THE BLOG

My Threesome At Victoria's Secret

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Victoria's Secret has a long history of breaking boundaries with its sexy ads, so maybe I should have expected it: The sight of three young women wearing only garter belts, thigh-high stockings, G-strings, and bras lounging on a round pink sofa right there in the mall. After a double take, of course, I saw that they weren't real, just life-like mannequins. (You can see the photos on my website, www.sarilocker.com.)

Totally visible from the main walkway of the mall, not tucked away in the back of the store nor behind the glass display window, these "angels" looked so much like real women about to have a threesome that passersby all stopped to gawk, mutter, or laugh. "I'd jump right on that," boasted a macho teenager to his buddies. One shopper mused that it looked a vignette straight out of the Playboy mansion. I imagined an X-rated version of the classic children's book Corduroy about the teddy bear that comes to life overnight in a department store.

Staring along with everyone else, I had to wonder why I, a liberal, anti-censorship, pro-sex, pro-sexy, sex educator was so unsettled by this display in a suburban shopping mall. Was it because these weren't images on TV commercials, pop-ups on the computer, or flat print ads in a magazine, all of which are easy to overlook? Brought out from behind glass, without so much as a velvet rope separating us, these women were a part of our 3-dimensional reality, even if they were only made of fiberglass. It seemed my inner prude was emerging this Saturday afternoon away from my Manhattan home. Was I in danger of turning into the finger-wagging suburbanite expressing her outrage at what this world has come to?

Victoria's Secret also believes they have gone too far. They are rethinking their image in the wake of protests and disappointing sales. Sex sells, but apparently in-your-face titillation isn't making the cash registers ring. With sales down, they have decided to scrap this particular promotion and the company's CEO Sharen Jester Turney has announced that Victoria's Secret will "return to an ultra-feminine lingerie brand to meet [customer] needs and expectations."

What are we expecting from Victoria's Secret anyway? Having counseled many men and women about their sexual problems, I'd say that a lot of them are looking for some reassurance that they, too, can join the ranks of the sexy and desirable for the cost of a matching bra and panties. Everyone hopes for a quick fix, whether it's lingerie or a vibrating sex toy, either of which may temporarily enhance a couple's sex play but can't solve sexual problems or deeper relationship issues that show up in the bedroom. I cannot send a couple to the mall with a prescription for the easy cure to their sexual woes. As it is, I find displays like the one Victoria's Secret created frustrating, because, they're reminders of the huge disconnect between real sexual lives and the fantasies sold by corporate America.

The context of this Victoria's Secret display gave it a power which I'm guessing their promotional department did not intend. In the harsh light of a shopping mall, amid the piped-in music and the screeching of toddlers in front of the popcorn wagon, the sight of scantily clad, impossibly slender women who are ready for anything at any time isn't exactly empowering for most women. If these are the ordinary, everyday standards of sexuality, we might as well head over to Dippin' Dots and abandon all hope. The real-life woman who has curves, bumps, and rolls and feels most erotic in a t-shirt and sweatpants is completely left out of this Victoria's Secret vision of a lusty threesome. And what about a woman who has no interest in kissing another woman? Victoria's Secret has made it seem as if her sexuality is somehow unfashionable.

When the first Victoria's Secret stores opened up in shopping malls across America, they were quiet havens of feminine indulgence: perfume, classical music, and calligraphied display cards all hinted at a slower, more sensual experience of sexuality that wasn't locked into a specific visual image. Somewhere along the way, the company took a turn from empowering eroticism, leaving consumers to feel they'd swapped the candlelight for a harsh spotlight that makes every real woman's flaws visible to the naked eye.

Whatever promotions Victoria's Secret comes up with next, I'm under no illusion that they'll present a fresh and inspired vision of sexuality that will magically melt the anxieties of women who feel pressured to define their sexuality according to what they see around them. But as a sex educator, I'm glad to see a backlash prompted not by moral outrage but by consumers who have had enough of sexual advertising utterly lacking in subtlety and nuance, and promising that one size fits all.