Sexing-up breast cancer: Honey Birdette’s pinkwashing

"Breast cancer awareness" or brand awareness? 

Sexualising breast cancer campaigns is nothing new. Slogans have included ''Help The Hooters'', ''Save The Jugs'', ''Man Up, Save Second Base'', ''Save The Tattas'', ''Save The Headlights'' and ''We'll Go a Long Way for a Good Rack''.

So we weren't really surprised to see sex shop Honey Birdette join the ranks of those who exploit women's disease for profit.


Honey Birdette has a reputation for unethical conduct, regularly exposing an all-age audience to porn-themed imagery. The company defends its advertising with the claim that it is "empowering" to women, despite all contrary evidence.

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.”

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. Read more about this here.

The company has violated ad standards with impunity for over a decade. Between August 2018 and August 2019, 24 Honey Birdette ads were found in breach of Australian Association of National Advertisers’ Code of Ethics. Most often, breaches were upheld for advertisements that failed to treat the matters of “sex, sexuality and nudity” with sensitivity to the broad audience that includes children. 

Honey Birdette either ignores these Ad Standards determinations or responds with mockery towards those who make complaints.

But now Honey Birdette has utilised the logo of the McGrath foundation to lend legitimacy to its sexual objectification of women. The McGrath Foundation - established by the late Jane McGrath and cricketer husband Glenn McGrath - funds breast care nurses who provide free support and care to women and men with breast cancer. 

On social media, alongside a photo zoomed in on a woman's breasts, Honey Birdette declares they are "going pink for breast cancer awareness month." 

A shop front window poster in Honey Birdette stores features a model wearing a pink four piece lingerie set, with the McGrath Foundation logo given prominent placement. Pairing a breast cancer charity with the sexual objectification of women is a classic example of 'pinkwashing' - a term used to describe companies that exploit breast cancer charities for profit and image enhancement. 

In fine print the window display image states: “EVERY CENT from our Whitney Pink Stockings will be donated to the McGrath breast cancer care nurses.” 

According to Honey Birdette's website, these stockings are limited edition and priced at $30 each. Honey Birdette's stated aim is to raise $30,000. 

Given the bra alone is worth $139.95 - and is the most prominent product alongside the McGrath Foundation logo on its home page - why isn't the company donating EVERY CENT from the sale of the bra? 

Eroticising breast cancer detection

A "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" page on the company's website includes 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!"

Reality Check

"You get cut apart and chunks removed, burnt with radiotherapy, nerve damage and then all the time confronted by breast-cancer-charity-approved campaigns saying, 'Your worth as a woman is in having perfect, undamaged breasts,'"

In 2013 Melinda Tankard Reist spoke to breast cancer survivor Rachel Lonergan who had written a complaint about Bonds ‘boobs’ ad campaign.

Bonds had set up Boobs billboards in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Its website promised to ''reveal everything'', which, unsurprisingly, was its new bra range. Bonds also had a partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF).

Breast cancer survivors take these pinkified sexed-up campaigns personally. They survived, but for many their breasts didn’t.

''I honestly thought this year the 'pink industry' had moved beyond the 'awareness via titillation' strategies and was so mad to see the Bonds work,'' Lonergan says.

''Every woman I know who has been through the same thing has issues with how their breasts look and feel after surgery,'' says Lonergan.

You get cut apart and chunks removed, burnt with radiotherapy, nerve damage and then all the time confronted by breast-cancer-charity-approved campaigns saying, 'Your worth as a woman is in having perfect, undamaged breasts,' is just so depressing. It affects … self-confidence, relationships. I just don't accept that there is a greater good being served by these kinds of campaigns.

''No one makes sexual jokes about men who require prostatectomies to save their lives, do they?''

One in eight Australian women will develop breast cancer. On average, seven women die from breast cancer every day. This year it's predicted 14,940 women will get the disease, but juvenile 'boob'-centric campaigns trivialise it. Should we be about ''saving boobies'' or saving lives?

The sexification of breast cancer ''awareness'' means you mainly see women with perky breasts intact, and you'd hardly know the average age for contracting the disease is 60.

We need to resist the appropriation of breast cancer campaigns for pinkwashing unethical, anti-women, brand-promoting corporate behaviour. Be assured, Collective Shout will continue to call this out.

See also: 

Female Empowerment? Why Feminism Deserves Better than Honey Birdette

STOP Honey Birdette using porn-style advertising in your family friendly shopping centres

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