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Helen Gurley Brown: More than cheerleading a sexual free-for all

Aug. 14, 2012 at 12:08 PM ET

Why would a man buy the cow if he can get the milk free?

That was the warning given to wayward women in the early 1960s, sex expert Joan Price recalls, before Helen Gurley Brown pioneered the idea that even nice girls had intense sexual desires and feelings and, most provocatively, that they could have fun with sex.

 “She was the first one to acknowledge that women were fooling around like crazy and that it was fun, that you should celebrate it and enjoy it, and that sometimes women were the aggressors, that women have a sex drive,” said Jill Herzig, editor-in-chief of Redbook magazine, who worked for Brown for three years starting in 1989.

Brown’s death Monday at age 90 in New York could reignite the debate and conversation about her legacy as a writer, editor, and, most provocatively, a sexual pioneer. Her seminal book, "Sex and the Single Girl," published in 1962, was both shocking and freeing, although her biggest influence may have been her particular mix of ideas about the role of women, female power, and sexual life published monthly in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine.

But her ideas were more complex than just cheerleading a sexual free-for all.

“She represented an affirmation that women were sexual, and not just recipients of sex to get a man. They had intense sexual feelings and desires,” says Price, author of "Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex."  

There were certainly other significant female influences besides Brown who were active at the same time -- women like Betty Dodson, a long-time sexual rights activist, and feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem. And Playboy, while obviously geared for men, was enormously important at getting the sexual freedom message across. 

But the way Brown branded both her magazine and herself set out to prove that any woman -- through force of will, smarts, and a little seduction -- could become magnificent. A self-described “mouseburger,” Brown rose to become one of the most famous people in the country, and renowned as a kind of intellectual sexual vixen.

That motif has become a standard. Today, many woman’s magazines feature some combination of what Herzig called “bravado and confessional,” with the sharing of personal embarrassments, insecurities, but also triumphs.

Brown was both powerful, and insecure. As such she presented a story of herself through her magazine -- and it was her magazine -- that allowed women to acknowledge that seeming contradiction. That was a new approach.

She also used her magazine and public persona to engage politically, supporting abortion rights, and access to contraception for women.

Many younger women have no idea about this part of Brown’s legacy, suggested Indiana University research scientist and author of “Sex Made Easy,” Debby Herbenick. Rather, they find the “man-trapping, change yourself to please a man,” notions that followed in Brown’s wake either anachronistically funny, or offensive. Using a combination of snark and biting criticism they reject it.  

But, Herbenick said, there’s little doubt that Brown “was a key driver” in the development of the 20th Century’s move toward acknowledging “women’s power and agency, that women are able to own their own sexual bodies and look for sexual pleasures, and create the relationships that work for them.”

The theme of girl power may be so ingrained in our culture that it seems kitschy, “but at the time it was revolutionary,” says Herzig.

Brian Alexander (www.BrianRAlexander.com) is co-author, with Larry Young PhD., of "The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex and the Science of Attraction," (www.TheChemistryBetweenUs.com) to be published Sept. 13.

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