Controversy: Lara Stone for Calvin Klein 2010 – Gang Rape or Fashion?

I am taking a break from the usual “Whatever Wednesday”‘ post to discuss something I feel is much more important (plus, we all know how much I like to post about controversial subjects!).

How many of you have seen Calvin Klein’s Autumn/Winter 2010 ad campaign featuring the gorgeous (and often controversial) Lara Stone? News has recently broken that images from the campaign have been banned in Australia because they are glamorizing rape and violence against women. Below are the two images in question, and the ruling from Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau:

Image via

According to the Bureau: “The Board considered the depiction of the woman with the three men to be highly sexualised and clearly suggestive of sexual behaviour. The Board considered that whilst the act depicted could be consensual, the overall impact and most likely takeout is that the scene is suggestive of violence and rape. The Board considered that the image was demeaning to women by suggesting that she is a plaything of these men. It also demeans men by implying sexualised violence against women.”


Image via

Regarding this image (which is pictured with the above on the billboard in question): “the second image, of the woman sitting on the bench alone with her legs apart, is by virtue of its location with the first image, inappropriately sexually suggestive.

There is no denying that this campaign is highly sexual in content.  It certainly promotes sexuality, sexual freedom, and group sex.  There is also an aggressive aspect to it, but no where in the campaign does it appear – to me – that Stone is being forced into an act against her will.  If anything, it seems to be depicting wild, sexual abandon.

Calvin Klein’s stance is the following:

“We appreciate receiving feedback on the image, and take seriously any complaint about our client’s advertising.

Our response to the complaint is that the models are partially unclothed however not nude. The woman in the image on the left is not struggling, not does she look distressed. There is no violence as the men are holding her. In the image on the right, which clearly follows as a narrative from the image on the left, the woman is relaxed and comfortable, clarifying for the viewer that there has been consent and no violence within the narrative and the imagery. This image is in a public space, and this billboard has been selected to target the Calvin Klein Jeans consumer, and is not actively directed towards children.”

I agree with the above statement.  Glamorizing rape and violence against women?  I just don’t see it.  But others do.

According to Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau chief Fiona Jolly, “The industry standard says you can use sexuality and nudity provided to use them with sensitivity to the audience.” When complaints were filed against this campaign, they had to make a judgment call, and they ruled against Calvin Klein.

In January 2007, Dolce & Gabanna ran into a quite similar predicament.  The image below, by photographer Steven Klein, was banned in numerous countries, including Spain and Italy, for essentially the same reason as the CK ad.


Shannon Click for Dolce & Gabbana S/S 2007

According to Italy’s Advertising Self-Discipline Institute (IAP):

The advertisement showing a woman pinned to the ground by the wrists by a bare-chested man, with other men in the background looking on” [was] been banned [because the ad] “offended the dignity of the woman, in the sense that the feminine figure is shown in a degrading manner. The woman has an alienated expression, with an absent look.

[The woman in the ad is] immobilised and subjected to a man’s will… Because of the passive and helpless position of the woman relative to the men around her, (the image evokes) the representation of abuse or the idea of violence towards her.”

Dolce & Gabbana ended up pulling the ad worldwide due to the controversy it stirred.

Similarly, Calvin Klein is no stranger to creating controversy with it’s sexually-charged advertisements.
This S/S 2009 ad campaign, shot by the always controversial Steven Meisel,  was banned because it was promoting group sex.

Image via Don't Panic Online (click for a click at more controversial ads)

These campaigns all do what they set out to do – they get us talking. They invoke emotions. They get us thinking about gender roles, sexuality, violence, and the way women are depicted in fashion imagery.

My questions for you are twofold:

  1. Do you believe the Calvin Klein ad is glamorizing gang rape and violence?  Why or why not
  2. As a woman, what do you find more troubling, the ads shown above, or these ads depicting clear violence against women, below?

2009 Ad for Superette, a Boutique in Aukland


2009 Ad for Superette, a Boutique in Aukland

{ 33 comments… add one }

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  • Glen September 16, 2012, 12:07 AM

    The First and Third images do show male supremacy however neither the second nor fourth shows no hierarchy of genders whatsoever. The last two I believe are not images of violence of woman at all, rather violence against PEOPLE who happen to be woman.

