Let’s talk about sex, baby. (Also, about censoring it.)

When I was a kid, as in a pretty little kid, we had Playboy magazines in the house. We had a lot of magazines in the house. With a dad in advertising, a plethora of free subscriptions was one of the perks.

The way my father tells the story now, my brother, then probably six or seven, was poking around in the basement with a friend with my dad nearby, when the boys came across an old, withered stack of the Playboys. His friend was fascinated. Jeff, evidently, not so much.

“Don’t you want to look?!” the boy asked.

“Eh,” my brother shrugged. “I’ve seen it.”

Not so long after, I had graduated from a Fourth Grade Nothing to a sixth grade Judy Blume addict, having read everything she had published at least six times. When Forever became all the rage, I raced to the elementary school library only to find it absent. My mother drove me to the public library to take it out, and yet, oddly, we couldn’t find it among the Judy Blume books there either.

I still remember the librarian looking down at me, looking up at my mom, looking down at me again (I was very small for 11), then saying, “that’s in the adult section. Are you sure you want her reading that?”

“My daughter can read any book in the library that she’d like at any time,” my mother said firmly but kindly. “If you can show us where to find it I’d greatly appreciate it.”

Obviously, neither of these are stories that all families are going to have–or agree with. I was decidedly raised by two parents who were unabashedly liberal in their views that anything that could be published, printed, or read was not off-limits.

My parents’ feeling, as I understand it now, is that words are not dangerous. Not when accompanied by thoughtful parenting, open discussions, and a chance for growth. Even a book about a 17 year old naming her boyfriend’s penis “Ralph.” Even a magazine featuring a naked Sagittarius named Bambi, whose “likes” include sunsets, nice people, and evidently, wearing only a fire hat and holding a hose.

As my kids get older I’m going to have to navigate these same waters. I understand a lot has changed since I was a kid. With these here internets, there is even more access to content that can be discovered unsupervised, without the benefit of a conversation; to say nothing of what you can find by hitting two buttons on your remote control at any time of day or night.

But I also see that as an essential demand to me to continue to keep the lines of communication open, to let my girls know that they can ask questions about anything, any time, and I will do the best to give an honest answer.

All of this is backstory so you can understand my reaction to an email I received last night.

It came from an unfamiliar name, addressed “to a concerned parent.” (Me and the 250 other bloggers and publishers who were openly copied on the email. Were you one?) I tend to be skeptical of emails addressed this way, because unless I’ve opted into a petition or publicly discussed my topics of concern, eh…don’t tell me what I’m concerned about. I’ll tell you.

But those are my authority issues popping up.

In any case, the ominous subject line read: A Warning To All Moms About Cosmopolitan Magazine.

The author, a mom, introduced herself by telling us I’m a model in Los Angeles who has seen, firsthand, the damage that magazines like Cosmopolitan can do to a young girl’s self-esteem — and how influential and detrimental the advice from Cosmo can be.

She goes on:

I’ve received hundreds of letters from young girls about the disastrous effects Cosmo magazine has had on their life choices and self-confidence…Therefore, I’ve started a movement to protect young girls from the inappropriate and sexual nature of these magazines.

Her goal is to distribute Cosmo in a non-transparent bag essentially classifying it as pornography, and ban its sale to anyone under 18.

I checked out her website to learn more, and see that 33,000 people have already signed her petition. Parents, I’m sure a lot like me, who are worried about their kids growing up before their time, in age that sexualizes young girls too early.

And yet something made me bristle about the entire effort.

I tried super hard to figure out what was bugging me. Clearly she’s well-intended, as a mother. And she is guided by the values of born-again Christanity, which she is entitled to. So even assuming her motives are pure, there is something way off about the too-simple correlation between Cosmo and “disastrous effects.”

While I’ve discussed at length the challenges of stereotypes, shameless airbrushing, and negative messages about girls in the media, I don’t think that Cosmo is singularly responsible for the degradation of our nation’s youth.

(The next thing you know it your son is playing for money in a pinch back suit. And listening to some big out-of-town Jasper here to talk about horse race gamblin’!)

Some of these disastrous  effects of the Hearst publication, according to her website, included examples like an 11 year-old girl doing some pretty…advanced sexual things “because she read about them in Cosmo.”

And I thought, waiiiiit just a minute here.

If a fifth or sixth grader is exploring ways to please a man (yikes!) that also happen to be illegal in 14 states, the cause goes way the hell beyond a crappy article in a magazine.

Why isn’t she, like a lot of the fifth graders I bet you have raised, looking at an article like that and saying, “that’s terrible! That’s gross!”

Or, more importantly, “Mom…help me understand this article. Because it creeps me out.”

Which is what I imagine I would have said to my own mom at 11.

