Last week, Walmart’s decision to pull Cosmopolitan magazines from its checkout lines marked the latest development in an ongoing trend of confusing women’s sexual empowerment with objectification. But the quasi-censorship of a magazine that acknowledges what far too many sources of media fail to — that women are more than objects in the act of sex, and actually enjoy it — reflects a key piece of the age-old objectification versus empowerment debate that is too often missed. Specifically, when women make fully autonomous decisions about their bodies and sexuality, that is always a mark of empowerment.
To deny women access to displays or dialogues regarding female sexuality is to suggest that female sexuality is always oppressive and objectifying. Walmart’s latest decision, which cites #MeToo’s struggle against the objectification of women, is just paternalism and sexual policing at its most insidious.
We’ve encountered many examples of the phenomenon of women’s pleasure being regarded as either tangential or perverted. Think of movies like Blue Valentine, Two Girls and a Guy and other films doomed to commercial disappointment by NC-17 ratings handed down by the Motion Picture Association of America for featuring women receiving, rather than giving, oral sex. Think of the United Nations being forced by the perenially angry anti-porn mob to rescind an honorary ambassadorship it extended to Wonder Woman in 2016. (The object of the mob’s outrage was, predictably enough, the intergalactic heroine’s revealing state of dress). And yet, the phenomenon of scantily clad heroines, especially in media catered to male audiences, generally speaks to the issue of women’s underrepresentation and a need for women to be accorded greater decision-making power, rather than anything inherently wrong with sexual women, or women who choose to wear revealing clothing.
Female sexuality is invariably about power dynamics, and in the age of #MeToo, our understandings of consent and women’s role in sex must adapt with the times. Notably, a 2016 survey conducted by a Middlesex University professor found a distinct majority of women respondents preferred gay male to heterosexual porn. Professor Lucy Neville explained in an interview with PsyPost that “the invisibility of female pleasure” and exploitation of women in porn guided many female respondents’ preferences. Heterosexual pornography’s inherent prioritzation of male pleasure and the male gaze is something a lot of women clearly take issue with. And it’s not just porn. Misrepresentation of female sexuality is systemic and has real-world consequences.
A controversial report earlier this year detailed a young woman’s sexual encounter with actor and feminist writer Aziz Ansari, in which she claims Ansari persisted in soliciting sexual acts from her despite her mix of verbal and nonverbal rejections. Responses to the report showed how #MeToo has sparked critical, thoughtful dialogue not only about sexual abuse, but also about our general understandings of consent. Our exposure to real, authentic female pleasure and female perspectives about consensual sex is severely limited because female sexuality is so widely censored — either by puritanical erasure of female pleasure in media, or by male-led narratives and productions that prioritize representations of male pleasure. And as a result, women’s experiences and consent — or lack thereof — are being dangerously ignored in the real world.
From disgraced Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, to Ansari and other famous men accused of similarly controversial acts, in each case, there’s something to be said about how these men regarded women’s desires as entirely irrelevant to their own. This mindset has always more or less been the norm, although not always to the extent of assault, and it’s magazines like Cosmo that have been slashing through this persistent inequality in recent years.
Cosmo’s content is constantly informing the public that women’s experiences in sex do, in fact, matter. The magazine consistently gives women candid guides on how to enjoy sex, which they aren’t getting from more traditional media, and certainly aren’t getting from heterosexual porn. In the age of #MeToo, it’s become increasingly clear that our lack of respect for and honest portrayals of female sexuality have real consequences.
Contrary to Walmart’s reasoning for removing Cosmo from checkout lines, the magazine is an important part of how we must address #MeToo. That is, through understanding that sex isn’t just about men. And if we aren’t teaching women that it’s their right to enjoy sex as much as it is men’s, then we’re encouraging a culture in which women’s experiences in sexual acts are sidelined, and holding the door open for women’s exploitation.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.