Teddy bears, BDSM, and Balenciaga: Exposing Child Sexualization

*Trigger warning: This blog contains disturbing references to child sexual abuse.

What started the Balenciaga controversy?

On November 16, the famous fashion house Balenciaga, known for working with A-list celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, launched a holiday ad campaign featuring teddy bears dressed in BDSM gear, held by little children. 

Onlookers quickly noticed something else sinister on the Balenciaga website. For a separate campaign featuring Nicole Kidman and Bella Hadid, there was a photo on the site of a handbag sitting on scattered documents on a desk. Upon zooming in, one of the main documents was disturbingly from a child porn case in 2008. The case was United States v. Williams and the document referenced the 2002 Supreme Court case which made it legal to use 18-year-olds to create simulated child sexual abuse material, a kind of pseudo child porn. (We actually reference this case in our latest film release, Beyond Fantasy: “Barely Legal”).

Needless to say, the campaigns were not well received and Balenciaga came under fire, not from the celebrities and influencers connected to the brand, but by child advocates and the general public, aptly calling for the ads to be removed, and for answers as to how they were ever approved in the first place. 

Exodus Cry joined with many others in calling out Balenciaga for their disturbing campaigns sexualizing children.

 

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Upon further examination of the photos in the two campaigns, viewers discovered further concerning elements. One of the books being used as a prop in the background was written by controversial artist, Michael Borremans, whose works include images featuring castrated toddlers.

 

 

We can’t say whether or not the inclusion of this artist’s book was a coincidence, but looking at all the details, their set designs appear to favor an intentional push towards the glorification of child sexualization. Judging from a number of the artist’s other pictures and their similarity to recent celebrity designs Balenciaga has put out, it would seem as though Demna, Balenciaga’s creative director, has been influenced by Borremans’ work.

The reality is, it’s not a simple “whoops” when a million dollar campaign features kids holding their sexualized child toys – these projects are intentional at every step and the fashion brand’s creative director is well known for his controversial styling choices. The ads should have never been approved and it’s important the company, and those in positions of power within it, are held accountable.

Balenciaga issues multiple apologies

The day after the campaign blew up on social media, Balenciaga issued a statement on their Instagram account, which by this point had been completely wiped of all images, apologizing for including children in the campaign: “Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”

Issuing a second statement just hours after the first one, the brand apologized for the “unsettling documents” in their Spring 2023 campaign and announced they were “taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set.” 

In the $25 million dollar lawsuit issued the next day, Balenciaga accused the styling company and set designer from the Spring 2023 campaign of being “malevolent or, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless.” 

A spokesperson for the company being sued, told the Washington Post that “Everyone from Balenciaga was on the shoot and was present on every shot.”  

Balenciaga ended up removing BOTH ad campaigns from their website and Instagram, and just a few days after the lawsuit was announced, the fashion brand rescinded the legal action without comment.

Kim Kardashian Breaks Her Silence

In the days following the campaign, many were calling on celebrities who partner with the brand to speak out. While most remained entirely silent, Kim Kardashian, who has modeled for and partnered with Balenciaga for some years now, eventually released a social media statement. She said she was “disgusted and outraged” by the recent campaigns and was “re-evaluating” her relationship with the brand. 

Another deeply disturbing revelation came out of the research around the Balenciaga scandal. The CEO of Balenciaga’s parent company Kering, François-Henri Pinault, is also on the board of Christie’s, a famous auction house that sold horrific “art pieces,” depicting naked children with genitalia on their faces. 

 

The pieces were the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, and whether or not Pinault was aware of these abusive sculptures is unknown. But what’s clear is that we’re seeing a culture emerge that tacitly celebrates child sexual abuse, notably from the upper eschelons of society. 

Following further public outrage and a non-stop social media riot against the brand, Balenciaga posted a fresh and more detailed statement to their IG:

The fashion house took a stance against child sexual abuse and highlighted a number of ways, though vague, in which they would strive to do better.

While there are still major questions left unanswered, and further investigation to be done, one thing is clear, Balenciaga was sent a firm message: it’s NEVER OKAY to sexualize children. We hope this entire saga will serve as a lesson to many other companies, whether large or small, who are tempted to introduce similar disturbing themes into their products or advertising. 

The bigger “why”

Child sexual exploitation is unfortunately rampant in our society and we’re grateful the Balenciaga ad campaign hit a nerve because it points to the larger pervasiveness of child sexualization and fetishization that we’re seeing more broadly in our culture.

When we accept the overt sexualization of children as merely “provocative art” or “cutting edge fashion,” we have accepted the normalization of child sexual abuse—one of the most devastating things to take place in a young person’s life.

We must collectively say no to the normalization of child sexual abuse, anywhere we see it.

Unfortunately, the sexualization of children in our culture spreads far beyond this inappropriate campaign. 

Here are some alarming stats:

  • 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.
  • According to a 2020 Thorn study, one in seven kids aged 9 to 12 years old had shared their own nudes, up from 1 in 20 in 2019, and 1 in 5 believed that it’s normal for kids their age to share nudes.
  • The “teen” porn genre, that dresses up young women to look like teenage and pre-pubescent girls in horrifying sexual scenarios, is THE most searched-for genre of porn on the internet, yielding over 3 billion results.
  • Last year, Etsy was selling child sex dolls (child sexual abuse dolls) made to order for people wanting to act out child rape fantasies.

Balenciaga is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the normalization of child sexual abuse in today’s world and while we are grateful to everyone who sounded the alarm about the campaign, we hope this will shine a spotlight on the larger issues at hand.

Exodus Cry has been calling for laws that would help to bring significant changes to the prevalence of the sexualization of children and we’re just getting started. 

This year, we launched our newest film release, Beyond Fantasy: “Barely Legal” as a part of our  #ENDTEENPORN campaign. In the film, porn industry insiders reveal how producers cast aside ethical boundaries to create content which promotes the fantasy of sex with children. Amid pigtails, playgrounds, and teddy bears, grown men act out sexual fantasies with performers who are at least 18 in real life, but who are made to look and act like little kids.

The #ENDTEENPORN campaign is about protecting teens from being pulled into the predatory porn industry and ending this porn genre which glorifies child sexual abuse.

We’ve been calling for the age of entry into porn to be raised from 18 – 21 and, this coming year, we’ll be releasing additional films to further this campaign.  

Two ways you can add your voice to this important fight:

 

SIGN our petition to raise the age of entry into porn from 18 – 21.

DONATE today to help implement these laws, create films that expose this injustice, and protect millions of children.

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