Editor of Cosmopolitan Helen Gurley Brown discusses her cult classic book.
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GUEST: Helen Gurley Brown
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our subject today is not “the act”, but the book and the authoress of what it’s re-publisher, Barricade Books, calls “a cult classic”, namely Helen Gurley Brown’s smashingly notorious “Sex and The Single Girl”, which first became an American and international best seller more than forty years ago.
Well, I had met Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown, her wonderful mate, sometime before she was first my guest here on The Open Mind back in 1981, when she had already, as its top Editor long since made Cosmopolitan magazine so enormously successful and her (its) Cosmo girl a kind of American icon.
I introduced Helen Gurley Brown then not only as the amazingly innovative Editor everyone knows her to be, but also as the best listener I’d ever met, a superbly evocative interviewer who draws you out of your own innermost thoughts and in turn those thoughts out of you.
She still does just that. But I hope that today I can turn the tables a bit and get Helen to tell me more about the true impact on American mores of her cult classic “Sex and The Single Girl”.
And Helen I looked back at our transcript from 1981 and I see that in my questioning you about the impact of your book, you said … modestly … “when I wrote “Sex and The Single Girl” I was just reporting about what was already going on and sort of chronicling a condition in this country which was that single women were A-ok and having a great time of it and a good sex life and they were solid citizens. And nobody had ever said that before, so I wrote about it. But I didn’t cause it to happen.”
Now that sounded to me and sounds to me now like Helen Gurley Brown modesty. Didn’t you really have an impact in making what then happened happen?
BROWN: Richard I gave women permission. If you don’t think that’s a little presumptuous … they were already doing it, but I said, “Honey, it’s okay. What you’re doing is enjoyable. It’s not anybody else’s business; you don’t have to talk about it. But just go on and accept what you’re doing as a very normal, happy function.” So women were kind of relieved that I said it was Okay. I didn’t go out there and push, push, push, if you’re not having it happen, go for it. I didn’t do that, I’m not proselytizing. I was just reporting on a condition that did exist. So I’m staying with what I said then those twenty years ago.
HEFFNER: But certainly there are people who said in giving them permission you were really doing something more. You were, not proselytizing, as you deny, but by giving them permission they then did something that they really hadn’t been doing before. Here you say you were just “mirroring” what was happening.
BROWN: I didn’t do a huge survey of thousands of people. I just talked about my girlfriends and me; I figured we were kind of a microcosm of, of the single girl world. And I’m going to stay with what I previously said that sex is pleasurable, no wonder everybody’s having a “go” at it, it feels so nice. So why would you feel guilty about it.
I don’t understand this crowd who says that it’s not the right thing to do. Getting pregnant is something else again. You don’t want that to happen unless you plan on it happening. I sometimes think that the men who didn’t have it happen to them when they were growing up are the ones who were so critical when they were young men. Single girls, barely their wives were having sex with them … therefore they missed out on something wonderful and now, here’s this whole crowd of women saying, “Okay, buddy, let’s go for it.” And they think, “that’s not fair.” So I think that may have been a critical group. But I didn’t pay any attention to them. Richard, you don’t get criticized, you’re so honorable and decent and erudite …
HEFFNER: Are you talking about me?
BROWN: Yes. [Laughter] But I’m saying categorically, you can’t pay any attention to the criticism, if you did that, you wouldn’t get up in the morning. And all the years at Cosmopolitan I never read the unfriendly mail, it couldn’t help you. I was doing what I felt should be done. And in writing “Sex and The Single Girl” I was doing what I thought should be done. You can’t pay any attention to the naysayers. Let them go write their own book.
HEFFNER: And “Sex and The Single Girl” has been re-written and re-written into American mores. I mean you may have been observing and you may have been saying “have your fun”; but today it looks as though this is a description of American life today. No? Is it not true?
BROWN: It’s more of a description of American life today than it was when the book was written. Now it seems there might be more sex going on out there than there used to be. At one point, if you were a married woman having sex with your husband, you were supposed to think about re-arranging a spice rack, or whatever [laughter] …
HEFFNER: And now what are you supposed to think about?
BROWN: You’re supposed to say, “Hey, this is kind of yummy.” I believe that most people fantasize a bit, that’s a whole other story. People who’ve been married for hundreds of thousands of years, as you and I have both been … you might think about somebody else while you are in “the act of” … can’t speak for anyone else. That’s okay.
But I would say categorically there is “yes” more sex going on and I’m one of the pushers because I say it’s what keeps you from being an old tired, crony, crotchety person, if you are still active sexually, you’re part of the human race. And the challenge, as I have said in “Sex and The Single Girl” is finding somebody to have sex with.
