How Victoria's Secret censored a burgeoning anti-rape social media campaign

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Alison Dame-Boyle has a good post on Victoria's Secret bad-tempered attempt to censor a campaign by the feminist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which parodied the "Sure Thing" and "Unwrap Me" underwear that Victoria's Secret sells to high-school students with its PINK line, replacing the slogans with phrases like "Ask First" and "Respect."

Victoria's Secret used takedown notices to get FORCE's web-host to shut down its site, to get Twitter to yank the FORCE's @LoveConsent account, shutting down the dialogue about consent and rape just as it was gaining momentum. It's a sobering reminder of the power of copyright takedown rules to be used to censor political speech, and of the fragility of free speech in an era where the entertainment industry has lobbied successfully for laws that allow censorship without a court order.

Though nothing was down for long—the site was only down briefly as FORCE moved to a different hosting provider and the Twitter account was back up by Friday, December 7—even the brief downtime hurt the campaign. FORCE had purposefully launched PINK Loves CONSENT immediately prior to the fashion show to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the event, which attracted nearly 10 million viewers. During the show, tweets about body acceptance and the importance of normalizing a culture of enthusiastic consent made #loveconsent the number one hashtag associated with #victoriassecret. The Facebook page was similarly inundated. FORCE was able to use Victoria’s Secret’s popularity to raise awareness and generate discussion about rape culture on an unprecedented level. When its Twitter account and subsequently its websites were taken down, that discussion was interrupted at a vital time.

These takedowns highlight, once again, the weakest link problem that plagues Internet speech. Individuals and organizations rely on service providers to help them communicate with the world (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). A copyright complaint to an intermediary generally triggers a virtually automatic takedown, because the intermediary has a strong interest in complying with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and preserving its safe harbor from copyright liability. A trademark complaint directed to one of those providers can also mean a fast and easy takedown given that those service providers usually don’t have the resources and/or the inclination to investigate trademark infringement claims. Moreover, because there is no counter-notice procedure, the targets of an improper trademark takedown have no easy way to get their content back up.

I See London, I See France: Victoria's Secret Parody Campaign Fights Takedowns

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      1. Because under the circumstances so far FORCE has accused Victoria’s of encouraging/ok’ing rape. If I were Victoria’s, I’d be throwing everything I had at them…

    1. Underwear with the slogan “sure thing” may not encourage or excuse rape, but it sure as hell does not help.

      1. No it may not, but I believe saying a woman dressed in a way that says “She was asking for it” is wrong too. To some the way Linda Carter was dressed as Wonder Woman is empowerment, to others it’s just plain sexist. FORCE picked Victoria’s to stage their protest, it was Victoria’s that reacted. Why is everyone shocked?

          1. Again, that’s part of the game.  If you’re not going to hold VS responsible for their part of the game I don’t see why you’re going to do so for FORCE.

            You said: “If I were an entity accused of such things…I’d do anything and everything…” Well, FORCE is also an entity with an agenda. Why are you shocked that they’re taking measures to pursue that agenda?

        1. Correct, there is no excuse for rape. But that is not the story here. Sexy clothing can be both empowering and sexist. FORCE was trying to promote their belief that those particular slogans on underwear marketed largely to teens were more sexist than empowering. Victoria’s Secret could have chosen to defend their marketing or to apologize. Instead they tried to silence FORCE through other means.
          Since that is the story and not the strawman you posited above, there is no reason for Cory to respond.

          1. It will be very unfortunate for FORCE and their cause if it has be ascertained they have stolen imagery and code from their website to post their own. Is this a kick to the gut of free speech or simply a company defending its content? I personally can’t help but see what FORCE has done as being an accusation of the heaviest sort. Otherwise Force might have approached them as Breast Cancer Awareness has many organizations and built something instead of trying to tear it down…

          2. This characterization of FORCE’s actions seems way over the top to me.  They seriously fucked up their message by violating trademark and stealing code from the VS website — you can be as bullshit as you like about that since they were clearly in the wrong there.  But I’ve already explained to you why FORCE’s accusations in general are reasonable and you agreed with me.