I’ve read with fascination the brilliant (seriously, brilliant) comments on my post this week about starting to give our children independence. It seems that letting go doesn’t happen without much risk assessment, frank discussions, and boundary setting. Also the trust that we’re raising our children to be good-decision makers, grounded in good values, even if they will sometimes make mistakes. Now obviously there are different implications when it comes to allowing kids to read the “sexy texting tips” in a (painfully ridiculous) magazine, but I imagine there are lot of similarities, and these are the kinds of boundaries we’ll have to figure out next.

My feeling, and what I’ll tell my girls, is that there are 800 reason that Cosmo is God-awful, and why I never pick it up in the nail salon, not even to peek. Very little has to do with the articles on sex positions or the word SEX sixteen times on the cover. I’m bugged by all the dieting and “perfect body” articles (as Rita Arens reminds me, there are plenty). And overall I think the entire premise that women live to please men is tiresome and obnoxious. Plus, frankly, the quality of most of the writing makes me die a little.

But then, I think that Bristol Palin’s upcoming show (working title: “Look! You too can be a happy teenage mom! Wheeee!”) is offensive too.

I always love AV Flox‘s smart take on topics around sex and censorship. As a fellow Blogher contributor we’ve had quite a few discussions (or rants) along these lines.When I asked her about it, she cleverly observed the gender inequalities of Cosmopolitan that go beyond the word “sex,” Why does the cover of Details talk about gadgets and getting ahead in one’s career when its female counterpart just talks about pleasuring men? Isn’t it funny that women are told from every angle to please him, make him want you, bend this way and that way, while guys are shown cool toys and helped kick ass? What’s up with that? How come you gotta wait for his call? How come you gotta have a one-night stand or anal when you don’t want to?

Then my favorite part:

Guess what! You don’t have to! And you don’t have to read this garbage, either!

And I guess that’s where I come out too.

You stick a magazine in a brown bag and you know what? Now it’s more exciting. Or…maybe it just pushes you elsewhere.  Instead, you just turn on MTV and watch JWow having sex under the covers in the creepy greenish-grey light of a night vision camera. Or heck, just hit the internet. Lots of sexist, awful degrading, shocking content there too, or so I hear.

It’s pretty easy to Google “how to give a bj” and  you don’t even have to pay $4.50 for it and smuggle it home in your backpack.

As for the boycott, the estimated monthly  circulation of Cosmopolitan is 3 million a month (if you believe that people are still buying print media), and they claim 5 people read each issue. That’s a lot of eyeballs. However the median reader is 31.3 years old. (*Note: former media planner Christina corrects me that the median age is based on adults 18-49; 10% of the readership is above and below and not factored into that median age.)

The estimated monthly visits to Cosmopolitan.com, which does not come in a brown paper package, is 5 million unique visitors a month.

The estimated viewership of the premier episode of Jersey Shore was 7.6 million with a strong audience of “12-34 year olds.” In other words, the median viewer is well below 31.3 Also? No brown package.

Not sure how many albums Britney Spears sold to young girls when her airbrushed 18 year-old boobs were hanging out on the cover, but I’m sure we could look that up.

Also, how many Bratz dolls have been sold again?

Cosmo is not the problem. Cosmo is the result of the problem. And hiding it doesn’t make the problem go away.

Those girls with self-esteem issues? I guarantee they didn’t come exclusively from a single magazine.

My feeling is instead of reclassifying frivolous articles about sex positions as pornography, how about we spend more time actually teaching parents how to talk to their kids. How to bring up these subjects. How to instill self-esteem and definition beyond who you are to a guy. And for God’s sake, let’s talk about how to explain why the heck it’s never okay for 11 year-olds to think that they are, in any way shape or form, a consenting adult. And that sexting at 13 will get you grounded for four-hundred years.

Call me crazy, but I guess the way I see it, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine are not raising my children.

I am.


75 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sex, baby. (Also, about censoring it.)”

  1. I totally agree re: Cosmo and censorship. I will add the caveat though that I have an 8 year old who is developmentally capable of reading Forever, but I would like her to wait a year or two. My kids are all strong readers which is awesome, but they do not have the maturity to read everything they are capable of reading. Where this really comes up is with books such as Harry Potter, which currently terrify them. So I guess I would like to emulate your mother but in practice I’m not there yet.

    1. I think that’s great parenting MLB. It’s about knowing your own kids. And the ability to read isn’t the same as the ability to understand or think critically about the content.

      But I assume you’d prefer that congress not tell you when your kid is allowed to read Harry Potter.

      1. Not all parents have the time for this, but when my kids wanted to read Harry Potter or, just recently my 11 year old wanted Hunger Games, my compromise has been that I will read it aloud to them. We have all the opportunities we need to discuss the difference between “bad guys” and “evil guys” or why Ginny blushes and giggles whenever she sees Harry. Even if you can’t choke up the two months it probably took me to read Harry Potter aloud, at least engage your child in discussions of the book periodically while he/she is reading it.

  2. This line of thinking, this prohibiting access, reminds me of the people who were horrified I taught my daughters the word vagina, that I let my daughter dress up as Batman.

