Despite broadcasting objectifying and pornified representations of women, reinforcing sexist and harmful stereotypes about women and sexuality, and accusations of bullying and harassing young female staff, sex store Honey Birdette’s go-to refrain is that they are “empowering women”.
This claim is at odds with reality. Read on as we unpack the various ways that Honey Birdette disempowers women and girls.
1. Sexist, pornified and sexually objectifying representations of women
Honey Birdette routinely broadcasts sexist, pornified and sexually objectifying representations of women in their floor to ceiling advertising. The sex store features hypersexualised depictions of women’s bodies or even just parts of their bodies, often alongside sleazy, sexualised slogans. Treating women as things, as mere objects for men’s use and entertainment, disempowers women. Decades of research also outline the various harms to women and girls from this kind of objectifying treatment.
A review of twenty years of research, from 109 publications containing 135 studies found:
consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and regular, everyday exposure to this content are directly associated with a range of consequences, including higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, greater support of sexist beliefs and of adversarial sexual beliefs, and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women. Moreover, experimental exposure to this content leads both women and men to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity.
We have long argued the objectification of women should be regarded as a discriminatory practice, one that should be considered to constitute sexual harassment, and treated as threats to the health, well-being and status of women and girls.
Links between sexist advertising and violence against women
The NSW Government acknowledged the links between media and advertising reinforcing sexist and stereotypical gender roles and men’s violence against women in their 2016 report on sexualisation:
The exposure to media representation of genders...can provide templates for what it means to be a boy/man (equated with sexual conquest and entitlement to access women’s bodies) and girl/woman (sexually available).
The NSW Government further maintains, in line with the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022, that such stereotyping contributes to attitudes that support or justify violence against women and girls.
The harms of sexually objectifying women are well-established and well known. Honey Birdette can’t say they didn’t know- they just care more about profits than women and girls.
2. Broadcasting BDSM and porn-themed imagery to an all ages audience- and even Santa isn’t off limits
Honey Birdette blatantly disregards the rights of children to grow up free from sexualisation. According to the American Psychological Association, one way sexualisation can occur is through exposure to sexualised advertising material and products aimed at adult consumers.
The harms of sexualisation are extensive. In its 2007 Task Force into the sexualisation of girls the American Psychological Association concluded there was “ample evidence to show that sexualisation has negative effects in a variety of domains including: cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality and beliefs”.
There is a “growing body of evidence” of the harms to children from exposure to adult sexual content. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists noted that premature exposure to adult sexual images and values has a negative impact on the psychological development of children, in terms of self-esteem, body image and understanding of sexuality and relationships.
The objectification of women in media and advertising puts pressure on girls and women to conform to stereotypical sexualised beauty ideals. According to RANZCP exposure to sexualising messages contributes to girls defining their self-worth in terms of sexual attractiveness, and the “excessive focus on appearance and narrow definition of attractiveness” contributes to the development of abnormal eating patterns and lack of positive body image.
Honey Birdette targets children
So far, Ad Standards has reviewed complaints against 101 different Honey Birdette advertisements, with rulings against the retailer on 45 occasions. Children around the country are exposed to Honey Birdette advertising every day. Honey Birdette is well aware of parents' concerns for their children, as outlined in frequent complaints, but it is clear the wellbeing of children is not a priority for them.
In addition to their standard sexually objectifying advertising material, Honey Birdette have gone out of their way to attract the attention of children in their advertising in public spaces. Several Christmas ad campaigns have included imagery of beloved children’s figure Santa alongside lingerie clad women, in various BDSM themed scenarios. One advertisement even addressed children directly, with the slogan ‘Sorry Kids! We gave Santa the night off.’ Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan dismissed complaints about the “fun” Santa campaign, commenting, “You can’t please everyone.”
Even when Ad Standards ruled one of these ads was in breach of the code, the retailer continued to put profits before the rights of children, refusing to pull the ad. “Nobody tells Honey B’s when to take down her signage”, the brand posted on their Facebook page.
