Honey Birdette sexual objectification does not empower women, it leaves them worse off

One of our supporters spotted the following outside Honey Birdette in Townsville.

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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, Honey Birdette’s go-to refrain is that they are “empowering women”.

But this claim is not in line with reality, including decades of research documenting the harms from the regular sexualising and objectifying treatment of women. It’s a lie Honey Birdette continues to repeat, and when challenged, their approach appears to be to just shout it louder.

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Sexual objectification is not empowering

Honey Birdette’s ‘empowerment’ includes sexist and pornified representations of women and their body parts, treating women as sexualised props and as sexual fantasies for men, posing semi-naked women alongside fully clothed men, conforming to limiting standards of beauty and thinness, and above all else, being sexually desirable to men.

Ultimately, under Honey Birdette’s ‘empowerment’ women’s worth is measured by men wanting to have sex with them. But that’s not female empowerment, that’s the same old objectification repackaged for profit- and sexual objectification limits women’s power.

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In an interview in the documentary Liberated, political scientist Dr Caroline Heldman argued that young women may believe being treated as a sexual object is “empowering” because it makes them feel wanted and desired:

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...What’s the ultimate way to get validation? It’s to be wanted sexually.

In a culture where women are routinely sexualised and objectified, and where women's value is frequently determined by their sexual appeal, women may feel validated by being sexually desirable to men. But this is not power. Women do not achieve meaningful power through conforming to sexist and limiting stereotypes, or through sex industry practices. The “power” that comes from being sexually desirable to men is temporary and conditional, and it is determined by men.

Honey Birdette sexist advertising reinforces women’s second class status

Contrary to Honey Birdette’s attempts to reframe sexist advertising as empowering, sexual objectification has been found to harm women and girls in a range of ways.

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Sexist and sexualising representations of women reinforce women’s second class status as mere sex objects for men’s use and enjoyment. The proliferation of sexually objectifying depictions of women serves to trivialise women and their accomplishments, and to undermine gender inequality.

Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, said, “Cross-culturally, unequal nakedness almost always expresses power relations...To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”

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Honey Birdette both promotes and profits from this inequality.

Honey Birdette teaches women and girls 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 quickly learn 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.

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There is a wealth of reputable research documenting the negative impacts of sexualised and sexually objectifying imagery 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 report 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.

While Honey Birdette claim their sexualised images empower women, the “health implications of exposure to sexualised and objectified images of women exist regardless of whether the intention of the images is to empower”.

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.

Links between sexist advertising and violence against women

Despite an increased understanding and awareness of the scourge of men’s violence against women, and the relationship between the objectification of women and violence against them, Honey Birdette continues to objectify women for profit.

As women’s rights campaigner Jean Kilbourne said in Killing Us Softly 4, “Objectifying women creates a climate where there is widespread violence against women. Turning a human being into a ‘thing’ is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.”

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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.

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 [sexually objectifying portrayals of women] 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.

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 presents 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”. Read more. 

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Women are not empowered through sexual objectification, they are harmed by it. Pornified representations of women do not advance the status of women or women’s wellbeing, they disempower women and leave them worse off.

Don’t buy Honey Birdette’s lies- ‘female empowerment’ is nothing more than a marketing strategy designed to ensure their continued profits.

See also:

Collective Shout responds to common defences of Honey Birdette sexploitation

Female Empowerment? Why Feminism Deserves Better than Honey Birdette


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