On Tuesday, retail superchain Walmart announced it would stop selling Cosmopolitan magazine at its checkout counters, claiming that it was a “business decision” but that “concerns raised” about the publication — particularly its “hyper-sexualized” covers — also came into play.
There’s lots to be angry about when it comes to the Walmart part of this equation and the corporation’s own smattering of business problems, from its larger-than-life gun displays to its lack of livable wages for employees (and uh, racist names for wig hair colors). What also got my blood boiling in this particular case, however, were comments from the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), the conservative non-profit that has pushed Walmart to remove Cosmopolitan from its checkout aisles for years and is centering itself in the midst of Walmart’s decision to do just that.
What did NCOSE do exactly? The organization knowingly distorted what the #MeToo movement is about to justify its conservative and supposedly Christian-centric reasons to want Cosmopolitan removed from these aisles. “This is one less drop of hyper-sexualized media that is going to be bombarding people in their everyday lives, which does make a difference, especially in this #MeToo culture that we're living in, where we really want a culture that will respect women and ensure their dignity is understood," NCOSE Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach Haley Halverson said on Facebook Live.
Not only is the #MeToo movement centered on sexual harassment and assault and its power dynamics (not pornography, as NCOSE is trying to argue), but much of the conversation has been about how women in marginalized communities and industries, especially women who partake in sex work, also deserve safety and respect on the job and in their personal lives. What does NCOSE have to say about that part of #MeToo? Nothing, apparently. And therein lies the problem.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, formerly called Morality in Media, Inc. until 2015, was founded in its initial form in 1962 by a bunch of white, male religious leaders. It comes as no surprise, then, that much of NCOSE’s policies are based around a privileged, conservative, heteronormative, white, and Christian foundation of what sexual exploitation is and who deserves to be “saved.” Halverson’s words about wanting to ensure that the “dignity” of women is “understood” also has religious connotations that point to a woman’s morality and how sex is somehow related to that supposed morality.
It wasn’t just Halverson’s comments on Facebook Live that gave me pause; NCOSE’s press release on the matter only further proves that the entire NCOSE team is essentially trying to fit a round peg in a square hole when it comes to making their agenda relevant in the #MeToo era. “The truth is, women are more than a collection of body parts, and women are worth more than their sexual functions! But you wouldn’t know that using only Cosmo as your guide,” the press release says in bold lettering.
Like many women’s magazines, Cosmo has had its share of problematic content and questions surrounding its cover stars. But none of these issues are what the NCOSE is upset about. In addition, what its team is discounting is that for many women, Cosmo was and still is one of their only sources of reliable information on topics like comprehensive guides to contraception, the inhumane treatment of pregnant prison inmates, and state-level reproductive health policies. Don’t all of these things point to women having more agency and being more than just body parts?
On the surface, you might read what NCOSE has put out and buy what they’re selling. I mean, we all believe that women shouldn’t be treated as sexual objects and that they’re “whole, independent, and respected persons,” right?
But don’t get it twisted: NCOSE claims to be on a mission to eradicate “pornography” (and their own definitions of that term and the term “sexual exploitation” are extremely problematic), but its team is pushing a conservative, repressive agenda and masquerading it as “girl power.” And while the wording might sound similar to more liberal women-centric movements in the short term, NCOSE’s end goal is completely different than those organizations’. It’s aiming for a lack of sex education and for women not to put their pleasure and desire first; it’s centered on the misinformed idea that sex and sexuality are inherently bad. And those ideas extend much further than a Cosmo cover, regardless of what they claim.
The #MeToo movement as it pertains to women isn’t solely about ridding the world of sexual harassment and assault, but making sure women’s voices are heard and respected and that they can expect equality and safety in return; that needs to happen for women in all situations (including sexual ones), not just those who are “moral” in the eyes of these conservative organizations. And the movement, much like sex education (which includes discussing sexual violence), needs to be about the messy and complicated parts of those interactions.
For example, NCOSE shuns Cosmo’s content for discussing “risky sexual acts like public, intoxicated, or anal sex,” but all three of these behaviors are realities in our current world, and they’re also incredibly pertinent to #MeToo’s conversations about sexual politics and power dynamics. For example, sex while under the influence of alcohol is a gigantic topic of conversation when discussing sexual harassment and assault as well as consent. So if NCOSE doesn’t like the way that Cosmo is discussing that topic, where do they want those conversations to take place and in what way? Judging from their lack of suggestions, it seems they don’t want them discussed at all.
We can argue ad nauseam about Walmart’s right to move magazines where it pleases in its stores or what children should be exposed to. But don’t let conservative organizations with their own agendas co-opt and water down a movement that’s pretty damn radical. #MeToo isn’t some trendy hashtag for folks like NCOSE to use in order to mask their true goals, which aren’t about uplifting women at all; #MeToo is the spotlight exposing their hypocrisy that’s remained hidden for far too long.
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Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.