Popular magazines displayed inside a newsstand. (iStock)
Editorial Writer

Bad news for women who hoped their time in the Walmart checkout aisle could teach them “78 Ways to Turn Him On“: The retailer has pulled Cosmopolitan magazine from the front of 5,000 stores across the country after pressure from a conservative anti-porn advocacy group.

The removal alone has riled up devoted readers of the women’s monthly. But even those who have never received subscription sex tips found something more infuriating in the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s description of its Cosmo coup. The relocation of the female-run, female-oriented publication to other parts of Walmart’s stores was, according to the center, an example of “what real change looks like in our #MeToo culture.”

Well, no, it’s not. But this group’s attempt at a crafty piece of PR betrays a broader misunderstanding of what #MeToo is about: not how much sex we have, but how we have sex.

Cosmopolitan has its issues, of course. The magazine is for the most part very straight, very white and very thin — in the body types it portrays and in intellectual heft. It can perpetuate stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that often do women few favors. Its articles, for all that editors have tried to give the publication a brain-lift, tend to prioritize the inane over the interesting.

Still, at its core Cosmo tells women they can take control over a dance that men are accustomed to leading. A reasonable person may disagree with the ways Cosmo wants its readership to do that — the emphasis it can place on fulfilling male fantasies, say, or on fitting societal standards of beauty — but that misses a lot of the point. Cosmo encourages women to see their sex appeal as something positive, and something they have the power to use. And the magazine makes plenty of room for listicles that teach women how they can enjoy sex more, too.

When it comes to women having a say, then, #MeToo and Cosmo actually have a lot in common. But the National Center on Sexual Exploitation does not seem to care. It probably objects to Cosmo not for any reason related to harassment or rape, but because the magazine encourages what the center sees as the cardinal sin of promiscuity — or even sex positivity. The reactionary right, in short, has commandeered an anti-assault movement to advance an anti-sex agenda.

And abstinence advocates aren’t not the only ones who have misinterpreted #MeToo’s animating principles to suit their beliefs. Some skeptics, many of them also on the conservative side of the spectrum, have taken a pro-sex tack to argue that #MeToo could provoke a panic that will cow men and women alike into refraining even from consensual sex for fear of punishment.

These writers criticize #MeToo while Cosmo’s enemies embrace it, but both responses rest on the same mistaken argument: that #MeToo seeks to make people have less sex, or to make the sex they do have less sexy.

Really, the opposite is true. #MeToo doesn’t care how much sex you have. And with regard to sexiness, its goal mirrors Cosmopolitan’s, though its means of getting there rely on careful communication rather than glossy covers. #MeToo tells us that people should have just as much sex as they want, but that sex is only sexy if both parties do actually want it — whether you’ve mastered those 78 tactics of seduction or not.