If you’re young, you’re okay. You’ve read the statistics in the book, when you’re in your twenties or thirties there actually are more single men than there are single women. But get into your forties and fifties, it gets to be a little troublesome. And in your seventies don’t ask … the statistic is that there are about 2,600,000 [laughter] …
HEFFNER: Are you going to do the statistical route? Go that route?
BROWN: [Laughter] I just … I’ll be careful … but there are a few million unmarried women, they lost their husbands, they’re divorced, they don’t have anybody to have sex with …
HEFFNER: Where did they lose them?
BROWN: To the great beyond … they went “bye-bye” …
HEFFNER: I see.
BROWN: And there only are 800,019 men. So that isn’t nearly … unmarried men … without a mate … that isn’t nearly enough men to go around … so to get back to the original subject, although I am in a way saying, “sex is wonderful, you ought to keep at it because it keeps you younger and friskier and you’re part of the younger group”. Finding somebody with whom that can happen is the challenge. And I spend a great deal of my time trying to fix people up with other people. If a man comes on the market … his wife died or he’s recently divorced, he isn’t the least bit safe, I’m just absolutely relentless. Because I think everybody should have somebody to have sex with.
HEFFNER: My God … what a wonderful statement, Helen.
HEFFNER: What a wonderful statement. And you’re telling me that in the many ways in which you said that, all those many years ago in “Sex and The Single Girl”, that that didn’t really have all that much of an impact, you were just talking about you and your friends and you don’t want to take the responsibility for having been someone who “pushed” a movement. I’m not going to, I’m not going to, you know, nail you to the wall on that, but it does seem to me that this book did have …
BROWN: One thing that happened is that birth control for women got better. There was the diaphragm which was kind of awkward to use; you could never find it when you needed it and it was “gloppy” and a lot of trouble. There was the condom; you couldn’t be trusting of him totally to do what he was supposed to do. But when the Pill came along you could just take it every night and you’d be okay without thinking about it. So that made sex somewhat freer, in my opinion. Because to get pregnant, when you didn’t want to be pregnant that was a real “downer”. So it got to the point where you didn’t have to worry so much about that situation. May I a … excuse me, your show …
HEFFNER: Go ahead …you may … no, no …
BROWN: If you want to say something, Richard, I’ll let you.
HEFFNER: What I want to say is I want to listen to what you’re going to say. What were you going to say? If you tell me you’re not going to say it, okay …
BROWN: What I’m going to tell you is that … I can’t remember what I interrupted you to say.
HEFFNER: See, that’s the price you have to pay for interrupting me.
BROWN: I see.
HEFFNER: But I’ll, I’ll go on …
BROWN: Okay, I know. I got it.
HEFFNER: Go ahead.
BROWN: One wonderful thing which I’ve said in “Sex and The Single Girl” and I say constantly is that to have some activity before you are married is a very good idea because you have a little experience; you’ve had a little fun and pleasure. If you are virginal when you marry, you don’t know anybody but him, so you never have a chance to know what’s out there.
And in my case I was 37 years old before I got married and we don’t want to be too personal, but I hadn’t been chaste … c-h-a-s-t-e … for quite a long time. Therefore, you’ve had some men in your life, you’ve had some fun, you know what it’s all about. Therefore when you marry at that late date, for me, you can stay married for 43 years and you can stay faithful. Why? Well, you like him. He’s fine. But you got it kind of out of your system. You know what it was like with other people, you don’t have go out there wondering “how would it be with Joe, Roger, Henry or Franseka”. You know what it was like with them, you did that already. Now you can be faithful, so it’s a good reason to enjoy your single girl life.
HEFFNER: What do you think … what has happened since that time, since when you described “Sex and The Single Girl”? What do you think the impact has been upon marriage? Upon happiness generally? You’re sort of saying … given the description that you offered, that we must be much happier because there has been a loosening of those old ties.
BROWN: Richard Heffner, I don’t believe in the word “happiness” as applying to anything or anybody unless maybe it’s just a puppy who’s got his puppy chow down on the floor, he’s happy, happy, happy. Who’s happy for goodness sake. What you can be is content, satisfied, and to say that sex has made people happier I don’t go along with that.
What sex possibly has done has caused you to have a real good time, that you might not have been having previously. You’re happy for the moment, but happy is too big a word to apply to most of us most of the time, in my opinion. But to have sex in your life, as we’ve said 14 times already is probably a good idea because it feels good. I’m fond of saying that sex is one of the three best things we have, and I don’t know what are the other two. So sex may not make you happy, happy, happy … but makes you have a good time.
HEFFNER: And that’s important.
BROWN: Well, what does it mean to have a good time? A good time can be had by doing a lot of different things. A good time can be had by helping your fellow man or woman …
HEFFNER: No down side, Helen? Come on.
BROWN: To sex?
