No sex while shopping

A chain of supermarkets is covering those naughty Cosmo cover lines.

Published January 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The announcement in mid-January that Kroger supermarkets would be covering Cosmopolitan magazine at the checkout line in its stores didn't cause much of a ripple in media circles.

Perhaps it's because Kroger, headquartered in Cincinnati, is off the East Coast media map. But the 2,268 grocery stores and 800 convenience stores the chain owns can be found in 31 states (though not New York) under the names Kroger, Fred Meyer, Ralphs, Smith's and King Soopers. The chains' shoppers read and buy plenty of magazines, but thanks to Kroger, they won't be reading about Cosmo's guide for "Advanced Lovers Only!"

And if Morality in Media (MIM) has its way, Glamour, Redbook and Mademoiselle will soon be shrouded, too.

It was the New York-based MIM that first urged Kroger to cover Cosmo. According to MIM president Robert Peters, the anti-pornography watchdog group sent letters to the CEOs of more than 300 supermarket chains complaining about the monthly's increasingly saucy cover lines ("Moves So Hot You'll Need a Fire Hose to Cool Down the Bed") rather than its traditionally cleavage-crazed cover models.

"In July we received a form letter from them saying they left these decisions up to local management, telling me in so many words to go swim in the Hudson River," recalls Peters. Then in August, the Cincinnati Post ran a prominent piece about MIM's crusade. In September, Wirthlin Worldwide conducted a poll for MIM that indicated the majority of Americans thought teasers such as "Sex Tricks He's Never Seen Before -- the Outrageous Rock Technique" were inappropriate at the checkout stand -- "where children can see them every day." ("Mommy, how do you maximize your pleasure match?")

MIM sent another letter to the CEOs, touting the results of the poll, and this month Kroger announced Cosmo would be displayed at checkout in a "blinder bin," with only its title visible.

Kroger spokesman Gary Rhodes denies that MIM was the sole force behind the company's decision, noting that "the issue has been under consideration for at least a year. A year ago our Atlanta division decided to remove Cosmo from checkout counters based on complaints down there." Such decisions are usually left to regional managers, he said, but "we made this decision at a corporate level, and it was supported at all of our divisions." Since announcing the cover-up, Kroger has received "thousands of e-mails and hundreds of letters and phone calls overwhelmingly in favor of our decision." They are not considering covering other women's titles -- yet.

Perhaps what is most puzzling in all of this is the reaction of the magazines being placed under wraps: circle the wagons, draw the blinds and hope that this thing blows over. The editors of Cosmo, Glamour, Redbook and Mademoiselle all declined to comment for this column and even the spokespeople for Hearst (publisher of Cosmo and Redbook) and Condi Nast (Glamour and Mademoiselle) aren't saying much.

"Both Cosmo and Redbook are among the most loved magazines in America," says Hearst's Andrea Kaplan, citing their paid circulation (2.9 and 2.8 million, respectively) alone. And while MIM's Peters seems to have just discovered the saucy bits in Redbook, Kaplan says that the magazine has "always covered sex as an important part of marriage." (Unlike Cosmo, which celebrates it as an important part of entertaining.)

"The focus was not Cosmo," says Peters, "though in my letters to CEOs we beat up on Cosmo more than anybody else. In large part, Cosmo is the worst of this particular problem and it has a long history." Though Glamour has been biting Cosmo's style ever since it installed former Cosmo editor Bonnie Fuller in 1998 (and the two titles' cover lines often seem interchangeable), Glamour (with a 2.2 million paid circulation) is not on the top of MIM's hit list.

"I bought copies of the February Cosmo and Glamour," says Peters, "and went through them page by page. There is less offensive content in Glamour than Cosmo, and the stuff that is offensive is milder." Though Glamour's top line this month promotes "23 Erotic Ways to Make Sex With Him Sweeter," the content seems to have passed Peters' sniff test. "Erotica, as you well know, can apply to everything from a bare breast to someone having sex with a hyena," says Peters. "So when it says '23 Erotic Ways,' that can mean many things. But I've looked at it; it has quotes from doctors. Compared to Cosmo, which is just -- though couched in educational terms -- explicit sex!"

By Peters' yardstick, sexual content may be measured by the number of "professional" opinions invoked (which harks back to the golden days of porn, when all scenes of multiple couplings were bookmarked by some Swedish quack talking to you from behind his desk).

The Glamour story in question, by Stephanie Dolgoff, does feature wisdom from the sort of dial-a-quote psychologists who are a staple of women's magazines, and warns against the use of whips and props for women ISO LTR. But another piece touted on the cover ("Sex and Size") is as frank as any woman's magazine you'll find ("My man has kind of a pencil penis") while offering Ph.D.-generated opinions as well.

The "explicit sex" of Cosmo's February cover story ("Sizzling Positions So Hot They'll Burn a Hole Through the Bed!") is sold inside in language more reminiscent of porn ("it's the bounciest nooky style ever, perfect for teasing your guy with fast up-and-down action").

But we're not talking about programming your VCR here, and anyone writing about sex is faced with a copywriter's nightmare: how to talk about the same things in myriad ways. And if your kids are reading your Cosmo (remember, in a famous episode of "Seinfeld," George's mother caught him masturbating with Glamour), that is not Hearst's concern.

There are, of course, a number of hypocrisies at work here. Writing about sex is OK as long as it contains quotes from experts and not just people who enjoy sex. Variety is a decent topic when discussing marital sex, but not premarital (or certainly extramarital) sex. Tabloid headlines ("Oprah's Teen Pregnancy," "DiCaprio's Wild Two-Day Binge ... with strippers and booze!") are OK since MIM never asked Kroger to cover them.

And men's magazines, which left double-entendre behind with the rhythm method, are off the hook because, Peters says, "I've never seen a men's magazine at the checkout counter." (Neither have I -- and I do all the shopping and cooking in my family.)

Any of which could be addressed -- knocked out of the park, really -- if the editors chose to defend themselves and their titles. The overall belief is that writing about MIM and its campaign only fuels the fire. But by leaving the debate for them to define, magazine editors and publishers are only ceding ground.

Kroger did not cover Cosmo as a temporary solution; by putting a magazine that purports to address women's desires in the same slot (literally) as porn, they have agreed to MIM's terms. (The organization has scapegoated Time Warner since the days of "Cop Killer" and Madonna's "Sex" book and has pushed the FCC for more censorship of TV and radio content it deems offensive.) And MIM, which has not asked for covers to be hidden in the supermarkets' magazine aisles, characterizes its checkout request as "reasonable."

"That way the woman who loves Cosmo could still grab it on her way out," insists Peters, "but the rest of us, who don't want to hear about getting our thighs heated up, won't have to worry about it anymore."

Though a small organization, MIM is durable. They've been around, in one form or another, since 1962 and these sort of campaigns are its specialty. If you can't affect the purveyors of media (or pornography) directly, target the venues. "That's our appeal to the supermarkets," says Peters. "Just because [Hearst and Condi Nast] compete with each other to see how raunchy and sexually explicit they can be doesn't mean you have to provide them with an unimpeded forum for them to do it."

And Kroger -- not to mention Cosmo -- is just the beginning. "We're not done yet," says Peters. "I don't mean to be threatening but we decided early on that persistence was going to be needed. Boycotting is not at the top of the list; it would be tough to get people to boycott their local supermarkets. We're coming up with different angles to approach these supermarket chains and we have not exhausted all of them by any means."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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