  • N August 9, 2012, 1:18 AM

    As a fashion Photographer Myself. I often find that people are quick to judge editorials.
    Yes we may be capturing violence, sexualised content, death. Have you ever considered the idea behind the shock factor is to show you what society thrives on. I myself just recently completed an editorial spread about “celebrity suicides” the message was not to glamorise death but rather show that how the media portray the deaths of the rich and famous is influencing societies youth into thinking its ok to cop out on life when it gets hard. SO yes we want you to SEE it, see how this has become the acceptable standard in society, you blame us for creating these things but we simply mirror the attributes that the population find acceptable.

  • M. April 2, 2012, 2:08 AM

    To be honest with you, I do not know how one could NOT see the violence in the first advertisement with Lara Stone. To me, it’s obvious. Her face looks anguished, pained, miserable. Her expression clearly does not lend to the notion of her being “in control,” as some have described. Not only is her expression alluding to rape, but the fact that one of the men is grabbing her hair (thus looking as if he’s constraining her) also makes the advertisement scream “violence.” The blood-red borders, too, only add to this effect.

    At a quick glance (as most advertisements are received), I do not get “strength, respect, pleasure,” rather, I get a feeling of severe tension and desperate struggle, which is outright unsettling. The colors, the location, the perceived movement, the expressions, all contribute to this.

  • Iesha March 2, 2012, 8:13 PM

    I think Calvin Klein video and print ads were all for the sake of art. Art can be sometimes a great issue specially when you get to talk about the way they are being expressed and not just that it’s people who make it as an issue. Art needs to be understood very carefully. It’s just that I am really in favor of this video and ads but just merely seeing the other side of it. And if Lara was really being raped or somewhat abuse, then she would have file a case against the company. I really don’t think so that it’s all about promoting violence and depicting woman it’s just a pure expression of art.

  • anon January 30, 2012, 7:51 PM

    Very interesting topic. Here are some of my thoughts and questions. But it shouldn’t be viewed as art if it’s an advert in a mainstream magazine. companies should have a moral responsibility to portray women accurately and respectfully in their adverts, there are too many of these images around. Jean Kilbourne’s documentary’s offer really interesting insights into violence against women in the media and it’s effects if anyone want’s to learn more about it. The scary thing is, that more women are raped than ever before (by a large percentage) as well as many more domestic abuse cases. Why do you think this is? There must be a reason, I’m not saying it’s necessarily the media, but i’m just interested in what’s happened over the last 50 years or so. Could it be the over sexualised world we live in reinforcing the idea that women are sex objects or ‘play things’?

  • Cloud of Secrets October 25, 2010, 2:33 AM

    Interesting problems to think about, and an interesting variety of responses.

    I’d like to get an experimental group together to — no, not THAT! — I mean, to show them that first CK ad and to have them free-write about what they think is happening in the image. Some will see rape; some will see a happy four-way; some will see a dominant, langourous woman being worshipped by her slaves; some will see a consenting submissive; who knows what others will see. Is the man on the right, for instance, “cradling” the woman’s head, or grasping it, or yanking her hair?

    Personally I do think the woman looks eerily detached and passive in both images, like she’s separating herself from an unpleasant job. She even looks sick and world-weary in the second image. I easily imagine her as a victim of human trafficking. There’s been sexual violence in her past, to make her acquiescent.

    No one has addressed the bloodike smears and spatters on the borders of the CK pictures. I wonder what that effect is meant to suggest, if not violence?

    This campaign first came to my attention in July, when one of the more sexual shots (this one) appeared in the August issue of the usually upbeat and “clean” Lucky magazine. It was pretty unexpected and disturbing. I ended up tearing it out so I could let my young daughter flip through the magazine as she sometimes does. I believe the similarly upbeat and clean InStyle magazine also had some of the CK images, but they weren’t quite so blatant.

    I’m not a prude — I enjoy sexual imagery, in the proper place and time. But I’m uncomfortable with ads like this appearing in mainstream publications and public places. If I’m reading Vogue France here in the USA, I’m not going to be surprised or dismayed by a supersexual ad (or editorial, for that matter). If I’m reading InStyle, or strolling past a big bus stop poster, I’ll be pretty shocked.

