Jeffrey Epstein reportedly told women and young girls that he was a modeling scout for Victoria’s Secret. The financier never worked for the lingerie retailer, or even, technically, for its parent company, L Brands. But he had a close relationship with the head of L Brands, Leslie Wexner, assuming an unusual degree of control over Wexner’s assets and personal life, according to reporting by The New York Times. Epstein seems to have exploited his proximity to Victoria’s Secret to facilitate his alleged crimes. According to Alicia Arden, a model and actress, this was Epstein’s ruse when he lured her to a Santa Monica hotel room and assaulted her in 1997. When Maria Farmer, who worked the door at Epstein’s New York mansion, asked why so many young girls were going in and out of his home, she says she was told that they were auditioning to be models for the lingerie brand. Some of them, she told The New Yorker, were wearing school uniforms.
L Brands executives were reportedly made aware, in the mid-1990s, that Epstein was posing as a modeling recruiter for the company. Although they alerted Wexner, he seems to have taken no action. His relationship with Epstein endured, and in 1998 Wexner let Epstein take possession of his palatial mansion on East 71st Street in Manhattan where much of Epstein’s abuse is said to have taken place. Even after Wexner severed ties with Epstein, Victoria’s Secret continued to work with MC2 Model Management, an agency whose owner, Jean-Luc Brunel, has been accused of operating a sex-trafficking operation for wealthy men, Epstein among them. Models from MC2 walked in the brand’s televised fashion show as recently as 2015.
One might conclude, based on this record, that company leadership at Victoria’s Secret did not take the sexual abuse of young women particularly seriously—an attitude that is perhaps unsurprising, given the company’s merchandise. Nor is there anything terribly shocking about the unofficial connection between Epstein and Victoria’s Secret; the man and the company seem to have been animated by a similar spirit of sexuality, albeit directed toward different ends, one criminal, the other commercial.
Victoria’s Secret, with its catalogs and billboards depicting concave bellies, bony hips, and ballooning breasts restrained by bows and lace of cheap, scratchy polyester, depicts sexiness as a trait of underfed teenagers. Its ads are often black-and-white affairs, with women writhing slowly to fast music on TV or twisting into unnatural poses in print. Though they often feature close-ups of women’s open mouths, many of the ads do not show them speaking. Why bother? In the fantasy that Victoria’s Secret is peddling, the only thing a woman ever has to say is yes.
More offensive than the main brand is the one for teenagers, Pink. Introduced in 2002 for girls ages 15 to 22, Pink features bright colors, like candy, and includes pajamas, swimwear, skin care, and accessories, as well as underwear. In 2013, Pink launched a marketing campaign called “Bright Young Things,” which drew attention to lacy underwear emblazoned with I DARE YOU across the rear, beach towels and tote bags that read KISS ME, and a T-shirt with a low neckline that read ENJOY THE VIEW. Most disturbing: a pink-and-orange thong with CALL ME printed on the crotch.
Referring to Victoria’s Secret’s marketing to children, L Brands CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer said, “When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college.” The implications were as follows: There is no clear moral line between the sexualization of adult women and the sexualization of minors; what cool college girls most want is sexual attention from men; and young girls also welcome this sort of attention. How exactly Burgdoerfer became privy to women’s desires, and how Victoria’s Secret determined that thongs were the way to satisfy them, the CFO did not explain.
But the fact of the matter is that Victoria’s Secret has never been very interested in what women, or girls, want. The store was never meant for them. It was meant for men.
Founded in 1977 by a California man named Roy Raymond, Victoria’s Secret was initially imagined as a haven for straight men, something more titillating than the mainstream department-store offerings but less salacious and fringe than sex shops. Raymond told Newsweek in 1981 that he started Victoria’s Secret after having a bad experience in the lingerie section of a department store. The offerings weren’t sexy enough, and the saleswomen seemed uncomfortable with his presence. He wanted to make a place where men could buy provocative, elaborate sexual garments for their wives or girlfriends, and he opened the first store with the help of a $40,000 loan from his relatives.
