Philosophy of Unfettered Freedom

By now, magazines like this don't shock us. On the cover, a buxom woman in an itty-bitty bikini,
 fingers in the bottom as if she's about to slip it off. Inside, articles and advice: "What I did for Lust,"
 "You can throw a kick--- bash." In one piece, men describe "trouser trouble" (the inability to
 control their private parts), and celebrities revealed what they do when the problem strikes. There
 are spicy details about sexual threesomes, and "polls" in which "2,000 sexually active men" rate
 erotic "turn-ons," including practices so degrading they're best left unmentioned.

 "Playboy"? "Penthouse"? Or another one of those men's magazines that so shamelessly exploit and
 objectify women's bodies? No, this is "Cosmopolitan," the top-selling women's magazine in the

 It's a real head-scratcher. When "Sports Illustrated" features pictures of semi-nude women in its
 "swimsuit" issue, "women's" groups express outrage. Merely to speak the words on "Cosmo"'s
 cover within earshot of a female co-worker could land a man in court, assessed $100,000 for
 violating her civil rights and creating a "hostile and intimidating environment."

 So why do women buy this magazine? Do they actually enjoy gazing at scantily clad "babes"? Are
 they really intent on exploring the pros and cons of group sex?

 I don't think so. My guess is that the appeal of "Cosmo"s pictures and articles lies not so much in
 their content, as in the philosophy of life they convey. Their real function is to signal to readers --
 on every page -- that happiness comes from breaking rules and rejecting limits, including traditional
 social constraints on dress, speech, and behavior. Away with the "Thou shalt nots" that have
 repressed us for millennia! "Cosmo" trumpets unfettered freedom as women's birthright -- "Thou
 shalt do as thou **** well please."

 This is a seductive philosophy, but it has a catch. For if "freedom" is women's birthright, it is also
 men's. And as the last inhibition bites the dust, women are finding they don't much like some of the
 things men do when released from social constraints and expectations. The result? A new breed of
 "Thou shalt nots" -- from sexual harassment policies in the workplace ("No compliments on hair or
 dress, if you know what's good for you"), to the mandatory "date rape" seminars that greet
 unsuspecting college freshmen.

 American women flock to buy "Cosmo," but they want that "swimsuit" calendar off the wall.
 "Freedom's great for me," they seem to say, "but not for you." Many, it appears, would like to
 maximize women's scope of action, while regulating male conduct in a tighter and tighter noose.

 There's a schizophrenic tendency here, which should alert us to something we really already know.
 In the delicate arena of male-female relations -- as in so many other areas of life -- we cannot do
 without limits and constraints. These used to be supplied, in part, by a general regard for modesty
 -- decency in dress, speech and behavior, so as not to suggest ready sexual availability. When my
 grandmother urged my siblings and me to "act like ladies and gentlemen," modesty was one thing
 she meant to encourage.

 To speak of the virtues of modesty today is to invite hoots of derision. But for generations,
 modesty has been understood as central to social health and well-being. Of course, its earlier
 manifestations often appear ridiculous -- we laugh at the grainy pictures of men and women whose
 bathing suits reach below their knees. But with the passing of modesty have come pressing
 problems, from an epidemic of herpes and chlamydia, to an out-of-wedlock birthrate topping 30

 Why is modesty important? Because it channels sexual desire -- potentially one of the most selfish
 of human passions -- into the selfless and productive context of marriage and family. Modesty
 rejects instant gratification. Instead, it promises gratification in harmony with society's central
 priorities -- the procreation and rearing of children, and the successful transmission of culture to the
 next generation.

 Philosopher Allan Bloom has put it succinctly: "Modesty impede[s] sexual intercourse, [but] its
 result [is] to make gratification central to a serious life….. Suppression of modesty makes attaining
 the end of desire easier, but it also dismantles the structure of involvement and attachment, reducing
 sex to the thing-in-itself."

 But modesty is about something more -- simple fairness. We women demand respect from men,
 insisting that they value us not for our looks, but for "who we are." It is hypocritical to do this, and
 then dress and act immodestly -- intentionally provoking sexual desire, and signaling our easy
 openness to it. To act this way is to undermine our own dignity, to treat ourselves as "sex objects."
 Moreover, it is patently unfair, for it means that we are holding men to a higher standard than we
 hold ourselves.

 "Cosmo"'s sophisticated readers probably believe they are old enough to take care of themselves
 -- at least until that swimsuit calendar goes up. Undoubtedly, the most poignant victims of
 modesty's passing are the young and vulnerable.

 Several years ago, I saw a perfectly-coifed woman at an upscale department store with her shy,
 self-conscious 8th-grade daughter. They were looking for a dress for an upcoming school dance,
 with the help of a deferential saleswoman. When the mother asked to see several slinky and
 revealing styles, the saleswoman protested in spite of herself, "Surely those aren't appropriate, are
 they?" "Oh, I know it's terrible," the mother replied airily. "But that's what all the girls we know are
 wearing this year."

 It's time we recognize "Cosmo"'s siren song for what it is, and urge young women to seek a more
 promising path to happiness.

[Katherine Kersten wrote the preceding commentary on Cosmopolitan Magazine. Katherine is
 Chairman of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for
 National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Her commentary was published in the STAR
 TRIBUNE, June 11, 1997].

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