    • Beautifully Invisible November 6, 2010, 12:35 AM

      I’d love to see the responses to that experimental group, although, in a way, I think these blog comments are a good indicator of how subjective this truly is. Even in these comments we’ve seen various responses to the images. I see aggression, but not violence against woman. I see sexuality, but not rape. I see boredom,but not detachment. That being said, your comment about the bloodlike smears is quite interesting. I am not sure what those are meant to depict, if not violence?

      I also see your point about the ads being in Lucky or InStyle, but at the same time – I see worse in mainstream media all the time. Heck, I see worse on the evening news!

  • Monique October 22, 2010, 5:45 PM

    Great post! I dont think Clavin Klein had any intention of depicting women in a demeaning manor. In fact in my opinion it does the opposite. Lara looks in control, she look strong and she look like shes taking control of her sexuality in the way she sees fit. Of course these are loaded with sexual content, but i dont nessesarily think its done distastefully. The last two images are more disturbing to me that the Calvin ad. I still dont see it as violence against women because they do look like accidents.

    Love these discussion topics!!
    xo M

  • Krystal October 21, 2010, 8:43 PM

    Hellooo, I definitely don’t see the last pictures as violence against women…since it does seem like they were meant to be portrayed as accidents as one commenter pointed out. Actually, I don’t really get them either, or how they would sell clothes? (They are a boutiques, correct?)
    And my reaction to the CK jeans ads surprises me a little. So, I’m in the minority but it does seem violent, but honestly, that was my first reaction! His hand is in her hair, she doesn’t look like… like she’s in heaven (if they didn’t want to ride the fence her facial expression could have portrayed more pleasure, I think)..and in the 2nd photo she looks kind of rough. It’s just what I get from it, I’m not going to go banning it or whatever. I wonder what someone who has been gang-raped would think about it?

    • Beautifully Invisible November 6, 2010, 12:05 AM

      Interesting question regarding what someone who has gone through sexual abuse would think. My guess would be that for someone who has lived through it, even the slightest allusion to violence would be upsetting.

      I do think there is roughness in these ads… but I don’t find it violent. To me, she just appears to be someone who enjoys that type of sexual activity (hair pulling, ripping off clothes, etc.)

  • Anonymous October 21, 2010, 6:01 PM

    I agree, nothing in the Calvin Klein ad screams rape. Those Superette ads, though, are truly disturbing. The interesting thing, though, is that I think they’re meant to portray accidents rather than violence. The empty bottle, the roller skates? Just a thought.

    • Beautifully Invisible November 6, 2010, 12:00 AM

      I think you are right about the Superette ads. It does seem like they are meant to portray accidents. Yet, knowing that, they still don’t inspire me to buy clothing!

  • Anonymous October 21, 2010, 2:08 PM

    Not entirely sure what happened to my previous comment – sorrry for dupes.

    Great thought provoking post. Can’t say i have a problem with these ads, i guess it depends on how you perceive them, what you want to take from them and the way you think… it is kinda art after all and yes, has sexual elements.
    Ads these days, never mind celebs, reality TV stars and popstars are all using sex as a marketing tool.
    Was just thinking about Heathers comments about if it were the other way around and women were in the place of men…nothing would be said.

    I do remember one other controversial shoot in Italian Vogue, that depicted models in rehab, which later inspired one of Duran Duran’s music vids…


    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:59 PM

      I think it’s certainly true that if the genders were reversed in these ads, nothing would have been said. As it stands, it’s sexual. It’s provoking. It has people talking (the amount of hits I’ve had on this post is quite high!). And it does the job – it gets the brand noticed.

      I did not know about the Vogue/Duran Duran connection. I’ll have to do some research into that!

  • Tanvi October 21, 2010, 12:55 PM

    I do not see violence. Instead I see art. Someone’s interpretation of a moment or emotion. Violence would be if the ‘woman’ in the shoot was shown sad/battered/being attacked! Also, I do not think images and ads have the power to advocate violence. Movies, News show is much more brutality than these ads. Therefore I agree with you! 🙂 I am back and good to catch up on all your posts!!!

    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:55 PM

      Thanks Tanvi, I agree! Nice to have you back – now I am trying to catch up on everything! LOL

  • Tanvi October 21, 2010, 12:55 PM

    I do not see violence. Instead I see art. Someone’s interpretation of a moment or emotion. Violence would be if the ‘woman’ in the shoot was shown sad/battered/being attacked! Also, I do not think images and ads have the power to advocate violence. Movies, News show is much more brutality than these ads. Therefore I agree with you! 🙂 I am back and good to catch up on all your posts!!!

