One of the best things about setting up shop in your dentist’s waiting room is getting the chance to crack open a glossy-pink issue of Cosmo and read the batshit sex advice without worrying that anyone you know will see you. Cosmo’s sex advice is, as sex-positive site Nerve put it, “outrageous, impractical, and just plain bad.” It encourages women to do stuff like “chew a small piece of mango … then take him in your mouth.” It’s famous for suggestions like incorporating food items in the bedroom or introducing a spray bottle full of ice-cold water to shake things up. And, as writer Amanda Hess describes in Slate, during editor-in-chief Kate White’s 14-year term, the magazine made doughnuts a staple of the bedroom, featuring them again and again in books and web articles, starting in 2003.
“I broke the donette in half and [held] it around the base of the penis,” reads a 2014 take, which incorporated a mini-doughnut or “donette.” “I alternated licking the dessert and D.”
How did Cosmo’s sex advice get this way? We have Kate White to thank. From 1998 to 2012, she served as Cosmopolitan’s editor-in-chief, increasing readership by more than 700,000 people—at a time when superpower magazines from the 1960s were in a long decline—and thrusting wild sex advice into the hands of women (and surreptitious men) everywhere.
Why did you make the magazine more candid about sex than it was before?
In order to make it fit better with the times. Helen Gurley Brown told me that when she reinvented Cosmo — brilliantly, I might add — back in the sixties, she wanted women to know that they could have sex before marriage without feeling guilty, and under her the magazine was sexy but not especially candid by today’s standards. By the time I took over, the world had changed. Unlike many baby boomers, Gen X women—and later Gen Y—didn’t feel self-conscious or guilty about sex, and they were used to talking about it frankly with their friends. I wanted the magazine to reflect that spirit.
Amy Schumer wrote for me back then and did some awesome videos for one of my apps. I could tell even then that she was going to be such a perfect voice for her generation. I wanted the magazine to reflect women like her.
How did you change the voice of Cosmo to what it’s known for today?
One of my writers once complained that some of what he wrote was getting too “cleaned up” by the editors. In terms of relationships and sex, his stories were getting over-edited and made less raw. I called all the editors in and said, “If you are doing this, you have to stop.”
I think that [honesty about sex] was an important thing to bring to our reader. I think that was the main thing readers were interested in — “tell me what I need to know.” I once had one of our writers, who was a DJ, keep a diary of how often he thought about sex during the day and it was so much fun. It was like: “scrambled eggs, sex, coffee, sex, shower, sex.” I felt it was helpful for our readers to know how much men think about sex and how dominant it is in their brains.
How did you dig up these sex tips?
In terms of where we gathered everything — partly it was from some really terrific people we interviewed. There were some certified sex therapists who dealt with couples and really helped me understand that, after the first 18 months to three years of a relationship, the novelty aspect really wears off and so does that feeling of infatuation and pure bliss in the beginning.
Sometimes it was done in an informal way, like shooting out an email, but sometimes we would do surveys. In fact, I did the most amount of research I’ve ever done as editor-in-chief at Cosmo. Not only were we gathering information about readers in terms of who they were and what they wanted, but we would get a sense of what their needs were in terms of relationships as well. That’s how we got information on how to keep their sex lives fresh.
Did you expect people to follow Cosmo’s advice?
It’s not really about the doughnut or the blindfold or a particular sex position. It’s about the importance of novelty in your sexual relationship. Novelty helps keep sexual attraction and eroticism alive and thrilling. According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, novelty releases dopamine, which creates a feeling similar to infatuation. And since we aren’t necessarily hardwired to be monogamous for 50 or 60 years — the length of some relationships today — this kind of novelty is very important. People can mock it all they want, but if you bring fun and novelty into your sexual relationship, you have a far better chance of it lasting a long time.
Do you think women truly look for this type of advice?
Absolutely. I think readers understood that sex was a key part of their relationships and they wanted it to be as good as possible. Where else could they turn for this kind of information? They probably didn’t get any help in high school because of the ridiculous restrictions on sex education. They certainly couldn’t talk to their parents or their gyno. Most women told us that their gynos didn’t even ask if they were sexually active. Their friends might be open to talking, but they didn’t have all the answers. Sex is such a vital part of life and relationships, but as a society we don’t seem to think it’s important to educate people on the subject. We expect people to just find out through often painful or embarrassing trial-and-error. We are so much better these days about helping individuals be better parents, but not sex partners.
What’s the biggest misconception you think readers had about sex?
Fortunately women know so much more today. They know they’re entitled to have orgasms — maybe we have Meg Ryan to thank for that because of her brilliant scene in When Harry Met Sally — and they know that having an orgasm can be tricky. What works for one woman doesn’t work for another. But women are aware that they’re entitled to keep experimenting until they get it down, and that they need to be open with their partners about their needs.
Why did you leave? Do you miss it?
I absolutely loved my job — it involved everything from giving dinner parties for people like Rihanna to writing Cosmo cover lines — one of my favorite parts of the job — to overseeing a staff of incredibly fun people. I worked for a great company, and it was exhilarating to run such a successful part of it. But I’d been there 14 years and I was ready for a change. Mainly I wanted the experience of being an entrepreneur while I still had the chance.
What are you doing now?
I’m now a full-time author and a public speaker and that fits with the “outdoor cat” part of my personality. I divide my time between giving speeches on leadership and writing mysteries and psychological thrillers. My most recent is The Wrong Man and I have two coming out next year. And I live with my husband in Uruguay for part of the year. Now that’s novelty.