Cosmopolitan drawn into US culture wars as conservatives urge others to follow Walmart’s lead

Even in the digital age, choosing a magazine at the supermarket checkout aisle is an enduring American tradition.

Shoppers at the country’s biggest retailer were spoilt for choice this week if they wanted to devour scurrilous tabloid allegations about Hollywood celebrities and the health, sexual proclivities and drinking habits of the British royal family.

Impulse-buying one of the most popular women’s magazines at a Walmart, though, is out of the question now that the chain has responded to pressure from an anti-pornography group by evicting Cosmopolitan from prime sites next to the cash registers and chocolate.

Walmart removes Cosmopolitan from checkouts as conservative lobbyists celebrate

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Delighted by its success, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE) is approaching other leading retailers in the US to ask them to follow Walmart’s lead, putting the magazine squarely on the battlefield in America’s never-ending culture wars.

In 2015 the conservative activists persuaded Walmart to hide Cosmopolitan’s covers behind wrappers at checkout lanes in some stores, Haley Halverson, the group’s vice-president of advocacy and outreach, told the Guardian. In recent months, she said, the group asked Walmart to go further after receiving complaints from parents.

Describing the move as a “great example of corporate responsibility”, Halverson said that the magazine was part of the “hypersexualised media” that “bombards” young girls.

“A lot of 14- or 15-year-old girls would pick up Cosmo because it has a One Direction band member or Selena Gomez on the cover, without really recognising there’s actually very adult material,” she said. “The articles are extremely graphic in describing sex acts in detail.”

The rapper Cardi B is on the cover of the April issue, which trails a story that promises to “Heat Up Sex!” with “Sizzling Foreplay Techniques” and “Warm Toys For Your Hot Spots”, while “micro-cheating” is under the spotlight.

The real world took another step toward its slow and sure conversion to The Handmaid’s Tale

Michelle Ruiz, Vogue.com

Cosmopolitan is not banned from Walmart. But interested parties will have to find it amid the thicket of other titles in the main magazine section, where in one store in suburban Texas on Thursday, Disney Junior magazine and a Crayola Coloring Book perched next to copies of Tactical Life gun magazine (cover story: “Mass Shooting Mayhem”), Guns & Ammo, Sniper Journal and periodicals devoted to the AK-47 and AR-15 (the latter rifle was the weapon of choice for the teenager who murdered 17 people at a Florida high school in February).

Cosmopolitan was at the other end of the stand, near the bridal and home furnishings titles.

Towards the rear of the store, meanwhile, a wide range of guns were in stock in the Sporting Goods section, a few metres from shin pads and badminton nets.

“While this was primarily a business decision, the concerns raised were heard,” Walmart, which operates more than 5,000 US stores, said in a statement.

Cosmopolitan bills itself as “the world’s largest young woman’s media brand” with a “mission to empower fun fearless females to own who they are and be who they want to be”. It told multiple outlets in a statement: “With our focus on empowerment, we are proud of all that the brand has achieved for women around the world in the areas of equality, health, relationships, career, politics and social issues.”

Founded in 1962 and known as Morality in Media until it was renamed in 2015, the NCSE, based in Washington, linked its crusade with the #MeToo movement. Halverson claimed that Cosmo is “adding to a culture that enforces male sexual entitlement. Every single issue that you pick up of Cosmopolitan will be focused on how to sexually pleasure a man in order to keep him around.”

The reference drew condemnation from Michelle Ruiz, a former sex and relationships editor at Cosmopolitan. “#MeToo is about unwanted sex and sexual attention, sexual assault, and harassment,” Ruiz wrote for Vogue.com.

“Shielding women from reading about the healthy sex they want to have has absolutely nothing to do with #MeToo. In fact, pulling Cosmopolitan – a magazine by (mostly) women for women – only serves to further shame women for wanting to own their sex lives. The real world took another step toward its slow and sure conversion to The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Many conservatives and Christians, though, were delighted. “The false ‘feminism’ Cosmo promotes wrecks young women’s lives, shatters marriages through divorce, and has led to millions of babies being aborted,” Sue Ellen Browder – a former writer for the magazine, now repentant – wrote in the National Catholic Register.

In a curious twist, one of Cosmopolitan’s biggest critics is Victoria Hearst – the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the press baron who founded the corporation that publishes the magazine. In 2001 she used inheritance money to start a Christian ministry in a remote town in the Rocky Mountains and has lent her support to a campaign called Cosmo Hurts Kids.

In recent months the campaign has paid for roadside billboards in conservative states that declare: “Cosmopolitan Magazine Contains Porn”.