To make the store more appealing to women, Raymond invented “Victoria,” an imaginary British woman whom he cast as the owner of the company. In the early days, the mail-order catalog featured letters to customers from Victoria, written in the first person. Raymond chose the name of the boutique and its titular owner from the Victorian era, and modeled the store interiors after 19th-century British brothels. It’s unclear exactly what the “secret” was meant to be: Maybe that “Victoria” had sex, or maybe just that she wore underwear.
The attempt to comfort women consumers continued after Wexner bought the business in 1982, rapidly expanding it into brick-and-mortar stores and a robust catalog business. “We had this whole pitch,” Raymond said of the brand, speaking to the writer Susan Faludi for her 1991 book on anti-feminism, Backlash, “that the woman bought this very romantic and sexy lingerie to feel good about herself, and the effect it had on a man was secondary. It allowed us to sell these garments without seeming sexist.”
When The Limited took over the brand, the new chief continued the theme. “Women get a little pip, a little perk out of,” wearing lingerie, Howard Gross told Faludi. Gross, who was the president of Victoria’s Secret from 1985 to 1991, went on to narrate what he imagined to be the inner monologue of a woman wearing Victoria’s Secret garments. “It’s like, ‘Here I am at this very serious business meeting and they really don’t know that I’m wearing a garter belt!’”
Whether women like this existed was somehow beside the point. “It was just the philosophy we used,” Raymond said, shrugging. “But I don’t know. I’ve never seen any statistics.” For his part, Gross made it a point not to conduct any research at all into what actual women wanted, from their underwear or from their lives. “The company does no consumer or market research, absolutely none!” he said. “I just don’t believe in it.” Instead, new merchandise and advertising campaigns were dreamed up in meetings of company leadership, where top managers sat around a table and shared their “romantic fantasies.” Based on what was described, Gross and his team designed merchandise. In these brainstorming sessions, one male executive’s offering began, “I’m in bed with 18 women.”
What does Victoria’s Secret think about women? It doesn’t think of them very much at all—instead, the company speculates about what men want women to be, and then sells that. The result is a bleak vision of heterosexuality, one in which desire is a one-way street running from male to female, in which all women merely want to be wanted by men, and all men want the same thing from women, namely some combination of malnourishment and silence. It’s a vision of sex in which women are not participants or collaborators or subjects with desires or agendas of their own, but something more like ornaments. In this world, men are assumed to see their own desire for women as a site of consumption, something that can be acceptably satisfied by making a purchase.
Objectifying women, as Victoria’s Secret does, is not a moral equivalent to raping, molesting, and trafficking them, as Epstein is alleged to have done. Putting up a picture of a thin woman in a lacy bra in the store window of a mall is not the same thing as raping that woman, or groping her.
But we are kidding ourselves if we do not concede that images like those put forward by Victoria’s Secret enable sexual violence like that which Epstein is accused of. Images of women and girls as thoughtless and hypersexual have contributed to a culture of sexual abuse and impunity, a culture in which men feel entitled to treat the women they desire the way those women have always been depicted: as objects.
If we believe in the power of words and images to shape our minds and our lives, then we must also believe in the power of advertising, the power of the assumptions and messages of that advertising, to inform our behaviors. Although the Victoria’s Secret marketing strategy is not, again, a moral equivalent to the rape and abuse of women and girls, this does not mean that we must ignore the plain reality that the two things partake of the same logic: a logic in which women’s inner lives don’t matter, or in which they are at least much less important than men’s sexual gratification. We don’t know what Epstein thought of the girls he abused, but he perhaps thought of them more or less the way Victoria’s Secret assumed men did.
When Epstein was allegedly dangling modeling opportunities in front of his targets, Victoria’s Secret was expanding at a rate that stunned analysts, and it had become synonymous with American sexuality. Now Victoria’s Secret isn’t doing well, financially—it was hit hard by the decline of malls and the rise of online retail, and a series of corporate shake-ups over the past three years has done little to revive its prospects. Its bright-pink storefronts are shuttering, and it has laid off more than 200 employees. But as of 2017, the company still controlled more than 60 percent of the American lingerie market, and we are still trapped by the vision of heterosexuality that Epstein’s business associate helped package for sale.
All Rights Reserved for Moira Donegan