PINK Loves Consent–Using Victoria’s Secret to Sexualize Consent?

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 SecretVictoria’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).

o-PINK-LOVES-CONSENT-570Recently, 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.

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Gendering Sex and Sexual Violence

I never teach my courses on gender and sexuality without this table:

The table comes from Ed Laumann and colleague’s book, The Social Organization of Sexuality (1994).  There’s a variety of fascinating information throughout the text which aims to explore one of the first nationally representative surveys dealing with sexual identities, behaviors, and more.  This table in particular comes from the portion of the text where they describe their findings relative to coercive sex.

When I show this table in classes, I ask the students to tell me what they see.  The first thing students typically mention is the relatively high proportion of men who state that they have never been forced to do something sexual (96.1%).  Others point out the lower proportion of women (77.4%) who say that they have never been sexually forced.  Someone usually says something about this coming close to the “1-in-4” estimate that has become so popular.

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