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Julia Magnet
Cosmo Says No to Sex
A cheerleader of the sexual revolution has second thoughts.
27 October 2003

A few weeks ago, a chirpy researcher from a London morning show asked me to appear on a TV debate about sex, along with an older, married couple who attend “swingers parties,” a teenage twit who notoriously stripped off her shirt in public in Rhodes, Greece and was rightly arrested, and Lorraine Candy, the editor of British Cosmopolitan. My role was to “even out the debate”—in other words, to be a rabidly right-wing, “no sex, please, we’re conservative” voice, and thus discredit the conservative viewpoint. But as we talked, the researcher, part of my random-hook-up generation, was surprised to find herself agreeing with my views on restraint, monogamy, and the destructive emptiness of hook-up sex. She said she’d speak to her producer and ring back.

The producer turned me down, in favor of a woman the program identified as a 42-year-old, Christian virgin—yes: the show’s caption read, “virgin.” In a culture wedded to the fantasy that women can have sex like men—as if men don’t crave connection and commitment—it simply wouldn’t do to have a girl like me argue on TV that the sexual revolution might not have been such a great thing.

The occasion for this debate? British Cosmo, purveyors of weekly sex “confessions” and such articles as HAVING SEX AT THE CIRCUS WAS SUCH A THRILL, has launched a campaign against “soulless” sex—a campaign that seems not to apply to the rest of the magazine, however. Lamenting “McSex” in her October editor’s letter, Lorraine Candy worries: “But what about your emotions, self-esteem and, most importantly, your orgasms?” Modern sex, after all—its purpose and its meaning—is about nothing more than you and your quest for the good orgasm. Cosmo’s three pieces on soulless sex continue in this clueless vein. They resolutely refuse to discuss the sexual revolution as part of the problem—except to insist lamely that they don’t want to return to the “prejudiced” and oppressive environment in which “our mothers” lived. They seem oblivious to the role that such cheerleaders of the sexual revolution as Cosmo, with features like THE SECRET SEX FETISH YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU HAD, played in creating the perpetual one-night stand. Each article treats soul-less sex simply as a recent trend that came out of nowhere, like a fashion craze. Candy’s editor’s letter, for example, equates the “new and worrying trend of soulless sex” with wearing stiletto heels that are fashionable but uncomfortable.

But these adamantly non-judgmental pieces draw a bleak vision of British girls’ lives. One 27-year-old announces from a club, “I’ve never had an orgasm and I’m on a mission to get one. . . . I’m not sure how many men I’ve had sex with; perhaps about forty.” Another wonders, the morning after, “maybe sex would be better in a relationship?” And a 22-year-old looks back on her catalogue of one night stands and sighs, “I’ve only had an orgasm with about a third of the men I had sex with; and sometimes it was actively unpleasant.”

The author opines that every Friday night, “women will be having sex, and perhaps not getting the orgasms the deserve.” This is the sum of her insight. On the next page, Cosmo’s advice columnist rightly worries about the emotional consequences of impersonal sex but balks any cultural or moral judgment. The final article in the package, by a woman who runs a fashionable internet sex/porn site dedicated to allowing women to “express their sexuality as freely as men,” opines that one night stands can only work if you don’t expect a relationship and know how to “demand” to be fulfilled. Throughout the articles, Cosmo revels in its role in allowing women to “explore their sexuality,” its centrality to women’s liberation—as if the magazine that produces how-to articles on oral sex or on toning muscles and burning more calories while having sex wouldn’t produce a society that divorces sex from love and commitment.

But it is significant that even Cosmo has second thoughts about where we’ve arrived in the sexual revolution. And no wonder. The UK, where I live, is, to American eyes, a remarkably debauched society. The JC-Penny equivalent over here recently got into trouble with mothers (thankfully) for launching a line of padded bras and thong underwear for seven-year-olds. And a trendy store for teenagers has just launched, with much fanfare, an affordable lingerie line that includes handcuffs, blindfolds, and an embellished whip. Even ads for pasta sauce show women in sexual poses with the ingredients, above the supposedly witty caption—as the brand is called Go Organic—“go orgasmic.”

This is the country that, last week, aired two teenagers having live sex on TV. It wasn’t a movie, it wasn’t simulated—it was part of the British take on reality TV, Big Brother, in which Channel 4 picks a random group of people, sticks them together in a safe house for a season, with no outside contact, and films what happens. The show spawned the first live-TV blow-job a few seasons back, and is so successful that the producers created a spin off, Teenage Big Brother. (Orwell was wrong to think Big Brother would be imposed; modern British society has chosen it freely.) Afterward, the young girl sobbed to the camera, “My Mum is going to be ashamed of me. . . . I feel so dirty in myself.” Of course she does, and yet popular British culture had allowed and, by allowing, condoned her self-humiliation on national TV. It took what should be the most intensely private act—to put it mildly—and what is a momentous decision for a young girl, and made it trivial and titillating public viewing. No wonder so many teens approach sex as little more than the whim of the moment—this is the reality reality TV creates. And so we have the girl who took off her shirt in Rhodes, a girl who was to be my co-pundit on live TV—and, more recently, the group of young Britons arrested for staging a blow-job contest, complete with audience, on a beach in Corfu.

Cosmo’s article, for all its failings, is still a teeny-tiny step in the right direction. Yes, the article is militantly utilitarian: casual sex is bad because it is not good sex. What Cosmo can’t confront is why casual sex might not be good. Human relations aren’t just the quest for the perfect orgasm; instead our lives are an attempt to overcome the animal, to commit ourselves to one person and by that commitment to give our lives meaning. That commitment then defines us, and within that context sex is meaningful and “good.” If we have sex like animals, we will feel like animals. It’s that simple.

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More by Julia Magnet:
A Great Conservative Filmmaker
London Peace Marchers Say: Long Live the Intifada
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