The harms of sexualisation of children are well established and significant. We know that sexualisation presents a threat to the health and wellbeing of children, yet Honey Birdette arrogantly and repeatedly breaches the AANA code of ethics, showing a complete disregard for the most vulnerable members of our society.
3. Eroticising violence against women for profit
For years, Honey Birdette sex shops have relied on sexist and objectifying representations of women to flog their products, despite claiming to empower women.
But far from “female empowerment”, Honey Birdette portrayals of women headless, faceless, bound, chained and objectified convey the exact opposite- the sexualised subjugation of women.
From advertising imagery depicting models in BDSM-style lingerie brandishing whips, to sexualised images of women accompanied by words like “Cage” and “Bound”, Honey Birdette advertising not only promotes female submission, it is increasingly suggestive of violence against women.
Honey Birdette present violence and subordination as erotic and desirable, with images of women bound, chained and with collars and leads accompanied by text “blissfully bound” and “cuff me up, baby”.
But eroticising violence against women – treating acts of aggression as sexy and erotic, or as something women secretly desire and enjoy – has serious real-world consequences for women.
We have previously outlined the real-world consequences of eroticising violence against women- like the research highlighting women facing pressure to submit to violent, painful and unwanted sex acts that have been normalised in pornography including a “climate of coercion” around heterosexual anal sex, and a US study finding nearly a quarter of women surveyed have felt scared during sex and been unexpectedly choked by partners. UK campaign We Can’t Consent To This documents cases where women have been killed by men who have claimed “rough sex” or BDSM “sex game gone wrong”.
In short, the eroticisation of male violence against women has serious, life-threatening implications for women, but Honey Birdette – through normalising ‘rough sex’ to shift product – both perpetrates and profits from presenting women as enjoying submission. We believe it is generating a “culturally approved script” for enacting violence against women and must be held to account for doing so. Read more.
4. A culture of sexual harassment: exploiting and bullying young female staff
Young Honey Birdette employees have reported a toxic culture of sexual harassment and workplace bullying at Honey Birdette. Staff describe working for the company as “a nightmare” and say they have been exploited, launching a petition to end workplace bullying and sexual harassment at Honey Birdette.
From the petition:
I saw women mocked for daring to apply for a job at Honey Birdette. I saw workers humiliated and threatened by management because they weren't wearing perfectly applied lipstick all day, their heels weren't high enough, and because they didn't ‘talk the way a Honey should talk’.
Employees report being forced to abide by a sexist dress code, including requirements for red lipstick, high heels and tight clothing. A staff handbook known as the “Little Black Book” includes guidelines for how staff should present themselves and speak to customers, complete with phrases to “master” when dealing with customers like “Spank me if I’m wrong but...”
Female employees were reportedly expected to utilise their sexuality to make sales, forced to say “vulgar” things to male customers and pressured to tolerate sexual harassment and intimidation from them.
Despite countless employee reviews on Glassdoor.com and Indeed.com outlining sexual harassment, bullying, and a toxic workplace culture, Honey Birdette representatives claimed the reports were “mistruths”. Founder Eloise Monaghan dismissed the claims of harassment as “ridiculous” and pointed out she “pays for taxis home”. However, WorkSafe found a breach of health and safety laws and issued over a dozen Improvement Notices. These included “No training on how to handle difficult or threatening customers” and “Failure to provide a safe workplace”. Read more about reports of sexual harassment at Honey Birdette.
5. Insulting and intimidating women who object to pornified portrayals of women
Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan directs insulting, abusive and intimidating comments to women who object to the sex store’s pornified representations of women. Through Ad Standard case reports, which are emailed to complainants, and news media outlets, Monaghan attacks and gaslights women who utilise the Ad Standards complaints process over sexist and sexually objectifying advertising.