  • Heather Fonseca October 21, 2010, 2:28 AM

    I think if you took either the D&G ad or the Calvin Klein one, and put women in the place of the men, and a man in the place of the woman, no one would be bothered at all. Weird huh? Imagine it if you will.

    The Calvin Klein ad does not bother me personally, nor does the D&G one, however I’m an adult woman and I am comfortable with my sexuality. But I do think we have a responsibility to younger women and girls. It isn’t good for a young woman’s sexuality to think that she’s just a play thing for a bunch of men. When we start seeing these images over and over again we compare ourselves to them, and wonder why are lives aren’t like that, especially when young and impressionable.

    Personally I think the CK ad is tastefully done, but I don’t think I’d want my little girl to be leafing through them.

    And I think the last ones are just gross. I’m not sure what dead women have to do with fashion.

    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:54 PM

      That is a very interesting observation. I wasn’t approaching the ads from the perspective of an impressionable young woman but, like you, someone comfortable with my sexuality. I could see how advertisements like this could negatively impact youth, but at the same time, I see worse on tv every day. I leave that to parents to educate their children.

      I agree regarding the last ads as well – I understand the concept, but think it falls flat in its execution.

  • Grit and Glamour October 21, 2010, 1:09 AM

    Australia is notorious for overreacting and for its propensity to censor media (uh, the recent Google controversy, anyone?). Having lived there, I speak with experience—the government regularly introduces legislation for even the smallest one-off offense, and businesses are draconian in their approach to crowd control (no shots in bars after 10:30pm; no glasses or bottles in bars (yeah, your import gets poured into a plastic cup); no drinks on the dance floor; speed cameras EVERYWHERE; no fireworks, knives, guns, BB guns, slingshots). It’s the most oppressive free country I’ve ever been in. What’s really strange is that Australia allows swearing and nudity on public television at any time of day. But this scene—which I agree is sexual, but no where near the implication of rape—is suddenly too risqué for the magazines in Australia. I love the place, but it leaves me scratching my head on a regular basis. ♥ Vhttp://www.gritandglamour.comtwitter: @gritandglamour

    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:48 PM

      I never realized that Australia is like that. No shots after 10:30? NO glasses in bars? No knives, etc. That is baffling to me. If I had known all that prior to posting this, I may not have found this controversy so surprising.

      I also agree that for a country that appears so comfortable with nudity, ruling this ad reminiscent of rape still seems like a stretch. Very, very odd.

  • Anonymous October 21, 2010, 12:26 AM

    I think art is extremely subjective and what’s sexual to one can be abusive to another. While I don’t find anything with the CK or D&G ads, someone had to complain or raise issue with them for them to get banned. The last two ads are far more offensive to me than as they clearly depict images of violence and harm to women.

    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:44 PM

      Thanks for your comment, doll! I agree completely – it’s extremely subjective!

  • Joanna Cummings October 20, 2010, 10:11 PM

    Excellent, thought-provoking post. I can see why the first CK image and the D&G caused controversy – and, as you say, you can always rely on Steven Meisel – as they do have the undertone of non-consensual sex. It is bound to make a difference that they are men, because sexual violence against women is mainly carried out by men, and for that reason it’s uncomfortable to see women subjugated in this way. I do agree with Berre Pera, in that there are far more ‘hardcore’ examples – and believe me, I hate them – but by and large fashion images are more accessible to more people, so they will be held more accountable. I personally have no problem with advertising of a more sexual nature…as long as it doesn’t degrade women in any way.

    Mrs Bossa Does the Do

    • Beautifully Invisible November 5, 2010, 11:43 PM

      I agree with both you and Berre Pera – there are definitely much more hardcore examples out there, but, of course, those are a whole other genre. The use of sexuality in fashion advertising is nothing new, and it seems like they goal is always to push the envelope as far as possible. I don’t really get a non-consensual tone from these images – boredom maybe, but not violence. Ultimately, though, it is all subjective.

      I agree with your last comment – I don’t mind sexual ads, as long as they aren’t degrading!