    It is a different world, but the fundamental responsibility of presence and accessibility as your children go through different stages of development is still there. Always will be. It’s not a magazine that is going to tip the scales, it’s the absence of a discussion that helps them see things from more than one, air brushed, slanted angle.

    1. Interestingly, she was upset about the word vagina in a teaser on the front page as well. I believe it lead to an educational piece about anatomy.

      I love your thought about the absence of discussion–that’s perfect.

  3. I’m with you. I read Cosmo in my twenties & while it’s always been a little risqué I think it’s worse now. The last time I picked one up in a salon(several years ago) I cringed. So degrading & tacky. So I put it down.

    If an 11 year old is reading this I need to ask ‘where are her parents?’ I’m not sure it needs to be boycotted or shipped in brown paper, we just need to know what our kids are doing. And find out where they got the magazine in the first place…

    I am ultra conservative but I do believe in freedom of speech & press & all those things. But I just don’t buy or read that stuff & don’t let my daughter.

    Great post!

    1. I totally agree with you! I was on a girls beach trip recently and we were passing mags back & forth. I guess it’s been 10 years since I’ve read a Cosmo. WHOA! I’m pretty far from a prude, but I was shocked, even a little disturbed as I read “how to please your man”. I thought it may be a fun little spice it up when I get home type of article. Um, no..this was more of a stick what in his what and then do Oh my GAWD. I think we both would be scared. Totally inappropriate for an 11 year old (or this 33 year old), but my response would be why is she reading it and if she is why would an 11 year old even know what this is. This is a parent issue not a tacky magazine issue.

  4. don’t tell this poor woman what happens when you turn off safesearch and google image the word “boobs.”

    in a few years, we’re going to be telling kids about magazines the same way we tell them about VHS and typewriters.

  5. When I was 11, I learned not to ask my parents any questions about sex. You know, unless I wanted to feel dirty and ashamed and not even understand why.

    I’m striving to foster a more open dialogue with my own kids, whether it’s about sex or politics or religion or racism or… (you get the picture)

    As I see it, putting a brown paper bag on Cosmo is like promoting abstinence only education.

  6. This post really resounds with me. I have a six year old daughter and I do not consider myself a helicopter parent, more of a ‘if you do it it will hurt, but I won’t stop you, you’ll think twice about doing it again (obviously life threatening activities don’t apply here)’ kind of Mom. I am a social liberal and a fiscal conservative and I live in Texas. I’m always a little shocked at other Moms in this area of the USA that think sexual words/pictures are more harmful than the act itself.

    I really liked your phrase ‘Cosmopolitan is not raising my kids, I am’. I 100% agree, I read Judy Blume at the age of 9 – devoured all of them. If my child wants to read them too, I won’t just allow it, I’ll buy all of them and re-read them together. I’m parenting my child and she will learn from me. I set the values in my house, not TV, books or the government for that matter. Maybe I’m naive, but I feel if I give my daughter the tools she needs to make good decisions, I’ve done my job. Getting worked up over things you can’t control (Cosmo, Bratz, even Teen mag has always been a little edgy) is not worth the worry. Concentrate on talking to your children about it and educating them knowing they will be exposed to stuff – whether you like it or not.

  7. I got that pitch too and disgustedly hit delete. Not because I want my young daughters reading what my friends and I called “The magazine for office sluts” (yes, I now cringe at the memory), but because there we have so much bigger fish to fry. Putting a wrapper over “50 Mind-Blowing Sex Positions” might help me avoid an awkward moment at the grocery store checkout with my 4 year old (she’s an excellent reader), but it isn’t going to guarantee she’ll have strong self-esteem in middle school when all the cool girls are sexting and giving bjs. That’s the parents’ job.

  8. I remember reading “Then Again, Maybe I Won’t” by Judy Blume and reading something I didn’t understand. “What’s a wet dream?”, I blurted out to my folks. My father asked me what I was a reading and when I told him the title of the book he simply told me to stop reading it.
    Now that I know what a wet dream is, it seems like a few minutes of explanation (no matter how uncomfortable) would not have been so awful.
    I recall this memory often and remind myself each time that when my daughter starts asking questions I will answer her honestly and openly. I’d rather address her questions and have the comfort of knowing she’s well-informed and not running around finding out these things from her clueless peers.
    That doesn’t mean she’ll be getting a subscription to Cosmo on her 7th birthday, but when (not ‘if’) she runs across adult topics and has questions, knowing she can talk to her parents is something that’s incredibly important. If your kids can’t talk to you, who ARE they talking to?

    1. KEY question at the end! And the answer is that they are talking to their fellow unknowledgable peers. They will find the information somewhere – humans seek answers naturally as higher level thinkers – so don’t we want them finding the true, safe, respect inducing answers?

  9. I totally agree with you, Liz. Parents are the most important source of information and opinion in a kid’s life, especially at the age our girls are. I’ve always told my daughter that it’s my job as her mother to teach her to make good decisions and to learn coping mechanisms so she’ll be able to handle anything in life. It was way over her head when she was two and wanted to know why I wouldn’t let her climb on the jungle gym without me nearby but it is making more sense to her at eight when she wants a secret signal so I can tell when the neighbor girl is making her ask to do something she really doesn’t want to do and needs me to say no so she can save face. (Which, with this particular child, is the best solution.)

