Sex Sells Safer Sex—But At A Cost
In the black and white ad commissioned by the Finnish AIDS Council, a young woman wearing sheer underwear is depicted lying at the edge of a bed with her legs spread. Superimposed onto her crotch is a “Facebook Places” check-in icon. Apparently, “Matti Virtanen and 19 others were” there, as the check-in reads.
One’s feminist knee-jerk reaction might be to drop jaw and scream “sexist” and “slut- shaming,” but as Jessica Blankenship from Thought Catalog points out, perhaps the ad isn’t that bad.
Perhaps, as Blankenship writes, those who read these sexy grayish-hued visuals as offensive and problematic are only projecting their preconceived assumptions.
The ad itself isn’t implying that lying naked on a bed makes you a bad, bad, dirty, whore-ible slut. Nor is it implying that doing sex on 20 folks is something to be ashamed of. If the ad campaign was based around a bunch of guys talking about their sexual experience with the same girl, then yeah, that has the potential to hold a shitty, unfair position of women and sex. The difference between something like that and what’s happening in this ad is that the woman is owning this information about herself and her past. She owns it. She offers it up for the safety of herself and what we assume is a faceless new partner behind the camera. It’s her information, her choice, her power, and her smile as she offers it up like the unashamed modern sexual beast she is. Cue the f-cking applause.
The choice of using an Internet “check-in” to denote her number of partners past is a benign way of communicating the facts without judgment. The ad isn’t analyzing the woman based on that number, in fact, it’s not offering any additional information. It’s only a neutral conduit for conveying information.
But is a “check-in” any different from locker-room speech, and does she really “own” this information? And is she voluntarily offering it up to her partner? I would argue no.
To illustrate her point, Blankenship describes how this ad campaign could have been—a scene with 20 bros (she assumes they’re all men) reveling in their past sexual escapades with this woman. Yes, that would be more shocking, if that scene didn’t already exist online and on Facebook.
Facebook is a notoriously susceptible space for online bullying, lewd commenting, and oversharing. A bad record of protecting users’ privacy only makes the notions of “ownership” all the more fleeting. Features like tagging, face recognition technology, and the new timeline have made it nearly impossible for an individual to police pages for offensive wall posts, unflattering photos, or prevent having their genitals “checked-in” by their peers as a practical joke before the damage to their online identities is done.
Even just tackling the image and pushing aside the social media context for a moment, this ad is still problematic. Blankenship acknowledges that the camera angle and the young woman’s posture suggest “vulnerability” and “exploitation,” but she also adds that her laugh and parted legs hint at empowerment and liberation.
But I’m more interested in what we don’t get to see—her eyes.
The editorial decision to crop out the young woman’s eyes (read: her identity), while leaving the full name of her visitors visible implies that having 20 or more partners is something to be ashamed about. Shaming does not require the model to appear embarrassed or ashamed of her body as long as the viewer has been directed to do so—and so we are thanks to the imposing camera angle, the “offered” information and omitted identity.
There’s also a male version of this ad, but that doesn’t change the overall sexist and shaming nature of the campaign. In the male version, the model isn’t sexualized in the same way. He’s wearing thick opaque briefs, is seated upright in a chair, and he isn’t smiling. He does, however have a significantly higher number of check-in’s. Some would claim men can be slut-shamed, too, but given mainstream society’s congratulatory tone toward male promiscuity, the slur just doesn’t pack the same degrading punch as when hurled at a woman.
The ad does certain things right—it captures the social media zeitgeist and arouses enough fear (a reliable persuasive mechanism that prevention ads like to use) to get people talking about safe sex practices. However, it does so by relying on sexism, shaming, and stigmatization (you can contract HIV by just sleeping with one person).
Do the benefits of this ad really outweigh the costs?
I don’t think so. I’d like to think we can do better than using the typical “sexism sells” mantra. But if the goal is to shock, it will be difficult to find an effective ad that doesn’t offend some factions of the typically oppressed.
Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.