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Sex and the Single Girl

Sex and the Single Girl

When Helen Gurley Brown's candid primer Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, both its provocative title and spirited tips on men, money, and morals caused a sensation. It became one of the bestselling books of the year and went on to international success in translation as well. Overnight its author became a media sensation, and Brown just a few years later would be practically handed a magazine of her own—Cosmopolitan —to remake according to the Sex and the Single Girl principles.

Sex and the Single Girl was published only two years after the oral contraceptive pill appeared on the market in the United States. Though there were tens of millions of unmarried women in the country, conventional attitudes in the media—with the exception of Playboy —largely assumed that women did not engage in premarital sexual relations; if they did, they were usually shown to suffer degradation, unwanted pregnancy, or social ostracism as a result of it. Magazines for young women featured articles that recommended "saying no" as a strategy to avoid a man's pressures for them to have sex while on a date. Brides were then still generally expected to be virgins, and abortion was still illegal in most states.

Belying her glamour-girl persona, Brown was actually of humble origins. A native of the Ozarks, she could not afford college, and so learned how to type and got a job as a secretary. Eventually she became an advertising copywriter, and by 1959 (also the year of her marriage to film producer David Brown) she was the highest-paid woman in advertising on the West Coast. Wishing to write a book, Brown heeded the advice of her husband: "Write what you know." And so Brown began pounding out chapters for a primer on the single life for young women.

Sex and the Single Girl offered tips on decorating, on making one's way through more affluent social circles, and suggestions for looking stylish on a budget. Throughout its pages was the constant message: being single is fun, and there's a whole world of men out there ready to flatter their dates. Never interrupt one when he is telling a story, she cautioned; conveniently "forget" to wear some of your lingerie on a date; or wow guests at your chic little dinner parties with "champagne peach"—a peeled peach in a pilsner glass with bubbly poured over. In the book's recipe for stuffed lobster tails, Brown begins the preliminaries with the helpful hint to "ask that nice gentleman behind the counter to scoop out the lobster meat and then put it back in the tail." She even gave tips for investing in the stock market.

But most significantly, Brown wrote both frankly and coyly about sex. She claimed that single women probably enjoyed far more exciting and satisfying sex lives than married women. Throughout its pages, the text treats married people and their attitudes toward single women rather scathingly. A modern unmarried woman, declared Brown, "is so driven by herself and her well-meaning but addlepated friends to become married that her whole existence seems to be an apology for not being married." Elsewhere, Brown theorized that "… the single woman, far from being a creature to be pitied and patronized, is emerging as the newest glamour girl of our times." In one of the last chapters, "The Affair: From Beginning to End," Brown wrote of several different reasons a woman might engage in an affair—even with a married man.

The book was an immediate bestseller. Not surprisingly, there was a huge outcry from conservatives against it—it was an era when U.S. courts were still battling over Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a novel that had been legally banned for explicit sexual content since the 1930s. Later, Brown would also become an easy target of feminist ire, who accused her of objectifying women and encouraging them to see themselves only as sexual creatures.

But Sex and the Single Girl was also a similar hit in translation in numerous other countries, and at one point was selling nearly five thousand copies a week. Brown began to appear often on television and radio, and she did a cross-country lecture tour. She also wrote three other books, including Sex and the Office, which actually caused even more of a stir. In it she set forth explicit guidelines for how to make yourself indispensable to a boss. Some newspapers refused to run advertisements for it. Warner Brothers bought the rights to her first book for $200,000, then the highest amount ever paid for a nonfiction title. The film (1964) was less a documentary than a comic tale, starring Natalie Wood as a marriage counselor with a Ph.D. who was the author of a bestselling book for single women.

Brown and her husband came up with the idea for a magazine, Femme, which would bring the Single Girl attitude to readers on a monthly basis. They were unable to secure funding for a launch, but in early 1965 Brown was hired by the Hearst Corporation to revitalize Cosmopolitan, a moribund magazine that was trying to target single, fun-loving women as its readership. By the time of Brown's retirement in 1997, it had become one of the most successful mass-market magazines for women in publishing history.

—Carol Brennan

Further Reading:

Alexander, Shana. "Singular Girl's Success." Life. March 1, 1963.

Collins, Glenn. "At 60, Helen Gurley Brown Talks about Life and Love." New York Times. September 19, 1982, 68.

Ferguson, Marjorie. Forever Feminine. London, Heinemann, 1982.

Lippert, Barbara. "Gurley Show." Mediaweek. March 4, 1996, MR40.

"Meat Loaf, Anyone?" Newsweek. August 31, 1964, 53.

Roberts, Roxanne. "The Oldest Living Cosmo Girl." Washington Post. January 31, 1996, D1.

"Sex and the Editor." Time. March 26, 1965, 40.

"Sex, the Single Girl and a Magazine." New York Times. March17, 1965.

"What Price the Single Girl?" Esquire. October 1964, 108-109.

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