Collective Shout supporter Anna was referred to as a “lunatic” for making a formal complaint to Ad Standards regarding a porn-themed Honey Birdette ad in her local shopping centre. Anna described feeling humiliated and confused, and concerned that the advertiser knew who she was- including her name and address.
Another supporter, Louise, who made a complaint about a porn-themed Honey Birdette image captioned “the ultimate bondage babe” was attacked by Monaghan in a Courier Mail article dedicated to her complaint.
“As I read my own words in the news article, taken from a complaint intended for Ad Standards – not a public news outlet – I felt my anxiety levels rising. Eloise Monaghan publicly painted my complaint as frivolous. I felt attacked and humiliated,” she said.
In December 2020, in the case report for Honey Birdette “WET” ad (where complaints were upheld) Monaghan accused the complainant of lying about the post being a sponsored post that appeared unsolicited in her feed, and claimed her acknowledgement of the obvious sexual innuendo was a “deliberate misreading” of the ad.
What part of gaslighting, abusing and intimidating women is “empowering women”?
6. Encouraging sexual harassment of female flight attendants
Last year we exposed Honey Birdette Turbulence ad campaign for sexualising female flight attendants and cabin crew. The video depicted female cabin crew as sexual playthings, welcoming sexual advances. The sex store’s sexist and sexualising representations of female cabin crew were particularly reckless given the rampant sexual harassment these women are known to endure.
A 2018 Transport Workers Union survey found that Australian airline cabin crew experience widespread sexual harassment. The survey of 400 cabin crew found that 65% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment such as sexualised comments, inappropriate touching and sexual assault. One in five reported more than 10 incidents of sexual harassment.
Did Honey Birdette at any point consider how their sexist portrayals of female cabin crew as a porn-themed fantasy might put these women at risk?
One of these women, Amanda, got in touch with us. She recounted sexual advances from drunk older men, being filmed without her permission, and men viewing pornography while she assisted them on the plane.
Honey Birdette’s advertising reinforces the stereotype of hot female flight attendants. It makes me feel objectified. It's not empowering or uplifting, but rather just reinforcing negative stereotypes and negative attitudes towards women in the airline industry. It makes my job harder.
I'm surprised that a brand like Honey Birdette whose target market is women would promote their lingerie in such a way that demeans women. Honestly the commercial just looks like they've shot an expensive Pornhub video. It's disappointing.
Read additional responses from other cabin crew here.
Yet again, it is clear that Honey Birdette’s claims of “empowering women” are utterly meaningless. Far from advancing the status of women or promoting their wellbeing, Honey Birdette continues to objectify, demean and disempower women. Sexualising predatory behaviour towards women and encouraging sexual harassment, as they have done here, puts women and girls at risk.
7. Refusing to comply with the advertising Code of Ethics
With complaints being considered against more than a hundred different Honey Birdette ads, and upheld almost half the time, with the sex shop’s refusal to take down ads found in breach of the code, and with Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan publicly attacking Australia’s ad watchdog, it is clear Honey Birdette has no intention of abiding by the AANA code of ethics for advertisers.
Among other things, the code (although both voluntary and unenforced) requires advertisers to treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience (which includes children in this case) and to not employ sexual appeal in a manner that is exploitative or degrading of any individual or group of people. Honey Birdette has consistently demonstrated that they are not an ethical company and will not abide by the code of ethics, even with all the evidence of harm to women and girls from sexist and sexually objectifying advertising.
8. Sexing up breast cancer for profit
In 2019, we called out Honey Birdette ‘pinkwashing’ (a term used to describe companies that exploit breast cancer charities for profit and image enhancement) for using breast cancer charity McGrath Foundation logo to lend legitimacy to its sexual objectification of women.
Honey Birdette promised to donate “EVERY CENT” from their Whitney pink stockings, priced at $30 each, in the hopes of raising $30,000. Of course, these are designed to be worn with the rest of the Whitney range, with the bra alone marked at $139.95, so this was potentially quite a profitable exchange for Honey Birdette.
