When women complain about men who can’t commit, they can thank — or blame — two people: Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner and the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, Helen Gurley Brown, who died this week at age 90.
Brown was the flip side of Hefner, offering women permission, even encouragement, to embrace a female version of Hefner’s freewheeling “Playboy philosophy” of unrestrained sexual pleasure. Brown and Hefner offered one-way tickets to fantasyland, a journey supposedly without cost to a destination seemingly without consequences.
I confess to pausing at the supermarket checkout each month to read Cosmo’s enticing headlines and to notice the cleavage of the “cover girl” — both Brown’s signature. It is something like slowing down to view a multi-car pileup. Yet the “damage” Brown’s philosophy of sexual liberation caused (or reflected) is far more severe.
In any revolution — political, or the sexual one championed by those like Hefner and Brown — there are casualties. No one wants to talk about the casualties of the sexual revolution because that wouldn’t sell magazines or seduce a new generation of young people. Sex sells, but it also brings misery when it’s misused.
There was a time when words served a purpose. Some were once used to discourage bad behavior that was thought to be harmful to individuals who practice it and to societies that tolerate it. “Fornicator” was one. We changed the word so as to appear less “judgmental,” but the behavior that word describes didn’t change. “Sexually active” is now the preferred phrase that describes what the word used to. It seems more tolerant and that’s the problem.
I recall reading an interview in the 1970s with Xaviera Hollander, who was promoting her memoir “The Happy Hooker.” As I remember it, the interviewer asked Hollander a penetrating question, the gist of which went something like this: What’s the difference between you and what used to be called a “tramp”? Hollander’s answer didn’t matter. The question answered itself. This was before “anything goes” replaced self-control as a worthy goal.
Just as there are laws in nature which, if violated, bring repercussions, so, too, are their moral laws which, when violated, cause physical, emotional, social and spiritual consequences. It is one reason we have preachers to remind us of such things, but fewer of us listen to them and suffer as a result.
Katherine Kerstin, chairman of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis and a commentator for National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” wrote about Brown’s “seductive philosophy” of unfettered freedom in 1997 for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It has a catch, she wrote: “For if ‘freedom’ is women’s birthright, it is also men’s. And as the last inhibition bites the dust, women are finding they don’t much like some of the things men do when released from social constraints and expectations. The result? A new breed of ‘Thou shalt nots’ — from sexual harassment policies in the workplace (‘No compliments on hair or dress, if you know what’s good for you’), to the mandatory ‘date rape’ seminars that greet unsuspecting college freshmen.”
Having abandoned a code of conduct that has served humanity well for millennia, Brown and her followers were forced to write a new code to deal with the predictable result of bad male behavior that previous constraints had worked well to limit. Men wanted their cake “and Edith, too,” to paraphrase a country song and women didn’t like the end result.
Brown sowed the wind, to borrow a biblical phrase, and millions of women who ingested her poison continue to reap the whirlwind. What a legacy.