    2. I think the argument is that they encourage and/or excuse a culture wherein: 1) a woman’s value to society is predicated on how physically appealing she is to the men around her, 2) the onus of “not getting raped” is put on women who are highly encouraged to dress provocatively (see (1)), and 3) blame any woman who is sexually assaulted or raped for “asking for it” — perhaps because she was wearing Victoria’s Secret so we all know what kind of girl she is.  No acknowledgement her of (1), whereby the woman was encouraged to dress that way to be taken “seriously” in the first place.

      It reinforces the idea, way too prevalent already, that women are playthings for men, and yes that mentality does encourage rape.  And if you were ever taken to court for an alleged rape and you could establish that the young woman was wearing undies that had “sure thing” printed on them it would help your chances of getting found not guilty considerably — and those chances were already pretty good.  So yes, this could quite plausibly be used to “excuse” rape as well.

        1. Nice edit.  To answer those questions which I caught: 1) I have no problem with Victoria’s Secret selling underwear.  Selling underwear with “sure thing” and “unwrap me” printed on them seems pretty irresponsible to me; I think they should be legally entittled to do so, but I think I should also be legally entitled to point out that it’s irresponsible.  Same with marketing that underwear to teens.

          2) People should absolutely dress however they want.  But let’s not pretend people are dressing up however they want in a cultural vacuum — clothes send messages and different people interpret those messages in different ways.  This can be dangerous, especially when it comes to provocative clothing and questions about consent.  Acknowledging that our society encourages women to dress provocatively while at the same time blaming provocatively dressed women if they’re raped or sexually assaulted is pretty reasonable, I think.  I’d like to live in a society where women dressing sexy isn’t a political issue, but unfortunately that’s not the society we live in.  Try not to shoot the messenger.

          3) There is no conceivable way in which this post “blames the victim.”  I was answering Napalm Dog’s question by saying what these particular items of apparel have to do with encouraging or excusing rape, and I think my answer was a fair one.  I said nothing on the subject of whether Victoria Secret’s trademark was violated.  On that score, I think this group way overreached; a recognizable parody would have been ideal.  Stealing the CSS from the VS website is completely bullshit.

          FWIW, I think I’m capable of having a conversation about this stuff without starting a flame war, but your pre-edit comment was pretty inflammatory. Both sides have to be willing to listen before any reasonable conversation can happen, OK?

      1. While I understand all that, it’s still a fine line. If I were an entity accused of such things as what you just described I think I’d have to do everything and anything to remove that association, at the very least…

        1. In that case, what VS is doing is counterproductive.  They know FORCE can get the message out pretty effectively about what VS is doing to shut them down; VS could have been much more effective by seeking public rapprochement with FORCE, insisting that the violation of trademark was out of line but that VS still understand’s FORCE’s concerns and is looking forward to working with them to better address women’s issues in the future.

          Doesn’t have to be sincere, just a convincing PR offensive along that line.  Using DMCA and trying to take out FORCE on the sly is just bad tactics.

          For the same reasons you don’t want to blame VS for doing this, you can’t blame FORCE for fighting back (although you can still blame them for a very sloppy trademark violation).

      2. “It reinforces the idea, way too prevalent already, that women are playthings for men, and yes that mentality does encourage rape.”

        Being a plaything for others is an important part of many people’s sexuality, which in turn is an essential part of their humanity. It does not encourage rape.

        Someone who says “I am your plaything”, “I am available to you”, “Sure thing”, “Unwrap me”, “Shut up and fuck me now” is not encouraging their own rape. Wearing these messages does not encourage rape. Selling clothes with these messages does not encourage rape. Being a huge slut and shamelessly advertising it does not encourage rape. Sexual availability is not rape.

        Not listening to or caring about other people’s inconvenient decisions about their own bodies and sexualities is what encourages rape.