BROWN: We’ve mentioned a down side already …
BROWN: Pregnancy. And a down side can be, as I have written about, you can be having sex with somebody where the sex is good, but the emotional relationship is terrible, so you’re hooked on this person, but this person is either not so hooked on you, or is a bad person; maybe having it “off” with a few other ladies beside you. So there can be a down side to sex emotionally. But that doesn’t mean the whole institution is a wreck. It just means we hope you can find somebody with whom you can have it comfortably and confidently.
HEFFNER: I wasn’t about to attack or condemn the institution, but I am serious in asking you whether the greater freedom to have sex today than when you wrote that book … forty years ago, my God … doesn’t have some minuses that accompany it.
BROWN: I think there is a minus in that two people are out on a date, they may not know each other that well, they may not be sexually attracted to each other, or one of them is and one of them isn’t. It’s kind of expected, maybe, that they’ll “go through with it” if not tonight then maybe the next date. So it’s kind of pressurizing in terms of you’re expected to do it and you may not feel like it, or not feel like it with this particular person. But now that it’s okay and you can even have sex on a first date without being a naughty, rotten person, you may not feel like having sex with this person. So it’s a bit of an onus to squizzle away and not do it.
HEFFNER: Well, you seem to be saying though …this is … you have permission then not to do it because you can do it.
BROWN: I like the way you said that “you have permission not to do it”; at the same time you have permission to do it. But if there is a little bit of a push to have more sex because it’s okay, “what are you holding back for, honey, you got moral permission to do it.” That could, that could be a little pressurizing. But to think I can do it or not do it … I am my own boss, that’s the important thing.
HEFFNER: Well let’s go back to the, to the matter of everybody’s doing it, why not do it? You don’t really see terribly much of a down side to that, your emphasis on “it feels good, it’s a source of pleasure”, so no pressures, fine.
BROWN: Could I mention one important down side?
HEFFNER: Yeah. I’m waiting to hear.
BROWN: [Laughter] Patiently, graciously. Young women, in my opinion are starting too young because you do get sort of hung up emotionally; usually with somebody you’re having sex with, if it’s a good experience. And here is this young girl who’s 13, 15, 17 … she’s too young to be all hung up on a man to the extent that you get when you’re having sex. And …
HEFFNER: What’s too young?
BROWN: … it’s too young to get married and it’s certainly it’s too young to get pregnant … oh, Lord …that just scares the daylights out of me all the young women who get pregnant. And you don’t want to get me started on Roe v. Wade staying legal. I just cannot imagine that that will go bye-bye with a new Supreme Court.
HEFFNER: Yes, you can imagine it. You don’t want it.
BROWN: Ah, it’s too … I don’t want to imagine it. So a down side of sexual permission for everybody is that, in my opinion, the teens … anything up to age 19 is pretty young to be having sex. So how are you supposed to not have it, if it’s okay to have it? I hope your mother will be able to influence you a little bit.
HEFFNER: Do you mean to say that now we can say, “Helen Gurley Brown says that before 20, it’s really too early to have sex.” I, I, I want to know …
BROWN: All right.
HEFFNER: Can I quote you that way?
BROWN: What kind of a big shot am I to give permission or not give permission, that’s very presumptuous … I’m just saying my opinion is 18 is plenty early enough. Before that seems a little early to me. I’m just kind of picking a number. Others could pick other numbers. 20 might be a little bit beyond how long you can last. So I think anything under 18 is pretty young.
HEFFNER: That’s very interesting. Has Cosmo indicated that thought?
BROWN: Cosmopolitan never indicated an age at which you might begin having sex and the new editor, Kate White, who is her own person, putting out a very successful magazine … does not specifically say what age would be the right age. And there’s a younger magazine Cosmo Girl, nor does that magazine create an age plateau at which you shouldn’t climb on board before you reach it. No, none of those magazines say specifically when you can or can or should or shouldn’t. We’re sort of expecting your family, your mother, your older sisters to do that.
HEFFNER: How realistic is that? Seriously, how realistic is that? Do you believe that families are close enough together now so that you can safely, whatever that means … say, “we assume that families are providing that advice.”
BROWN: Is the young woman listening to her mother? Some are and some aren’t, but it can’t hurt. I’m not a mother, so I’m a great big deal authority on this subject [laughter] but it can’t hurt for a mother to say to her daughter, “Sex is wonderful, I want you to enjoy it all your life when the time comes. Be a little bit careful about when you begin. Let’s just don’t go, go, go … you don’t want to have your first face lift when you’re 23. Nor maybe do you want to have your first experience with a man when you’re 16. You might just try to wait for a little bit.”
Now, let’s hope that this girl has girlfriends who are also in that situation. They can talk it over. Girlfriends tend to listen to each other more than to anybody else. You’d be better off listening to them than you would be to a man. And if I can just go ahead … the having of a sexual orgasm, if we can use the word on this show …
HEFFNER: [Laughter] What do you mean, if we can use the word on this show?
