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The Inside Story Of The Feminists Who Fooled Us Into Thinking Playboy Cared About Consent

By Tara Culp-Ressler and Judd Legum  

"The Inside Story Of The Feminists Who Fooled Us Into Thinking Playboy Cared About Consent"

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Playboy Magazine has not actually taken any serious steps to address sexual assault prevention

Playboy Magazine has not actually taken any serious steps to address sexual assault prevention

CREDIT: Playboy

On Tuesday, ThinkProgress was too quick to report on a seemingly innovative site from Playboy Magazine — a 2013 guide to “a consensual good time” that points out that combating rape is the first step for responsible partying on college campuses. If that sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. Several readers pointed out that the mock Huffington Post site that “reported” on the site was a fake, and a spokesperson from Playboy confirmed that the guide isn’t actually associated with the organization.

Who constructed the detailed mock sites in the hopes of receiving exactly the kind of press that ThinkProgress accidentally gave them? Well, all of the evidence points to the very same feminist group that’s done it before.

On Tuesday, one of the first people to tweet about Playboy’s (fake) new venture was Dasha Burns, who blasted it out 38 times to various news outlets and activists:

A few of @DashaBurns' 38 tweets of the fake HuffingtonPost article

A few of @DashaBurns’ 38 tweets of the fake HuffingtonPost article

According to her LinkedIn profile, Burns is an intern at FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, a feminist organization based in Baltimore that describes itself as “a creative activist collaboration to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent.”

The very first tweet of the fake Huffington Post article, at 11:01AM Tuesday, was by Hollaback Baltimore. That street harassment prevention organization has profiled Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato, the founders of FORCE, and displayed the duo’s work. The organization tweeted the link several times before it appeared anywhere else online, urging Jezebel to get “all over” the story.

Hollaback Baltimore also tweeted another fake site, brobibles.com, created to promote the Playboy ruse (the actual site it’s mimicking, brobible.com, doesn’t have an “s”). Another phony site, up-worthy.com, was initially tweeted by Bailey Sheehan, a student from Baltimore who attends the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Nagel and Brancato went to school and where Brancato is an adjunct professor.

Last year, a nearly identical mock campaign targeted Victoria’s Secret.

That fake site, PinkLovesConsent.com, proclaimed that Victoria’s Secret was launching a line of lingerie to promote consensual sexual activity. “PINK loves CONSENT is our newest collection of flirty, sexy and powerful statements that remind people to practice CONSENT,” the site proclaimed, garnering some impressed initial reactions from people who were surprised that the company was committing itself to women’s issues in this way. Some news outlets, however, were immediately skeptical that Victoria’s Secret would ever make such a bold statement in favor of sexual assault prevention.

The skeptics were right. FORCE was revealed as the source of the satirical campaign. Brancato and Nagle said they wanted to go after Victoria’s Secret because it’s never taken an explicit stance on women’s issues before, and “fighting rape would be a major shift” for the company. In an interview with the Baltimore Fishbowl, they explained that Victoria’s Secret’s line of PINK lingerie — which includes underwear emblazoned with messages like “Sure Thing” and “Yes No Maybe” — actually promotes a specific type of sexuality that has “co-opted the idea of sexual freedom and twisted it into an image of sexuality in which the woman (or girl) is not really in control.” They wanted to turn that dynamic on its head.

Brancato and Nagle gave several interviews after the news about their Victoria’s Secret hack spread. In February of last year, they told Hollaback Baltimore that their group — which uses art installations as one of its main advocacy tools — planned to take its work on the road. “We’re currently formulating a proposal to have the show tour several different colleges, some of them falling onto the top 10 party schools according to Playboy,” Brancato noted. “Our rationale behind that is that the kind of dialogue that happened around FORCE would be really useful in the college setting, where a lot of date rape is happening.”

Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato, in the photo that accompanied last year's Hollaback Baltimore article

Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato, in the photo that accompanied last year’s Hollaback Baltimore article

CREDIT: Hollaback Baltimore

As promised, the two activists turned their attention to Playboy. The annual Playboy Magazine guide to the best party schools typically glosses over the issue of sexual assault on college campuses, and the role that alcohol and Greek Life both play in contributing to that specific type of rape culture. Similar to the Victoria’s Secret mock-up, the new fake site acknowledges Playboy’s role in perpetuating those problems and pretends to take refreshingly progressive steps to rectify them. “Somewhere in the countless hours we spent tallying up co-eds and scoring beer pong, we lost track of the most essential element of the Playboy lifestyle: sexual pleasure. Rape is kryptonite to sexual pleasure. The two cannot co-exist,” the introduction to the fake guide proclaims.

And just like the Victoria’s Secret parody, of course, the whole point of the charade is to remind everyone that Playboy isn’t doing enough to emphasize issues of sexual assault prevention and consent. It’s another successful feminist hack to divert the direction of the conversation. The revelation that the site is fake was met with similar expressions of disappointment — why can’t the Playboy guide be a real thing?

The group uses other creative tacts to get people talking about rape. “We believe that a more difficult and honest conversation needs to happen in America to face the realities of sexual violence, and we envision a world where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent,” FORCE explains on its website. “To promote this needed conversation, we create art actions to generate media attention and get millions of people talking.”

Aside from the Victoria’s Secret and Playboy pranks, one of FORCE’s ongoing initiatives is the “Monument Project,” in which the group installs temporary monuments to rape survivors on the National Mall. “I can’t forget it happened but no one else remembers,” one installation proclaims in huge red letters. The organizers are collecting sexual assault survivors’ stories for a Monument Quilt that they hope to use to blanket the National Mall in the summer of 2014.

ThinkProgress reached out to the founders of FORCE for a comment about the new site, as well as asked a Playboy spokesperson to respond to the group’s inherent criticism of Playboy’s failure to adequately address issues of consent. We’ll update this story with those responses when we hear back from them.

Update

On Wednesday morning, FORCE sent out a press release confirming that their organization was behind the Playboy hoax, although the legwork was mostly carried out by college students across the country. (Meet the college activists who partnered with FORCE here.) The group also identified the “hactivist” who created the fake Playboy sites as the same person who worked with FORCE to create the viral Victoria’s Secret campaign.

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