Groups that work to eradicate domestic violence and help survivors are protesting magazine behemoth Conde Nast over the lastest cover of Vogue Hommes International, on which the cover model is being choked. Supermodel Stephanie Seymour is held from behind by hunky Marlon Teixeira, whose face is rapturous as one hand reaches around to choke her neck and the other reaches around to grab her breast.
Some may look at the image and see a couple in the throes of lovemaking; one can imagine there was some BDSM-esque 50 Shades Of Grey inspiration in the image. But anti-domestic violence groups Sanctuary for Families, Safe Horizon, Equality Now, and the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women call it sexualized violence. In an open letter to Conde Nast’s head honchos, chairman Si Newhouse and editorial director Thomas Wallace, they write:
This truly disturbing image of a woman being choked sends a dangerous message to anyone who sees this magazine – that choking is a sign of passion rather than of violence.
Choking is a huge predictor of future lethality. A 2008 Journal of Emergency Medicine study of murders of women in 11 cities found that 43% of women who were killed by intimate partners had experienced at least one previous episode of choking before being killed. That is why, in 2010, New York State made choking a violent felony, and advocates, prosecutors, police officers and survivors throughout the State have embraced the law as a way to save women’s lives.
As a feminist and someone who cares passionately about ending violence against women, I agree with them that it is a sexualized violent image. I do believe that sexualized violent images desensitize people to the problem of violence; Kanye West’s gratuitously sexual and violent music video for “Monster” sickened me because it was just scantily-clad, bloodied and decapitated women writhing everywhere. In Kanye’s video, the implication was that the women were all massacred by the various monsters; they had no agency in their situation. Take, for instance, when Kanye raps while holding a dead woman’s severed head in his hand.
But I can’t condemn the violent depiction on this Vogue Hommes International cover as harshly as these groups do. I look at this cover and I do see “passion” in it (to use the same phrase as the anti-domestic violence groups). Maybe it’s because choking sexually arouses me personally, but when I look at the image I see consensual kinky sex and BDSM behavior. Stephanie Seymour is being choked, yes, but the look on her face is one of release/abandonment to me, not fear of a violent partner. I get the vibe that she and the model were acting out a passionate sexual moment, that she had agency in the situation. I don’t get the vibe from their sexy poses or the looks on their faces that the image is implying Seymour is being harmed or manhandled, despite the hand on her neck. These anti-domestic violence groups may have erred in their thinking because BDSM imagery — choking, whipping, spanking, pinching — is not mainstream. But just because it’s not mainstream doesn’t mean it’s abuse.
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