BROWN: [Laughter] It’s a very pleasurable experience, it can be had without
HEFFNER: … benefit of …
BROWN: … coitus without, without his body being inside of your body … you can have an orgasm lots of different ways … with your … with being touched in various places … even with various deep soul kissing. So you don’t have to have the “act” of sex to enjoy a sexual feeling. It may be something you can’t even do anything about, it’s there, it happened.
HEFFNER: Does that fit into the category of “I did not have sex with that woman?”.
HEFFNER: I …
BROWN: [Laughter) Are you going to …
HEFFNER: I gotta what …
BROWN: …that’s interesting, we’re going to go back to that. He was dissembling, as it were. He was having sex with that woman. He just wasn’t having the old fashioned “act” of sex … I’m using the word “coitus”, is there another word for it … intercourse … intercourse … he was not having sexual intercourse, but he was having sexual activity and he didn’t say that he was, he should have.
HEFFNER: And that’s what you’re indicating. “Hear this, you don’t have to have intercourse, you can have something that someone can say ‘I did not have sex with that woman’.”
BROWN: Yes, Richard, you can say that. And I think anyone who talks about her own or his own sexual experience is yucky and kind of irritating. I won’t go very far with this, but when I was sixteen and seventeen I would come to a climax just by having somebody kiss me. I think it was called French kissing, he had his tongue down your neck. [Laughter] And that would inevitably cause something to happen.
So why did I need to have intercourse … I was much, much, much older than that before anything more serious happened. So we’re back to our original statement that sex is a good feeling, we don’t want to clamp it down, it’s too yummy … but you do not have to have sexual intercourse with a man’s penis in the vagina … I never thought I was going to hear these words on Open Mind; but you don’t have to have physical body parts intertwined inside one another to enjoy sex.
And certainly the bosom is a very sensitive area for a woman. She can reach a climax just by having people be affectionate. And a man, the same thing can happen with his … I’m going to do it again … with his penis … but it’s messier with him … and with you, nothing … you know, you can’t see anything. So we’re a little bit neater and cleaner. I don’t believe this whole show …
HEFFNER: [Laughter] I don’t either, but I just wondered …
BROWN: Do you think we should talk about Iraq?
HEFFNER: [Laughter] I just wanted to hear you go on. And I wanted to ask a serious question. “Sex and The Single Girl” why not “Sex and the Single Boy”?
BROWN: When the original book was written “Sex and The Single Woman” that woman was not supposed to have sex. Men could have been having sex from the time they were reaching puberty … they were 12, 15, 19 years old … no problem … the more the better … your father, your brother, your friends never told a man not to have sex. But as I have said, if a woman was having sex and she didn’t have a husband, she should just go to the Grand Canyon, jump in … throw herself in the Canyon and get it over with. And if she were having … excuse me … I’m not quoting myself correctly … if she were not married, if she weren’t married and had a husband, she should go to the Grand Canyon and throw herself in. If she’s not married and she’s having sex … just go to the kitchen, put your head in the oven … don’t worry about the Grand Canyon, just turn on the gas. Well that was never true … ever, ever, ever, ever for an unmarried man or boy or kid no matter how young. If was okay for him. It was not okay for her. So that’s what had to be straightened out.
HEFFNER: All right. Forty years ago “Sex and The Single Girl” … where do we go from here on … forty, forty-one years later … where do we go from here? What do you expect will happen, if anything?
BROWN: I don’t see how much else could happen in terms of sexuality. Because I think men and woman are so active. And the act can be performed somewhat casually; you don’t have to be madly in love, you don’t have to get a proposition of marriage. It can just be a happy … a happy happening. I don’t see a great deal more activity than there has already been.
I think people were feeling somewhat pressured as I mentioned earlier … after the tennis date … after the movie date … after you’ve been for coffee at Starbuck’s you’re supposed to go back to somebody’s flat and have “at it”. That’s too much pressure. So I don’t think there will be any more, technically, numerically … sex than there has been before.
In Cosmo these days they are very specific with the man/woman stuff on the cover … it’s his pleasure spots, your five places where you haven’t been touched before. There’s a whole lot of carrying on about the pleasure involved. I don’t think we can go much further with that. I would say we’ve reached a plateau. What’s going to take the place of writing and talking and thinking about sex … I don’t know. [Laughter]
HEFFNER: Helen, therefore …
BROWN: I can’t imagine …
HEFFNER: … come back in 40 years and we’ll talk further about the impact of “Sex and The Single Girl” …
BROWN: Oh, Richard …
HEFFNER: And thank you so much for joining me today.
BROWN: Thank you very much, I’m honored. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.