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
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
"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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