Collective Shout responds to common defences of Honey Birdette sexploitation

Honey Birdette is a serial sexploitation offender. The sex shop, located in shopping centres around the country, has attracted hundreds of complaints for its sexist advertising. Ad Standards has investigated complaints over almost thirty separate advertisements, upholding half, but Honey Birdette continues to sexually objectify women.

Last year, father and Collective Shout supporter Kenneth Thor launched a petition calling on Westfield shopping centres to stop Honey Birdette’s porn-themed advertising, but to date Westfield has failed to take any action. Enough is enough- Westfield must act on Honey Birdette sexual exploitation of women.

In this blog, we’ve compiled responses to some of the more common defences of Honey Birdette sexism.

1. "You see more flesh at the beach"

 

In response to Kenneth Thor's petition to Westfield, Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan claimed, “You see more flesh at Bondi at 10 am.” Monaghan has clearly missed the point.

The presence of female flesh alone does not constitute sexual objectification. The inclusion of attractive women in an ad campaign does not constitute sexual objectification.

Sexual objectification occurs when a person, often a woman, is treated as a body, or series of body parts for others’ use and consumption, when her physical attributes and sexual capabilities are regarded as representative of her whole self or seen as determining her worth.

Commenting on Honey Birdette advertising, Australian researcher Dr. Meagan Tyler said:

"These are not just images of women's breasts, they are sexually objectified and commodified images of women's breasts in public space. These representations of women, that reduce us to consumable body parts, reduce our recognition of women's full humanity and make it more difficult for women to participate in public life."

As Dr Linda Papadopolous stated in Sexualisation of Young People Review:

“Although sexual objectification is but one form of gender oppression, it is one that factors into- and perhaps enables- a host of other oppressions women face, ranging from employment discrimination and sexual violence to the trivialisation of women’s work and accomplishments.”

Honey Birdette routinely promotes the sexual objectification of women in their floor to ceiling porn-themed advertising, featuring hyper-sexualised depictions of women’s bodies or even just parts of their bodies. The women in Honey Birdette advertising are portrayed as though they are for men’s pleasure, defined only by their sexual appeal and availability. The message is that women exist for men’s enjoyment and entertainment.

Objection to the sexual objectification of women is not an objection to women, nor is it an objection to women’s bodies. It is an opposition to sexism, to corporates who profit from the sexual exploitation of women and have the audacity to claim they are empowering women in the process.

2. "It's just women expressing their sexuality"

 

If Honey Birdette advertising is an expression of female sexuality, “for women, by women”, then why is it indistinguishable from the content in men’s softcore porn magazines?

Honey Birdette promotes a very narrow view of female sexuality, one in which youthful, slender, and typically white-skinned women are depicted as passive objects of male desire. Female sexuality as represented by Honey Birdette entails women being sexually appealing to men, exposing their bodies and mimicking porn-inspired poses and acts. How does this differ from the sexually objectifying depictions of women for a male audience? Essentially, it doesn’t.

In her TED talk about growing up in a ‘porn culture’, Professor Gail Dines encouraged the audience to critically analyse porn-inspired depictions of women in media and advertising. Pointing to a hyper-sexualised image of a female model, she said:

“Look at her clothes, look at her face, look at her posture, and look at her gaze...who is she speaking to? Because the notion is that every image has a reader in mind. Before you answer, do you think she’s speaking to her mother, saying, ‘Let’s go for a cup of coffee after the photo shoot?’ So who is she talking to? Who is she speaking to? Men. And what is she saying? ‘F*ck me’.”

Who is the ‘reader’ or the intended audience in Honey Birdette ads? And what is being communicated to them?        

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Note the differing treatment of men and women in Honey Birdette ad campaigns. Lingerie clad women are posed alongside fully clothed men. What does this unequal treatment represent? Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth said, “Cross-culturally, unequal nakedness almost always expresses power relations.” 

