Your “orgasm face”? Cosmo and the pornification of women

Cosmo cover

I’ll be traveling intermittently over the next two weeks, and will occasionally repeat an old column. This article originally appeared on my Open Salon blog in November 2008.

Waiting in the drugstore recently, I was startled by a glimpse of the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine. No, it was not the display of copious cleavage, nor the breathless tone of the article titles. It was the title of one article in particular: Your Orgasm Face; What He’s Thinking When He Sees It.

As a gynecologist, I’ve had unique opportunity to view the consequences of increasing sexual openness. It appears to be a bonanza for young men, generally at the expense of young women. Men get all the benefits; women carry all the risks. Men get laid, get action, get lucky and women get pregnant, get sexually transmitted diseases, get infertile, get cervical cancer.

And all in exchange for what? Young men are almost always sexually satisfied by their relationships. Young women? Not so much … because young men are often inexperienced lovers more concerned about their own enjoyment than anything else.

The idea that women exist solely for the sexual satisfaction of men is the basis of pornography. What is surprising and depressing is that young women are being encouraged by other women to believe that they exist only for the sexual satisfaction of young men.

Pornography is the objectification of women, generally described as:

Portraying women as physical objects that can be looked at and acted upon, and failing to portray women as subjective beings with thoughts, histories, and emotions. To objectify someone, then, is to reduce someone exclusively to the level of object.

In pornography, the objectification of women is sexual. Women are physical objects that can be looked at and acted upon sexually. They have no thoughts, feelings or needs of their own.

That does not, in itself, mean that pornography is bad. As long as the viewer understands that it is fictional and unrealistic, it can be viewed as nothing more than a sexual outlet. The problem occurs when people begin to believe that it is a realistic depiction of women, and that women do exist only to satisfy the sexual needs of men and have no sexual needs of their own.

The relentless use of sexual imagery to sell products and gain attention can be blamed for giving young women the idea that their role in life is to satisfy the sexual needs of men. It is an unfortunate, and unintended consequence of sexualizing large swaths of contemporary culture. Altogether more disturbing, because it is intended and explicit, is the way that women’s magazines have encouraged women themselves to believe that their chief value is as objects for the sexual gratification of men.

There are many offenders, but Cosmopolitan Magazine tops the list, for its sheer variety and lack of subtlety, if nothing else. The cover of this month’s Cosmo includes articles on Total Body Sex, the Naked Quiz and The Trick that Attracts Hot Guys Like Crazy. But even Cosmo has reached a new low with the featured article Your Orgasm Face; What He’s Thinking When He Sees It.

As if the objectification of women in men’s magazines were not bad enough, encouraging men to believe that women exist only for their sexual pleasure, women’s magazines are emphasizing the point: Not only are your sexual needs and desires irrelevant, ladies, but you will be judged if you dare to express them. What matters about your sexual needs is not their fulfillment, just the effect that your fulfillment has on men’s enjoyment.

Cosmo reminds women that not only are they being judged for sexual attractiveness (evidently the only characteristic of concern) by breast size, weight and facial features, now they are being judged on how they look during sex. You might be pretty, you might be thin, you might be well endowed, and that will convince him to take you to bed. That’s not where it ends, though. He’s still entitled to judge your performance during sex and finding you lacking.

I don’t get it. Why do we tell young women that they are free to be soccer stars or astronauts, and then barrage them with signals that the only thing that really matters is sex? This relentless “pornification” of women violates everything we claim to believe about gender equality.

What does he think about your orgasm face? Why should any woman care? Only someone who believes that she exists for the sexual satisfaction of men would consider the question to have any relevance at all.