Monthly Archives: March 2013

Playtex Thinks Your Genitals Are Dirty

Playtex Fresh and Sexy Wipes Ad

How many times has this happened to you? You’re furiously ripping off your partner’s clothes in a mad, hormone-fueled dash, when you unbutton their pants and you catch a whiff of their malodorous genitals. Sighing, you zip their pants back up and tell them you’ve changed your mind, all the while thinking to yourself, “If only there were a product that could instantly remove rank genital odors…” That’s never happened to you? Well, some mastermind at Playtex seems to think it has because they just trotted out a new product to cure this problem: a wet wipe for cleaning your genitals before and after sex.

Although the product is simply another in the long line of rebranded wet wipes, Playtex’s Fresh + Sexy Intimate Wipes are the first attempt by a major company to address pre- and post-coital cleanliness (although the ad campaign exclusively focuses on the former). With clever taglines like: “A clean beaver always finds more wood” and “A clean pecker always taps it,” their message is clear: your genitals are smelly and gross and nobody will have sex with you until you deodorize them. Ironically, the opposite is true. Genitals secrete pheromones during sexual arousal that attract mates. Wiping away these pheromones may actually make you less attractive.

Although Playtex’s ads may seem novel, they actually follow a simple formula that companies have been using since the 1880s to convince consumers of the necessity of soap and mouthwash (which Julian Sikulva skillfully details in Stranger Than Dirt):

  1. Pinpoint a part of the body as particularly dirty
  2. Connect this dirtiness to social reprobation
  3. Offer a product that cleans the area, and, in turn, helps the aspiring consumer to achieve a cultural norm

What’s new is that our cultural norms have shifted. Instead of urging consumers to buy personal hygiene products by persuading them that cleaning their bodies will win them a spouse, companies are asserting that their products will bring consumers copious amounts of sex. Companies have been telling men this for years (see: the Hai Karate ads from the 1970s).  But, for the most part, they’ve shunned sex appeals in favor of marriage appeals when selling women personal hygiene products.

Listerine Ad From 1923.

Listerine Ad From 1923.

To trace this cultural shift, it’s instructive to examine the father of all orificial-odor shaming ad campaigns, Listerine’s “Often a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride”  campaign from the 1920s.  A typical ad from this era featured an image of a dour woman bemoaning her lack of a husband, a lack which the ad traced directly to her bad breath. But it was the prose that laid the message on thick, as this ad from 1923 shows: Edna’s case was a pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry…And as her birthdays crept gradually toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever.” Little did Edna know, the ad suggested, but it was her halitosis that was scaring away all her potential suitors. “That’s the insidious thing about halitosis (bad breath). You, yourself, rarely know when you have it,” said the ad. The ad worked because Listerine tied their mouthwash to the aspirational goal of the middle class woman of the 1920s: marriage.

Like Listerine, Playtex’s Fresh + Sexy ads shame women into purchasing their products to achieve an aspirational goal. In their most widely run print ad (shown above), an innocent beaver makes its way through the water, gazing at the consumer with imploring eyes. Next to the furry animal is this statement, “A clean beaver always gets more wood.” The implication is that women’s dirty vaginas are preventing them from achieving a cultural ideal. But instead of telling women that a cruddy cooch will stop them from attaining their dream of marriage, Playtex has a radically different message: A dirty vagina will prevent women from having a lot of sex. Playtex is implying that the 21st century woman aspires not to marriage (or a long-term relationship) but to sexual fulfillment.

Although the Fresh+ Sexy Wipes campaign is problematic, its pro-sex message represents a sliver of progress in our consumer society. It would be ideal if its sex-positivity weren’t tied into a larger message shaming women about their naturally occurring genital odors. However, the bigger problem lies not with Playtex, but with our commercial culture itself, which has succeeded by playing on our profound fears, one of the strongest of which is a fear of  sexual rejection.–Hallie Lieberman

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why We Need Taboos

taboo
In almost every news story about sex, someone declares that we’ve “broken down the taboo of” a sexual practice or sexual device. Breaking down a taboo is always assumed to be a social good. The implication is that once we break down all the taboos we’ll live in peace and harmony in a mesmerizing sexual utopia. However, not all taboos should be destroyed. Some taboos are needed for our imagined sexual utopia. The problem with our discussion of taboo is our failure to distinguish between types of taboos. We conflate social taboos with sexual taboos. The former needs to be destroyed; the latter needs to be savored.

A social taboo involves shunning those people whose consensual sexual or relationship practices differ from the norm (whatever that happens to be at the time). Social taboos affect groups as wide-ranging as gays and lesbians, the BDSM community, plushophiles, and the happily non-married. This type of taboo can and should be destroyed. Historically, non-procreative sex has always raised suspicion, but we should be enlightened enough in the 21st century not to ostracize people for engaging in sexual acts that make us uncomfortable. What people do with their genitals should be irrelevant to their social status. We’re making a lot of progress on this front. That nine states have legalized gay marriage is a start, but we need to stop thinking in terms of having gays and lesbians conform to heterosexual ideals and actually allow them to make their own space.

In contrast to the social taboo, the sexual taboo should always remain. The sexual taboo is the I’m-doing-something-wrong-and-it-turns-me-on taboo that leads to the eroticism of such practices as anal sex, double penetration, and rim jobs. Because it heightens sexual pleasure, the sexual taboo should never be destroyed. There’s something erotic about violating rules. Sex is dangerous, and there’s no reason we should pretend that it isn’t.  The possible complications of sex are serious, from the physical—unwanted pregnancies and STDs—to the emotional—soul-crushing blows to self-esteem and unshakeable heartbreak.  Of course the possible benefits outweigh the risks: sex can bring you the most acute pleasure that the human body is capable of. And, there’s a particular euphoria between two people that can only come from a sexual relationship. The taboo that says that sex is dirty needs to stay. It is this taboo that brings us love and happiness. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,