“Are you a Good Lover?”
“Ten Raging Sexual Fantasies”
“What Real Orgasms Feel Like”
“Facts and Fallacies about Love-Making”
These are just a few of the articles that were featured in Cosmopolitan when I was growing up during the 1960's. This magazine and the views of its editor, Helen Gurley Brown, would profoundly shape my views on sexuality and the rights of women.
Even though the Catholic Church opposed any artificial method of birth control, thanks to the Pill, many Catholic women were enjoying sex without the worry of an undesired pregnancy. I hoped to one day be one of them; unfortunately, with my hormones raging and my thirst for sexual knowledge growing, I was living in an information desert. My mother couldn’t even name any body part below the waist and above the thighs. She simply used the expression "down there" as in, “Do you have cramps, down there?” The idea of my mom explaining anything about sex was unimaginable. At school, even the progressive nuns avoided the subject. All I had was my rock magazines, where rock stars sometimes mentioned a sexual escapade in passing, and Cosmo, where you could read a whole article written by what I imagined were sophisticated, sexually liberated women.
The more I read Cosmopolitan, the more I understood that everything I knew was wrong. I had grown up with the message from my community, church, television and movies that nice girls waited to have sex until after marriage. Despite the fact that my mother was eight months pregnant with me when she married my father, she had told me that virginity was important. It was different for her because she had been married before and had children from a previous marriage. I’m not sure what she meant by that, but I gathered that sex was like smoking marijuana: once you tried it, you became addicted.
My mother sent out some confusing messages. When I decided that I wanted to switch from sanitary pads to tampons, she became alarmed. “Tampons are only for married women,” she warned, “you will damage yourself if you try to use them.” That scared me for a long time. Virginity, as my mother defined it, had everything to do with having an immaculate hymen. A girl without a hymen was simply not marriage material unless she was a widow, like my mom had been when she met my dad, and then — woo-hoo! — everything was okay.
Cosmo filled in the gaps in my sexual education. Helen Gurley Brown, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, had made her mark in a post-pill world as the author of the bestselling book, Sex and the Single Girl. Even the title was scandalous! The book’s main character is a sexually liberated, single woman who many people believed was based on Helen herself. If you were to pick this book up today, some of the passages might seem dated, but to appreciate a cultural phenomenon, you have to try to understand it in the context in which it occurred. Helen was a maverick who ensured that her readers had up-to-date information about the little-discussed subject of female sexuality, and she provided women with the inspiration to advocate for themselves in the bedroom as well as in the workplace.
It was from Cosmo that I first learned what an orgasm was, what oral sex was, and much, much more. It was from reading Cosmo that I finally came to understand that touching myself down there had a name; it was masturbation, and no, I wouldn’t go to hell for doing it; in fact it was common, normal and…hallelujah, I had permission to do it again! I guess Cosmopolitan may have also been responsible for my increased interest in sex and in losing my virginity. It had taught me that sex and marriage didn’t necessarily have to go together, and, if I understood correctly, that meant there was no reason to marry for a long, long time. It made me question the double standard which labels a sexually active man “a stud” and a sexually active woman “a whore.” I remember, later in life, one guy telling me, “I won’t think less of you if you sleep with me on the first date,” to which I replied, “I won’t think less of you, either.” The nerve, assuming that I needed his approval to do what I wanted to do.
I thought my definition of promiscuity around that time was very progressive. It had less to do with the number of sexual partners you had and everything to do with your reasons for sleeping with people. I don’t know if it had been influenced by a Cosmopolitan article, or if I finally just synthesized Cosmo’s values. In my book, a woman could have as many different sex partners as she wanted without necessarily being promiscuous, because women are different and have a wide range of sexual appetites; however, sleeping with someone as a means to get something other than sexual pleasure seemed like promiscuity to me, because it meant you were not motivated by an honest desire for sex but were having sex because you felt there was no better way to get what you were really after. This bothered me, mostly because I’d known so many girls who had been looking for a love relationship and thought they could get it by giving in to a sexual relationship that they didn’t want. That, to me, seemed promiscuous. I wished they’d read Cosmo.
Over the years, my views have changed but I think Helen Gurley Brown would still approve. I don’t label people “promiscuous” anymore, even if they want something other than sex from sexual encounters. I just think of the word as a term by which society tries to regulate and suppress human sexuality.
- An excerpt from Violence Girl, by Alice Bag
For Helen Gurley Brown 1922 – 2012