    I was just having this conversation with my dentist the other day. She has kids in college, and she said when she thinks about all the possibilities for trouble they are faced with every day, it makes her shudder. Someday we’ll have to release our kids into the world and hope we’ve taught them to believe in themselves and their own good judgement.

    1. Beautifully put Rita, thank you. You always have such a sensible take on this stuff. I think that this petitions assumes all kids have bad judgment and need government protection from 10 Sexting Tips headlines–which then to me insinuates that all parents have bad judgment too.

  10. This probably comes as no surprise to most people who know me, but I’d rather ask publications like these to change and to do better, than to suggest hiding them in a brown paper bag.

    I read Cosmo as a teen. I think it concurrently made me more self-concious about my appearance while also making me more confident and aware as I entered into sexual relationships. I do wish there were some publications out there for girls that would make them feel great about themselves and teach them about sexuality without shaming them for it.

    1. I’m totally with you. Though it’s hard to convince a super successful tabloid-esque pub with the highest circulation of any woman’s magazine why they should change. I’d imagine TMZ is pretty happy the way they are too.

      As for another publication, yes! Start one!

  11. Tsk, tsk, another hit by a member of our immature, very young country! We are a 230 year old nation-and becoming less sexually mature each year it seems. Instead of focusing on the parenting skills that you describe so beautifully, some blame The Others for what might happen to their children (not just Cosmo but foreigners, strangers, sex educators). Maybe they should read Mary Pipher’s The Shelter of Each Other: learn to love nature, learn to become passionate about giving back to those who need it more than you, learn to value friends and family. And learn to question. Always to question.

  12. I totally agree that it’s in our ballpark as parents to drive these conversations with our kids, but part of me resents all sorts of different media outlets for the garbage they shovel out there. I don’t appreciate the tawdry pictures and headlines that are slapped on the covers of the magazines on the impulse buy aisle for all to see. I hate that I can’t watch TV without being worried about what kind of commercials will pop up. I hate to sound like a prude, but I do think that decency standards have been significantly relaxed compared to when I was my kids’ age.

    Do I think that banning Cosmo (or any other publication) is the answer? No. Do I think media outlets need to rethink the messages they are putting out there and take partial responsibility for their content? Yes.

    1. I have to agree with the commerical part. I worry less about magazines, I guess because I shop at Whole Foods, and the only magazines there are about yoga and cooking. But the commercials! My husband loves sports, and basically it’s on all the time. I cringe when my daugther (only 19 months now) sees commercials for Carl’s Jr. (Jalapen-Oh Face, or other sexually explicit visuals of models making love to disgusting sandwiches) and many other overtly sexual ads because apparently the only people who ever watch sports on TV are males. Right now, it’s just the images that I think are inapproprate. Later, it will questions about once-daily Cialis. It really drives me batty. Sports are a wonderful past-time for a father and child to share together. I can see how my daugther, even at this young age, recognizes her father’s favorite team and enjoys cheering along with him. I really wish it wasn’t ruined by all of the commercials. Now I know I will have to spend hours explaining issues to her at a young age that she shouldn’t have to even deal with until she is older. I also feel like a prude, but I just don’t believe that it’s good for young children to be exposed to sexualized images before they are mature. I know that I was exposed to a lot as a kid, because my bro and sis were 10 and 8 years older than me. I actually think it was a negative thing for me. I didn’t understand what I was seeing, but it made me feel funny, like climbing the rope in gym class. And that brought me a lot of shame.

      1. ESPN is the guilty offender in our house too. Of course, the commercials are geared towards the target demographic, but my hubs (a SAHD) actually has to turn the channel when he leaves the room because he’s walked in with the kids sitting in front of the TV watching some pretty suggestive commercials when he’s left it on Sports Center.

        My biggest concern is my kids seeing these things when I’m not around to put it into context. What happens if my MIL takes the kids to the store and they ask questions? I can tell you right now I wouldn’t want her explaining it to them! As it is we have to ask HER to watch her language around the kids. I shudder to think of her trying to explain an oral sex magazine cover blurb to my 6 year old.

        1. Even as someone in advertising, I agree completely. Commercials for beer or whatever are developed with adults in mind and then..wham. Noon on Sunday and we’re trying to explain to our girls what that woman in a bikini was doing, or worse (I think) talking them down from a scary trailer of a new horror film.

          Still, I look at it as a chance to have a dialogue. If I’m not around, a friend will be or a sitter or a friend’s parent who may not have the same values I do. I’d rather say “some men think women’s bodies are beautiful and so they wear bikinis…but we don’t think that that’s a smart way to tell people to buy xyz.” Then at least the conversation is going. Not that it’s not hard!