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It is in Honey Birdette’s interest to reframe their commodification of female bodies and sexuality as ‘female sexuality’ or ‘empowerment’. “For women, by women” may be a great marketing hook, but the promotion of sexist stereotypes and sexually objectifying imagery of women does not become an ‘expression of female sexuality’ simply because a company with vested financial interests says so.

3. "You're just easily offended"

 

This is not an issue of offence or personal taste. Our opposition to Honey Birdette’s constant sexually exploitative depictions of women is not on the basis of offence, but documented evidence of harm.

Representations of women that reduce women to mere sexual objects, as sexually available and existing for men’s use are problematic not because some people might be offended but because they cause harm, primarily to women and children.

Researcher Rebecca Whisnant distinguishes between offence and harm. Offence is “something that happens in one’s head”, whereas harm is “an objective condition, not a way of feeling; to be harmed is to have one’s interests set back, to be made worse off, to have one’s circumstances made worse than they were...Whether a person is harmed does not depend on how she feels.”

The harms of sexually objectifying portrayals of women are well established. 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.”

Honey Birdette’s attempts to paint those who object to their routine sexual exploitation of women as easily offended, prudish or even religious fundamentalists is a deliberate tactic to silence those who might threaten their profits, and to avoid engaging in meaningful discussions about the harms to women and children from the very sexual objectification they promote.

4. "It has no impact on kids"

 

Some people believe that children are unaffected by floor to ceiling soft-porn advertising in public spaces, such as Honey Birdette shopfront advertising. This view is not supported by the international research into the sexualisation of children and its corresponding harms.

Sexualisation of children refers to the imposition of adult models of sexual behaviour and sexuality on to children and adolescents at developmentally inappropriate stages and in opposition to the healthy development of sexuality. It encompasses sexual objectification and representation of children in adult sexual ways and in ways that imply the child’s value is dependent on conforming to a particular appearance, sexual display or behaviours. Children may also experience secondary sexualisation through exposure to sexualised advertising material and products aimed at adult consumers- like Honey Birdette shopping centre advertising. 

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Pic credit MTR/Caters Media

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”.

Harms from exposure to sexualised content

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.

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.”

Honey Birdette targets kids

So far, complaints have been made against 28 Honey Birdette advertisements, with rulings against the retailer on 13 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.” 

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The retailer continued to put profits before the rights of children, refusing to take down the ad even after Ad Standards had found it was in breach. “Nobody tells Honey B’s when to take down her signage”, the brand posted on their Facebook page

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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.

5. "The women choose to participate"

 

That some women choose to model for Honey Birdette does not negate the harms of sexual objectification for women as a whole. The treatment of women as sexual objects, valued primarily for their sexual appeal or attractiveness to men, negatively impacts all women whether they participate or not.

We live in a culture in which women learn from childhood that their worth is largely determined by their physical beauty and sexuality. Women and girls are rewarded for conforming to beauty ideals, and ostracised if they do not.  As Professor Gail Dine said, women have two options: f*ckability or invisibility. Women’s choices to pose in highly sexualised advertising must be considered in this wider context.

6. "What about ads showing men in their underwear?"

 

Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan claimed there is a double standard, because there is no similar outcry over ads showing men wearing underwear.

The issue is not and has never been about underwear. The depiction of men or women in underwear is not inherently degrading or sexualised, nor does it require women to be objectified and exploited. Just look at the lingerie ad below by a more progressive advertising agency, Badger and Winters who “made a commitment to never objectify women in our work”.

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While we have spoken out against the objectification of men, the objectification of men is not nearly as prevalent as the everyday sexualisation and objectification of women in media and popular culture. Women are far more likely to be objectified and to be negatively impacted by objectification. Men featured in advertising are not typically demeaned, dismembered, treated like decorative objects, or posed as vulnerable and submissive in the way women frequently are. Read more

7. "It's empowering women"

 

Defenders of Honey Birdette highly sexualised advertising imagery, particularly those with a financial stake in the matter, argue that sexual objectification of women is somehow “empowering”.

There is typically little, if any, elaboration on what this means in a practical sense- what actual power women gain from being reduced to object status, and how this benefits women in any meaningful way.

