The Diesel adverts of new are proving provocative both in people’s pants and in their political conscience. On the blessèd Facebook, social arena of our day, two groups exist. One: “I enjoy a stroll down the high street if it involves soft porn! Thanks DIESEL!”. Another: “Sex sells; unfortunately discrimination doesn’t! Diesel discriminates!”. Hm. So members of one group get off seeing models in such obviously sexy positions in an everyday setting, while others see it as a horrible abuse of models bodies for the purposes of profit. Who’s right?
“Sex sells”. Sounds good. Sounds like it should be right and when you think of it, it kind of does – but only because advertising works best by tapping into our base emotions – commonly, happiness is evoked in ad’s for stuff like Diet Coke, Muller Light and BT Phone connections, as in “buy this and you’ll live a long life laughing in attractive way in sunlit environments”. Other’s find our insecurities and jealousy; “buy this moisturiser for enviable skin” momentarily provokes a subconscious jealousy towards the model running their hands over their taunt, glowing body. This is translated by the promise that “you too can look this good” to desire for that product’s power to make you look better than those around you that brings you toddling to the cash till. You’re also fuelled by the fear that your skin without a daily slather of Nivea will be inferior to everyone else’s. It’s just like the anger and fear that fascist political propaganda taps into when it bangs on about immigration.
So sex. Yes indeedy, desire, lust, libido, what ever you want to call it, is a powerful motor of emotion within both men and women, and from cars to clothes is the favourite human instinct of capitalism to worm its way into to get your money outta your purse. Let’s not lie; we all like looking at hot people. We all wanna fuck hot people. We’re all kinda scared that we might not be hot enough to fuck those people, so that’s where the middle man comes in and whispers through the billboards and TV screen that we only need to part with £89.99 for a pair of jeans and we will be those hotties writhing on the couch. But do we suddenly turn into those lithe young things? Are we really any sexier? The catch is of course, you buy the crappy Diesel jeans and your life doesn’t change one jot. So back to square one. And that, children, is the story of how the advertising men (for the majority, I’m afraid, are men) get lots and lots and lots of £89.99s and share it with the guys who made the jeans (well, own them) and go home to big houses with swimming pools, while we are left to contemplate our stores of fat and empty sexual lives as symbolic of failure of the most important kind.
Of course, what Diesel are getting at in their oh-so-clever catch line “*Unfortunately we sell jeans” is that the ads are an allusion to prostituion. Like lots of mainstream culture, prostitution has been glamourised over the years into something sexy, an exercise of free choice by empowered and beautiful young women-prostitutes, and of the consumer right in the good old free-market economy to have their needs satisfied by the men-clients. Same old empowerment and free choice matra goes for pornography which, as the pro- group on facebook rightly identify, is closer to what these ads are. Same also goes for lap dancing clubs and the sale of tons revealing outfits, litres of makeup and waggonloads of high heels sold every day. But is that true?
Prosititution is an ugly business and rarely involves free choice or empowerment for the women. It is for desperate millions, the only way set up in a sexist economy for some to make money. In an economy where women are far more dependant on low-paid, minimum wage jobs, far less likely to get promoted and even university-educated women hit a glass ceiling in salary difference, there remains this system of exploitation where we can swap our bodies for ready money. Yes there is a financial gain. But are our daughters’, mothers’, sisters’, wives’ and girlfriends’ bodies, not to mention self-estemm, really reductible to a tiny financial transaction? Is this really ok? Or does this really process involve a guy separating women somehow and not seeing their mum and that stripper whose vagina he stuck his fingers into on a stag do in the same bracket?
Paula spent her year abroad from university working for a charity that shelters women who have experienced at first hand having no other way to make money than to trade with their sexual organs. She says, “try to deny it or not, the women who genuinely do sell sex in windows have a horrific time in a horrificly [sic] exploitative so called ‘profession’. When I walk past a shop window with an ad campaign trying to make out that this kind exploitation is somehow ‘edgy’ or ‘ironic’ it makes me feel sick to my stomach. Maybe it would be somehow funny in a world where women weren’t really in that situation.”