        2. ESPN is our biggest offender too. It’s all we have on when the kids are awake, really. I’m huge into soccer and college football. The good thing about soccer is there are no ads except for the 15 minutes between. :] But football is awful.

          However, right now, my boys couldn’t care less about women in bikinis. The 5-year-old is much, much more interested in those prescription drug commercials featuring cartoon characters. When those come on, he’s completely captivated. Here’s a kid who can’t sit still for a minute and those ads have him totally enthralled, listening like a champ.

          I will admit that there have been times I’ve become irrationally angered by those ads. I’m left answering questions about “increased thoughts of suicide” or “stroke or coma and death” things I don’t think a 5-year-old should know about.

          And, yes, it’s totally my fault for having the TV on at all. But if I had my way, the Abilify ads would be the first to go, among others.

          And that’s the thing, there’s always going to be something and that something is different for every kid, every family. For now, my kid is intrigued by the cartoony depression med commercials, so I have to make sure he doesn’t see them. Perhaps next year, he’ll worry about whether that stain will come out and I’ll be on about that. :]

  13. I have two boys, 6 and 9 years old, who are currently experimenting with swearing. They used to call them “bad” words. We’ve told them that there are no bad words, just inappropriate times to use them. I also correct them if I hear them throw around the word boobs (a current favorite.) If they can learn to use the word breasts instead, maybe by the time they are grown-ups, saying vagina in the House won’t cause such an inappropriate ruckus.

    Putting anything in a paper bag doesn’t make it not exist. It just keeps thoughtful discussion in the dark.

    1. I am so glad you said that. I was recently having a conversation with some other young mother friends about using the word vagina. My son has always known the correct anatomical terms for his genitals and I never thought about it. However, with my daughter, I’ve been hesitant to use them because of how taboo the word is. Penis doesn’t cause much of a stir, but saying vagina can apparently get you banned form speaking to the house of representatives.
      Then i realized how ridiculous it was to pretend her privates didn’t have names.

      1. Why the heck is the word vagina taboo? That’s what I want to know. Why vagina and not penis?

        Speaking of body parts in the lower half of the anatomy, congress has their heads up theirs on this point.

    2. Ha, I tend to call them “grownup words.” Or we’ll say “that’s not a nice word” which seems to allude to how you use it, and not the word itself. But maybe I should rethink that.

    3. I call them “playground words.” They are welcome to use whatever words their friends use… on the playground. BUT, they know that if an adult is present then they run the risk of getting in trouble. If a child tattles on them they run the risk of getting in trouble. I will allow them to get themselves in trouble and I will not excuse them. So, they’d better be able to distinguish what words get used with teachers, parents and Grandma and decide if some “playground cred” is worth it. I don’t have a perfect vocabulary either, but I always know my audience and I’m very very careful when I’m at work (with preschoolers!)

  14. When I first read your headline and knew you would come out against boycotting Cosmo I thought I might disagree with you. But I didn’t realize what they’re actually talking about is covering up Cosmo and making it look like porn. I don’t have a daughter (yet) but I definitely don’t think censorship, governmental or otherwise institutional, is the answer. I strongly dislike that kind of censorship. However as a parent I would never want my kid reading it so my own independent boycott would be in effect. I don’t agree with your parents’ decision to expose you to everything and just talk it through, but I believe in their right to do that. Yeah talking about things and open, preemptive conversation with kids is vital, but I still believe in shielding. I want my boys to stay innocent as long as possible, which is super tough this day in age. I see my seven year old stare a bit if a bra commercial comes on TV. We’re still working on boundaries and modesty with our boys who just LOVE being naked. 🙂

    But yeah, brown paper wrapping? No.

    1. My girls can’t get enough of my bras. I have the photos to prove it. I think it’s not a boy/girl thing…I think it’s just seven.

  15. “Cosmo is the result of the problem” is spot on.

    I have a knee jerk reaction to people slapping at symptoms, or putting energy in the wrong place as well.

    As for sexual material in various media, my mind was changed forever after spending time in India and seeing to what extent certain kinds of censorship can warp people’s attitudes and behaviors. You can have a rape scene in a movie, but not a kiss. I actually found myself thinking after a while, “So glad I come from a country with accessible porn.”

  16. Yes!
    I am a Christian SAHM, and even I think it’s ridiculous to put Cosmo in a porn bag (even that sounds dirty). I don’t want my child’s first exposure to sex to be some random friend at school, or a magazine in the grocery aisle, or the internet. It’s MY job as their mother to start talking about it early, and frequently in age-appropriate ways that encourage my children to think about it in age-appropriate ways. Pretending like it doesn’t exist isn’t realistic.
    My husband is a teacher and he has been working with a student who has some inappropriate sexual issues that I won’t get into. He was eight when he was exposed to anything really sexual, and it was internet porn. He still hasn’t really processed it at 21. So where were his parents? Who was teaching him about sexuality? No one. That’s the real problem, not Cosmo, or even the internet porn he saw.

