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Dec 05 2012

Victoria’s Secret Doesn’t Actually “Love Consent,” But It Should

What sex-positive underwear could look like. (source)

This morning I discovered that Victoria’s Secret has a new line of underwear. It’s called “Pink Loves Consent” and features slogans like “Let’s talk about sex,” “No means no,” “Ask first,” and “Consent is sexy.” The models on the website have all kinds of different body types and they’re not all white.

I immediately loved the new line but was skeptical. After all, this is Victoria’s Secret, which is known for its cultural appropriationegregious use of Photoshop, and portrayal of women as always willing and sexually available.

Of course, it was too good to be true. “Pink Loves Consent” is a hoax.

A feminist group called FORCE took credit for the hoax and wrote:

We are so sorry to tell young women that Victoria’s Secret is not using its voice to create the change you need to grow up safe and free from sexual violence. Victoria’s Secret is not using its brand to promote consent. They are not promoting consent to their 4.5 million “PINK nation” members, to the 500,000 facebook fans or the estimated 10 million viewers who will be watching tonight’s fashion show. But what a different world would it be if they did?  What if consent and communication showed up in the bedroom as much as push-up bras and seamless thongs?

Indeed, the website for the fake line is a vision for what a socially responsible business could look like, particularly when it’s targeted at women. Even though the focus is marketing the (fake) underwear, there’s a section about what consent is and how to talk about sex. The website cleverly embeds a serious message in a fun and youthful image, proving that feminism doesn’t have to always be super-serious and that you can create a compelling product without reinforcing problematic crap like rape culture. The models are glowing and happy and serve as a reminder that it’s not just skinny white women who need to buy underwear. It’s, you know, everyone.

The website also points out the ways in which Victoria Secret’s actual slogans promote rape culture, which is the section that should probably have immediately tipped me off that this is fake. Of VS’s “No Peeking” panty, the site notes that messages like that make “no” seem like a flirty thing to say–a mere step along the road to sex. And, in fact, how often do sexual scripts in movies, TV shows, and books fetishize a woman’s initial refusal and make it seem “sexy” when the man (always a man, obviously) eventually overcomes that refusal?

The other slogan it critiques is “Sure Thing,” printed over the front of a pair of underwear, as though access to what’s underneath it is a guarantee. Does it actually incite rape? I highly doubt it. But is it creepy and unsettling? Definitely. It’s a sign of how we think about women’s bodies and how sexually available they’re supposed to be.

One could argue that Victoria’s Secret is too easy or facile of a target. Perhaps. But it’d be so easy for it to actually create a line like this fake one, and, in fact, a spokesperson told Jezebel that the company is “looking into it.” Given how positive the response has been, they’d be silly not to.

In their Tumblr post, the organizers of the hoax write:

We’re not about taking Victoria’s Secret down.  We are about changing the conversation. The sexiness that is being sold to women by Victoria’s Secret is not actually about sex. It is not how to have sex, relationships or orgasms. It in an IMAGE of what it is to be sexy. So while we are sold cleavage, white teeth, clear skin and perfect hair no one is asking us how our bodies feel and what we desire. Victoria’s Secret owns the image of female sexuality, instead of women owning their own sexuality.

They also note that consent needs to become a “mainstream” idea, just like condoms did in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As a sex educator, I can attest to the fact that even condoms aren’t yet as mainstream as they should be (and perhaps they can’t be, given how inaccessible they are to certain groups of people). However, given how many people still don’t realize that consent does not merely mean the absence of a “no,” there’s still a long way to go.

(For the record, there’s a good criticism to be made of the whole “consent is sexy” concept, but that’s a topic for another post.)

Victoria’s Secret and its slogans are a ridiculously tiny slice of the rape culture pie, sure. But if a company as large and influential as VS were to make consent part of its product and part of the conversation, it would make a difference.

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    Consent is sexy.

    What’s sexier: Wiffle-waffling or “oh gods yes I want it now!”

  2. 2
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Katherine:

    I take it you’re responding to the bit near the end about the existence of a critique of “consent is sexy” campaigns.

    Why? Because we haven’t eliminated the pressure to “be sexy”. If sexy is saying, “oh gods yes I want it now” then the pressure shifts from, “wear $40 pink panties,” to, “say yes whenever someone asks for sex”.

