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5 December 2012 - 11:04am | posted by | 6 comments

Sex sells: is it empowering that marketers are now selling sex to women?

Kate Frearson, planning director at MadwomenKate Frearson, planning director at Madwomen

Kate Frearson, planning director at Madwomen, looks at how 50 Shades of Grey has made porn more mainstream. She ponders: the market is now using sex to sell to women, instead of women being used to sell sex. Is this an empowering change?

That women like sex and hence that sex can sell to women is hardly an insight (otherwise the human race wouldn't exist). The Chippendales and their clones proved that point a long time ago. Most women saw that as cheeky innocent fun, as they did ‘The Full Monty’ Stripped of lighthearted humour, other uses of using sex to sell to women are less gratifying.

It could be seen as odd that, just as women are making progress in the workplace and are less dependent on men economically, some are enjoying reading about submission and a touch of S&M, such as E.L James’ 50 Shades of Grey. But all it really shows is how the imagination does not necessarily run in parallel with social realities.

No doubt there will be tsk-tsking over Ann Summers soft-core exploitation of women this Christmas, but on the other hand there will be women and men proclaiming the ad to be empowering. I beg to differ. This is a male fantasy of female sexuality – and is quite obviously aimed at Ann Summers’ biggest Christmas market – men.

Over 50% of men claim to buy lingerie for their partner or girlfriend, and the raunchy ad certainly has ‘man appeal’, and it will probably sell a ton of sexy undies for the brand. But along with, and made in the vein of, their nightclub pole dancing lessons, Ann Summers is essentially grooming girls for sex on male terms, using similar techniques to pop music videos, recently criticised by Leona Lewis, among others.

So, in these instances, using sex to sell to women is not about empowering women, it is rather the reverse. Yes it does push the boundaries, but in absolutely the wrong direction. This has nothing to do with being ‘old fashioned’. Beyond MTV videos, this is an attempt to further normalise porn for mainstream consumption and to establish new norms of social acceptability. The risk to society, as Cindy Gallop, founder of ‘Make Love Not Porn’, has said, is that hardcore porn (and its masculine view of sex) is now becoming the sex educator of a new generation of men who think porn shows sex as it should be and leaving their female partners to feel they should like it. In seeking to make it socially ‘acceptable’ it demeans not only women, but also true relationships.

Successfully using sex to sell to women will only work if it’s portrayed from a female point of view. This will be a real empowering change for women and leap forward for advertisers.


5 Dec 2012 - 15:01
slimf82206's picture

Interesting piece. I wonder if I could ask you to comment further on the following questions that your article throws up: what, precisely, is your objection to the normalisation of porn? Your underlying assumption is that the prevalence of more sexually explicit material is inherently bad, even when it's aimed at those who might have a thirst for it.

Next, if sex education is now the domain of pornography rather than conventional sex education, isn't that a failure of conventional sex education, rather than a success of pornography? Therefore, wouldn't you agree that the fundamental issue in this regard is the paucity of legitimate sex ed, and not the proliferation of sex?

Similarly, the establishment of new norms of social acceptability is not necessarily a negative thing. Could you elaborate on why you think this is destructive by definition?

Thanks, I really look forward to your response!

6 Dec 2012 - 13:21
Kate Frearson @ Madwomen's picture


Hi Slim,

Thanks for your comments and questions. Let me try and answer them for you.

“What is my objection to the normalisation of porn?”

Moral aspects aside, I think you have to ask yourself whether normalizing porn increases or reduces our emotional health. Does it contribute to or detract from building strong enduring adult relationships? Does it promote or diminish an individual's self esteem (male or female)? With the unprecedented access the internet has given teenagers to porn, does it promote a healthy attitude towards the opposite sex? Does it reflect what constitutes a normal relationship? Is it good to detach sex from intimacy? Is it helpful for teenagers to measure their own sexuality (or anyone else's) against porn standards? Of course, watching porn is easier than engaging with actual people but does learning about sex from porn, help teens have a relationship with a real woman? What's more, the rise of internet porn addiction is well documented and destroys relationships.

As many others have observed, healthy sexuality is based on consent, equality, respect and trust. Porn by contrast portrays sex as a commodity and the people involved in it as objects.

“If sex education is now the domain of pornography rather than conventional sex education, isn't that a failure of conventional sex education”

Everything we observe and experience in life is educational. Beyond school, advertising itself is a form of education. Just as with schools, we need to distinguish good and bad teachers. For the reasons above, I don't find porn a good teacher, and I wouldn't enroll my children in the Ann Summers school of sex education, or recommend pole dancing for gym classes :)

"Is the establishment of new norms of social acceptability necessarily a negative thing?" 

For the reasons above - yes. Naomi Wolf has remarked from her discussions with male college students that "Porn doesn't whet men's appetites, it turns them off the real thing." I'll leave you to ponder that. And while you do, maybe take a look at Cindy Gallop's brilliant TED talk on porn at:

5 Dec 2012 - 18:16
miked11445's picture

Hi "Slim", Good for you if enjoy porn ...but "as a medium of sex education."?

Maybe , following your insight, your mum partner or child might help the state system educate the audience by doing one of your own. A joke obviously on my part.

Your comments I find disgusting.

5 Dec 2012 - 22:42
slimf82206's picture

Hi Mike,

I think you got the wrong end of the stick a little bit. I wasn't defending porn in the slightest, much less do I consider it a worthy sex educator. In fact, that was my point. To elaborate: if conventional sex education is so bad that porn is now considered a sexual educator, as the author of the post suggests it is, then the problem isn't with porn, it's with the management of conventional sex education. I think I garbled my point in my original comment, but I look forward to the author's comments nonetheless. :)

7 Dec 2012 - 19:53
Madwoman's picture

The author's comments are there for you .... @slimf82206

10 Dec 2012 - 20:46
miked11445's picture

Oh bugger I tried to send u a more detailed comment Slim but it got lost in transmission - not trying that again! - but at least I'm glad our differences are a misunderstanding - basically porn degrades both viewer and viewed best to you


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