Cosmopolitan and What People Need to Know About Anti-Woman Magazines

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Cosmopolitan magazine isn’t exactly as a bastion of feminist thought.

And yet, with all the delicacy of a bull in a china shop, the magazine waded into an issue threatening to pull the feminist movement apart: the relationship between sex and gender. Their recent op-ed, entitled “TERFs and what everyone needs to know about ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’”, fanned the flames of a debate that has already reached boiling point.

At the Labour Party conference, a group of feminists set up a meeting to discuss women’s rights – and how those rights may be compromised by policies allowing for self-identification. A Woman’s Place UK is a grassroots organization that has hosted a series of respectful, fact-based discussions around a subject that is explosive. No matter how hostile conversations about sex and gender grow, WPUK keeps their approach constructive. And yet their meeting was met with violent opposition.

Protestors tried to stop women attending the meeting, poured water on women, and banged on the windows of the venue. Women attending reported feeling unsafe. One young woman had a severe panic attack.

The term ‘TERF’ paved the way for these intimidation tactics. It is used to denote a sub-class of women who are acceptable targets for violence. Online conversations about sex and gender are littered with violent threats towards the women branded “TERFs”. ‘Punch a TERF’, ‘kill a TERF’, ‘burn a TERF’ – all of these words have real-life consequences. Julie Bindel – a lesbian feminist who has devoted her life to challenging male violence against women and girls – was recently attacked as she left a panel discussion on women’s rights. Her attacker shouted that Julie was a TERF while trying to punch her.

Online conversations about sex and gender are littered with violent threats towards the women branded “TERFs”. ‘Punch a TERF’, ‘kill a TERF’, ‘burn a TERF’ – all of these words have real-life consequences.

More than any other demographic of women, it is lesbians like Julie who are likely to be demonized as TERFs. There are even some who argue that the term lesbian is a ‘TERF dogwhistle’. It’s not just the religious right problematizing same-sex attraction. Now members of the progressive left are framing lesbian sexuality as exclusionary. And articles like Cosmo’s make a point of describing lesbians as “TERFs”.

“…last month [TERFs] appeared at Manchester Pride. A group – of mainly lesbians – called ‘Get the L Out’ forcibly led the parade, carrying banners and handing out transphobic leaflets. Other stunts have included lying down in front of the march at London Pride in 2018.”

Instead of outlining Get the L Out’s position or engaging with why so many lesbians are turning to separatist politics, Cosmopolitan chose to condemn them. We cannot resolve the tensions surrounding sex and gender without open discussion. And we cannot have that open discussion while lesbians are branded bigots for experiencing same-sex attraction. Cosmopolitan’s article contributed to the climate of sexism and homophobia that make a growing number of lesbians see separatism as necessary.

We cannot resolve the tensions surrounding sex and gender without open discussion. And we cannot have that open discussion while lesbians are branded bigots for experiencing same-sex attraction. Cosmopolitan’s article contributed to the climate of sexism and homophobia that make a growing number of lesbians see separatism as necessary.

Cosmopolitan is hardly committed the LGBT community. Repairing the rifts around sex and gender isn’t high on their list of priorities. Although they post the occasional article about lesbian life, the advice on sex and relationships almost all relates to het couples. How to attract a man, how to keep hold of a man, how to have the type of sex men like… For a supposed women’s magazine, there’s a lot of focus on what men want from us.

Cosmopolitan isn’t invested in the feminist movement either. If women were truly free, it’s unlikely we’d buy into the diet culture, beauty products, and celebrity gossip that fill Cosmo’s pages. Its pages are an endless parade of skinny, white, able-bodied white women promoting unrealistic beauty standards.

Sure, there’s the occasional nod to body positivity, but for the most part, Cosmo profits from the same model as the beauty industry: convincing women there’s something wrong with us, but we’ll find out how to fix it if only we buy this magazine. So it’s no great wonder that they don’t like lesbian feminism.