Eroticising breast cancer detection
A "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" page on the company's website included an instructional flyer, heavy on sexual innuendo and accompanied by photos of a model examining her breasts, complete with the standard Honey Birdette model 'pout.'
"Ladies, know your tatas and get touchy feely!"
"Take off that little lace bra and follow these three hot tips to checking your breasts before your lover arrives!"
After we publicly exposed Honey Birdette exploiting a deadly disease for profit, McGrath Foundation forced the company to remove sexualised images from its fundraiser as it was “not in line with our agreement with them”.
The following year, Honey Birdette again paired sexual objectification with the McGrath Foundation logo. Unfortunately, the McGrath Foundation accepted the donation, apparently endorsing Honey Birdette sexual objectification of women. A number of breast cancer sufferers and survivors expressed their deep disappointment to us.
9. Teaching women and girls to hate their bodies
Women and girls are bombarded by images of ‘ideal’ female beauty, images of women who are typically young, white, thin and hyper-sexualised. Women and girls understand that this is how they are valued: the standard they will be measured against, and also that they will inevitably fall short. Essentially, sexist, sexualised and sexually objectifying depictions of women make women feel worse about their bodies, not better, and Honey Birdette is one of the worst offenders.
There is a wealth of reputable research documenting the negative impacts of sexualised and sexually objectifying content for women and girls. Research from the American Psychological Association links sexualisation with three of the most common mental health problems of women and girls - eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. It acknowledges the relationship between exposure to narrow representations of female beauty and disordered eating attitudes and symptoms. According to the APA, "sexualisation and objectification undermine confidence in and comfort with one’s own body, leading to a host of negative emotional consequences, such as shame, anxiety, and even self-disgust.”
A 2018 Australian research report from Women’s Health Victoria, Advertising (In)Equality, specifically found that sexualisation and objectification of women in advertising and mass media has a negative impact on women’s health and wellbeing:
The ubiquity of sexualising and objectifying portrayals of women in advertising and other media causes girls and women to understand that they will be viewed and evaluated based on their appearance. Girls and women who are regularly exposed to sexually objectifying media content are more likely to objectify themselves and internalise unrealistic appearance-related ideals. In turn, this increases body dissatisfaction, contributes to disordered eating, lower self-esteem and reduced mental health and results in reduced satisfaction in sexual relationships and reduced participation in physical activity and exercise.
The report also acknowledges evidence that regardless of whether women are depicted as sexually passive or sexually powerful in advertising imagery, women’s body satisfaction is negatively affected by sexualised portrayals. Research by Halliwell, Malson and Tischner (2011) also indicates that regardless of whether women are depicted as sexually passive or sexually powerful in advertising imagery, women’s body dissatisfaction is negatively impacted by sexualised portrayals.
Monaghan’s claims that Honey Birdette “empowers” women are certainly not founded in fact. On the contrary, evidence-based research has consistently proven the opposite is true. Honey Birdette sexist and sexually objectifying advertising does immeasurable harm to women and girls.
10. Triggering survivors of rape and sexual violence with porn-themed advertising
Honey Birdette contributes to rape culture through its regular, everyday portrayals of women as sexually available and as existing for men’s sexual use. The sex store’s sexually objectifying ad campaigns have also triggered feelings of distress in survivors of sexual violence.
A sexual assault survivor in Perth objected to pornified Honey Birdette ad imagery in Karrinyup shopping centre, located across from an ice cream shop. She told the Stirling Times that sexual objectification was a conduit for rape and abuse as it dehumanised women:
As a sexual assault survivor who was forced to view pornography by my assailant as a child, I understand what normalising it can do to a young girl’s self-esteem, body image and future relationships.
Those survivors who have been objectified, raped and beaten have very few safe havens to go to as the media has flooded society with triggering imagery.