        1. Again, this is the way I would like the world to be, but it is not the way the world actually is.  I hear what you’re saying and if people could sexually objectify themselves voluntarily without affecting others I would be completely for it.  It would be wonderful to live in a society where everyone could feel so free to express their sexuality.

          But that’s not this world.  In this world, women really do get raped and/or sexually assaulted, and this is often justified or excused on the basis of what that woman was wearing, or on more general expectations of how women are supposed to behave.

          Like I said below, there is a tendency in this society to objectify women: to treat them not as people capable of making the decision to be a sexual object or not, but simply to treat women as sexual objects.  This unfortunate tendency is in conflict with my very sincere desire that everyone should be able to express themselves including dressing as sexy as they want to. 

          It’s a confusing and unfortunate situation.  As I’ve already said, I don’t like it and I didn’t make it this way.  I don’t really see what there is to argue about here.  If you really don’t think revealing clothing (among other things) is frequently mistaken for consent then I’d have to conclude you’re really naive and/or sheltered.

          1. “In this world, women really do get raped and/or sexually assaulted, and this is often justified or excused on the basis of what that woman was wearing, or on more general expectations of how women are supposed to behave.”

            And the proper response to that is… to discourage women from “dressing like sluts” (in the words of a Toronto police officer)? To protest anyone who sells such slutty clothing?

    3.  I certainly wouldn’t have thought so. . .  until VS reacted so harshly to an anti-rape campaign.  It seems to me they chose which side they were on in this situation.

      1. Hmm, I don’t think it’s particularly ok to shut down good work for good causes. But what about BAD work for a good cause? Rape is a seriously harsh subject right now, down to just USING the word in a different context. Just as The Oatmeal. That said, associating Victoria’s with rape brought out big legal guns. The victim in this case is probably the right message, not FORCE.

  1. I’m having a difficult time telling from the links, but did this campaign actually use copyrighted images/ads and just change the slogans? Or did they actually pose as Victoria’s Secret? Some side-by-side screenshots would be helpful.

      1. The Navbar even has the same class=”grp” on both sites. And the last four levels of directories for the header background are identical, and the URL for the css on the PINK site, the non Victoria’s Secret site, the one we are being told is the victim here who is being falsely accused of copyright infringement is http://www.victoriassecret.com/themes/base/candice/css/base.css, which just so happens to be the exact same as the actual Victorias Secret site. So, yes, they have not just mimicked the visual style but it looks a lot like they have literally directly duplicated code and assets from the Victoria’s Secret website.

        1. So if someone were to make knockoff Victoria’s Secret clothing they would be fine, but copy some of their website code and they are criminals?

          Oh intellectual property, you slay me!

          1. Actually it would be illegal to make a knockoff of their clothing if it included the Victoria’s Secret logo.

          2. If I had a factory copying Victorias Secret stuff with the Victorias Secret logo on it, they would shut that down in a heartbeat. The parallel with the article that you posted is if this website duplicated the look and feel of the VS website but not so specifically as to use the same logo / layout / code / assets etc. If they been smart enough to do that then VS would not have been able to attack them using the copyright mechanism.

    1. On the plus side this is still giving some attention to the fact that Victoria’s Secret is marketing underwear with provocative messages. 

      Whether the creators of the parody website went too far, whether they overstepped the bounds of fair use, may be an issue, and I suspect  Victoria’s Secret would like to pretend it’s the only issue, but I hope it will be subordinate to a larger discussion of the implications and influences of telling young girls they should wear underwear that says “Sure Thing” and “Unwrap Me”.

      1. Victoria’s Secret has essentially been all about provocative messages from it’s beginning. Arguably they’ve been a strong force in the idea that women can actually enjoy and want sex- something that was somewhat foreign to society’s thinking back in the day, and something at odds to the idea that women are just playthings for men. It does play into the thought processes of those with that attitude however, to a degree. Gonna go with both sides being a bit douchey here.