    1. That’s truly sad.

      I’d imagine these horror stories from the Cosmo petitioner come from girls with similar issues.

  17. This reminds me of a weird story. I worked at a video store in college. There was this one woman, a regular. Every Friday afternoon she’d come in with her (guessing around) 8-year-old daughter to rent movies for the weekend. It was 1992 and Beauty and the Beast had been released on VHS. The distributor sent us a big cardboard cutout to promote it. So we had it up in the store, along with a few posters. Anyway, she was very upset and came up to me and started calling it porn. She said we had no right to show this sort of thing to her daughter. I was confused so I guessed she must be joking. I laughed. That didn’t bode well. I got the lecture of my life about how bestiality is NOT a laughing matter and she’s raising her daughter to be a decent person.

    OK, so, she was NOT joking. I apologized for laughing and then went on to nod along and ignore her. (I was 18.)

    At that same time, I was training to become a volunteer for the AIDS Project. My main job was to man the phones and answer people’s questions, all anonymously of course. So we had to know every last bit of terminology. (Example: Can you get HIV from water sports? Water sports doesn’t mean having sex in a pool!) During one of our sessions we were all told to go to one side of the room. The instructors would mention sexual acts, terminology and we were to walk to the other side whenever we felt the term, idea, or sexual act was “crossing our line”, something we considered offensive, upsetting, or too pornographic. They wanted to make sure we could handle any topic should the person calling in bring it up. As a caller you could not show ANY judgement. These people wanted answers because they were scared and/or concerned. They needed a confident, knowledgeable, sensitive robot. :]

    A year or so later, I was taking Intro to Women’s Studies and we had to give a talk as a final project. My group chose censorship and pornography. We did the same thing with that class as we did with the AIDS Project, except we pulled excerpts from literature, poetry, and movies. We told people to sit down whenever they felt what they were hearing/seeing was pornographic and should be censored. I lost a great deal of the class whenever I read Anaïs Nin. More on THE LOVER. Even more on THE WHITE HOTEL.

    No one was left standing when I got to the Penthouse Forum letters, you know, what many of us consider actual porn.

    Everyone has a line. And things like Cosmo is this woman’s line. And that’s fine. She’s pissed off at Cosmo. And she has every right to tell her kids they can’t read it. But don’t tell me where MY line should be. Because if we all start doing that, books like FOREVER will be censored. We might not have THE LOVER or Anaïs Nin. Movies like Henry and June or Last Tango In Paris will be shelved behind a curtain.

    We could even live in a world without Disney. :]

    1. Long comments are awesome. Especially yours. You’re right, it’s all proof that everyone’s values are different (beastiality, holy crap).

  18. As a recipient to that email at first I was like ‘Hmmm this could be interesting but I must restrain myself from chastising the sender over the use of CC over BCC’.

    But that lecture was soon forgot because when I read just a few lines into this email, a large dent suddenly appeared on my coffee table. This crater was created when my head smacked it at an accelerated rate because once again I had to yell at my iPhone ‘who is responsible for raising my kid?’ to which Suri replied ‘Politicians’. So I disabled her.

    The answer to that question is me (well me and her dad and our self-appointed village who only have half a vote). When we start allowing (demanding?) censorship like this, we are unraveling many hard fought battles for liberty which were only recently won in the past 50 years. Why do I feel like we are sliding backwards some days?

    1. I had to laugh out loud at the suri line! That’s awesome. Unfortunately, we have a lot of people who think they know better than we do what is best for our children. I’ve told many people who are appalled at some of my “non-protective ” parenting choices who try to tell me it’s my job to protect my son, “No, it’s my job to teach him to make good choices for himself. I am trying to raise a fully functional, contributing member of society. I am raising an adult, not a child. Too many parents have raised children and unleashed them on society without the skills needed to flourish.

  19. I find this kind of thing maddening. I especially get annoyed when it is couched in religion. This isn’t about religion. It’s about this woman’s crusade to avoid an awkward conversation with her children, and apparently she thinks that we need saving from that awkward conversation as well.

    So, chasing windmills, expending time, energy, talent, etc….to avoid a direct conversation with your children about the way the world actually works. Great idea. (note sarcasm) Personally, I’ve found it easier and much less stressful to say, “listen, you’re going to see this in the world. You’re going to hear this in the world. Be prepared, and use the brain you were given.”

    1. I am trying really hard to separate my feelings about the “mission” (her word) itself, and not lump it in with the psalm she used to end the email. Because I think it’s not just a Christian issue, and it bears discussing from all kinds of parents.

      However I just found this piece in the Observer which indicates indeed, it’s a “Christian campaign” in which case it starts to feel an awful lot like “here’s what’s not okay according to our version of God in our version of the bible…” and that definitely adds a whole other layer to it.

      As for you? Common sense parenting. What a novelty.

      I also wanted to add I’m not sure that it’s merely about the awkward conversation with her kids. I think she truly believes that minors should not be reading about sex, and that the content in Cosmo is disgusting. And to some degree, at least on the disgusting part, she’s right. That’s why I loved AV’s pov so much.