A shopping centre is there for all ages and should be a mutual environment.
11. Depicting fully clothed men alongside semi-naked women
Honey Birdette’s ‘Office Party’ campaign depicted men, afforded the dignity of clothing, alongside women in lingerie in an apparent workplace party. In addition to undermining and trivialising women’s contributions in the workplace, the ad campaign depicts a scenario that constitutes sexual harassment as fun and sexy. Are the women intended to be the party entertainment? Perhaps the campaign could have been named ‘Harvey Weinstein’s office party’.
This is far from the only time Honey Birdette has resorted to such blatant sexism.
What is being communicated about men, women, and power in Honey Birdette depictions of fully-clothed men alongside lingerie-clad women?
Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth said, “Cross-culturally, unequal nakedness almost always expresses power relations.”
Gail Dines, sociologist and author of Pornland said, “It’s no accident that in prisons the first thing a prisoner has to do is strip naked, because to be naked in the presence of somebody clothed is to be in a vulnerable situation.”
Who is being portrayed as powerful in these images? Who is portrayed as vulnerable?
12. Fetishising lesbians for profit
Honey Birdette has a long history of porn-inspired depictions of lesbian sexuality which further entrench sexist and harmful stereotypes of lesbians as male entertainment or even as sexually available to men. See a censored version below.
A number of lesbians slammed the sex store for tokenising and fetishising lesbians in their Fluid ad campaign, which was set to coincide with the Sydney Mardi Gras Festival. The campaign depicts an orgy, featuring naked men and women whose bodies are painted in the Pride colours. Many of the women included are headless, but their naked breasts made it into the frame.
Lesbian activist and author Susan Hawthorne accused Honey Birdette of using lesbians for titillation, just as pornographers do:
If there's no difference between a female nipple and a male nipple why are all but one of the visible nipples female? Using lesbians as titillation is not unusual, the pornographers have been doing it for decades. But in the real world real lesbians are tortured for our activism; real lesbians are subjected to corrective rape; and in the real world when a lesbian is raped or tortured she doesn't get to say stop. Not only are you continuing the sexualising of women, you are giving mixed messages with images of a mixed orgy.
Liz Waterhouse from Listening 2 Lesbians, which documents lesbian experiences of violence and discrimination around the world, called out Honey Birdette for selling out lesbian sexuality for profit:
Lesbians have fought for centuries for society to understand that lesbian sexuality is not for or about men, resisting the harassment, fetishisation, corrective rape and physical attacks that lesbians here and around the world have experienced. Honey Birdette has developed a campaign that is heavily reliant on the sexualisation of lesbian bodies and the presentation of lesbian sexuality...
Calling the campaign ‘Fluid’ combined with the presentation of objectified, sexually available lesbians clearly communicates to the men watching that lesbian sexuality is fluid enough for lesbians to be sexually available to them. In a world where lesbians are harassed and attacked for our sexuality, for not being available to men, this is a dangerous game to play with lesbian lives. Read her full comments here.
The rainbow-washed campaign attracted significant backlash from Honey Birdette’s own supporters, who described the image as an orgy and pornographic, and pointed out the image didn’t even feature any of the brand’s lingerie. Some accused the sex store of “queer-baiting” and misusing the LGBTQ+ cause for profit, noting the convenient timing of the Mardi Gras ad while the store was also promoting a $200 rainbow bondage kit.
Time and again, Honey Birdette has demonstrated its contempt for women and girls. But we cannot forget the other unethical corporates that have facilitated the sex store's sexual exploitation of women- Ad Standards, allowing Honey Birdette to display sexualised and pornified portrayals of women to an all ages audience with no repercussions, and corporate leaders of shopping centre companies Property Male Champions of Change, who claim to be stamping out everyday sexism in the workplace and community while hosting Honey Birdette’s porn-inspired window displays. They are both part of the problem.