        1.  You’ll be happy to know Victoria’s took down their teen section. Oh wait; There NEVER WAS ONE…

  2. “FORCE had purposefully launched PINK Loves CONSENT immediately prior to the fashion show to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the event, which attracted nearly 10 million viewers. ”

    That pretty much meets the definition of trademark dilution when it could have so easily been fair use parody. The cut and paste code and graphics doesn’t help their case either.

    It would have been so easy to be on firm legal footing yet they screwed it up so badly I can only think that getting shut down was a PR stunt.

  3. Another neat campaign I heard about recently, which met with a “bad-tempered” response from the sponsor, was this activist’s satirical response to an American Apparel contest seeking a “bootylicious” plus-sized model.  ;) http://www.buzzfeed.com/gavon/woman-who-made-fun-of-american-apparel-contest-win

  4. Regardless of the legalities of it, this was an enormous PR own-goal on the part of Victoria’s Secret. They could have scored immeasurable goodwill and free publicity by embracing this, rather than trying to stomp on it.

    1. I dunno. A message that boiled down to “you’re absolutely right! Our new product line DOES encourage rape!” probably wouldn’t be a huge PR coup for the company either.

        1. It warmed my heart to see you in the thread because some of the stuff coming in on Disqus for me was … icky. 

  5. As a parent, grown grey and all, I’d really feel I’d failed if such underwear were my daughter’s garments of choice.

    Because throughout the process of selecting, purchasing / receiving, and putting on these, there is such a no-miss whirling revolution around sexuality and provocation, to herself and any potential viewers.  Wearing them and secretly feeling and imagining about how you’re all sexy like – ugh, save it for my stepmother, she needs it.

    Yes, we all think about sex all the time, and maybe some of us have done it, and when I was a teenager I thought about it even more.  But I knew what decency and integrity were, and the weakened personality that needs to use messages like “sure thing” (for sarcastic laughs, as a seductive tool?) is diminished.

    If my kid’s self-esteem were to have these messages and underlying meaning as its root, I’d be anxious about what was next.  Where does the road lead? Did it start at Playboy underwear for 8 year olds?

    This sort of thing appears legitimate and valuable to teens, overriding safety catches and nurture with a swallowing attraction.  They hype culture, the stage shows, the attention, the wow factor – all good things that have little to do with setting someone up in life to respect themselves and enjoy living without reliance on vague sexy propaganda campaigns.

    What’s wrong with getting on with their lives and wearing Marks & Spencers knickers?

    Besides, my wife once asked me to buy some VS stuff having been allured by the advertising and hype, and rapidly called it cheap and badly made.

  6. Cory,
    I agree with you that practically instant takedowns without requiring any evidence of a copyright infringement is wrong. Would you be able to link us to any petitions that might be going around?

  7. While the censorship aspect is questionable, I disagree that Victoria’s Secret is promoting rape culture or even negating consent. It appears to me that these slogans on the underwear are a form of consent (or rejections). “no peeking” seems to be saying “no” and sure thing seems to be saying “yes”. I don’t really see the difference between this and other forms of consent. Of course, when verbal consent is incongruous with the statement made by the underwear then a problem is created, but Victoria’s Secret isn’t to blame for that. It just printed something on underwear.

  8. One way this campaign makes sense to me is as a way to get people more aware of an odd attitude towards sex that seems to be the norm- like, that women are supposed to act coy/play hard to get/not really know what they want.  Which is awfully condescending, and even worse- it can put women in actual physical danger.

    Words printed on underwear don’t really seem like the core issue at all to me.  Maybe I would even buy the VS panties if I liked tacky, overpriced crap.  It’s more that the ad campaign happens to publicly reflect some very screwed-up notions about women and sex that too many people are probably not even thinking about at all, because it’s just normal.  So the whole kerfuffle with the activist response is just great, because it’s getting people actually thinking about this stuff! (at least, it is here on the internets- I haven’t gone outside in a while as it seems to be snowing and I have hot chocolate here…) 

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