A critique of Honey Birdette on ABC Religion and Ethics made the following argument:

“Representations of so-called female sexual empowerment in mainstream media and in pornography appear to replicate the same gendered dynamics that already exist. They involve women being publicly sexual, exposing their bodies and mimicking porn inspired poses and acts. The basis of this empowerment, as far as I can tell, is women being sexually appealing to men, being desired by men and for the most part, being sexually submissive.

“If the goal is real sexual empowerment, and women being free to express their authentic sexuality, why is this revolutionary new version of sexuality still centred around catering to the fantasies of heterosexual men?”

In the documentary Liberated, Dr. Caroline Heldman noted the limitations of this so-called empowerment:

“The idea that our bodies are our value means that we are forever dependent on men to validate us, we’re dependent upon an outside source to say that we are important, to say that we are valuable.”

If Honey Birdette’s hyper-sexualised treatment of women is empowering, why aren’t men lining up to join in too? There is a reason that we’re not seeing similar porn-inspired images of men with sultry expressions and see-through undies posing with whips or restraints. As a society, we seem to understand that this kind of demeaning and humiliating treatment is reserved exclusively for women.

Researcher Dr. Meagan Tyler rejected the notion that the objectification of women can be empowering:

"There is nothing empowering about sexual objectification. Sexual objectification is literally about reducing women's power. These pornified images in public space serve to reduce the status of women to a consumable set of commodified body parts, positioned for the male gaze."

‘Empowering’ women while exploiting female staff

While Honey Birdette professes to empower women through their sexist and pornified advertising, their own employees tell a very different story, describing working for the company as a “nightmare”. Staff claimed to have been exploited, launching a petition to end workplace bullying and sexual harassment in Honey Birdette stores:

“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’.”

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Female employees were reportedly expected to utilise their sexuality to make sales and pressured to tolerate sexual harassment and intimidation from customers.

Founder Eloise Monaghan dismissed the claims of harassment as “ridiculous” and pointed out she “pays for taxis home”. Despite this, 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”.

8. "But other media objectifies women too"

 

A recent Courier Mail article quoted Eloise Monaghan in response to complaints over the retailer’s latest sexually objectifying ad campaign. Monaghan pointed out that other forms of media also sexually objectify women. “I walked past a Calvin Klein ad the other day, but does anyone cry out about that?”

See our previous campaigns against Calvin Klein here, here and here.

It’s true that women are routinely sexualised and objectified in media, advertising and popular culture- this is why our movement exists. A culture in which women are valued primarily for their sexual appeal is at odds with gender equality.

The impact of exposure to sexualised and sexually objectifying media is not based on exposure to a single, stand-alone ad, but the “regular, everyday exposure” to sexualising and objectifying content, and the cumulative impact of repeated exposure to hundreds or thousands of highly sexualised ads. The ubiquity of sexualised representations of women- in advertising, films, magazines, music videos- serves to normalise the view of women as sexual objects to be valued primarily for their sexual appeal. These sexist depictions of women are common, and that’s exactly the problem.

‘Everyone else is doing it’ is not a defence for the sexual exploitation of women. That there are other companies who profit from sexism doesn’t justify Honey Birdette’s ongoing sexual exploitation of women.

Honey Birdette’s larger than life porn-themed shopfront advertising is also impossible to avoid. The sex shop continues to flout advertising codes and standards, insistent about their ‘right’ to broadcast softcore pornography to the general public, including children.

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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. Honey Birdette sexual exploitation of women contributes to a culture that diminishes women’s humanity. Women and girls deserve better than Honey Birdette.

See also:

Sign the petition to Westfield: STOP Honey Birdette using porn-style advertising in Westfield family friendly centres.

WorkSafe finds Honey Birdette in breach of health and safety laws, issues 14 Improvement Notices

Female Empowerment? Why Feminism Deserves Better than Honey Birdette- ABC Religion and Ethics

Honey Birdette same-sex marketing stunt slammed as ‘worse than Pepsi’- Ad News

The most complained about ads of 2016- Sydney Morning Herald


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