Honey Birdette's advertising does not "empower women"

Collective Shout responds to A Current Affair segment on Honey Birdette

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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 about sixty-six advertisements, upholding thirty-seven, but Honey Birdette continues to sexually objectify women.

In 2017, 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 66 Honey Birdette advertisements, with rulings against the retailer on 37 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 Dines 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’.”

          

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.

 

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.

9. “You’re teaching women and girls to be ashamed of their bodies”


Responding to criticisms for Honey Birdette’s porn-themed shopping centre ads, co-founder and managing director Eloise Monaghan said, “Why are we teaching young girls and women to be ashamed of their bodies?” But this is precisely what Honey Birdette’s sexually objectifying advertising is doing to women and girls - teaching them to hate their bodies.

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.

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 new 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:


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.

10. "What's the problem with nipples?"

 

Collective Shout supporters have since ​2010 submitted complaints against many sexualised and sexually objectifying ads for consideration by Ad Standards. While some were upheld, others were not, on the basis that there were no visible genitals. We consider that Ad Standards’ initial approach - permitting the display of sexist and sexually objectifying representations of women simply because there were no nipples showing - missed the point and was completely inadequate. We argue that treating women as sexual props harms women, regardless of whether their nipples can be seen.

Over the last few years however, Honey Birdette ads have become increasingly pornified and revealing. Models are often posed in sheer lingerie, revealing both nipples and genitals, and Ad Standards’ Community Panel has upheld complaints against these ads on this basis. In response, Honey Birdette’s Ms Monaghan has misrepresented Collective Shout’s objection to sexist advertising as an objection to nipples, and absurdly accused Collective Shout of equating nipples with violence.

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Collective Shout has never argued the issue is nipples; this is a benchmark set by Ad Standards. We have always argued the issue is sexual objectification, and thus - since the last amendment to the AANA Code in March 2018 - in clear breach of 2.2(b) for that reason - ie, employing sexual appeal “in a manner which is exploitative or degrading of any individual or group of people”.

11."Honey Birdette is being unfairly targeted"

 

We don’t think so. At the time of publication, a whopping 66 Honey Birdette ads have been investigated by Ad Standards, and 37 of these have been upheld by the Community Panel. In the past 12 months alone - from July 2018 to 30 June this year - Honey Birdette ads have been the subject of 23 adverse rulings by Ad Standards. With an average of almost two breaches of the AANA Code per month, this means that there is rarely a time when Honey Birdette shopping centre window display ads are not in breach of the Code. It is currently included in the top 10 most complained about ads for 2019.

Honey Birdette is therefore consistently producing sexist and porn-inspired ads, and refusing to abide by Ad Standards rulings or play by the same rules as most other Australian advertisers (note Ms Monaghan’s well-publicised response to Ad Standards rulings was: “​No one tells Honey B’s when to take down her signage​”).

Ms Monaghan’s most recent commentary and ill-conceived criticism of Ad Standards regarding its newly issued Determination Summary indicates just how unfamiliar she is with the provisions of the existing AANA Code (lasted updated in March 2018). It is simply false to assert that these guidelines ‘change’ existing regulations to “​further limit lingerie advertising in all public places”​ - see further at (13) below.

12. “Only conservatives/Christian fundamentalists/zealots/wowsers object to Honey Birdette ads"

 

Many people object to sexism and the sexual objectification of women. Others acknowledge that kids should not be forced to see porn-themed imagery in shopping centres. As a movement, Collective Shout and our supporters come from diverse backgrounds, brought together in a common cause. We are non-sectarian and non-politically partisan. Our supporters cover the spectrum, ranging from ordinary mothers, fathers, students, grandparents, medical professionals, teachers, lawyers, counsellors, mental health experts, eating disorder specialists, gays and lesbians, environmental activists, and many others - all concerned citizens from all walks of life. That is our strength. That is why we have the reach we have.

A piece published on ABC Religion and Ethics, ‘Female Empowerment? Why Feminism Deserves Better Than Honey Birdette’ addresses Monaghan’s attempts to write off objections as being limited to religious fundamentalists:

“While it's arguably disingenuous to conflate consumer concern about corporate sexual exploitation with a patriarchal desire to control women's bodies, it's a popular tactic employed by those with a financial stake in this continued treatment of women. By painting detractors as fundamentalists, conservatives or even a threat to women's rights, companies and institutions that routinely objectify women can go about doing business as usual, but frame their exploitation as liberation or a response to a conservative attack on women's rights.”

13. "There is new advertising regulation coming in to limit lingerie advertising"

 

In a statement published on the company’s website and Facebook page, Monaghan claimed Honey Birdette had been under attack from Collective Shout for more than twelve years, and warned that “the regulators are listening to them”. (Collective Shout has been operating for almost ten years.) Monaghan made further false claims that Ad Standards is introducing new standards for lingerie advertising “to further limit lingerie advertising in all public places” and argues that these represent a threat to women’s rights.

Ad Standards CEO Fiona Jolly has confirmed to us, and has been quoted in the Courier Mail, that “Ad Standards has no new rules for lingerie advertising completed or underway”. What Ad Standards has done is prepare a new Determination Summary to ‘assist’ Honey Birdette and other lingerie advertisers understand how the AANA Code of Ethics is already being applied (based on previous decisions of the Community Panel), so they can ensure their advertising meets community standards under the existing Code, and thus improve compliance with the Panel’s decisions. Given Honey Birdette has to date accumulated rulings against 37 of their ads, it would appear they are having trouble understanding the Code; or (based on Ms Monaghan’s public response to Ad Standards rulings: “​No one tells Honey B’s when to take down her signage”​ ), perhaps they don’t have any intention of complying with it.

There are no changes to lingerie advertising regulation in Australia - Ms Monaghan’s misguided response to Ad Standards’ new Determination Summary appears to be a reaction to closer scrutiny and the prospect of being held accountable to the same standard as every other advertiser in the country. Monaghan’s recent accusation that the AANA Code/Ad Standards “are highly archaic and repugnant to all women not just across Australia, but globally”, demonstrates just how out of touch she is, particularly given that both France and the UK have gone considerably further in regulating advertising in this area in the past year - specifically in relation to the public space of outdoor advertising and gender stereotypes respectively.

See also:

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

Media Release: Collective Shout challenges false claims by Honey Birdette CEO re porn-themed ads

Honey Birdette's crusade to pornify the public space

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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