  • kristy eléna October 20, 2010, 8:48 PM

    great post!!

    i actually really like both CK ads. i don’t mind sexuality in advertising, i really like it actually. i don’t think it’s a big deal, it’s just sex. done tastefully, i think it can be beautiful and intriguing, something that creates interesting images. the very first photo, it is the woman who seems in control, despite the fact that there are men all around. i don’t see it as violent towards her. in fact, the way the guy on the right is cradling her head and looking at her makes me feel that he has respect and admiration towards her, the fact that it’s sexual doesn’t bother me.

    the dolce gabbana ad is a different story. the bored, detached look of the female model makes me think of a woman who is being raped and resigned to her fate aims to not focus on it to lessen the trauma. the way the men are standing around seems menacing and uncomfortable. i don’t think it’s tastefully done, and that’s probably why dolcegabbana ended up pulling it. they were probably like “oops!”

    as for the last images, those don’t bother me either. as with sexuality, i don’t mind violence either. there is violence in movies, in video games, in most everything. it’s there, i don’t see anything wrong with using it in advertising so long as it’s clever and tastefully done. in the last two images there is nothing suggesting that the violence was done TO the women, they could have fallen on their own. the slogan of the store “be caught dead in it” is catchy and clever and fits with the images. i don’t love particularly love the styling and i think that could have been executed, but they don’t offend me at all.

  • Casee Marie October 20, 2010, 7:30 PM

    I definitely don’t understand the allegations against the CK ad. The D&G ad, probably yes, because he’s holding her wrist down. A little thing like that can completely alter the message of a photo, in my opinion. But I think what it all comes down to is that none of these campaigns make me want to buy their clothes. Half the people in them are barely wearing any. The only thing I can really see in the CK advert is one guy’s button-down. And not much of it. It looks like they’re selling the people instead of the clothes. I know sex sells for most, but for me it just gets in the way. Ha!

    As for those last shots, weirrrd. I don’t see them as violence against women, just…violence. If there were men in the photos then obviously it would be an act against women. But another woman could have easily…thrown that girl down the stairs? That is just the most bizarre advertising campaign I’ve ever seen. I get it – “Be caught dead in it.” – but still. Incredibly odd. I guess that makes it original, though.

    • Beautifully Invisible October 20, 2010, 8:52 PM

      Unfortunately I think nowadays the majority of fashion ads are selling everything BUT clothing. The purpose often seems to be to make the brand interesting, not the clothing itself. I am always baffled at the amount of “NSFW” photoshoots I come across, and wonder what some of them have to do with fashion when the model is completely naked?

      Ultimately though, fashion photography has become an art form, so sometimes, clothing is deemed unnecessary in editorials. In ad campaigns, though – sex usually sells, it’s the clothing that gets in the way! LOL

      I don’t think the D&G ad is glamorizing gang rape either. True, he is holding her wrist down, which does add that extra element to it, but it doesn’t mean he is raping her. Looks more like she is bored to me.

      In the last campaign, I agree they really just depict violence. I was just using them to contradict the supposed violence in the other ads. It might be original – but it wouldn’t make me want to shop there!

  • Bere Parra October 20, 2010, 7:26 PM

    I concur with you: I see nothing in this ad campaign which advocates violence against women. The ‘filth’ is all in the viewers’s minds. There are many porn films in which they show gang-bangs, rape fantasies and the like, yet you don’t see the government attacking them. That’s a double standard! Besides, I consider Fashion photography an Art form in its own right. Art should never be judged by prejudices.

    • Beautifully Invisible October 20, 2010, 8:54 PM

      I agree with you. Unfortunately, anything overtly sexual gets judged by prejudices.

      I wonder – what if, instead of the men around her, it had been a bunch of women, in the same poses? Would the ad still have been banned? If so – would it have been banned for the same reasons?

    • anon January 30, 2012, 7:49 PM

      But it shouldn’t be viewed as art if it’s an advert in a mainstream magazine. companies should have a moral responsibility to portray women accurately and respectfully in their adverts, there are too many of these images around. Jean Kilbourne’s documentary’s offer really interesting insights into violence against women in the media and it’s effects if anyone want’s to learn more about it. The scary thing is, that more women are raped than ever before (by a large percentage) as well as many more domestic abuse cases. Why do you think this is? There must be a reason, I’m not saying it’s necessarily the media, but i’m just interested in what’s happened over the last 50 years or so. Could it be the over sexualised world we live in reinforcing the idea that women are sex objects or ‘play things’?