Sorry, Calvin Klein, but women are not flattered by sexual harassment

Calvin Klein's "upskirt" ad isn't daring, but playing with misogynist tropes about women and sexual harassment

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2016 5:21PM (EDT)

Calvin Klein has faced backlash over this "upskirt" ad
Calvin Klein has faced backlash over this "upskirt" ad

Calvin Klein has released a new ad campaign and, to the great surprise of roughly no one, it's sexually provocative, with ads suggesting masturbation and oral sex. But one of the ads, featuring actress Klara Kristen, stands out from the titillating crowd. It's a riff on the "upskirt" photos that are popular in the creepier corners of the internet, where misogynistic voyeurs share pictures they took up the skirts of unsuspecting women in public places.

But unlike the real-life upskirt photos, where the creepers in question try to avoid detection from their targets, this photo shows Kristen looking directly at the photographer. And while she's not smiling, she doesn't seem angry, either. Maybe more intrigued....perhaps aroused. "I flash in my Calvins," the ad reads, suggesting that, even though she's not supposed to admit it, Kristen wants you to look, you naughty boy.

Take a peek: @karate_katia, photographed by @harleyweir for the Spring 2016 advertising campaign. #mycalvins

A photo posted by Calvin Klein (@calvinklein) on


The ad generated a churn of moral outrage from all sides of the political spectrum.

"Calvin Klein is marketing to perverts," a New York Post headline reads.

People on social media denounced the ad as "disgusting" and accused Calvin Klein of pandering to "pedophiles," even though the actress is an adult woman in her 20s.

In other words, the ad was a smashing success, doing exactly what it was no doubt intended to do: Paint the brand as sexy and daring. By invoking sexual harassment, they can also market themselves as the brand to wear to signal that you're a "chill girl", i.e. the kind of girl desperately wants guys to know that she's totally cool with you being gross and disrespectful to women, unlike those uptight feminists who are always yammering on about consent. (Neat trick of a sexist culture, convincing so many women that they need to have low self-esteem to be cool.)

All of which is hilarious because, clothing-wise, Calvin Klein is anything but daring and sexy. On the contrary, they are the go-to brand when you need clothes that are conservative and unassuming, for those times you want to look nice without drawing any undue attention to your outfit, such as for job interviews or meeting your partner's parents. It's like Ann Taylor or the Banana Republic, except somehow even more boring. The gap between their oversexed marketing and the actual appeal of their clothes continues to be equal parts baffling and comical.

Because generating feminist outrage is part of their marketing plan, I fully admit to hesitating before jumping into the fray. But sometimes the desire not to give the trolls what they want is outweighed by the need to push back against egregious sexism, of the sort that is on display in this ad.

So here we go: This ad is not actually daring at all. It is mired in one of the oldest and lamest excuses for sexual harassment and abuse there is, which is that women secretly want it. Misogynists love to argue that women are afraid to act on our desires for fear of being called a slut, so we need men to force   us in order to realize our desires.

This myth pops up time and time again, to justify everything from sexual harassment to rape. Women are told that we secretly love cat-calling and public voyeurism, but only pretend not to be flattered in order to "play the victim". Rape victims are frequently told that they secretly wanted it, but are only "crying rape" afterwards to conceal their supposedly slutty ways.

“How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ if you know how to spot it?," Rush Limbaugh complained recently on his radio program. “It used to be used as a cliché.”

Yes, it did, but not because women who said no were secretly saying yes. It was because it was a more sexist time, and society allowed this excuse to men who wanted to rape women and get away with it.

I'd like to say that time has passed, but it clearly has not, and not just because a conservative crank like Limbaugh waxes on about what liars women supposedly are. For instance, "pick-up artist" communities online frequently use variations of the "no means yes" cliché in order to justify and encourage each other to force sexual activity on women who have explicitly told them no.

"There are three concepts that are common through most PUA schools of thought: Anti-Slut Defense, Last Minute Resistance and Buyer’s Remorse – and they’re all toxic as fuck," dating coach Harris O'Malley wrote in a critique of the "pick-up artist" movement. "All three are based on the idea that women may want sex but they’re socially conditioned to pretend that they don’t for fear of appearing to be a slut."

He goes on to catalog some of the chilling behaviors that this "no means yes" philosophy is used to justify, including lying to women, bullying them for sex, and whipping your penis out and making her feel guilty if she doesn't want to touch it. Some even argue that you should pressure and bully a woman for sex until she physically fights you off, and only then will you grudgingly accept that this could be a real "no".

All of which is why this Calvin Klein ad should not be regarded as rebellious or daring. On the contrary, it's deeply conservative, in that it plays off old-fashioned and bigoted ideas about women being mendacious cock teases who only pretend not to want it and therefore need to be forced.

If they wanted to be genuinely daring, advertisers would make ads that portray women as autonomous beings who both know what they want sexually and aren't afraid to ask for it. Instead, we've got an ad that simply titillates while flattering the prejudices of the most retrograde misogynists out there. Rush Limbaugh probably loves this ad. What's sexy about that?

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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