Bodies are gendered spaces. The ways we treat, feed, starve, surgically alter, pluck, shave, display, move, conceal, care for, damage, and ignore them in patterned ways that are both gendered and sexualized. We learn to display gendered and sexualized bodies in many ways, but some voices are louder than others in helping us decide. If it were possible to measure the relative volumes of gender and sexual socializing forces in our lives, I think it’s safe to say that Victoria’s Secret would measure somewhere between a loud yell and a scream. Of course, sometimes the most powerful messages come in the form of a whisper, softly suggesting rather than deafeningly demanding. And Victoria’s Secret works in these more subtle ways as well.
Victoria’s Secret is so pervasive now that it’s easy to forget a time when the store didn’t exist. Opening in 1986, the chain commanded the market by 1990. The store is an experience unto itself. The theme is Victorian, and the chain emerged attempting to revive Victorian women’s undergarment fashion standards such as the corset and the bodysuit. However, the meanings of these cultural objects has transformed such that the ways they are interpreted and their consequences are different today than they were in the Victorian era (see here).
Recently, Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancatto—two sexual violence activists and educators and co-founders of FORCE: upsetting rape culture—started a protest relying on the cultural imagery and power of the Victoria’s Secret empire. Launching a website, PINK Loves Consent, that uses the same background imagery of the Victoria’s Secret site, Nagle and Brancatto present a series of images of “real women” wearing slinky, sexy lingerie with messages like: “No Means No,” “Let’s Talk about Sex,” “Consent is Sexy,” and “I Love My Body.”
Like Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, the women depicted in these images present a larger diversity of women’s bodies (critiques of Dove’s campaign notwithstanding—see here and here). Some consumers have been “tricked” by the site, mistakenly believing that Victoria’s Secret sponsored this line. Victoria’s Secret formally asked for the site to be taken down, though currently, PINK Loves Consent remains online. With the help of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and more, they’ve successfully started a digital conversation about sexualizing consent that seems to have taken hold.
What’s interesting about the campaign—particularly on the heels of sexual violence and assault campaigns that blame victims of violence rather than targeting victimizers (see ad to right)—is that it really does start a conversation about rape culture. In the comments from one article on the campaign in the Huffington Post, a reader wrote: “[F]or the most part, telling a rapist not to rape makes as much sense as telling a killer not to kill or a robber not to rob. They ALREADY know it’s wrong. They do it anyway.” This is the issue. Most conversations about rape and sexual violence treat it as an individual issue and take men’s sexually predatory behavior for granted—as though it has always and will always exist.
But sexual violence can take place without the perpetrators necessarily being aware of their crimes in a culture in which consent is not a central aspect of our sexual scripts (I’ve posted on this before here). Rather, anthropological work on the topic has shown that sexual violence is more likely to occur in societies with higher levels of gender inequality (here). Sociological work on the topic finds that the social spaces we occupy can be structured and organized in ways that make sexual violence more and less likely as well (here). This suggests that rather than seeing sexual violence as telling us something about men’s innate and pathological desires, we ought to let sexual violence tell us something about the cultures and social spaces in which it emerges and the sexual scripts that support it.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Victoria’s Secret should cease to exist, nor that they are “to blame” in any straightforward way. What PINK Loves Consent helps to illustrate is that we need a larger conversation about how to retain the elements of sexuality that we find “sexy” while incorporating more conversations about equality, safety, and respect in sexual relationships and imagery. This is, in my opinion, the height of sexiness. I’m not sure it’s the perfect campaign, but it’s also difficult to know what the perfect protest would look like. Like glitter-bombing, getting attention is an integral first step to being heard. Whether or not it is the “right” message and whether that message is actually received is another matter altogether.