What’s more, the “sex” being “sold” isn’t romantic love of mutual respect; its the kind of fucking you see on porn videos. The Diesel campaign was shot in the style of a man who loves a bit of sexual abuse, Terry Richardson. That style is up-close-and-personal, provocative and features very beautiful and teenage-looking models. In Living Dolls: The Rise of Sexism, Natasha Walter discusses the rise from fringe indulgence to mass consumption of pornography. She points to the way in which lads mags Nuts and Zoo have taken over the male magazine market; they compete for most titilating photos of the kind of girls you’d see on the bus, not shoots with film actresses and top models as in more established magazines. It has raised the bar for the rest, leading others like FHM and GQ to compete with how racy the pictures are in order to compete financially. That it is normal women featured is highly significant; for one, it means many get away with not paying the girls, on the basis that they may not have a portfolio or career behind them to be able to demand it. The argument that “at least they’re getting paid for it” now rests on shakier ground. Second, the fantasy is clearly based on the image that these girls represent not a recognisable A-list personality, but your woman, any woman, all women. That kind of porn, however soft (though it usually isn’t demure) impacts on the way one views women.
Natasha Walter argues that so much of the sex discrimation, from lap-dancing clubs to prostitution, is a direct consequence of the way in which the internet has brought hardcore images to everyone’s desktop, from the laptops of pre-teen boys to your parents’ home PC. It is now coming in the form of a brutal and degrading image of women; a man addicted to porn from the age of 10 describes it thus; “now, porn is way more brutalising than it usd to be. There is this lievable obsession with anal sex – pictures of a woman’s arsehole stretched to all proportions from having sex with two men – that has to be painful. It’s far more demeaning to women than in the past.” Yet complain about pornography and you are labelled a prude, uptight. Noone wants to speak out and look old-fashioned. Its a manipulation on a mass level that tells women they’re wrong to complain.
Furthermore, it is sold as empowering women who have been locked for years in sexual repression of the pre-WW2 years and beyond. This “empowerment” is more about fetishizing the ability to separate body and mind, of girls who parade their body indiscrimnately and allow themselves to be “fucked” rather than sex with an emotional connection. Anal sex, oral sex, sex from behind, being tied up and the use of dildos are widespread and common aspects of many modern couples sex lives. Natasha Walter points to the way in which aspects of lap-dancing club acts are being encorporated into normal bedrooms, such as pole-dancing and stripping. “Obviously there is nothing unusual about a woman stripping for her partner. But it is notable that for this woman the idea is to perform to her own husband as though she were performing to a room full of men with whom she had no relationship”.
The empowerment is a sham, a way patriarchy took what it wanted from feminism to disempower women even more. It’s as former stripper Ellie says in Living Dolls, “it just isn’t equal – you know, you know you just look at the lap-dancing club, and it says so much about our culture. The men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts, the women are not respectable, they are naked, they have debts”.
So, then, what is the real cost of these adverts? At the end of the day, that something sells is liquid gold in today’s consumer-centred world. That the morals behind it are questionable? Doesn’t matter, if profits are high. We seem to abandon our morals to make way for a quick buck. What’s more, to complain about pornography is to be labelled prudish, and in this atmosphere of machoism and peer pressure to not be seen to care, we are bullied into accepting it as okay. Is that really female sexual empowerment? That your man has a God-given right to wank over other women being fucked for money on camera as often as he likes is apparently fine. To giggle at the way some young healthy models mimic porn stars who only represent a very extreme and in fact demeaning way of having sex, not representative at all, is cool. But if you’re really an empowered woman, really sexually liberated and know what you want from a partner, there’s no way you should lie down and take this. Sex sells might be a catchy alliteration but that doesn’t make it a good thing.