Christopher Purdy of RH Reality Check wrote yesterday on the Daily Kos: Sex Sells Family Planning and Safer Sex: Why Aren’t We Using It?
Sex and sensual images have been used for years in developed countries to sell everything from beer and soft drinks to cars and hotels, yet in reproductive health we have shied away from doing this even though much of our work is aimed specifically at people who are having, or contemplating, sexual relations.
Can the promise of a better orgasm, or at least a fear-free sexual experience, improve the chances that couples will use family planning? If a couple is not afraid of getting pregnant or picking up a sexually-transmitted infection, will they enjoy the sexual experience more? And if they do, shouldn’t the reproductive health and family planning community capitalize on that and apply the lessons learned by the multitude of marketers who know that sex sells?
Okay, sure, I guess that makes sense. I see lots of condom and ED drug ads that are “sexy,” but yes, it would be great to have all safer sex and family planning advertising be a little more fearlessly sexual. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say “We should really model ourselves on beer ads because of how awesome and not-problematic-in-any-way they are,” but whatever.
He goes on to say,
I realize that the idea is scary for those who worry that such strategies will promote sex. It is safer to keep family planning and reproductive health medicalized, sanitized and respectable.
Which strikes me as a bit straw man-ish. I mean, it’s not like Planned Parenthood is being paranoid when they worry about drawing too much attention via sexualized advertising. They are already being defunded all over the place. The sexually conservative section of this country is already foaming at the mouth to take away everything we have, reproductive rights-wise. If the personhood amendment had passed, it would’ve outlawed birth control in Mississippi. So I could see why nonprofits might be a little skittish about advertising their family planning/birth control giving/abortion providing services in ways that would make them even more visible to the anti-choicers.
But it’s when he starts to give examples of what he’s thinking birth control companies should be doing that he goes off the rails:
For obvious reasons, condoms are a product easily promoted with sensual imagery, a fact that is now generally accepted by the reproductive health community.
That “sensual imagery” includes
A new, more provocative brand was developed — a photo of a sexy woman from the waist down, revealing a shapely leg bared by a slit in her dress.
Oh okay. So by “sex sells,” you mean objectifying ladies sells? And to sell family planning TO WOMEN, companies should be using the same sexualized images of women that ad companies use to sell shit to men all the time? I don’t really understand how using the “buy this and a pretty lady will fuck you” ad style that he seems to be advocating for would in any way say to women that the product offers “the promise of a better orgasm, or at least a fear-free sexual experience.”
I like pictures of pretty ladies as much as anybody, but in a society where everyone is surrounded by images of impossibly beautiful, half-naked women with their mouths open trying to sell cars and cologne and every other goddamn thing, and that this is generally acknowledged to be not-that-great for the self-images of women and girls, I would HOPE that a pro-sex, pro-woman ad campaign wouldn’t be trying to shove that same old horseshit down my throat.
Use of erotic imagery to promote family planning (as opposed to HIV prevention) has been less the norm but this need not be the case. In Indonesia, DKT International has used sensual images of a couple on a bed, legs entwined, to promote emergency contraception. Also in Indonesia, DKT has used the promise of a better sexual experience to promote intrauterine devices, counseling men in ads that IUDs do not take away any pleasure from intimacy.
Those of us in global health need to be willing to meet consumers closer to where they are living, thinking and having sex when we promote family planning and reproductive health.
Images of happy, naked couples, great. Images of naked couples where it’s basically about “look at this hot naked lady,” not so great. And that’s what “sex sells” advertising is, no? I have never heard “sex sells” referring to objectifying hot men, unless it’s for a product that is specifically being pitched to a gay male market—the sexy person doing the selling is always meant to be perceived by the male gaze. And even then! If you’re talking about celebrating sex and promoting sex products with how awesome and pleasurable it can be, there’s no need to objectify anybody!
The other example of the IUD is basically an ad for men that says “don’t worry dudes, this thing won’t affect your sexual pleasure,” which again is supposed to be positive? Completely erasing the woman who is getting a metal object inserted into her uterus, and her comfort and safety?
I like Christopher Purdy’s idea of meeting people where they are living when it comes to promoting family planning and sexual health, I just wish his conception of “people” was broad enough to include “women.”