This Woman Wants To Change How You Talk About Sex

To speak with Cindy Gallop — or even to hear her at one of her many speaking engagements — is to be utterly transfixed. A veteran of both the London theatre scene and the advertising world, her communication skills are next-level: Somehow, she manages to be warm, engaging, and absolutely educational all at once.
Gallop made a name for herself in advertising working on campaigns like Coke, Ray-Ban, and Polaroid in the late '80s, and in 2003, was named Woman of the Year by Advertising Women of New York. But, success aside, she speaks most compellingly about her experience being one of the only women in the boardroom at the time. She later founded her own brand and business innovation consultancy, with a tagline perfectly suited to her personality: "I like to blow shit up. I am the Michael Bay of business." Inspiring, badass, and swiftly defying any preconceived notions you might have of a buttoned-up female executive.
I became familiar with Gallop through her much-discussed 2009 TED Talk, "Make Love Not Porn," where, among other things, she utters the phrase "cum on my face" — a first, and last, for a TED Talk. In the talk, Cindy focused on the sharp difference between what she calls "real-world sex" and pornography. She invites the audience to consider the result of a culture that has unhindered access to hardcore pornography combined with a reluctance to speak candidly about sexual desire and preferences. She's the co-founder, along with Oonie Chase and Corey Innis, of, a media platform that hosts real-world-sex videos for rent. But, she emphasizes that she's not setting out to fulfill the same needs as porn, with these videos; rather, she wants to crack open the conversation around sex in culture, making it easier for all of us to communicate.
She's a unique blend of business savvy and sexual revolutionary — selling us on the fact that our culture of sexuality has been selling us short. Ahead, Gallop discusses the future of porn, why she believes women need to be betters negotiators, and how everything in her life was a total accident.
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You began your career in theater and made the switch to advertising in your twenties. What was it like to start fresh after you had already begun to establish yourself?
“To be frank, everything in my life has been a total accident. I’ve never planned anything. Things just happened at different points in my life that led me down particular paths. I went into theater in the first place because I fell madly in love with it at Oxford. But, as much as I loved acting and directing, I knew I wasn’t talented enough to pursue those careers, but I very very much wanted to work in theater.
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So, how did you make yourself a part of that community?
“I became a publicity and marketing officer for several theaters in the U.K. And, part of my job promoting the theater was to give talks about it. So, I gave a talk to a group of women in Liverpool, and afterward, one of them came up to me and she said to me, ‘Young lady, you could sell a fridge to an Eskimo.’ I thought, okay, that is the universe telling me something; I should and go into advertising. And, by the way, advertising is a very theatrical profession; my skills transferred extremely well."
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How did you find the advertising industry in the '80s? Was it as male-dominated as people imagine?
“It was obviously very male-dominated in the upper echelons of the industry — and it still is. But, to be frank, as a young woman in her twenties — and I think this is still true still, for most of the young women in their twenties today — I didn’t notice. Because that was the way it was, and I just loved advertising. I worked really hard, and to be honest, coming up through the advertising ranks on the career ladder, I really never stopped to think about how male-dominated it was.”
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Today, you’re pretty vocal about increasing the representation of women in creative director positions, and the upper echelons of advertising in general. When did you begin to notice this imbalance?
“When I actually reached those upper echelons myself — because that’s when I noticed that I was the only woman on the BBH group board (the ad agency I used to work for). And, I would quite often be the only woman — or one of very few women — in meetings, things like that. That’s really when I began wanting to really champion women in the advertising industry and in the business world.”
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In a way, advertising teaches us how to think about gender, and informs how society speaks to women. Do you feel that you were able to change those scripts when you were in a position of power?
“Well, I tried, and I continue to try. In a way, it was more difficult back when I was actually running the agency. The difference now, given the situation I’m in, is that I have the opportunity — through public speaking and media interviews — to be able to take this message out much more broadly, and to the industry as a whole I have the platform to get many, many, many more women and men thinking about it than I did when I was slugging my guts out 24/7, just growing the agency.”
Why do you think it’s so important to recast the portrayal of gender?
“We live in a world where the default setting is always male. Men, you have no idea how much happier you would be living and working in a world that was 50-50: equally informed, influenced, defined, and managed by women as well as men. When we have creative directors at the tops of agencies that are evenly split, male-to-female, we won’t only see better depictions of women in advertisements, we will also see better depictions of men.”
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When people speak about the pay gap between men and women, they often discuss women's hesitation to negotiate salary in their first few jobs — and how this leads to lower pay in the long term. What's your advice to help women in the early years of their careers, to counter this?
“This is a subject very dear to my heart. I absolutely want to say three things to young women about how to negotiate salary and to find their true value to a company. The first is they just have to negotiate. There was a study done within the last year that identified that over the course of a lifetime, women end up something like one-and-a-half million dollars behind men of equal ability and on equal career paths because from the very moment out of college, starting at their very first job interview, men negotiate salary and women don’t.
