If you haven't already read about it online, get ready, because Tyrone Lebon's recent photo editorial in England's Pop featuring American model Hailey Clauson is about the most divisive thing we've seen in a magazine in years. Short version — it’s a sometimes artful but mostly tasteless and undercooked series of images of the 17-year-old model posing in designer clothing with naked, middle-aged former porn stars. While she herself is not undressed, Clauson is pictured swooning as a male hand — most likely the photographer’s — grips her neck in an apparent show of BDSM choking play.
As you can see, the editorial — “This Is Also Pop: LDN ^–^” — is, on looks alone, more nakedly provocative and sensational than it is interesting or stylish. With the added outside context that its star model is but 17, it becomes — as many websites are saying — unsettling, taking on the look of pure sexual exploitation.
Whether it's good or bad fashion has taken a backseat to the questions some are asking about it. Does it promote violence against women? Should we be disturbed? Is the young Clauson a victim? Is showing a 17-year-old choked ever ok?
So, let's get into it, shall we?
Clauson's age is the first issue that comes to mind. It's important to note that she is above the legal age of consent in England and all but a few American states and therefore legally free to make any kind of sexual mistake she wants. But beside the law, did Lebon or the magazine exploit her naiveté and youth to create a unit-selling editorial?
Clauson's parents once filed a lawsuit claiming that she was sexually exploited in a previous shoots. Given that, it's likely that her parents and Clauson herself would be aware of what exploitation looks like and be self-possessed enough to do something about it. Even if the Clausons are worse than the Lohans, they've had full education on the matter and it just doesn't seem that she'd be a victim in such a widely read magazine again.
As to those shots of her with naked, middle-aged former porn stars some are concerned about, other than being somewhat weird to look at, it's pretty hard to see them as sexually exploitive given the complete lack of sexual overtones (at least to us, even the nakedness feels non-sexual). But, you know, we're in New York — we have pretty thick skin.
But now we get to the real issue – that choking shot.
Jezebel, one of our favorite sites, describes this as “strangulation.” We see otherwise. Based on Clauson’s expression and the context, this seems more like sexual play than violence. Sure, violence is part of BDSM, but it’s not the totality. It's a kink — a means to pleasure and not means to harm. While sexual asphyxiation isn't everyone's bag, we don't think that most people would look at this image as an incitement to violence against women. But we can see how some might be really disturbed by it if they took this violence on a literal level.
Now, seeing a 17-year-old girl experiment with this sort of mature, kinky sexuality can be really, really disturbing (did anyone see Kids?). But there's another way to see this image of an older photographer getting — ahem — advanced with a very young model. There's a way to be disturbed by it without looking at the editors of Pop and Lebon as being bad, dangerous people.
Think about Terry Richardson’s famously skeezy photograph where Juliette Lewis sucks on his thumb. Yeah, gross. But it also cleverly reveals the strange, sexualized position of the fashion photographer through a POV. Sure, both were probably turned on when making it, but the image isn't there to turn you on.
We might be seeing the same thing here. It's pretty clear that this whole spread was made to put readers in an uncomfortable place, to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about sex, porn, fashion, and photography (mission accomplished, btw). In this image, we're behind the eye of the fashion photographer — a profession with an undue amount of sexual license and power attached to it — and we don’t like it. That's probably a good thing.
Taken one way, the image can seem more an indictment of sexual license and exploitation in fashion than it is an example of it. Granted, that’s only one way to see it. Maybe you see a real, live record of a professional crossing a line with a model. Through the lens of what we know about Clauson’s experiences, Pop's tendency toward self-consciously provocative editorial, we're sort of seeing a more dramatic image. In an editorial where aged porn stars undercut the glamour of pornography and in a fashion magazine crafted by and sold to women, we're seeing the portrayal of a dangerous, sexual moment — not the reality. We're not seeing some commercial attempt specifically intended to turn men on or threaten women (at least we hope not). We're seeing an attempt to be arty and edgy even though there could be questionable consequences.
But does all that theory make doing that to a 17-year-old ok?
No — sexually choking a 17-year-old (or anyone, for that matter) when she's not fully aware of what's going on is definitely not ok. But we watch movies where people get murdered, and we also don't think murder is ok. Right now, we can't be sure that Pop, Lebon, or Clauson are portraying a morally questionable act, or presenting a morally questionable act. There's a big difference. As well, we're not about to judge two people above the age of consent for indulging in a little rough kink. We'll leave that to others.
Overall, we're a lot less worried about Clauson, Lebon, or Pop than we are about the real, clear exploitation of young, impressionable women being used and abused by photographers is really happening in less well-lit corners of our industry right now. Moreover, we're a lot less interested in this photoshoot than we are in hearing what you have to say about it in the comments below.