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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.

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