Brown’s dark sexual legacy

August 20, 2012


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.

—Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.


jafs 5 years, 8 months ago


Of course there are downsides to expanded freedom and self-determination.

But, there were also downsides to the repression and suppression of women that existed before the '60's.

To have such an idealized memory of the past and wish to return to that idealized version is a major component of fascism.

jaywalker 5 years, 8 months ago

I can understand where Cal's coming from, but then that's what we'd expect from someone of his generation, for the most part. Certainly there have been numerous repercussions for the "feminist movement", but then isn't obvious how much better things are? At least for women?

I don't read where Cal wishes "to return to that idealized version", like jafs did, so the fascism comment seems off course. Though I reckon since it's Cal it could be assumed he's longing for the 'good ol' days.' But I do find it funny and not a little small-minded that anyone could see empowering women as anything other than a positive for any society.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

"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.". ====

Cal: You left out the key phrase: In my opinion. Laws of nature are our inventions too.

Topple 5 years, 8 months ago

I'm pretty sure this entire article is an "opinion" article, so using "in my opinion" would be redundant.

Getaroom 5 years, 8 months ago

FHNC: are you referring to the two brilliant female darlings of the Tea Party, who paste on those whitened toothed smiles for the cameras and Hillary Clinton in the same sentence - really? Tsk,tsk! Wink wink, smile smile, pigs with lipstick and the Muslim Brotherhood hiding behind doors waiting to pounce on our way of "Life with Father" in American? And you with all your wisdom, imagine where women would be now if you were in charge. They would likely still be down in the basement doing laundry with a wringer washer and taking you your slippers after a hard day at the "office" toiling away. Praise the LORD, keep those women pregnant, uneducated and why would they need to vote anyway?

The laws of nature sure do work in mysterious ways and that's particularly true in the check-out line while sneaking a peak at cleavage on the cover of COSMO. A tempting dirty pleasure naughty boys do.

mom_of_three 5 years, 8 months ago

Cal needs to read some history. The Puritans tried to force "morals" on colonists because they were having sex before marriage. It has always occurred. The colonists believed if they were engaged, then that was the committment. People were also charged with fornication and adultery and punished. But there was always sex. He seems to think that Hefner and Brown "encouraged" it, but it was always there. I think Cal needs to get his head out of the sand.

voevoda 5 years, 8 months ago

And Cal Thomas is wrong about acceptance of sexual license in the past. What does he think was going on in 1st century Rome (that is, the height of the power of the Roman Empire)? Or at the courts of monarchs in early modern Europe? Promotion of rampant sex has recurred in many periods and cultures. The code of conduct he espouses wasn't in place for "millenia" until Hefner and Brown came along.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 8 months ago

Frankly, I could care less what adults do behind closed doors. They can "do it" a thousand times a day with a thousand different partners. It's none of my business. Let me repeat, it's none of my business. I don't care and I certainly don't want to hear about it. Tell it to someone who cares, but not me.

That said, one of the "consequences" of that type of behavior, one of the "byproducts", are these little human beings who are dependent upon the responsible behavior of those same adults. If you're going to discuss what has happened, what should happen, what is going to happen, start the discussion with them. And leave out the part about "you". It's none of my business.

tolawdjk 5 years, 8 months ago

Hard to believe there isn't a Republican led war on women when their pundits keep bring women and how some of them choose to lead thier lives back into the news cycle.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

As long as Rush has his illegal Viagra, no teen bopper in the islands is safe. Lock up your daughters!

verity 5 years, 8 months ago

I have rarely read, or I should say tried to read, a more convoluted mess of meaninglessness.

Tsk, tsk, Mr Thomas, looking at free cleavage in the supermarket. Shouldn't you turn your eyes away? Wonder what's on your computer?

And he puts "date rape" in quotes? Unsuspecting college freshman subjected to mandatory seminars on it? Oh, the horror! Better that they should unsuspectingly be subjected to "date rape." Or is that not "legitimate rape"?

No, Mr Thomas, your supposed code of moral conduct did not work well for millenia. Have you studied history? Read the Bible even?

Liberty275 5 years, 8 months ago

I don't care about the headlines, but I'll look if there is cleavage.

Richard Payton 5 years, 8 months ago

Congressman Akin & Yoder approve this message.

jayhawklawrence 5 years, 8 months ago

Perhaps Cal Thomas is a little like Archie Bunker. He is completely out of touch and consumed by his own prejudices.

Old white men should not be making laws that take away women's rights and though Cal did not say it directly, it is similar to what Rush Limbaugh charged against an innocent young woman who had the audacity to speak to congress about the need for greater access to contraceptives for women.

Cal is unjustly clubbing women, but this time he using a 90 year old deceased woman to do it.

Today it is women, but tomorrow it could be any convenient group which usually happens to be among the most vulnerable in our society.

Anyone who is not among the wealthiest Americans is a potential target of the right wing. It is their "us against them" mentality and their obsession with avoiding all taxes that is always the fundamental goal of every scheme and strategy and there seems to be no rules.

We know there is an invisible class structure in America, but perhaps we underestimated the depth of the divide. Perhaps what we are seeing in our politics is not just a greed based ideology but a wide chasm of prejudice aimed downward.

How else can you explain what these people say and do?

It is pure hypocrisy.

P Allen Macfarlane 5 years, 8 months ago

Just another example of how the political Right talks about returning freedom to the American people, but what they are really interested in doing is making it less free to live your life as you see fit.

Kate Rogge 5 years, 8 months ago

Oh, yeah, that's right. I forgot. Men only marry virgins, and it's only by withholding sex that women can make men behave responsibly. What a damn crock.

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