014. It was 2012. —

Strangely enough, the effort is spearheaded by Victoria Hearst, granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the legendary publisher behind Cosmo’s parent company, Hearst Corp. Victoria Hearst, who has no say-so in the media company, has been on the warpath against Cosmo for years. Now she’s paired her own campaign, Cosmo Harms Minors, with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation in an effort to get retailers to treat the magazine as if it were Playboy or Penthouse, prohibiting its sale to minors and limiting its display to shoppers. So far, a handful of businesses, including Rite Aid, have said they’re on board.


“Cosmopolitan magazine glamorizes things like public, anal, group, or violent sex in nearly all of their issues,” reads a statement on the Cosmo Harms Minors website. The site also references an opinion poll showing that 55% of shoppers think Cosmo should be removed from the view of children and 65% of women ages 18 to 34 (Cosmo’s target audience) think the magazine is “inappropriate for viewers of all ages.”

Inspired to conduct my own research, I bought a copy of the current Cosmo, a slim August volume whose cover promises tutorials on such topics as “The Sex Move He Will Worship You For,” “5 Minutes to Crazy Sexy Hair,” “Feel Your Best in a Bikini.” Though I didn’t feel violated or scandalized in the checkout line (embarrassed, yes, so I bought a bunch of other stuff to hide my true objective), I was dismayed to get home and find very little in the way of public, anal, group or violent sex. Instead, the worship-worthy sex move was mostly a matter of acting enthusiastic, the crazy, sexy ‘do involved putting your hair into a braid or ponytail while it’s still wet, and the bikini trick was … wait for it: confidence! (You could also do Pilates.)

My ruling: Cosmo is no Playboy. No one’s going to read it for the articles. In fact, the cover lines are the main event. And there’s a certain timelessness in their particular blend of raunchiness and silliness. Helen Gurley Brown, another publishing world legend, who took over the magazine in 1965 and whose sex-positive sensibility shaped the Cosmo we know today, festooned her inaugural issue with “The New Pill That Promises to Make Women More Responsive” and “World’s Greatest Lover — What It Was Like to Be Wooed by Him.” By 1970, covers were luring readers with lines like “I Was an Overage Virgin.”

In other words, Cosmo has been threatening the innocence of babes clinging to their moms’ skirts in supermarket lines for nearly half a century. Crusaders like Hearst are entitled to their grievances, but they’re also pretty late to the party.


So why now? Maybe it’s because in the last few years Cosmo has gone just a wee bit political. Since Joanna Coles took over as editor in 2014, the magazine has covered global women’s issues, endorsed political candidates and even won a major journalism award for a feature on contraception. Not that it’s ever strayed far from the formula of sex, celebrities and boyfriend retention techniques. But it’s just as apt now to tell women how to achieve their own pleasure as how to please their partners. It’s also made space on its cover for certain rather explicit, non-euphemistic gynecological terms. And, to some, that may be the crucial line between entertainment and pornography.

In any case, as Justice Stewart said, you know it when you see it. And if you can’t see it because it’s partially behind a pocket sleeve, well, great sex is all about mystery, right? The plain brown wrapper may turn out to be Cosmo’s best cover strategy ever.

Twitter: @meghan_daum

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