Advertising and moral panic

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
October 22, 2010 /

Click here to view original /

According to popular stereotypes, feminists are an angry lot. We rage, we harangue, we breast-beat, we berate. Media ring us wanting fury; nine times out of ten we give it to ‘em. Sometimes this anger however, is just so thoroughly misguided.

This week the Advertising Standards Board ordered Calvin Klein to remove billboards displayed in Sydney and Melbourne. Women’s groups had complained. The ad is a black and white image: three men, one woman, each in varying stages of undress; a straight-from-MTV chain-link fence in the background. The woman’s head is arched back on the thigh of one man, that man has his hand on the bare back of another bloke who’s about to kiss the woman’s throat. A fourth man, seated, looking all broody and Brando, stares off camera. The “overall impact” of the billboard, according to the ASB, “is suggestive of violence and rape.”

I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve made my career from condemning the ASB, but indeed my PhD and first book devoted many a paragraph to documenting their hopelessness. Yes, I raged, indeed I harangued and of course, I loquaciously berated them for their apparent policy of dismissing complaints about sexism. And yet this week they bucked trend. This week they upheld the complaints. Feminists, I assume, are supposed to rejoice. Our gratitude, no doubt, goes without saying. Me? Nope. For the moment I’m leaving the party poppers in the drawer.

Calvin Klein is always an easy target. A company that built a brand from pimping a 15-year-old Brooke Shields in the 80s, having an off-camera pervert direct underwear-clad kids in the 90s and for which underweight, drugged-up, glazed-over models are their bread and butter: this is simply how Calvin Klein roll. It’s about branding, it’s about “cut through” and it’s about all the copious free advertising they get while we all claim to be offended. I don’t care less about Calvin Klein; I expect absolutely nothing better from them.

What I do care about is that one of the scarce times that the ASB has acted on public outrage, that instead of acting to stop sexism, to stop objectification, to – God forbid – encourage positive presentations of women in all their body-size and ethnic diversity, instead, the ASB has banned the ad on the spurious grounds of rape and violence.

Consent of course, is notoriously fraught. Men and women know that when things are at their hot and heaviest, “can I have sex with you?” is rarely asked. Yes and no are heavy, heavy words. But to look at a photograph of an, albeit orchestrated, sexual encounter and to readily assume that rape is depicted, to assume that violence is occurring, to then go so far as to ban that image; let’s not overlook that this decision has nothing to do with gender equality and everything to do with moral panic.

When I was at high school in the 90s, Magic Eye was all the rage. Computer generated hokum that involved various eye-straining techniques to have something “pop out”. I could never see anything and I’m still convinced it was all rather Emperor’s New Clothes. I’ve looked at the Calvin Klein billboard. I’ve strained my eyes, I’ve ogled and ogled. At most I see sex. I see the earliest stages of a threesome with the uninterested guy on the left acting as lookout / time keeper. I see stock standard fashion photography. Rape? Violence? No. No matter how hard I squint my eyes.

To call this scene rape, to dare suggest it’s violent, presupposes consent is absent. Presupposes the woman is unwilling. Presupposes that the men are taking advantage of her, presupposes she is a victim. Shock horror, women can actually consent to sex. They can even consent to it with more than one man. Hell, they can even want this kind of sex.

In this, our Zeitgeist of wowsers and over-parenting, group sex has suddenly become a synonym for gang rape. In this, our culture of Christian claptrap and conservative curmudgeonry, apparently there’s no capacity to even consider that a woman just might agree to this kind of sex. Such antiquated presumptions serving women no favours.

Sex isn’t always lovemaking in the soft-focused, Vaseline-on-the-lens, Marvin Gaye on the stereo kind of way. Sometimes hair pulling is even involved. Sexual fantasy is complex, it is diverse and to assume that the only way a woman would have group sex is if violence, inebriation and coercion are involved is thoroughly offensive to both men and women.

Go ahead and ban the ad because it’s exploiting a woman’s body to draw attention to a billboard – to a brand – that we’d otherwise happily ignore. Ban the ad because it is in public space where every single commuter is forced to view it. Ban the ad because it’d be completely inappropriate during on TV during Saturday Disney and thus is completely inappropriate for the general audience of public space.

But don’t ban it because we want to pretend that consent can only occur when one man, one woman, a bed and a long cuddle is involved. Don’t ban it because sex that isn’t vanilla makes us uncomfortable. And don’t ban it because we don’t want to accept that the sexual desires of men and women are thoroughly complicated.

© Lauren Rosewarne