We have this ridiculous scenario where men always think they’re worth way more than they are and negotiate accordingly, and we [women] always think we’re worth way less than we are and are pathetically grateful for anything we get offered. So, the first point is: Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. You must. The key thing to know, though, is that as always, with everything else in the workplace, we are subject to an appalling double standard. When men negotiate they are seen as confident, assertive, go-getting. When women negotiate, both women and men don’t like it. The bias is innately subconscious, unfortunately, within women as much as men.
My second point is that to women, I think, the very word ‘negotiate’ holds a sort of horror of ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to step up, be tough, do all that stuff that men do.’ Absolutely not. Negotiate in your own way. A negotiation is simply a negotiation, and you can negotiate any way you want.
The third point I would make is, in the context of being valued for what you’re worth in the company, women fall into the trap of thinking that they need mentors. But, what I say to women is this: Strike the word ‘mentor’ from your vocabulary. You need champions. Because men champion men automatically. Within the workplace, a senior man, the CEO, will look at a young male and go, ‘He’s just like I was at his age. I can see myself in him.’
Currently there are not enough women at the top of the company to be able to look at other women and say, ‘Oh I see myself at her age.’ Champions fight for their protégés behind closed doors. They fight for the pay raise, they fight for the benefits, they fight for their promotions.”
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I would love to talk about what prompted you to leave advertising and to begin Make Love Not Porn. Where did the idea generate?
“First of all, as I’ve said, everything in my life has been a complete accident, so leaving advertising was an accident and starting Make Love Not Porn was an accident as well. On the advertising front, essentially what happened there was that I turned 45 back in 2005. I had my very own midlife crisis.
So then, I started thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time to do something different,’ but I hadn’t the faintest idea what. Eventually I went, maybe the best thing to do is to pop over to the market, very publicly, and go, ‘Guys, what have you got?’ and see what comes to me. So, I resigned as the chairman of BBH in summer of 2005 without a job to go to, and it was the best bloody thing I ever did with my life. I was enormously lucky.
And then, Make Love Not Porn had a totally accidental genesis, which is that about seven or eight years ago I was dating younger men, having sex with younger men, and going ‘Hang on a minute!’ I discovered that all of them had an issue [around the perception of sex] that quite frankly would never have crossed my mind if I had not encountered it so intimately and personally. Access to hardcore online pornography was meeting our society’s reluctance to be open and honest about sex, and both of those things were resulting in porn becoming, by default, the sex education of today.”
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How did you see this convergence manifesting?
"I found myself encountering a number of sexual behaviors where I thought, ‘I know where this behavior is coming from!’ and I thought, ‘If I’m encountering this, other people must be as well.’ And, being a very action-oriented person, I went ‘Okay, I’m going to do something about this.’ So I put up the main money for this really basic website,, I really had no idea that this was the planting of the seeds. I just felt that someone should be pointing out this issue, helping people do this, and I’m just going to do this. And, I’m going to make it lighthearted and funny.
While I was starting it the opportunity came up to present at TED and I took a deliberate decision to be very explicit in my TED talk because I knew that the audience would not get this issue unless I was extremely straightforward about it, which is why I am, to this day, the only TED speaker ever to have uttered the words ‘cum on my face’ on the stage. The talk went viral and the rest is history.”
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Sex and porn, these are fraught subjects. What's the immediate reaction you normally get, when you tell strangers about what you do?
“Well, I have to tell you, contrary to what a lot of people think, I’ve had nothing but universally positive responses to this initiative. When I explain exactly why Make Love Not Porn exists, why we’re doing what we’re doing, nobody can argue with it. Increasingly, people have heard about it — it’s very nice, because it shows that we are taking hold in the public consciousness. Everybody is instantly fascinated; everybody wants to know more."
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Do you view Make Love Not Porn as a sex-positive space? Do you use that term, sex positivity?
“I don’t use the term sex positivity myself because it implies it is possible to be sex-negative. And, I don’t think anybody should be.”
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It seems that in the U.S. — and in other countries as well — there’s an emphasis on communication and respect within sex scenes (in feminist pornography particularly). Conversely, in other places like the U.K. or Iceland, there’s been a lot of push-back against any depictions of sexuality on the Internet. Banning pornography, requiring "opt-ins" to view it, etc. This seems like a sharp point of divergence, and I wonder which direction you think things are headed?.
“My team and I are actually out to stop them going that direction [of limiting access to porn]. The answer is to open up: Open up the dialogue around all of this. Open up the funding to entrepreneurs who want to disrupt the world of porn for the better. And, open up to allowing people like me and my team to do this work."
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So, it seems the mission of Make Love Not Porn is to present real-world sex — real people having sex in a way that isn’t so divorced from reality as pornography can sometimes be. If that were more prevalent, how do you think it would change the culture of sexuality?
“First of all, let me clarify: Our mission at Make Love Not Porn is purely and simply to help make it easier to just talk about sex in the real world. Obviously, how that manifests itself is through a video-sharing platform that celebrates real-world sex, but that's about actually helping to drive an environment wherein we are making real-world sex socially acceptable and socially shareable.
One of the things we say is that we're not porn, but we're also not 'amateur,' because we don’t play the same role as porn, and we’re not setting out to play the same role as porn. There was a particular young man who summed it up when he said, ‘Watching porn makes me want to jerk off. Watching your videos makes me want to have sex.’”