- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

One of the more outre common places of modern life is the mandatory voyeurism of the supermarket check-out line. The inevitable wait to pay transforms even the most distracted shopper, however briefly, into a captive audience for a nearly cinematic pastiche of glossy sexual intimacy and abandon complete with X-rated subtitles about rather improbable anatomical maneuvers and other heat-seeking measures. And heaven help the parent whose grade-schoolers pipe up that they want to try out "the most incredible bedroom trick of all" plugged, of course, in giant letters beneath an abundant plunge of cleavage.

But can it be that the check-out line, forced gauntlet of sex (not to mention sugar) that it is, has become slightly less tawdry of late? Inside.com, an Internet magazine that tracks the publishing trade, recently reported on a "newfound primness" in the salacious world of women's magazines that dawned recently when Cosmopolitan and Glamour, two industry leaders in lowness, effectively banned the word "sex" from their covers. "Over the last six months," writes David Carr, "the two magazines which had been in an arms race over cover lines that had all the linguistic subtlety of a gynecological exam - have defaulted to 'Whoa Baby' romance novel motifs."

Let's be clear: The "Whoa Baby" motifs Mr. Carr cites practically straight-faced as evidence of a "newly demure" mag-world sensibility are still about as out of place in a grocery store as is thong-flashing in the Oval Office. In fact, these "more chaste" magazine cover lines remain emphatically tasteless to the point of being unquotable in the kind of newspaper that may linger a few days in the family den. But that doesn't mean that there hasn't been a discernible change.

Why? Nope a renaissance of decency is hardly under way in the women's magazine world. But sales are down in 2000, almost 10 and 11 percent for Cosmopolitan and Glamour respectively. Does that mean stop the presses that sex isn't selling the way it used to? Could be. Inside.com cites "ennui" as partially inspiring the fall-off. "I think that beyond the 'ick' factor, there is the boredom factor," explained Elizabeth Crow, a longtime executive in the magazine trade. "Once you've found out how to supersize your sex life four different ways, the fifth is not all that interesting."

Be that as it may, don't underestimate that "ick" factor. Jane Pratt, eponymous editor of Jane, said that halfway through 2000 she toned down her magazine's bluntly sexual cover lines about comparative vibrator shopping and the like because "the readers didn't like it and they told us so. They thought it was low brow, something they wouldn't be proud of having on the coffee table." Particularly not next to that Martha Stewart-inspired floral-foam-filled ice bucket full of pussy willow branches decked with blown and decorated Easter Eggs.

Of course, it's not just readers who have made their sexual dissatisfaction known. Supermarkets are hearing from all those long-suffering shoppers who, after all, are dropping in for pull-ups and frosted Pop Tarts, not come-ons and airbrushed hot tarts. Their complaints, along with the laudable efforts of such groups as the American Decency Association (an offshoot of Donald W. Wildmon's American Family Association), are getting an encouraging response.

Many grocery stores across the nation, including such chains as Ohio-based Kroger's, Massachusetts-based Big Y and Maryland-based Giant Food, have actually taken some of the more strumpety mags and dropped them behind the Mother-Hubbard-like shields once reserved for pornographic men's magazines.

There, of course, they can ooze suggestively from month to month all they like, but the casual observer has only to look at their names. As Donald D'Amour, CEO of Big Y, told Fox News recently, "People don't need to have to give their six, seven, and 10-year-olds sex education every time they go to a check-out counter."

Indeed. It's bizarre, to say the least, to live during an age when Mr. D'Amour's words are actually debatable, and not just as obvious as looking both ways before crossing the street. But that's what happens when everything is waved into the mainstream and nothing is restricted to its margins where shopping for dinner with the kids routinely includes an explicit menu of sexual specials as well. Considering the uphill movement to give those gamey gal mags some cover and maybe a zone of their own an encouraging development, to be sure it becomes clear, once again, that it's much harder to restore a sense of order and place to a society than it ever was to abolish them. But that doesn't mean it isn't well worth the effort.


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