Calvin Klein Takes Sexualized Ads to a New Low, and It's Not OK

Calling this the new normal is downright exploitative.
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Maggie Niemiec
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Calling this the new normal is downright exploitative.

Have you seen the latest Calvin Klein ads? If you haven't, the now-iconic "I ___ in my Calvins" has a new wave of ads out featuring actresses and models like Kendall Jenner. An earlier set raised eyebrows with a model captioned "I seduce in my Calvins" next to a man captioned "I make money in my Calvins" (sexist, much?). Calvin Klein's latest spring ads released on May 10 features actor Klara Kristin being shot from below, up her dress. Her tagline? "I flash in my Calvins." Cue, collective gasp. 

The brand has been specializing in hyper-sexualized ads for the last 25 years, so you'd think we'd be past being shocked, but apparently I was wrong. The company claims this is just how young people express themselves nowadays. But when I saw the new ads, I felt sick —because one was just way too similar to my experience of sexual assault.

In the summer of my seventeenth year, I left the country for the very first time. I went on a 12-day-long class trip to Spain, France, and Italy right before I was a senior in high school. I was nervous and anxious, but most of all, I was beyond excited. A European trip felt like the ultimate expression of independence.

Of course, I was accompanied by just as many teacher and parent chaperones as students—a fact that greatly comforted my rightfully cautious parents. We had strict curfews, and with a tight touring schedule, there was really no time to rebel against the rules.

We spent the beginning portion of the trip in Italy. One evening we all—parents and teachers included—went out to the local square after dinner. It was still early in the evening, probably dusk. I decided to wear my American Eagle jean skirt (remember those?) and flip flops that night. I wanted to look cute. I didn’t have cleavage to show, or really hips, or a butt. I didn’t reveal my midriff or wear heels. Honestly, I was still just a kid. But I felt confident in that jean skirt.

I remember standing in the center of the square, surrounded by raucous bars and restaurants and people everywhere. My Spanish teacher stood right next to me. We were only gathered for a few minutes when suddenly a man ran up behind me. Before I knew what was going on, he stuck his hands up my jean skirt, and he pushed up my underpants. He did not manage to go further, thank God. He drunkenly took off back to the bar behind me where all his buddies were cheering him on.

I was completely shocked. I didn’t know how to react to what had just happened. I immediately started crying and could not stop. My teacher was enraged. She bolted toward the bar, looking for the man who did this to me, all the while yelling swear words in Spanish, Italian, French, and English. She couldn’t find him. At this point, my teacher directed all of us students to walk with her back to the hotel where we were staying. My other classmates were confused as to what was happening and why they had to give up their night out.

The hotel concierge sat with my teacher and me as he called the police. Two officers arrived shortly thereafter, asking me a series of intense questions as translated to me by the concierge.

Did he go inside of you? Well, no.

Do you need to go to the hospital? No. I mean, I don’t think so. Do I? No.

My virginal self was confused about what happened. Much of that night is a blur. I remember calling my parents on the house phone, telling them not to worry and I was okay. I also remember one of my friends assuring me that this situation would make me stronger. That it would be okay. At least his hands didn’t go inside me, she said. I know she meant to comfort me.

I continued on with the rest of the trip, having the time of my life. I went home and put the entire situation in the past. It is something I rarely ever talk about. I’ve never written about it before and the only people who knew about it before now are my family.

In fact, I didn't even call this incident a sexual assault until about a year ago. I was confused—was what happened serious enough to be an assault? What am supposed to tell people if they ask if I've ever been assaulted? Being raped or abused is clearly assault; was what happened to me just something a drunk guy can get away with?

All these painful memories came back when I saw this latest Calvin Klein ad. Klein representatives claim these images aren't really a big deal to the generation they're intended for. But I beg to differ. It's these kind of images that contribute to the idea that seeing a woman as a portal for all things sex is normal—and worse, casual.  

But when ads like the recent campaign from Calvin Klein are shown to us, the message is, "Hey taking a photo up a woman’s skirt and flashing her panties is ok. It's sexy." But these images aren't harmless. They're normalizing exploitative imagery of women. They're capitalizing off the shock factor that comes with taking upskirt photos—photos that, if they're a "thing," it's because they are most frequently taken illegally by sexual predators while girls are unaware. That Calvin Klein commissioned the photographs in this ad doesn't make them much better. That they convinced a model to do the pose doesn't make it any less troubling to me. Because, now broadcasting this imagery on billboards everywhere, they're convincing even more people that this is normal, ok, and even cool.

The ads, which evoke softcore porn and even pedophilia, took me right back to what happened almost ten years ago. I felt a sense of disgust in the pit of my stomach. I can't imagine how these ads make victims of more egregious abuse, molestation, and rape feel. I can imagine that the ads sure as hell won't make them want to buy Calvin Klein products.

I don't want to see these ads. For the countless women like me who've been sexually harassed or assaulted, they're disturbing and triggering. For everyone else, they're normalizing behavior that is exploitative of women. I could easily turn a blind eye to them as just another hyper-sexualized set of advertisements. But we have to stand up and speak out in order to change the culture. So today I'm standing up. Calvin Klein should pull the campaign and issue an apology. We deserve better.