    There is already a social pressure to heterosexual women to say yes to any man that qualifies as “theirs” (husband, steady boyfriend, etc.) when that man asks for sex. While sexy is wearing pink panties, you can do 1/2 your socially mandated job by wearing the panties and saying no. When “consent” is sexy (rather than “communication” or “respect” or “broccoli”) then you can’t even do 1/2 your job by being sexy without saying yes to a sex act you don’t want. It’s nice that you don’t have to blow $40, but at the cost of one’s ability to say, “No”? No thank you.

    Now that’s the critique. There are responses and information campaigns aren’t mere slogans, but …
    some people will only be exposed to the slogan, and for those people it is legitimate to wonder whether such a slogan will help or hurt.

    I’m not saying that they are more harmful than they are helpful, I’m just elaborating on the nature of the critique.

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      The critique I’d heard was more along the lines of, asking for consent should be basic human decency, not something you do because it’s “sexy.” Which I agree with. But I also think the “consent is sexy” slogan is a response to the ridiculous notion that asking for consent somehow “ruins the mood,” which it doesn’t unless, obviously, the answer is no. In which case, it’s a good thing that the mood got ruined.

  3. 3
    Jordan Genso

    Great blog post. It’s my first time visiting your blog, so I’ll be sure to come back. I hadn’t heard of this story anywhere else.

  4. 4
    smrnda

    I don’t get how anybody, other than someone who is sadistic or highly impaired in the empathy department can find sex with anything other than an enthusiastic “yes” palatable. Isn’t sex better when the other person really, really actually wants to have sex with you?

    All said, this isn’t perfect, but it does send out a good message and, by contrast, shows you how shitty the messages being sent out by VS really are.

  5. 5
    cheesynougats

    Is it bad that the first thought I had upon going to their site was “Finally! VS is using models I find attractive!”
    Still, I would like to hear that they are actually going to use this, though from what I remember Frederick’s of Hollywood would be more likely to go for a campaign like this.

  6. 6
    carpenterman

    As nice as it would be to see a large company like VS do something purely as an act of social responsibility, the only way it will actually happen is if they can be convinced it will be profitable. The message can’t be, “Do this and I will respect you”; it must be, “Do this and I will buy your product”.

  7. 7
    Rai N.

    As an advertising executive I can tell you that if you are looking for the psychological source behind almost all campaigns look no further than the 7 Deadly Sins along with the (correctly held) belief that fear is a much faster road to a sale than confidence.

    Since I have never worked directly with VS and I have no idea of what their research is telling them I will simply point out that they have never had a model work beyond the age of 28 so clearly appealing to a mature women is not a big part of their marketing plan. And following the logic of my first statement: If people have personal confidence, marketing definitely does not work as well so it’s really in large companies collective best interest to keep consumers (women AND men) second-guessing themselves.

    What better way to start than with girls shopping for their first bra?

    I have often been curious about what many large brands’ plans are for women with buying power in their 30s. From my own experience, unless we are mothers many appear not to have one which I believe is a huge problem for these companies; but one I personally enjoy as a “free” shopper.

    There are a few exceptions, you will notice that a few years ago when Home Depot found out that approx. 50% of money spent in their stores was in large part influenced or came directly from a woman their marketing and store layouts changed dramatically. Now in every commercial you’ll notice a strong female presence and sometimes (shock!) even a strong female character… talking with another female character… knowledgeably! Will wonders never cease…

    But back to VS… they are not actually marketing to women. They are marketing to men. If men think that VS is supposed to be sexy then the assumption is that women will follow suit. This works best while people are immature and a bit inexperienced (hello fear), which is why most of their products are little more than strips of cheap material incapable of holding a real women’s shape up, in or out or lasting beyond a half dozen wearings.

    As for bemoaning why VS doesn’t have underwear with slogans like “ASK FIRST” – I mean, come on, that is really not going to appeal to men or women – it is too blunt. And all advertising is a little lighter than that, though with the same connotations. I wonder if CONGRATS would test well?

    For my part I will continue to include smart women characters in my ads, even if I have to sneak them in from time to time, because sometimes a light touch is a heavy influence.

  1. 8
    Of Pranks and Playboy: The Pros and Cons of Online Hoaxes » Brute Reason

    […] So, obviously, the article wasn’t really written by Playboy. It was a prank by a group called FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which was also responsible for a similar hoax involving Victoria’s Secret last winter. […]

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