      1. Yes, because as is well-documented, Jesus ministered from his home village via letter-writing campaign. (again, note sarcasm.)

      2. Society has a lot more work to do, that’s for sure. I guess my point is that a publication like Cosmo isn’t using a moral compass, they’re using a money compass. Unless and until it becomes cost effective to cover their magazines, I’m doubtful that a campaign such as this will work.

        I know this woman feels her righteous might behind a cause like this, I guess in my estimation her energy might be better served and more directly affect girls if she worked in her own community in a ground-up effort to immunize girls from being negatively affected by a magazine like Cosmo. It takes longer, to be sure, but eventually, IMO, that is what changes hearts, minds, and wallets.

        You always have such thought-provoking posts.

  20. I couldn’t agree more. I think about the messages my children see, hear, etc. It’s my job to talk them through those messages. We talk about commercials and not they refer to commercials as marketing–which is funny. They are starting to understand that the messages they see on TV, etc are meant to sway them to think a certain way or to buy something. Do they totally get it? No, but it has them becoming more critical consumers–which is what I want.

    I too read Forever and I remember it being “dirty,” but that is because my parents (who were too young to be parents) didn’t really talk about those things with me. I know the impact that had on me and I want my children to be more aware and also not having to find out about life without our support and conversations.

  21. I, too, was raised in a very open, liberal, no-question-is-offlimits family. My mom was very open about a variety of adult issues. I always knew I could go to my mom with my questions and concerns and get a straight, honest answer, which is an incredibly reassuring feeling as a child.

    My concern about efforts like that of this “concerned mother” are that she is attempting to dictate what is appropriate not only for her children but for other people’s children. And, as we all know too well, when you tell a child they cannot do/read/see something, they will try that much harder to do/read/see it. I hate Cosmo and the image of women if portrays; however, my parents allowed me to come to that conclusion on my own. Had I been told I could not read it, the result may have been very different.

    Prohibition does not work with children, open, honest communication does. Sure, there are boundaries we as parents must set. But, as our children grow and become tweens and teens, our job as parents is to provide children a safe, enriching environment to explore and discover their own boundaries. We cannot be with our children all day, everyday to make decisions for them (growing up I saw many parents try this approach and it was almost universally unsuccessful – their children/teens took every possible opportunity to rebel). We can, however, provide them a strong moral and ethical base from which they feel confident making their own decisions.

  22. Amen! I couldn’t agree more! You hit the nail on the head . Great post on a great way to parent- or at least think about parenting.

  23. You are absolutely right. I think the two most important things you said here are that if we hid the problem it just is going to grow. Isn’t that true about so many problems in our lives, in society? Putting them behind opaque plastic does nothing really to solve the deeper issues.

    Also, I totally love the way you ended this piece because if we all just kept in mind the fact that WE are the parents, not society, not a magazine, not a television show, not a parenting philosophy, then perhaps we would all see that those important conversations that may be awkward and difficult are really the crux of our parenting. It is our responsibility to let our kids talk and read and explore and then we need to be there to answer and guide.

  24. LOVE IT! Don’t have anything brilliant to say, just that, as usual, you are spot on! Especially “Cosmo is not the problem. Cosmo is the result of the problem. And hiding it doesn’t make the problem go away.” So true in so many parts of society. Thank you for this!

  25. “Plus, frankly, the quality of most of the writing makes me die a little.” Yep. I think that is why my mom let me read Cosmo, and then bought me other, smarter magazines as well.

  26. Very well said, Liz.

    If an 11-year old is practicing sodomy, that has nothing to do with a magazine or TV show and everything to do with the family in which he or she was raised.

    1. Or mental health issues, or a background of abuse, or a terrible school environment… I can’t put all emphasis on the family. I have to say (not just to you, Adam) that even good families have kids that end up with issues. But I would imagine that whatever hers are, she is the exception and not the rule. And that yes, the majority of girls that are getting their worldly advice from Cosmo need to have some serious conversations about it.

  27. Here Here! I love the way you turned this discussion into an awareness that our kids are surrounded by sexuality and that banning Cosmo, no matter how trashy it is, will not fix the situation at all. As you so wisely pointed out, anything forbidden to kids will only encourage them to find it elsewhere or look elsewhere to find the same info. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that an 11 year old isn’t having sex and doing sexual things because she reads a magazine. There are so many other things going on there.

    Come on parents, talk to your children! If acting like a needy, promiscuous girl at 14 has been deemed ridiculous in your house, your child most likely won’t behave like that. You can’t shield your child forever from bad influences. Even if you manage to for a while, they’ll be exposed somewhere. Isn’t it better to have an open line of discussion as to what they’ve found? Kids learn from watching parents. If you generally feel that women should not be shallow and overly concerned with how to catch and please a man, most likely your daughters will too.

