The Future of Sex: In Conversation with the Editors of Cosmopolitan and Esquire

Under the aegis of the 92Y

Cosmopolitan and Esquire magazines teamed up with the iconic Kinsey Institute to find out how the future of sex will change in a post-pandemic world. Findings are addressed by Cosmopolitan Editor-in-Chief Jessica Pels, Esquire Editor-in-Chief Michael Sebastian (since 2019), and sex educator Haylin Belay (Sex Ed for All, Emotional Labor podcast and Cosmo’s How to Sex Toy series.)

In 1965, venerable i.e. bland Cosmopolitan Magazine hired powerhouse editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown (of Sex and the Single Girl fame) who turned it into a compilation of facts and fancy for independent single women. Despite its being banned by certain store chains, editorials included sexual subjects. As conservative as much of the country becomes, the magazine continues to be popular and increasingly explicit. Now at the helm, Jessica Pels is the youngest editor-in-chief (32) the magazine has ever hired.

“We didn’t want to do a story about what’s happening during Covid, we wanted to look forward and see what’s coming up next,” Pels says about the survey. Results are counterintuitive. Instead of expected break-ups, couples seem to be committing. Instead of summer 2021 becoming what Belay calls “the horniest summer of all,” it’s leaning towards a reset.

“Singles are not interested in one night stands when they go back out,” Pels comments. There’s an acknowledgment of feeling empowered, but so temporarily and indiscriminately the practice seems less attractive. “The hook-up culture may not be sexually or emotionally satisfying.” Sebastian anticipated results showing increased divorce. Apparently 69 percent of men said they feel more affection for their partners than they did before Covid and 68 percent said they were less likely to cheat. “Waking up every day in a kind of apocalypse makes you appreciate every day,” Pels notes. “It may seem morbid,” Belay adds, “but it’s a pretty decent way to live.”

The three participants have experienced the last year in very different circumstances. Pels started the pandemic single, dated during it, and is now in a long term relationship. Sebastian is married with two children. Before lockdown, both he and his wife worked “going in a million different directions,” limiting quality time. They grew closer during Covid. In fact, when he recently returned to the office, the executive found he missed her. “Having said that, nothing kills libido more than having a couple of little kids around all the time,” he adds.

“The process of moving through this has made us all much more aware of our emotions. … A partner can help you feel safe and comfort you. We may have a better sense of what we want and need now. Men were taught to be strong, women not to appear needy, both of which shut down emotions, Belay remarks. “I’m a relationship anarchist. If I’m going to die tomorrow, I want the kind of relationship I want to have. When you’re confined to virtual interaction, how do you get a polyamory awakening? I don’t think there’s a categorical relationship I have that comes with boundaries and expectations…I build my relationships on how I know myself to be, not what society dictates.” Sebastian asks Pels whether this new form of anarchy is prevalent.

“Not prevalent, but increasingly on the radar,” she responds. “I’m often asked how to handle jealousy. The dating industrial complex is set up for hetero-monogamous relationships. All the apps are set that way. Young women today are confident individuals.” Helen Gurley Brown addressed her readers as “mouseburgers.” She tried to instill confidence.

“Covid also helped destigmatize self pleasure,” Pels continues. Clearly this is more true of women. Sebastian relates that men talk a big game (in terms of sexual conquests), but the survey revealed different behavior. “No one is doing as much of anything as they say they are and we all think they are,” Belay notes. “As a health educator I’m hearing people say they’re talking more to sexual partners – about other partners, testing…” and, one hopes, desires. She admits her information is anecdotal and not based on data.

“One thing I’d like to touch on,” Sebastian says, “is lack of drama…The juicy part of the survey showed couples got more experimental. The body responds differently to different context. If I have unfettered sex with my partner, it’s affected by physiological safety.” On the other hand, there are apparently more people now willing to pursue open relationships with someone to whom they’re committed. The term “monogomish” was used. “Esquire’s been a lynchpin in the dating industrial complex,” he tells us. “We’re constantly reexamining masculinity.”

Audience Question: What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t dated the whole year?

Pels recommends the dating app Hinge, where she met her boyfriend. The survey revealed people were using COVID to break out of bad relationship habits like ghosting (cutting someone off without explanation). “Maybe expect a better dating pool. We all have bad habits. Think about what might you change to be more present than usual.”

Audience Question: What if you get too reliant on your partner?

Sebastian suggests giving one’s partner encouragement and space now that things are opening up. He or she should go out with friends apart from you. “I think it’s going to be an unwinding process.”

“You may find you’ve completely forgotten how to interact with people,” Belay says. “We’re geared towards human connection, but…”

“I’ve been shocked by the energy it requires to interact now. I had lunch with my publisher, a magazine thing to do. When I got home I had to take a nap,” Pels recalls. Sebastian seconds the feeling. A good meeting in the afternoon drove him into bed earlier that evening.

Belay wonders to what extent the trends are permanent and to what extent temporary. Pels responds, “I marvel at our ability to forget. I wouldn’t be surprised if we whitewash the past year and shift back into old habits, but I hope the good changes stick.” Sebastian disagrees. “I think this is a real pivot point. There’s going to be a pretty clear before and after.” Belay concurs. “A layer has been peeled away, especially in terms of information and entitlement.”

“On that hopefully optimistic note,” Pels closes the conversation.

Photo Courtesy of the event. Left to right: Jessica Pels, Michael Sebastian, Haylin Belay

About Alix Cohen (1105 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.