  28. You hit the nail on the head regarding putting Cosmo in a brown bag; it will only make it more desirable. The point of the story about your brother and the Playboy magazine is that by having it available, the message was that it was no big deal and exactly the way he responded to his friend. Hiding things and making them inaccessible only makes them more interesting. Truth is Playboy (and Cosmo) are actually fairly tame and dull. I guess I raised my kids with good social values.

    1. I think Cosmo isn’t quite tame…the values are offensive to me more than the sexual content. I agree with AV that the overall premise about pleasing men/getting skinny above all else sucks. But then, it’s not Penthouse. Which I guarantee those kids have looked at too.

  29. As always, bang on! I admire your ability to get into root issue here: enabling kids to think, not sanitizing world for them.

    One phrase is the power phrase in today’s world: VOTE with your WALLET! (and your remote, I might add)

    As sad as it is, sex does sell (and does it sell, big time). And as sad as it is, we and our kids are enveloped in sexual messages, gender biased. And overwhelmed with poor writing (and poor ideas for commercials, it seems that sex is just cheap escape when money and quality ideas run out). And yes, it is a fact that the whole village is skewed because sex sells – and that will not help me one bit. So, yes, on this front it does feel like village is against me, but what is alternative:
    – censoring: when was that a solution to anything??? Porn is still sold, even in Saudi Arabia. And censor what, exactly? If anything needs censoring, it is not word “sex” or playboy centrefold, it is all bad writing and editing out there. And where to stop: why is sex or direct mention of vaginas and penises considered “bad”? Has anybody checked the private parts on Renaissance works? Why stop at cosmo, let’s sanitize Michelangelo’s David too.
    – living somewhere where this cosmo wave is not reaching: even if I wanted to live in small African village, somehow I think the trade off is not worth it. Besides, if I just leave, then nobody will stand up against the wave and wave will just spread around the world (as it already did, I think cosmo has international readership).

    And that is where we as parents come in: raising future generations with open communication and critical mind. Remove the “mystique” from sexualized texts and videos. Stop with taboos and empower kids with knowledge. Then those generations CHOOSE not to buy cosmo (or any other crap). Hard uphill battle in today’s world, but reasonable course of action.
    If not me, then who? If not now, when?

  30. Loved this post (and your approach). I’m with you. We use this approach across the board with our kids. First off, if something raises a weird feeling for us we stop and say, “why?” Does it have something to do with our own upbringing our own issues or is it an actual trigger for our kids? Also, if there is something that feels uncomfortable bring it up!

    Periods, pregnancy, breastfeeding, anatomy….we talk about it. We also talk about what’s behind what they are seeing. I bring up marketing and advertising to them a lot. Help them see behind the images that they are seeing and it’s opened up amazing conversations. You’d be surprised what a young child can understand and then deconstruct on their own.

  31. I totally understand and agree with what you are saying. I grew up in a house with Playboys all over and I read Forever when I was in the 3rd grade. I think that as parents we need to be able to communicate with our children and really there are a lot more offensive things out there than Cosmo magazine.

  32. Keep wanting to chip in here and there, but really what I want to say is thank you-to you, Liz-and to all of the thoughtful commenters. Awe to the some.

  33. It is indeed a brave new world. But you brilliantly came to the right conclusion to communication being the key…open, honest, accessible..,.no matter how hard it is.
    I have always strived to do just that with my kids, keeping my answers simple but always open, honest with no judgements so that when they REALLY needed me we could have a conversation. Having now three adult children while still raising two more, the worst fear is one coming to me and saying, “Mom, we need to talk…” Thankfully it wasn’t as hard as I imagined when it did happen one time. How glad I was that she could come to me sooner rather than later.
    OMG! Forever was one of my favorites back in the day and I doubt my mother ever knew what the book was about.

  34. I can say I actually envy you. But also take note that I envy you not because my parents weren’t great at bringing me up. I envy you because you and your parents have the courage to discuss things like that with children just to let them learn and learning things about sex with your parents is a great way to open their minds to what is right and wrong int this world. You are very lucky.

  35. Your brother’s response to the stack of Playboys in the basement cracks me up – sort of like he’s part of a long-time couple. Eh…isn’t there anything on TV? But exactly: what’s in the open & discussed with parents gets less titillating, not more. Hiding Cosmo only makes Cosmo more desirable. The woman’s well-intentioned efforts notwithstanding (which reminds of that road to hell…what is it paved with? yep, good intentions), you’re right: Cosmo is a symptom, not the disease. It’s like those damn mommy wars: individual choices are *not* the issue. The issue is a society that makes it so damn difficult, if not impossible, for anyone (male or female) to achieve something remotely resembling family-work balance. Instead of bitching about individual magazines, or individual choices, how’s about we all started to work more deliberately and consistently to overhaul the system?

  36. I agree that the more you hide or control something, the more it gets palatable or exciting to discover. Cosmo is just one of those tools to distort or damage the moral fibers of a society gone permissive. Short of radically changing the entire social system, it is our duty as parents to guide our kids by keeping all lines open for communication and understanding their issues and concerns.

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